Hong Kong has always been known for kung fu, producing some of the genre’s best movies and hosting some of the world’s most historic tournaments, but its secrets have only been made public in the past few decades. Historically it was forbidden to learn kung fu unless you came from the right lineage. Only enthusiasts from certain families would be trained by a master, or ‘Shifu’.
It was exceptionally elitist but the values were admirable: humility and honor were the first things you learnt. If you say you’re good at kung fu you probably aren’t, as Yang Shifu, an 83 year old tai chi master told us, "Kung fu is about life, family, respect and discipline. You must also be humble and you mustn’t forget commitment.”
Yang Shifu has lived and breathed kung fu for over 70 years. He lives a simple, disciplined life in a Chinese hutong with three electrical devices: a rice cooker, a lamp and a heater. Thankfully he also has access to a communal telephone otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to reach him.
When he saw his first master training, a light bulb went off in his head. “I wanted to be in control and move fast, with precision,” he said, but when he approached his would be master, he was told to go away. Nonetheless he persevered. “I was more interested in kung fu than my school work so I would watch him everyday, sometimes before school but always after, and I would copy him where he could see me. After about two months, maybe more, he came to me and said, ‘you are the worst. If you want to learn, come here before school everyday.’” He was nine years old.
Asked why he chose kung fu over table tennis or badminton like most other Chinese kids, he said, "kung fu chose me.” We associate sentences like this with Hollywood and that’s because movie studios have taken hold of the public perception of kung fu. Now we see kung fu as entertainment, a world away from elitism, but it wasn’t always the way.
The man who changed everything was Bruce Lee. His big screen performances exploded the mythology of kung fu. Until his breakthrough the art form had remained shrouded in mystery – largely because of its elitism. His movies showed sides of kung fu that had never been seen before and it enraged the triads.
Bruce believed that anyone who wanted to devote their life to kung fu had the right to do so. Apart from triads, his stance upset many purists which lead to a number of rumoured assassination attempts. When that didn’t work, a curse was put on his entire family and is attributed to the death of his son Brandon Lee who was accidently shot by a co-star on the set of “The Crow”. Brandon’s colleague thought he was shooting blanks but someone had replaced the fake bullets with live ammunition.
You can see Bruce’s home at 41 Cumberland Road, Kowloon Tong, where he spent the final years of his life before suddenly dropping dead from a heart attack at the age of just 33. The curse was again attributed to his untimely death and the 5,700 sq/ft mansion was turned into a ‘by the hour’ hotel before it was bought by billionaire Yu Pang-lin. In 2008 he offered the building to city authorities to transform it into a museum but plans were halted last June over a dispute about its size and scale.
In a city known for the efficiency of its construction, conspiracy theorists are asking why a Bruce Lee museum, a guaranteed attraction for tourists and a potent historical symbol, has been so delayed. A billionaire bought it years ago to be turned into a museum, they argue, so it should be a straight forward process. The government claims Yu Pang-lin's ambitious plans would have been too costly and would have angered neighbours but a vocal community alleges that a powerful group is holding the project back: the curse of Bruce Lee lives on.
It’s not just martial arts films that are indebted to kung fu. George Lucas, for one, was inspired by Chi, a hugely important feature in Chinese martial arts. Qi is defined as an inner energy or "life force" that is said to animate all living beings, a familiar concept to all Star Wars fans. The Chinese, however, believe Qi can be accessed through years of practicing different kung fu styles rather than through the wisdom of a small, green man who resembles fungal rot.
Bruce Lee took kung fu to a different level, he took it to Hollywood, but in many ways his laudable, egalitarian decision signaled the beginning of the end. Our perception of kung fu has since been subverted by movie making. It’s seen as entertainment, a notion at odds with the fundamental principles of kung fu. Yang Shifu explained, “Movies and TV have changed kung fu. Kung fu is not good any more, it is not the same. There is no honor and respect. Now it is exercise and violence.”
Hollywood has changed our perception of kung fu, but it’s also today’s way of life that has changed kung fu into a sport rather than a noble lifestyle. We’re weaker, more protected and more impatient than before. We’re part of an era of health and safety and incessant public inquires and we’ve gone soft. We lack the discipline and patience to devote ourselves to a lifetime of training and we also carry the expectations of society and our parents to succeed with a career. "Everyone wants everything fast now,” said Yang Shifu. “Fathers want their sons to learn all kung fu in one month.”
He spoke of the training and how tough it was – parents today would be too afraid to let their children attempt it. He added that 99% of children have become weak and pathetic and are overprotected by their parents. Witnessing parent meetings in the city and hearing about after school tutorials for three year olds, it’s difficult to disagree.
The demise of kung fu is sad, another art form falling to the demands of the 21st century. It suggests even without cinema Yang Shifu’s idea of kung fu would have changed anyway. It wouldn’t be able to co-exist with the immediacy of our culture.
Still, despite its re-classification as a sport rather than a way of life, there’s something to be said for practicing kung fu today. We’re lazier than ever before. Instead of doing exercise we watch TV and stare at computer screens so enjoying kung fu is no bad thing – even if it’s a world away from the kung fu Yang Shifu grew up with.
What’s more, there’s still an air of nobility and honour associated with it (perhaps instilled by films as well as a sign of its legacy) and if you want to learn kung fu in Hong Kong there’s only one place to go, the Shaolin Wushu Culture Centre on Lantau. They can offer a roof over your head as well as simple meals, a splash of spiritualism and a shaolin kick you’ll be proud of.
Do it for Bruce.
We love kung fu films so here’s the top five fight scenes choreographed by Hong Kong legend, Yuen Wo-Ping, the man behind THAT scene in The Matrix.