Buck Sam Kong Tames the Tiger

By Martha Burr

Bringing the Gung Gee Fook Fu into 2000
What would Wong Fei Hung have thought had he been able to see the legacy of his teachings evolve and make their way into the fabric of Los Angeles culture in 1998? A kungfu school in the shadows of Hollywood, Chinese remedies in the window, and on the counter a copy of a new book with the Gung Gee Fook Fu set and applications - in Chinese, English, German and Spanish. The school belongs to Buck Sam Kong, and it was a long road from Luk Huern Yan village, the birthplace of Wong Fei Hung, to its legacy in Hollywood.

Wong Fei Hung
Wong Fei Hung, the son of the well-known Hung Gar master Wong Kei Ying, began his training at age five, and by the time he was thirteen his accomplishments - especially his 8 diagram pole techniques - were famous. In his early twenties he became one of the "Ten Tigers of Canton," and taught kungfu to the navy in Canton and the fifth regiment of the Guangdong army. Moving to Fukien, he became the right hand man of general Tong Gin Cheong, a resistance fighter against the Qing government. After the movement failed Wong returned to Canton and taught kungfu and established a dit dar practice (medicine shop), finally becoming one of the most highly skilled herbalists and bonesetters in the province.

Wong Fei Hung is famous as a patriot, doctor, and kungfu master. One of his greatest legacies is the Fu Hok Sheong Yin Kuen, or Tiger and Crane set, which formalized Hung Gar's major techniques. Wong Fei Hung died in 1933 at the age of 83.

Lam Sai Wing
Lam Sai Wing was born in the Nam Hoi district of Kwantung province. At an early age Lam's grandfather told him, "It is your duty to help the people, and the way to do this is through kungfu." The boy's lifetime journey of martial arts was begun. He studied with several masters, staying the longest with Wong Fei Hung. After many years of study Lam opened a kungfu school of his own in Canton. Many rival instructors came to challenge him, including ruffians, bandits, a rival instructor named Fan and a fighting monk named "Iron Head."

One of the better known incidents involving Lam Sai Wing's kungfu skill is the Lok Sin Theater Battle. Canton police were known for their inefficiency in those days, and theater owners often hired their own security guards. Lam Sai Wing's kungfu group was chosen to safeguard the Lok Sin theater, but one day the theater ownership changed hands. Unaware of this, Lam's student Chiu Ha entered the movie house as usual without paying. The new guards confronted him and threatened him. Chiu returned home and related the incident to his master, who sympathized with him but explained that the new owners were right to expel him from the theater for not paying. "Furthermore," said Lam, "Our kungfu should not be used for settling disputes such as this."

Some of Chiu's fellow students, however, decided to take the matter into their own hands. To settle the incident peacefully, Lam went to visit the new owners, but once in the theater he and his men found themselves in a trap. The doors were quickly locked and attackers rushed out from every corner. Heavily outnumbered, Lam grabbed a weapon from one of his opponents and set out to fight the battle of his life. It was a long and bitter fight which only ended when Lam was able to pick up a stone and knock the lights out. Battling his way through the dark Lam smashed open a door and disappeared into the huge crowd that had gathered outside. Several hundred fighters were involved in the battle altogether. Many were seriously injured, and newspapers reported that more than eighty people required hospitalization. Lam was the only one who came out unscathed.

In 1911 the Qing dynasty came to an end and the Republic of China was born. In the early years of the new government Lam worked as a kungfu instructor for the Chinese army. When he retired due to age the people of Hong Kong invited him to settle in their colony. He accepted their offer and taught there until the 1940's. Lam Sai Wing's art of Tiger-Crane kungfu was passed down to his nephew Lam Jo.

Lam Jo
In Hong Kong Lam Jo is famous both for his dit dar healing and his Hung Gar. Also known as Lam Kwoon Kau, Lam Jo was an orphan from Ping Chow in Guangdong province. He was adopted by his uncle Lam Sai Wing and grew up helping his uncle by teaching kungfu at his Southern Physical Culture Center. There he also learned the art of bone setting and healing. Lam Sai Wing had no children of his own but treated Lam Jo like a son, and passed down to him the bulk of his Hung Gar knowledge. Uncle and nephew moved to Hong Kong in the early days of the republic and eventually made it their permanent home.

Lam Jo took over Lam Sai Wing's school, and then some years later opened his own branches in Hong Kong's Sek Soi Kui Gai Street in the Wanchai district, and one in Kowloon's Mongkok. Students from all over the Southern region came to learn Hung Gar from Lam Jo, including Chan Heung Chung, Ho See Kit, Chiu Kau and Wong Lei. As they in turn went out to open their own schools Lam Jo remained chief instructor of the association. Students like Kong, Y.C. Wong and Tang Kwok Wah also went to America to spread the art there.

During World War II Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese. Lam Jo was a leader of the community, and the Japanese pressured him to enlist in their administration, desiring his influence which would help them gain control of the district. Lam Jo scorned the privileges they offered him and instead escaped to the countryside where he eventually wound up back in his own village hiding out and teaching kungfu. When the war ended he returned to Hong Kong. He subsequently became the chairman of the Physical Culture Association, a consultant for the Paper and Boxes Association Union and the Dit Dar herbalist of the Restaurant Workers Union.

From Hong Kong to Hawaii
Today Lam Jo is still vigorous at 89. A small sign outside the entrance in Mongkok reads Lam Jo's Dit Dar, and inside the building another reads Gin Sun Hok Yuen, or physical training center. As he leads you into the small room there is the pungent scent of herbs and tea. The studio is about 15-by-20 feet, large enough only to allow one or two practitioners on the floor at the same time. Every inch of wall space is covered with photos, ranging from the oldest of Lam Sai Wing's school to last year's birthday party for Lam Jo. Kong goes back to visit his sifu every few years, and he reminds me that in kungfu your training never stops. "It's like a family, " he remarks, "Your sifu is like your father, and when I come back we have a family gathering. It makes me feel good to see them again. And to see my sifu, still very healthy and strong, it makes me happy."

Kong has many years of memories, nearly five decades of them with Lam Jo. "I started with my sifu when I was eight years old," he remembers. "I met his son at school and went to study with him. For the first six months all I did was sit in a horse stance. He would light a stick of incense that burned for 45 minutes, and you had to stay down in that horse until it burned out. This is to find individual character, to see if you have patience, and if you really want to dedicate yourself to kungfu."

Patience became married to will and passion for the art, as Kong dedicated himself to kungfu for what would be the rest of his life. He did not have a particular ambition to become one of the world's leading masters when he was young, and says, "I just loved kungfu. I never thought to teach, or have a school, like a lot of people dream of. That just happened when I went to Hawaii."

As a teenager Kong became interested in Choy Li Fut as well, and he added the style to his repertoire. Though many people today view Kong as a traditionalist, he was in fact rather something of a maverick. When he moved to Hawaii in 1956 with his parents he was exposed to the entire spectrum of martial arts. He met karate, judo, aikido people and began to trade knowledge with them.

"I'm open minded," he says. "I have a lot of karate friends, judo friends, friends all over the martial arts. I accept all their good parts. That's how I feel I could improve my knowledge. I never say my style is the best. Every style has things that are good and bad, advantages and disadvantages. But if you're smart you just keep the advantages. You don't have to change your style. Whatever style you are you're proud of it, and you improve yourself from there."

Kong says that people's kungfu in Hawaii is so good because they have nothing else to do, and few distractions. In the late fifties Kong became a naturalized citizen, and then in 1961 he was drafted into the army and sent to Korea. There his martial arts talents did not go unnoticed by his commanding officers, and Kong was made hand to hand combat instructor teaching both unarmed fighting and bayonet training in his division.

Teaching a four-week course certainly didn't allow for much incense burning and horse stance training. But practical techniques derived from Hung Gar - blocking, striking and kicking - updated the old army manual and gave the men appreciation and confidence. Applying spear techniques to the bayonet also gave the soldiers more effective offensive and defensive techniques.

Kong returned to Hawaii in 1963 and back to his diverse group of martial arts friends who urged him to open a school. "The karate people opened my first school for me," he recalls, "before I even realized it. They just said, 'Sifu, there's your school.' In the beginning my students were just karate and aikido instructors, but after awhile the school began to grow, and we had a lot of different kinds of students."

This difference, however, raised problems with the more traditional Chinese martial artists who objected to Kong teaching non-Chinese. "They came to challenge me at the school, but we showed them our good hands. They came once and that was it, they never showed their faces again."

Los Angeles
Life in Hawaii was good. Kong and his wife Nancy had three children, Andrew, Angela and Anise. The school grew both in popularity and in size, and the dedication of the students was profound. There was plenty of time for the incense and the horse stance. In 1973 Kong published his book Hung Gar Kung Fu: Chinese Art of Self-Defense, and a year later he was also inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame. The only problem with the island was limited higher education, with only one university. "I wanted to move to the mainland to give my children more opportunity to get a good education," he says. So, they moved to Los Angeles and Kong opened his new school on Hollywood Boulevard.

1977 was still a good year for kungfu in America. The popularity Bruce Lee brought to the Chinese martial arts was riding high, and Kong's school was packed with students. People stared in through the big glass windows, and the challengers became, instead of ?Chinese traditionalists, ?Hollywood crazies. Kong went on to publish another book in 1983, The Tiger/Crane Form of Hung Gar Kung-Fu. He'd bring his troupe to do lion dance in both the most kitsch and the most expensive Chinese restaurants of L.A., and built up a new core of dedicated followers. One of his oldest students, Don Hamby, now a senior instructor for Kong, remembers, "Sifu had a technique for everything. You'd become transfixed when you were watching him. And he's a fighter, Sifu is a fighter, not just a martial artist who practices forms. He knows how to apply his hands inside and out. He dedicated his life to it."

The dedication continues as Kong keeps moving into the future while simultaneously revisiting the past. The school, now in a new Hollywood location, is decorated with pictures both old and new. And as if he must fulfill the need to put out a new book each decade, Kong is right on schedule with his latest publication, a new version of the Gung Gee Fook Fu, "Taming the Tiger" set.

Gung Gee Fook Fu
"This set is Lam Jo's favorite set," says Kong. "It is the most basic and fundamental set of ?Hung Gar. If you practice the Gung Gee Fook Fu you make your arms strong, you get a good horse stance, you get a grip on the ground. If you do it for a ?period of time your hands and arms will get strong and hard, without banging the dummies."

The Gung Gee Fook Fu is the essential basis of Hung Gar. The forward and backward step formations were patterned after the Chinese character Gung Gee ( Patrick -- in book, p.4 - or ask Gigi) and the set is named accordingly.

The origin of the Gung Gee Fook Fu can be traced back to Siu Lum (Shaolin) Temple. After the temple was burned down, the high priest Gee Sin Sim See traveled south to a temple in Yue Hoi province. So the set would not be lost he started teaching it in the temple there, and this was the beginning of the Hung Gar style in the southern part of China.

The first student he taught was Lok Ah Choy, who learned the treasured set well. The next to inherit this knowledge of kungfu in the southern region was Wong Tai, who in turn passed it down to Wong Kei Ying, who then passed it on to his son Wong Fei Hung. Wong's top student Lam Sai Wing taught the Gung Gee Fook Fu as the fundamental set in the Hung Gar system in his own school, and thus continued the legacy. It became his favorite set and that of his nephew and student Lam Jo as well.

Lam Jo wrote his own treatise on the Gung Gee, some of which reads as follows:
The set is based upon a solid horse stance, and its use of force in the mid-section and the strength of the forearms (kiu sau, or bridge hands) help the practitioner develop solid roots for truly mastering kungfu. The close knit sequences with forward and backward movements in organized patterns condition the reflexes for other kungfu practices such as weapons sets and the Ten Elements set. The precision of the Gung Gee Fook Fu facilitates the learning of other hand and foot patterns, and developing the pivotal force at the waist and combining it with the solid arm movements enhance agility and build power.

Kong further explicates the sophisticated nature of the Gung Gee Fook Fu in his new book:
The interaction of the five section ( Patrick -see page 24 of book )and octagon shape are implemented in this set. The Gung Gee set assimilates the mind, the sight, the hand and the leg for simultaneous counter actions.

As the principle factor, the mind exercises the decision for the advance or the defense mode. The sight controls the "yin" and "yang" applications; the yin implicates the dark side and the yang the bright side, alluding to the techniques one can see or not see. The hands form the aggressive function in the set's strategy and finally, the legs implement speed to the attack mode.

There are five sections in this set - the upper, middle, lower, left and right. The upper section can be subdivided into seven smaller targets. With the head as the middle guideline, three portions are counted on the left and three on the right. The heart and the chest are positioned in the middle section. Beneath the middle section are the lower vital organs. The left section includes the left hand and left leg; the right side includes the right hand and right leg. The pattern it depicts is simple and logical. The principles of the Gung Gee master the logic of the mind, and through consistent practice reflex movements are developed.

Universal Language
The language of movement may be universal, but Kong's book also makes the Gung Gee global. Each part of the set is shown with accompanying explanations in Chinese, English, German and Spanish, bringing the nuance of each movement to the Hung Gar stylist. Opening the text to European and Central and South American practitioners widens the appeal of the art to a fast-growing world community of martial artists.

The other direction Kong has been heading in more and more is healing. In addition to stressing qigong in his school, Kong also has a quiet but profound knowledge of Chinese medicine. He started learning from an early age, first from his family. "My mom was a gung fu yin jow, she did a lot of Chinese medicine. On my mother's side there are a lot of kungfu people who practiced traditional medicine. They didn't do it for a living, they just did it to help people. My sifu does it as a living."

Indeed, after his initial exposure to Chinese medicine at home, Kong absorbed a great deal more knowledge in Lam Jo's dit dar. When visiting Lam Jo in Hong Kong today his clinic is busy all day long as patients come in and out. Lam Jo's daughter also treats many patients at the clinic.

Recently one of my si-hings wrote me a letter about his last visit to our si-gung, and described one incident quite vividly:
I noticed that at about four or five in the afternoon the buzzer to the flat would sound and a man and his daughter would come in and go into the treatment office to see Lam Jo. A half hour would pass, then Lam Jo would step out of the office with a familiar pot, and soon the smell of cooked herbs would seep out of the kitchen. The pot would leave a steamy trail as he went back into the office. About an hour after they had first come the little girl would come out of the room tight lipped and teary eyed, but never making a sound.

Sifu explained to me that the twelve-year-old had broken her elbow but it had been set poorly, so when the cast came off she could not bend her arm. By the fourth treatment she could move it a little. One afternoon near the end of our trip Lam Jo let me observe his treatment of the little girl's arm.
He placed her arm on a well-worn leather pad that lay on his desk. A bowl of dit da jow was next to the pad to his left, and he frequently dipped his fingers in it while administering his massage. He worked continuously, his practiced hands reading the structure beneath the skin. His manner and expression struck me most, for it was never methodical or clinical, but always benevolent.

After he was finished the herbal paste was wrapped around the injury. Sifu told me that the herbs draw the pain to the surface. The trick to being a great doctor was knowing what blend and concentration of herbs to use based on the type and age of the injury. In the Chinese tradition, Grandmaster Lam Jo was passing this kind of knowledge over time to our own Sifu.

In our school in Hollywood we have witnessed Kong treat students many times. Just last week one student couldn't continue her training because of a terrible headache. Sifu sat on the wooden bench with her and massaged pressure points in her arm. After a few minutes he stopped, and asked her how did she feel. A look of startled amazement crossed her face as she exclaimed, "It's totally gone!" She looked at us, and back at Kong. He just grinned, and announced it was time to do the form.

Other people have better stories, like Kong's mechanic, a judo player who wrenched his knee and was scheduled for surgery to have a pin put in it. Kong gave him a number of treatments with herbs over two weeks and the knee, formerly swollen twice its regular size, returned to normal, and without pain. The surgery was cancelled. And Kong got a great deal on his car repair.

The Tradition of Dit Dar
Like preserving the art of Hung Gar, Buck Sam Kong also wants to continue its inherent tradition of dit dar healing. He has passed much of his knowledge down to his son Andrew, a chiropractor now living in Chicago and studying traditional Chinese medicine as well. Together they traveled to Hong Kong last year so the younger Kong could study acupuncture and herbal formulas at one of the colleges there, as well as buy herbs and books to bring back to the States.

"I learned a lot of recipes from my family, on my mom's side," says Kong. "It's a learning process. You look, you observe, you apprentice. Little by little you pick it up. I am trying to pass down the dit dar side of kungfu to Andrew, besides the Hung Gar. I've been all over the Orient, I've learned from a lot of different people, pressure points, massage. It's not as simple as people think. It takes quite some time. To learn how to re-set a joint. It takes a lot of practice before you can do a good job. Same thing in kungfu. You have to practice a lot before you have good skill."

Skill, real gungfu, a depth of understanding and application, is what is important to Buck Sam Kong. Whether he is imparting the essence of the Gung Gee Fook Fu or helping to heal a dislocated joint, Kong is one to look beneath the surface. If it takes a new book to translate an ancient form into a modern text he will do it, all the while preserving the soul of the original. His plasters and herbal pastes may be zapped in the microwave at his school, but the skill he uses in applying them still retains the ghostly touch of Wong Fei Hung's healing hands. Blending the tradition with the modern takes perhaps the most delicate skill of all, to keep the balance of the classical and still make it work in a world of machines and chemicals and urban distraction.

To Kong, whether it's Hung Gar's most fundamental set or a Chinese herbal recipe, it's not what you learn, but what you know. "To me, " he says, "I feel learning kungfu is not about how good my forms are. It's the things that you learn that you can use. That makes the difference. What really counts is your skill, how well you know it to apply it. Everybody could learn a set, but not everybody could use it. That's what counts."

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1998 .

About Martha Burr :
Much of the material in this article on the Hung Gar history and the Gung Gee Fook Fu was gleaned from Buck Sam Kong's new book on the set. For ordering or other information, please contact: Buck Sam Kong's Siu Lum Pai Kung Fu Association, (213) 664-8882.

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