Old School Street Fighter
Master Hoy Lee, the Father of American Jow Gar

By Gene Ching

Master Hoy Lee, the Father of American Jow Gar
Read the original interview online
Hoy K. Lee Interview 3/24/2008
When Master Hoy Lee first came to America, no one here had heard of kung fu. Today's generation takes kung fu for granted. Kung fu rides the wave of Asian American magazines, cable networks, film festivals, and even Chinese clubs in high schools. It's actually cool to be Amerasian.

But for Lee's generation, things were very different. Racism was everywhere, even seeping into the cluttered alleyways of Chinatown. Born in a small village in Southern China and raised in the concrete jungle of Hong Kong, Lee landed in the States with countless street brawls under his belt, and he needed all his skills and experience, because Lee was called out again and again by challengers from both sides of the bamboo curtain. But his skills were a mixed bag; he had no distinct pedigree. Strangely enough, he discovered his lifelong discipline here in America, in between the sizzling woks of a Chinese restaurant kitchen.

Jow Gar (literally 'circumference' or 'circuit', but also the name of an 11th century dynasty 周) takes its name from its founder, Jow Lung (1890-1919 CE). It is a century-old mixed martial art that fuses Hung Gar, Choy Gar and Shaolin. In Jow Lung's time, no traditional art had access to the kinds of resources MMA fighters have now. Back then fighters rarely had martial arts books. Jow Lung couldn't incorporate methods from Brazil, Thailand or other distant lands, and his mixed martial art was far less international in scope than anything we see today. But the intent was the same?train only the winning techniques. Use what works. Today, Jow Gar is considered a traditional style of kung fu, but it was the MMA of its day, decades before anyone entered an octagonal cage.

Lee staked his claim to Jow Gar on American soil. He mined this inheritance with years of uncompromised combat, all the way from his hard homeland to the unwelcoming land of the free and home of the brave. Lee's Jow Gar was forged for the mean streets, not the refereed, padded rings of modern MMA, with their prancing ring girls and tuxedoed announcers. Modern MMA is a fair fight, but traditional arts aren't designed to entertain audiences or keep competitors safe.

And therein lies the mother lode. Jow Gar is down and dirty fighting. You can't tap out.

China in the Old Days
Master Lee's childhood lacked the distracting amenities available to today's youth. He had no iPod, no Wii, no Blackberry. Nor were there public parks, basketball courts, or any other entertainment for churlish kids. There wasn't even radio or television. If Lee wanted to hear a news broadcast, he'd stand outside some high-end store that sold radios and listen. Delinquents loitered about, pissing in the streets and picking fights. Street fights were inevitable in his neighborhood, but Lee didn't even try to avoid them. A rambunctious youth, Lee was always looking for action. The thrill of street fighting itself called him out. "Somebody is going to pick a fight for you anyway. They don't like your face. They'll fight you. Just for fun. So after a while, you like it. Then you go pick a fight too...in the old days, a fight is like everyday life."

No one fights fair on the streets. Fights were never one-on-one. These were gang fights, turf wars and violent acts of vengeance. There were no guns, but plenty of weapons. Lee remembers one of his most hardcore encounters. A rival rallied fourteen accomplices, all armed with chains, axes, steel bars and hammers, to hunt him down. They chased him through the urban sprawl for several hours. "I was running like a dog," recalls Lee, "The only reason I saved my life is because I know the area?I was so used to it?and this group was from the outside area. After I got out, I went back and got my whole group and started chasing them back?a couple of rough fights. You get hurt sometimes, you know? But most of the times, we ended up winning because we fought a lot and had more experience. But as you get older, you feel it's more dangerous. Then you better learn something. That's where the kung fu kicks in."

Back then, kung fu wasn't openly sold in strip-mall shops between Starbucks and McDonald's. Masters were secretive, possessive of their students, using them as a private militia or, in some cases, their organized gang. Fights between schools and challenge matches were still quite common. General tuition was expensive and no guarantee of real training. "If you want something good, you have to baisee ("bow to teacher," a formal disciple ceremony which entails a large monetary gift 拜師). If you follow the class, you are not going to learn anything." Instead of formal enrollment, Lee picked up techniques from friends and from the source?real fights. "So what I learned was all practical?in street fight?rather than forms."

Bring You Down to Chinatown
When Lee was in his late teens, he followed his dad and joined the flock of Chinese immigrants who sought a better fortune in America. As fate would have it, Lee did find treasure. But it wasn't gold. It was Jow Gar kung fu. Upon his arrival, Lee became an active participant in Chinatown community events. He demonstrated lion dance and kung fu at street fairs. He made his living working at a restaurant. One Chinese New Year, he watched the head chef perform butterfly swords. "That he was doing kung fu surprised me because he never ever mentioned he knows kung fu. I find out that he was one of the really, really famous and tough Jow Gar masters. His name is Gee Do Po (+Chinese+)." A surprising number of old school kung fu masters worked in restaurants. Early immigrants took whatever work they could find. What's more, kung fu masters are notoriously cagey. While some masters go to absurd lengths to promote themselves, many old school masters do the opposite. They hide their skills.

Once Lee met Gee, he entered the Jow Gar circle. He met another leading master, Dean Chin, and together, they opened a kung fu school. Lee saw it as a way to combat the gross discrimination he was seeing in Chinatown. "Sometimes they walk by and spit on you. You don't see nowadays, but in the old days, yes, they do. I personally watched it. I couldn't stand it one day. I went there and beat up the guy."

Lee was moonlighting as a bouncer for an underground Chinatown gambling joint. One afternoon, as he watched the door, he witnessed an old man get robbed on the street outside. Some one grabbed what Lee thought was the old man's bag lunch and vanished into the maze of Chinatown. The old man broke down and cried, so Lee went to console him. He learned that the bag contained money the old man had been saving for months. He planned to send it back to China. That was the last straw.

Lee rallied some old friends and private students from Hong Kong and formed a vigilante group to clean up Chinatown. The Chinatown business associations were frightened that it would cause too much trouble and asked Lee to stop. "I do not listen to their people, so they really hate me. Whatever. I didn't care. We continued to take on the people who intend to start trouble. We ganged up on them. And after one or two years, the street was clean." Part of Lee's decision to open the school came out of this. He wanted to teach more Chinese-Americans how to fight. But he soon realized there weren't enough Chinese who could afford lessons to keep his doors open. Lee decided to teach any American, regardless of ethnicity. "Teach all cultures. So I opened first school that opened door for any race. Then I put the word out. And the Chinese older generation, they say, 'You don't do that. You teach the kung fu to the outsiders. They going to beat you back.' I say, 'No, it's not necessary. If you teach the right culture, they will protect you,' which is what I did. And I was right because they really want to learn it. They like the Chinese culture. Otherwise they would not walk in my school.

"I remembered when I first opened my school. My rent was only $75 a month. And the tuition was only $15 which was expensive in those days. $15 a month! Because the space is not that big, I only choose the students?if he walk in, I don't like his attitude, I kick him out. I don't even accept him, because it wasn't making money. It was to teach my art. So that's how we started."

Teaching Real Martial Culture to Challengers
The school opened in the summer of 1968. Before the first week was over, a challenger stood at the door. Lee is not a large man. He's a far cry from the muscle-bound performance-enhanced fighters of today. At that time, he probably weighed in at around 115. Lee guesses that first challenger weighed 195. "He was ready for me. And I thought he was come in just to sign up. So he looked at me and say, 'Where's the teacher?' I look at him and I say, 'Well, I'm the teacher.' 'You? You little punk?' Because I was so skinny?I was short, you know? So I say, 'Well, you know, even small, I can teach.' He says, 'Well, can you fight me?' I say, 'I don't fight here. But if you want to spar, I can spar with you.'"

Underneath his jacket, that challenger was already suited for the fight. Lee found himself facing the self-proclaimed three-state boxing champion, pure attitude in boxing shorts and gloves. "I look at him and I say, 'Wow, I never fight a boxer before, but that'd be fun.' But in old days, the knowledge was not as much as now?modern day?because not everybody have a television. Or they never read a book about martial arts. So they don't know about all these different type of kicking technique, and all that. This was unknown to them. So I take that advantage because I know exactly how they fight after just a couple moves."

The boxer pressed his size advantage with a flurry of jabs. Lee countered with quick retreats and side steps. The boxer got frustrated. "He got so mad and say, 'Why don't you fight me? I thought you wanted to fight me!' I say, 'Well, catch me first!' So he jabbed a couple more times and squeezed me to the wall and time for him to kill. So he rush in and want to knock me out. I turned around with my hand on the wall, get more support. I kick him right on the solar plexus. Once he got kicked, he say, 'Oooooh!' He got really hurt. Then I give him a knee. When he fall, I give him a knee, right on his face. And then start pounding?knock him out. And that was pretty quick."

This left Lee with a problem. What to do with the body? Lee's brand new students were shocked. Lee tried to drag the body, but it was too heavy. "So I say, 'You guys, you, you, you'?I didn't know the English names too well?so I say, 'you, you, you,' and point my finger. At the time, my English really wasn't that great. They say, 'What?' I say, 'Pull this guy out!' So I pick out four or five guys to pull him out. They say, 'What we going to do?' I say, 'Put him on the street.' They look at me with a funny face. 'What?!' I say, 'Yeah, you do what I tell you to do.' So we pulled him out right on the two-way street, right on the center, and drop him. (laughs) And go back to the school. And all the traffic stopped. Finally somebody called the police and take him to the hospital. When the police walked in and say, 'You know what's happening outside?' I say, 'Nope. We don't know. There's all my witnesses here. We were practicing here. We don't know about that guy.' The police left and it was over."

Western boxers weren't the only challengers Lee had to face. There were Chinese kung fu masters too. It's that classic reverse-discrimination story. They didn't want Lee teaching non-Chinese. "They say, 'You little kid, what can you do? What's so good about you? We're going to kick your door in a challenge and bust your door.' When I heard it, then I say, 'Let's do it!' The best thing for me to do was I knocked on their apartment and I say, 'You want to fight me? Let's fight right now. Don't give no excuses. Don't get ready. Let's fight right now.' And that's how I scared off a lot of so-called sifu, people who run their mouth. After that, nobody say that no more."

How Tradition Can Be Saved?
Today, Lee is a leading proponent of Jow Gar Kung Fu, not only in America but worldwide. His children, Tammy and Samson, have been dominating the tournament circuits across the nation. That's a true testament?especially today, when kids are easily distracted by video games, soccer leagues and all kinds of other pastimes. This, along with the rise of MMA, has put traditional martial arts in a precarious situation. "I think the tradition is slowly losing, especially when you have new system coming out, created almost like every month?." admits Lee sadly. "There are many people that think tradition is worthless."

While MMA glitters in the spotlight, interest in traditional arts has dimmed. This is to our shame, since the rise of MMA is nothing more than an example of the hypnotic powers of modern media (and, accordingly, a whole lot of money). No-holds-barred fights for entertainment have been with us since gladiatorial times. That's nothing new. What is new is that MMA can be staged in a relatively safe manner. No one dies anymore. Even serious injuries are minimized. Not long ago, deaths were much more common in fight sports, especially boxing, and the audiences were smaller, more uncouth. Today we are more civilized. There's enough death in the world that we don't need to watch more for our entertainment. What we need is excitement. What we want is thrills.

Traditional arts, by definition, have stood the test of time. While MMA provides a thrill for spectators, it falls short of traditional kung fu outside of the cage. "In Chinese, we learn kung fu, not just fight, but for health, longevity. So we involve manners, the way of your life, the way you're living, how to take care of family, respect the parent, the father and mother. That's all the traditional way?the way of the kung fu. It's not just fight a lot. So there is a big difference. MMA is more like a ring fight. How many times you can fight in the ring in MMA? Eventually somebody is going to get hurt. It's not a way of life. You could say, 'Hey I'm a hero,' for a couple of minutes, and afterward, there's a new one coming in, and no one knows about you anymore. Of course, some people want to prove that 'Hey, I can fight,' or prove to you that 'I'm the toughest guy.' That's really the main drive for MMA."

"MMA is a fist fight?what we call limited system. A limited system is something like tae kwon do, judo, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu or MMA. All these we call limited system. That's my own opinion. For example, kick boxing, you don't grab. Taekwondo, you don't use grappling. So they are limited. A good kung fu traditional system is widely open for many (different kinds of) knowledge. For example, in the old days, they learned how to treat injuries, herbs, to treat people, to help people, a lot of weapons. Why weapons? Every time you fight?this is an MMA expression?it goes to grappling, what they call jiu-jitsu. Every time you fight, you always end up on the floor. In an actual fight, every time some one grabs a weapon. Not on the floor. You look at like the western old days, you start fighting in a bar, what do they do? Grab a bottle and hit the guy on the head. In a real fight, if there's a chair there, if there's a bottle there, if there's a knife there, they will grab it and hit."

Kung fu offers more weapons than any other martial arts system in the world. While some might argue against the utility of swords and spears today, anyone familiar with the Chinese arsenal knows why these are still practiced?transference. Train with a blade and you quickly learn the lethality of anything sharp. "When you get touched, you get cut. You bleed to death. All those fancy techniques you see people in demonstrations, do it on videotape, all those things look like they work, but there's no such thing. They're not practical at all." With the vast Chinese arsenal, any inanimate object can map onto a traditional weapon. A belt becomes a chain whip. A broomstick becomes a spear. A pen becomes a dagger. "We even have a shoe form, what we call the iron shoe?you take a shoe. The shoe becomes what? A hammer. If you got good technique, you don't have to worry. You can smack him where he holds a dagger, or you can smack him on the kneecap, shin, and that's a strong blow. Even his elbow, inside of the hand, smack him on the head. Those techniques are as dangerous as a knife, so you can defend yourself. That's why you need different weapons. That's why you need weapon training."

It's unlikely that MMA will add weapons to its game, but we can only hope. Until then, while MMA clearly has powerful combat applications, kung fu retains an aspect of street fighting that remains beyond the grasp of MMA. It is foolish for any martial artist to disregard the power of MMA. It is also foolish to abandon tradition.

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Kung Fu Tai Chi: September/October 2008

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About Gene Ching :
Master Hoy K. Lee can be contacted at his school, Jow Ga Kung Fu and Martial Arts Supply Store, 3221 Virginia Beach Blvd., Virginia Beach, VA 23452 (757) 463-8888 jowgakungfu.com.

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