Empress of the Eagles

By Marian Castinado

Unrivaled in majesty,
the eagle soars even above the clouds. Intrepid in battle, the eagle fears no enemy. What must it be to reign as sovereign of such noble creatures? To be empress of the eagles?

Perhaps the answer is known by Grandmaster Lily Lau, leader of the Eagle Claw system. Not unlike a monarch, her call to the throne was understood-a blood lineage that could not be denied, a duty that was undertaken as a matter of honor.

"My circumstances were such that my father passed away very suddenly; there was no warning, no sick bed," said Grandmaster Lau through interpreter Felix Chu. "I was the only adult child in the family, and my mother was dead also, so I had no choice but to take over."

Though it was considered "rare, highly rare," for a woman-particularly one so young; she was 17-to take over a martial arts system, Grandmaster Lau brought forth tremendous courage to prove herself in the very traditional Chinese culture, yet asked if she had felt up to the task, her answer is strong and decisive, the voice of a leader: "Yes, I did."

Though the young Lau had wanted to be a poet-an art that her hectic schedule allows her to only occasionally pursue today-she assumed her responsibilities with alacrity, and continues to feel it was the only proper choice. "I did not regret that [decision]. Now that I've been into this for thirty years, it's in my blood."

Nonetheless, the lineage will most likely pass down to the next generation with less drama. Asked if she would require her two sons-presently age twenty-two and twenty- four-to take over the system, her answer was "No, I would like to see them participate in the Eagle Claw system, but not necessarily to run the business." Another factor is the dedicated leadership of Grandmaster Lau's sister, Gini, who teaches Eagle Claw in Vallejo, California. It seems, therefore, that Eagle Claw is to remain a matriarchy, and certainly no one can question its success.

Hong Kong Changes
As the 1997 date of Hong Kong's transfer from the British Empire to the People's Republic of China grows closer, many Chinese stylists are curious about the effect the change to a Communist government will have on systems once rooted in Hong Kong. Though Grandmaster Lau recently left Hong Kong and now no longer has schools there, she explains that this change resulted from her desire to join her sons in the United States, who had emigrated here for their university educations.

If anything, Grandmaster Lau feels that the Chinese government will seek to preserve Eagle Claw in Hong Kong, and foresees its part in protecting the system. "There should not be any problem," she says, "because this is a Wushu Eagle Claw system; it is part of the [Chinese] culture. I am really optimistic, and won't change the forms or change anything."

Unlike some who object to the Chinese government's regulation of wushu within mainland China, Grandmaster Lau, who has returned to mainland China many times over the years, states that "although wushu has been regulated by the Chinese government, it is a new thing. In the past era, in the fifties and sixties, during the cultural revolution, yes there were some suppressions on scholars and also on the traditional martial arts such as Eagle Claw. But actually a lot of that technique has been lost during many years of war time and also the revolution itself. They want to have some of it intact." Since Grandmaster Lily Lau is the only one left who has mastered the style completely, there is far more advantage to China in preserving whatever is left of the original system. "Most of the brothers and the sisters or the uncles who practiced Eagle Claw in China have passed away already," notes Grandmaster Lau.

This comment segues into a most delicate topic: Grandmaster Lau's choice of a successor-delicate both because certainly one would wish Grandmaster Lau a thousand years, and also because it puts Grandmaster Lau in the position of evaluating her students. Of course the grandmaster handled both issues with grace. "When I took over my dad's spot," she remembers, "it was a matter of survival, to make money. Now, after all these years, it's all interest, and that is the reason why I am working so hard in the United States to continue that fine tradition. There are so many students here that I am training right now; hopefully the students are going to carry it." In seeking to pass on as much of Eagle Claw as possible, Grandmaster Lau is generous with her knowledge, noting, "I don't hide anything. I do not say 'This is for me to keep and the rest is yours; this is mine.' I share everything. Hopefully there will be a few very talented students who will pick up the techniques and carry on."

Mindful of the squabbling that has marred even honored systems after the demise of a grandmaster, it was wondered if one particular student would be asked to continue the system. While noting that her sister Gini would take over the system should the need arise, Grandmaster Lau diplomatically explained that among her students, "Actually everyone has equal chances; I do not have one particular person right now. Also, my time here in the United States has not been that long. This particular individual may come by, or they may never show up. I want to make it clear that this particular individual is not to just carry on the techniques but has to be of good character-ethical-in order for me to pick that person."

Another aspect of Eagle Claw that will live on will be the legacy of her schools. Interviewed just before the 1996 USA WKF National and International Invitational Tournament, scheduled for November 23 and 24 in San Francisco, Grandmaster Lau expressed excitement as she fulfilled her dream of gathering all Eagle Claw schools. Encompassing hundreds of pupils from as diverse lands as England, Italy, Australia, Egypt, Brazil, Greece, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Puerto Rico, and many of the United States, as many as one thousand people are expected to participate in the tournament. In bringing these students together, it is Grandmaster Lau's hope to form an Eagle Claw world headquarters. "My personal goal is to have the Eagle Claw system spread to more countries worldwide," she states. "I am hoping to donate my lifetime to teaching every single technique of the Eagle Claw system that I learned from my dad to the students."

Film and Fighting
It was this dedication that induced her to unselfishly abandon a notable film career in favor of taking on the Eagle Claw system's many demands. "Both my careers were important at the same time but with a different perspective," she says. "I and my father were very close when he was alive and that is where the marital arts came in. From a selfish point of view, doing films was a money maker for me at the time, but as far as paying tribute to my father, martial arts was the thing to pursue. That is why I chose martial arts instead of the film career."

Asked if kung fu films should serve the martial arts or only need to provide entertainment, Grandmaster Lau explained that "a long time ago, when the kung fu was being used in films, those were actual techniques, real stuff, not phony. Later on, the film makers found out that the money making proposition [was to exaggerate the moves], because if you put the real stuff on films it is not entertaining; it's not good looking at all. So they use phony styles to dramatize it. Someone who knows kung fu can tell right away whether it's the real stuff or not. No, it does not really help to bring out the image of kung fu. It only brings entertainment."

Do new students come in with unrealistic expectations because of what they have seen in films? Grandmaster Lau says no. "In as far as the exaggerations of the film, they know that is unrealistic. Most of the students who come to my school want to learn the techniques for self-defense. Grappling techniques, the claw techniques, those are real. You do not need to jump up fifty feet to do the grappling."

Chin Na
The mention of grappling brings up Eagle Claw's famed chin na techniques, emphasized because of their street effectiveness. "Even the policemen in Hong Kong, when they learn kung fu, they learn the chin na techniques," says Grandmaster Lau.
Calling to mind the adage about most fights ending up on the ground, Eagle Claw also stresses ground grappling, making the system appealing to today's practitioner seeking to protect himself on the street.

In fact, Eagle Claw techniques differ from other styles, according to Grandmaster Lau, in that "almost every fourth move is centered, very focused, on chi na; whereas in other types of kung fu, they do have chin na too, but it is not as focused. In other words, in Eagle Claw almost every move is derived from chin na."

The reasoning behind that decision "goes back to the bird itself," says Grandmaster Lau. "Look at the way the eagle catches, flies, and hits-versus the snake; the snake does not have a grabbing technique. The steps, the formations, the moves, and everything is most powerful in the claws of the eagle. There is so much emphasis on that, because of the way the animal structures it."

The Fifty Ways
The Eagle Claw practitioner perfects chin na techniques through the lin kuen: the fifty ways of the continuous fist. In this training, the student seeks to perfect the "fifty sections," which are different forms of hand techniques. Once mastered through relentless repetition, the pupil can combine them to execute all the chin na techniques.

Though clearly this is a long-term endeavor, Grandmaster Lau stresses that "There is really no certain number of years," required of a practitioner to conquer the fifty sections. In fact, other, non-physical, aspects are equally important. "I choose the people," says Grandmaster Lau. "They have to absolutely have good character before they can enter this profession. The fifty sections are very vicious, murderous. Once chin na has been taught, the hands become weapons that can kill." She must look for students who, after learning those techniques, would reserve them and use them wisely. "Otherwise the teaching session is not particularly long, once they get to that stage."

As to approximately how long is not particularly long, Grandmaster Lau stated simply that "They have to have a good foundation in the Eagle Claw," insisting that even more important: "Character is the first criterion. Really, as long as this particular individual has some kind of martial art or kung fu foundation, displays good character and really knows the consequence of learning these fifty sections, I am willing to teach."

Requested to detail two of the fifty sections, Grandmaster Lau began with muo-mei, which translates loosely as "to wipe out the eyebrow of the attacker or the opponent." Lau explains that it is "a vicious technique, so powerful, that once the individual masters that, when they perform one use of the technique-not exaggerating the consequence-it can wipe out a person's eyebrow." Done through clawing, "it is so fast that it is a technique like an eagle would use to shred you apart."

Another of the fifty sections which Grandmaster Lau was kind enough to explain was the chin-jia ton tai technique, which roughly translates as the threat: "Once I tangle you up, there is no escape; because there is no escape, I can hit you again and again."

The chin-jia ton tai technique would respond, for example, to a right punch from an attacker. The defender would use a chin na technique with her left hand to block the right punch. She would then grab the attacker's throat with her right hand, inducing him to reach in, trying to pry the hand off. It is at this point that the defender grabs the opponent's two hands, virtually tying them into a knot. Defenseless in this position, the attacker has no choice but to suffer the consequences as the Eagle Claw practitioner completes the attack. Demonstrating the intial phase of the technique on the interprreter, Mr. Chu, Grandmaster Lau amazed him with the moves' speed and agility.

Such powerful techniques may be particularly beneficial for women, who as a rule are smaller than their attackers. Noting that "definitely there is a difference in strength, in learning the Eagle Claw chin na techniques," Grandmaster Lau states that women "are taught the exact same techniques, only the women have to put in more time. Eventually they will get it, because it is the strength coming up in the fingers, the hands and the arms. It is the same for smaller men; they will have to train a little bit longer."

Though the percentage of Grandmaster Lau's students who are women is high compared to most martial arts-about thirty percent-she does not assert that she has been the influence, stating, "I have never thought about that." Perhaps it seems only sensible that women want to study the martial arts, because she took to Eagle Claw so naturally. Stating unequivocally that, "I feel I approach it the way of my father's forms and traditions," she does not see herself as different from any other grandmaster who came before her. It is intriguing then, to think back to the response she received when she first took on the mantle, and whether everyone was convinced early on that it was no different than if a son had taken it over.

"Yes, there was some talk of surprise that a female was taking over such a famous Eagle Claw system," she notes. "I actually realized that it frightened people, in a good way: 'A daughter is taking over; she must be damn good to inherit that.' I lived on that positive side and have tried to live up to those expectations."

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1996 .

About Marian Castinado :
Marian Costinado was executive editor for Kungfu-Qigong Magazine 1994-1998

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