Master Jimmy Wong and the Legends of Kung Fu

By Gene Ching

Master Jimmy Wong Last year, Taiji Legacy went on hiatus. For the last decade, Taiji Legacy has been one of America's greatest martial arts gatherings. This year, Promoter Jimmy Wong and the USA Chin Woo Federation are back with an upgrade called Legends of Kung Fu. Wong says that the change was inspired by some bootleg footage of Taiji Legacy he saw on YouTube. "They're not supposed to tape the sanshou fights, but somehow they got it. Somebody commented 'Hey man, taiji guys fight sanshou too?'" It was something that Wong had been thinking about for years. "Taiji Legacy to non-competition people is like a taiji event, not a martial art event, not a kung fu event or whatever. They can't distinguish because of the word 'taiji'."

Wong originally conceived Taiji Legacy to promote taiji in America. "I thought a couple of people might show up, maybe a hundred the first year. And you know what? If I do taiji as the main event, I can do other events at the same time. And we did. That's how we came up with Taiji Legacy. The first year I had about 300 people. And then, it grows." By 2007, Taiji Legacy rose to some 600 competitors and 1800 spectators. That year, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of USA Chin Woo, there was an awesome opening ceremony with 20 Chinese lions. "I said I'd do Taiji Legacy for 10 years," adds Wong. "Deng Xiaoping said 'taiji hao (taiji is good)'. I always remember that. It's good in America."

As the founder and president of the U.S.A. Chin Woo Federation, Wong has dedicated his life to promoting taiji and the Chinese martial arts. The Chin Woo Athletic Association (jingwu tiyuhui) is the most venerated kung fu organization in the world. Next year, Wong reveals, Chin Woo will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

100 Years of Chin Woo
Chin Woo has been a stronghold of traditional Chinese martial arts for nearly a century now. In 2010, Chin Woo is planning a centennial Huo Yunjia celebration. Huo Yunjia (1868-1910) was a real-life kung fu legend who co-founded Chin Woo. He was depicted, albeit with great liberties to his story, in Jet Li's 2006 film FEARLESS. Chin Woo has also been fictionalized in films by our greatest stars: Bruce Lee FIST OF FURY (1972), Jackie Chan's NEW FIST OF FURY (1976), Jet Li's FIST OF LEGEND (1994) and Donnie Yen's TV Chinese series JINGWU MEN (1995). The real Chin Woo has been thriving in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, mostly outside of China's borders. "It's a cultural activity place," notes Wong. "Martial arts is the major part, but there's a lot of cultural stuff - dancing, chess, weightlifting, ping pong, swimming. It's a true athletic association, but martial arts is the number one thing." Today, there are nearly 60 official Chin Woo organizations, with only 9 inside China and 16 in Malaysia.

At the core of Chin Woo's curriculum are 10 traditional kung fu forms. Wong says Chin Woo is considering adding more for the centennial. "Chin Woo will have another 10 forms from our generation. The other 10 was from the first generation." With so many organizations worldwide, Chin Woo has access to hundreds of forms beyond their core ten. "We might incorporate sanshou too," adds Wong. "I think the European countries will push that. And lion dance. I'm the executive director for the International Lion Dance Federation in Beijing. All the lion dance guys are traditional kung fu guys."

Absent from Chin Woo's curriculum is form from the founder. According to legend, Huo Yuanjia used a fighting style called mizong. This is usually translated as "lost track" - mi means bewilder or confuse; zong means footprint or trace. It's the "fist of fury" that was depicted with special effects in Bruce Lee's film. But Wong differs on this point. "Huo Yuanjia did not teach mizong. According to Tianjin Huo family lineage, they studied Huo family form. Now they want to compose them together. I don't know what it's going to be. I have a feeling it's going to be like wushu. They tried it before - I think it was 15 years ago. They showed it to us but it did not interest the traditional people at all. Now they say they've found some old guys who know their stuff. We don't know how much is going to be there, but they're going to do something to bring back the form. We should have a Huo Yuanjia form. It's true. But Shanghai also has a Huo Yuanjia form. And there are some in Hubei with a Huo Yuanjia form. And there's mizong, but we don't know if that form is related to Huo Yuanjia. Even Sichuan has a mizong form. Taiwan has a mizong form. And they don't look like each other. So how do you compare?"

On another front, the People's Republic of China might officially recognize Chin Woo. This is delicate since China keeps a wary eye on martial arts organizations. It's especially watchful of any group with more clout outside of China, like Falun Gong. "The communists have been watching Chin Woo for a long time because it's powerful," notes Wong. "Its 100 years old and it stays outside the country. It's real simple. If they say, 'No, we just don't get involved,' that's the end. All the history is on this side of Asia now, not that side. Officially the Chin Woo headquarters was in Malaysia, then we gave it back to Shanghai. We just said we don't want to be the headquarters anymore. You guys should be doing that. So Shanghai respects Malaysia a lot because it has a longstanding history and it's still going strong today. Even the wushu federation has less members than we do in Malaysia."

While the Chinese government has yet to approve Chin Woo officially, they haven't disapproved it yet. Chin Woo has been permitted by China to form an executive board. "When we tried to form it before, they said 'no' because the Olympics were coming up. We can form the executive board now. They didn't say they were approved by the government either, but it has to be; otherwise, they wouldn't have the guts to do it. You know how communists are. They aren't going to say these things. If they say it, they may get fired. They may be sweeping the floor tomorrow."

Born of Malaysian Soil
It was fate that brought Master Wong to Chin Woo. His father was a boat refugee who happened to land in Malaysia. "It was like, wherever the boat goes. It was so funny. I mean I could have been born in Vietnam, you know? Or Korea or somewhere." Malaysia was the center of Chin Woo and still leads the world in the number of Chin Woo branches. In the early part of the 20th century, Malaysian Chinese were very patriotic about their Chinese heritage. Chin Woo sent five masters on a diplomatic tour of Hong Kong, Singapore and other Asian nations. The Malaysian Chinese were affluent back then, having made their fortunes in rubber estates and tin mining. Malaysian entrepreneurs built a huge, state-of-the-art facility with a swimming pool, a basketball court and a modern gym for Chin Woo and kept those masters. From there Chin Woo spread quickly to establish a branch in each of the 13 states and 3 territories of Malaysia.

As the youngest of seven kids, Wong grew up poor. "I actually wanted to learn kung fu for a long time because we lived in a bad neighborhood - I mean really, really serious bad neighborhood. My dad had a terrible job. He was selling vegetables on the street. Buy cheap and then sell it. He did all kinds of work. My dad had three jobs." Wong was inspired by a northern Shaolin master from Shandong who taught at the local Chinese temple and sold herbal tea. "He's expensive. That's how he made a living. And he taught a lot of gangsters. All those guys that were out there fighting, those were his students." One day, that master posted a notice announcing he would train two neighborhood kids for free. He held a try-out to select good candidates. "You had to be good at gymnastics, tumbling, all of that, which I'm not good at. Of course, I didn't get picked so I was pissed off. He picked two of my friends. I said to myself, 'One of these days I want to be a teacher. I want to make sure that everyone gets a chance to learn.'"

Wong pleaded with his parents. Because he was the youngest son, the family pinned a lot of hopes on him. They scrimped and saved for his education and eventually sent him to Chin Woo. "Chin Woo was a legitimate school. It's not a gangster type of school. Our school motto is wei jing wei i, nai wen nai wu (literally "Only spirit only one, therefore culture therefore martial arts"), so it's martial arts and education. My teacher was a principal of a secondary school. He is the brother of one of the five guys. He was the last one that took care of Chin Woo. So when we go to train, we had to do good in school." This upstanding reputation made Chin Woo desirable for both parents and students. Then, when Bruce Lee's blockbuster film FIST OF FURY hit (Chinese title jingwu men), Chin Woo cemented its popularity. Wong was with Chin Woo when the film opened. "Oh man, during that time, I remember that. One hundred people showed up to sign up for class. We always trained outside. We had to train from the swimming pool to the parking lot to the third parking lot. That's how busy we were. At that point, I was like 16 years old. I was with Chin Woo for five years already."

Planting Seeds in America
"When I came to America, I never thought I was going to teach martial arts," says Wong. "It's one of those things you don't think like, 'Come to America - teach martial arts.' No, I came to go to college." By then, his family was running a successful restaurant and could afford tuition. He enrolled at the University of Houston studying computer science. Wong was among six students from Malaysia who were asked to perform a cultural art for an International Festival. After a failed attempt to learn some Malay dance, Wong ended up representing his country by demonstrating kung fu. A university official spotted Wong's performance and asked him to teach. "I remember the first time I teach at the university. Class was Saturday and Sunday. First day, 30 people showed up. They only allow 20 so they added 10 more. I didn't know how to teach. I taught them the way I learned it. Second day, only two people showed up. Because I make them do horse stance all the class. This lady was telling me you can't teach these people like that. They're too tired. They can't take it anymore on Sunday. They don't do their homework."

Wong earned his degree and took a job with Texas Instruments. He continued teaching at a university club until TI transferred him to Dallas. But a career as an engineer held little appeal for him. He dreamt of teaching kung fu. "I was scared because what if you teach martial arts fulltime and there's no money coming in. You start calculating, you know? I got to have something. I always wanted to do Chinese medicine - acupuncture." Wong began studying acupuncture on the weekends, but the school was in Austin. He'd commute for three-and-a-half hours each way and sleep in his car.

In 1991, TI laid off 20 employees and Wong begged to be on the list. Then he took 20 of his students to Malaysia, including his longstanding students Patty Sun and Bee Dao, who were just teenagers at the time. On the way back, he dropped a huge surprise on them. "We were leaving and I said, 'You know what? I'm not going back. You guys are going back. I'm going straight to live in China.'" The kids all cried. They were sent home to America with two adult leaders and Wong flew straight to Beijing.

Digging for Roots in China
Wong's move to China was twofold. First, he had enrolled in an advanced course at the International Acupuncture Training Center. Back in the early '90s, acupuncture wasn't very popular in America, so there was no way to get hands-on training. Through the program, Wong got to work on patients in a clinic. The other reason he went to China was to look for Wu Wenhan (1928-?). Wu was a chief editor of Wu Hun, a leading Chinese martial arts magazine, and Wong figured he would be at the First International Taiji Conference, which took place during Wong's stay. Wong was interested in Wuhao taiji since 1988 when one of his Chin Woo brothers had inspired him to look for it.

"I was looking for Wu Wenhan because I wanted to study with him," recalls Wong. "I wanted to learn Wuhao style. If you trace back all the history of taiji today, and you trace back all the theory, all the training philosophy, where does it come from? It comes from Wuhao style. How come Wuhao style is not known in Hong Kong, not in Malaysia (and) not in Singapore? Because those guys never left the country. And they never had to teach for a living. Wu Yuxiang (1813-1880) was a mayor. His dad was a governor. He's also a scholar. They all can be governors because they all took exams but they don't want to be. They just train martial arts. That's why they don't have a lot of students. As a scholar, you're rich. You don't need to go teach martial arts. So they only teach a selected few. The 3rd generation was Hao Weizhen (1842-1920). Hao Weizhen was a farmer, so he taught a lot of students. He taught Dong Yingjie (1898-1961). People say he's Yang style, but he's Wuhao style originally. He was already very good in Wuhao style. His teacher was smart. He told him to go to Shanghai to pay respect to Yang Chengfu (1883-1936) and he'll be famous. So when he went to see Yang Chengfu, Yang said, 'This kid is good. He's good at fighting. He's good at push hands. I'm going to take him.' He became the right-hand man of Yang Chengfu. So he taught Yang style taiji, but actually, he's Wuhao style. A lot of people didn't know about it but they say there's a Dong family secret form. That was the Wuhao form."

Wong found Wu, but he was running out of money. He had only brought enough for three months. "He (Wu) told me to stay another month. If I was to stay another month, I could only survive on one U.S. dollar a day. You would not believe what I ate." Until 1995, foreigners couldn't even carry Chinese money. They could only use foreign exchange certificates or FEC, which made everything more expensive. Wong finagled some people's tickets to the dorm cafeteria and ate "communist food." He also bought lamb soup off the street for the equivalent of 12 cents a bowl.

But his frugality cost him. He began losing weight dramatically. Just before he returned to America, his master caught wind of what was happening and berated him because that food wasn't healthy. Wong was treated to a dinner at their house, but the damage was already done. When he returned to Texas, his students came out to welcome him. "I walked through them," Wong laughs. "They could not recognize me. I was like 130 pounds. It was that bad. I could not believe that I actually went through that."

In 1992, Wong returned to China to train under Wu again, but Wu had other plans. Wu took Wong to see his senior classmate, Chen Guan (1913-1992). Wu planned to give Wong to his elder kung fu brother. Wu told Wong, "He teaches for a living. I don't. So if you become a disciple of him, you have classmates everywhere in China." Chen passed away that year. Having Wong as his first foreign disciple was a final honor.

But the government intervened. Since Wong was a foreigner going to study martial arts, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Sports Affairs. Wong was told he could not stay with Chen. He had to stay in a hotel. They said it was for security reasons. Wong said "Ok, why don't you give me some security and I'll be fine." Two officers were assigned to watch him constantly. "Everywhere I go, they follow me," remembers Wong. "I'd walk and then start running. They'd chase. I'd stop and they'd stop. I'd laugh and they'd laugh. The worst thing was when you go to the toilet. There's no toilet in China. You go in the street. I didn't want to do that in the daytime, you know? So I wait at night. I tell this guy, 'Hey, I got to go at night.' They'd say 'Fine, I'll take you there.' So they'd bring a flashlight for me and all that. You know what paper they'd give me? Newspaper. I'd say, 'What is this?' They'd say, 'It's the only thing we got.' It was that backward. Wong didn't even shower for his stay with Chen.

But according to Wong, training in China under these great masters was very special. "His place is really a kung fu house. There were people from out of town that come to live in his house to learn. They brought their wife and kids. The wife would cook. The man would train just martial arts for six months, then go back and make money for three months and then come back again. It was like a three-story house - a traditional kung fu house. The ground was all clay. It's unique."

Taiji Legacies and Legends of Kung Fu
In the mid '90s, Wong decided to memorialize his teachers' legacy. "I built a Wuhao monument. Because I figure that during the time, people don't know who Wu Wenhao is. He's too humble. But I got to do something about it. The only way was to stir something up. So the news came out that the communists were going to pull down the house. In the mid '90s, they were going to rebuild something else. So in order to stop that, you had to redo the house. We didn't have money to redo the house, so I didn't do that. I built the monument. The communists right away thought, 'Wow, we got foreigners coming in to build a monument. Now the house can be a museum and make money.' So I built four generation monuments. The monument is still there. The funny thing is that when I go there, I have to pay to do it. They didn't pull it down. They kept only one. We built four."

Today, Wong continues his work promoting taiji and kung fu through Chin Woo and his events. The transition from Taiji Legacy to Legends of Kung Fu is one of this year's most exciting prospects. "I want to recognize these kung fu guys. They come to Taiji Legacy. They support me. Here are the people that will make the future in America. These are the guys. They're like all these special rock and roll legends. When you say Legends of Kung Fu, it could mean a myth. It could mean a belief. But I think Legends of Kung Fu is a person, like Elvis Presley. I came up with that because it will have a better representation of martial arts. I used the word 'kung fu' because I want to be sure kung fu will be more alive. Of course, I'll have wushu. I want to bring everyone in. But the Legends of Kung Fu will represent the entire martial art."

"I'm not giving up Taiji Legacy because we built for so long. Everybody knows about it. Legacy will be a different event. It will be kept solely as a taiji event. I think maybe it'll be a festival or something, maybe a conference or presentation. Might be a tournament. Might be a travelling event. I'd like to do Malaysia because my connections are there. I'd like to do Malaysia and Singapore, even China."

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July / August 2009

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About Gene Ching :
For more information on Wuhao Tai Chi, see The Warrior Scholar Taiji - Wu Yu Xiang Taijiquan by Jimmy Wong with Patty Sun, June July 1999. For more information on Chin Woo, see The Chin Woo Legacy, September October 2006 (Chin Woo - Huo Yuanjia Special Collector's Edition). Master Jimmy Wong can be contacted through the USA Chin Woo Federation, 1350 E. Arapaho Rd. Ste 110, Richardson, TX 75081 972-680-7888 Legends of Kung Fu will be held on July 17-19, 2009 in Dallas, Texas -

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