Interview with Grandmaster Chiu Kwok-Chung
by Len Epp
Grandmaster Chiu Kwok-Chung is a renowned teacher and practitioner of Buk Sing Choy Lay Fut, a vigorous application-oriented variant of the powerful Choy Lay Fut style. Master Chiu traces his own unique style of Buk Sing Choy Lay Fut through his teachers Wong Yuen Woo and Lung Chi Cheung to Ku Yu Cheung and the style's founder, Tam Sam. The lineage of Tam Sam, in turn, leads directly to Chan Heung, the early nineteenth-century founder of Choy Lay Fut.
Master Chiu was born in March 1959. His grandfather was a Southern Hung Gar master who was killed in Guangdong province during the Communist takeover of China. After his grandfather was killed, Master Chiu's father moved his family to Hong Kong Island in 1950. Although Master Chiu's father would not pass on his family's Hung Gar to his son (mindful of the reasons his own father had been killed by the Communists), Master Chiu nonetheless began to study kung fu at the age of 11 in order to act as a bodyguard for a friend. His rough-and-tumble life on the streets earned him a reputation as an effective fighter, but a victorious encounter with some gangsters when he was still only 13 drove Master Chiu into exile in Kowloon for three years.
Between the demands of life on the streets and his mechanic's apprenticeship, Master Chiu found the time to train every day at a local Buk Sing Choy Lay Fut school. After two years of hard training, his kung fu brothers encouraged him to participate in organized underground fights in order to earn money and to put his kung fu training to the test.
Eventually, Master Chiu returned to Hong Kong Island and began to teach at the early age of 19. In 1993, after 14 years of teaching, he moved to Canada and opened a kung fu school in Toronto. In the following years he would teach a range of students and sifus his own brand of Buk Sing Choy Lay Fut, honed through the many fights and challenges he endured in his youth.
LE: When did you start to study Buk Sing Choy Lay Fut? What motivated you to begin training?
CKC: I started training when I was 11 years old, around 1970, when I was living on Hong Kong Island, and spending a lot of time out on the streets. It was a tough environment, even for kids, and a friend of mine decided he needed protection on his way to and from school. Since I had a reputation as a street fighter, he said he would pay for me to take kung fu lessons at the local community center if I would be his bodyguard. Initially, I had a street kid's skepticism about kung fu - I thought it was no good. A good fighter's a good fighter and doesn't need a lot of training. But since my friend was paying for the lessons, I thought I'd go for free, for fun, and see what it was all about.
Well, I went to the school, and when I challenged one of the students to show me some good kung fu, he delivered a powerful front kick, much faster than I expected, and knocked the wind out of me. That was when I first understood there was a lot for me to learn from proper study. I learned that I had been fighting without any technique, just putting my head down and punching wildly. My Sifu began to teach me basic forms and stances, including a Choy Lay Fut form called sup ji kow da (character ten/cross grabbing and hitting), which was very good. I learned it and practiced it every day, running up and down the mountain to the school and back.
One day, when I was 13 years old, I had a chance to test what I had learned on the street. Two of my friends and I went out to the cinema, and when the show was finished, we decided to save our bus money and walk home through a quiet area. Suddenly, three young men approached us and demanded we give them our money. I remember I had ten dollars, which was a lot of money for me at the time, and which I had spent a long time saving up from various odd jobs. I didn't want to just give it away and refused to hand it over. One of the young men attacked my two friends, who got up and ran away as soon as they were thrown down. So there I was, just 13, facing three men, all of whom appeared to be more than 18 years old. We began to fight, and I used the kwa sow choy (backfist roundhouse punch) and knocked down the first two men. I used the chap choy (stabbing strike or Leopard Fist) on the third man, but he didn't go down, and as we fought I slipped. I managed to get back up and keep fighting, and eventually I knocked him down with kwa sao (backwards stabbing Leopard Fist).
I was proud of winning the fight, but when I went home my father saw that I had been in a fight, and he became very angry with me because I had been fighting so much and he had always objected to my kung fu training.
LE: Why didn't your father want you to study kung fu?
CKC: My family had a troubling history with kung fu training. My grandfather had been a Southern Hung Gar master back in mainland China. I remember I would sometimes see him training in the back of the house, in a storage area, in secret, when I was very young. One day the authorities came after him and killed him, my grandfather, because they did not want the people training to fight on their own, because it gave them power. My family knew they would also be after my father, and so we emigrated to Hong Kong. As I was growing up, I would also see my father training in secret, but he didn't want to train me because he didn't want me to make trouble. Too many people in our family had already been killed.
So for these reasons my father did not want me to study kung fu. When he found out I had started to train at the community center, he had insisted that I stop immediately. But I was stubborn and I still went to the school the very next day. My father knew what I had done and when he came home that night, he took a rope, tied up my hands in front of me, then threw the rope over a hook in the ceiling, pulled me up and tied the other end of the rope to the door, so that I was hanging in the air by my hands. He would do that for a couple of hours every day for a while, but I learned to pull up my feet and hang by my legs to take the pressure off my hands, and I continued my kung fu training every day.
My father realized I was committed to learning kung fu and eventually he said he would allow me to train, but on the condition that I never open my own school. I expressed some surprise that he was worried about me opening my own school, when I was still so young and just training, but he believed that when the Communists took over Hong Kong they would come after people who had taught kung fu. Nonetheless, he was sure I would teach someday, and he turned out to be right - I became an instructor at my Sifu's school before I turned 20!
Well, given his general disapproval of my training, after the fight with the three men my father became worried and began asking around, to see if there would be any trouble. He learned that the three young men I had fought were gangsters, and he told me I had to leave Hong Kong Island for three years before I could return, or they would kill me. The next morning he sent me away on the first ship to Kowloon.
So there I was, 13 years old, with just the clothes on my back, and I had to look for a job. I soon found a position as an apprentice, to learn how to become a mechanic. I was paid two dollars a day, with no days off, so I was earning 60 dollars per month. My apprenticeship gave me two meals a day, but no shelter, and so I slept on the floor, in cars, on the street, using newspapers to cover myself when it got cold. In the evenings I started to collect bottles and cans and other things I could trade for money, and found myself fighting again, when people on the street would try to steal what I had worked so hard to earn.
After a time I learned that my Sifu was also teaching in a community center in Kowloon. I went to find him and said I wanted to learn in his school. He asked me why I had moved, and he was impressed that I had the power and the technique to beat three older and bigger opponents. But there was one problem. He charged 60 dollars per month to teach his students! Well, I couldn't afford that, and when my Sifu learned how poor I was, he said he would charge me only 30 dollars per month. I was grateful for the opportunity to continue my training and I went to the school to train every day, even on Sundays when there were no classes.
One day, after I had been training at the school in Kowloon for around two years, my kung fu brothers approached me and asked if I would do some underground fighting for money. They said I could put up some money for a stake, pay the gangsters who ran the operation a commission, and if I won, I could make a lot of money and improve my situation. I asked them how much I would need for a stake and they told me 300 dollars minimum. I had been very careful to save as much money as I could over those two years and had about enough to cover the stake, but I was very worried about losing it, since it represented two years of hard work!
I agreed to take the chance and when the day came I went to the location of the fights, which were held behind closed doors and attracted crowds of between 40 and 100 people. I knew already that there were almost no rules - no hitting the eyes or the ears, but that was about it. I put down the money and was then shown my opponent. I was only 15 at the time, but my opponent, he was 25 and very tough, and trained every day, very hard, in Wing Chun, and was known for being very fast.
After I lost, I went back to my Sifu. When I told him I had lost, he asked what style my opponent knew, and when I told him Wing Chun, my Sifu laughed, and at first refused to believe me. Unfortunately, Choy Lay Fut and Wing Chun practitioners have in the past engaged in the occasional rivalry, and encounters between them have at times been taken very seriously. After that, he showed me some combinations of Buk Sing Choy Lay Fut moves that could be used specifically against a Wing Chun opponent, such as using chap choy to set up sow choy. The combination he showed me was very effective, and I remember as he showed it to me the first time, after my loss, he hit me so hard my sternum popped up. Using the more linear Leopard Fist strikes to set up the circular finishing wild hook is a trademark Choy Lay Fut strategy.
I was very unhappy I had lost the fight and my two years' worth of savings, and so I worked even harder and trained even harder, following my teacher's advice carefully. Five or six months later, my kung fu brothers again suggested that I take part in another fight. I told them there was no way, I had lost all my money in the last fight, and besides, I had not had enough time to put together another stake! They said that they had confidence that I could win this time, and they took out the money they had collected and slammed it down on the table in front of me. At first I objected, not wanting to be responsible for losing the money, but they insisted they had confidence in my ability to win.
When I got to the location of the fight, I was introduced to my opponent, who was the same Wing Chun fighter I had lost to the last time! He taunted me and said I would lose again, but there was no way I was going to back down. Not only was my own pride on the line, but also the money my kung fu brothers had bet on me, and I knew that if I lost again to the same fighter my teachers would lose confidence in me.
Unfortunately for my opponent, I had learned much in the meantime from my Choy Lay Fut teachers. For example, I knew from my training that Wing Chun fighters stay in the middle, in the center, high up, rarely using ma bu (horse stance). I had learned that these tactics can be exploited by the correct application of Choy Lay Fut techniques - provided the fighter is fast enough. I also knew that my opponent was much larger than me (I was about five foot two and he was about five foot ten), and so I would have to use techniques that generated a lot of power.
Well, when the fight started, my opponent behaved predictably: he did not move, he stood up very straight, and he kept his guard and his attention to the middle. First, I distracted him with a trick I had learned, and at the same time moved to the side, out of the middle. Then I set him up with the chap choy, went into a strong ma bu, and used kwa sao, then sow choy, whole body - WHUM! I struck where I had aimed, right in the temple. He went down and the fight organizers had to call the doctor. After that fight, I heard later, my opponent was never the same again.
LE: Did you continue to fight for money?
CKC: I fought three more times and won every time, but then quit because I was hurting my opponents too much.
LE: How did your training continue after that experience?
CKC: After I returned to Hong Kong Island, when I turned 17 my Sifu made me Jiao Lien (instructor) at his school. Soon I was teaching the whole school and my Sifu "closed the door" and began teaching me, only me, in secret. When I was 19 he had enough confidence in me that I began to teach as a Sifu myself. Because I was so young and because I was short, people would often not believe that I was the Sifu. That meant I often had to accept challenges to prove my ability, which meant my skills were always being put to the test.
At the same time my training was supplemented by the work I began doing for my father, who had grown too old to carry out his coal business on his own. I had to load up a truck with coal every day and carry 50kg bags of coal, sometimes two or three at a time, up the stairs, sometimes four or five stories, to the apartments of our customers who used the coal for cooking. This made me very strong and gave me an advantage in training and fighting.
I continued to work in the coal business and to teach for 14 years until I turned 33 and moved to Canada, in 1993. Six months later I opened a school in Toronto and began to teach there.
LE: What was it like teaching in Canada?
CKC: Well, I didn't know very much English, so mostly I taught people in the Chinese community. I also taught a Lion Dance team that had some success in competition. Some Canadian students did find out about my school, however. One student, I remember he came and asked if I would teach him, but I told him I would not because I knew no English. He went outside in the cold and waited until my class was over and then came in and asked again if I would teach him. He said he would teach me English as I taught him kung fu, and that in the meantime he would try his best to copy what I did. He turned out to be a very hard-working student, very tough.
Eventually I closed the school, since I was not getting enough regular students to make a living teaching. After that, I opened a mechanic shop, and I taught only in my spare time, for free, just for fun.
LE: The next questions I have are about the Buk Sing Choy Lay Fut style. Can you tell me about the history of Choy Lay Fut, what makes it unique, and what is special about your own interpretation of the style?
CKC: Choy Lay Fut was founded in the 19th century by Chan Heung, who was born in King Mui Village in the Sun Wui district of Kwang Tung province. It was named after three teachers who taught him different styles: Choy Gar, Lay Gar, and Fut Gar. Chan Heung taught Cheong Hung Sing and Lui Chaun. Lui Chaun in turn taught his student, Tam Sam, who started the Buk Sing Choy Lay Fut school. Unfortunately, there was a rivalry between the different schools. He changed some things from what he had been taught, including the chap choy. Tam Sam was famous for his lian huan chap choy (continuous stabbing strike). Tam Sam taught Lung Chi Cheung, who in turn taught Wong Yuen Lo, who taught me.
The main difference between Choy Lay Fut and other styles is the use of full power, which is generated from long hand movements, strong ma bu and footwork, and whole body turning. Choy Lay Fut practitioners also prefer to enter from the side when they fight, from the outside gate, rather than trying to meet an opponent head-on. It is more open than tighter styles, like Wing Chun or Bak Mei, Nan Tong Long, etc.
The openness is necessary in order to generate the power. The tighter the style, the less the power. Take the idea of the one-inch punch. From a Choy Lay Fut perspective, this is like trying to shoot an arrow by only pulling back one inch on the bowstring. One inch punch, one inch good fight, or one inch longer, one inch more power, is an old saying. Choy Lay Fut generates more power to fight. Killing power.
There are quite a few differences between the Choy Lay Fut styles. The chap choy, for instance, is done differently, based on Tam Sam's modifications. There are also secret differences, of course.
LE: When you say Choy Lay Fut is a more open style, is that because the focus is more on generating a powerful offense that will put an end to a fight quickly, rather than on adopting a careful defense?
CKC: The training is open; if it is applied wrongly in combat one is certainly vulnerable to counterattack. Sometimes students do adopt a position that is too open because they are eager to deliver a powerful blow. In my personal interpretation of the style, I changed some moves from long to middle, and sometimes short. If you have good footwork, with one short step you can enter and win the fight, so my style uses some short moves that other Choy Lay Fut practitioners usually don't. From my experience fighting, I find that many moves are too slow to set up and execute, even though they generate a lot of power if they work. More speed means more power, and you need to find a balance that is effective.
One example of my own innovation is a change I made to the sow choy. When I go back to Hong Kong, the old masters say, that's not sow choy! But I changed it based on my experience. I turn my hand with the knuckles pointing up, rather than to the side - this way you still use the whole arm, but you're not going to break your hand. My Sigung would complain that I was always changing things, but I change the forms to make them better based on my experience.
LE: What weapons are taught in Buk Sing Choy Lay Fut?
CKC: There are not very many weapons forms that are unique to the style. We have a double sword form that's Buk Sing. There are forms for spear, staff, sword, straight sword, staff, section chains, bench, and others, most of which come from the Bak Siu Lam system. If Buk Sing Choy Lay Fut sifus want to learn weapons, they mostly learn from the northern systems, which have better weapons forms.
LE: My last question is about traditional kung fu training. Do you think the traditions of the past can be passed down in the modern world?
CKC: First, it is important to understand that some things that were good in other times are no good in our times. For example, I trained iron palm for two years. I would strike the bag four different ways with each hand, and repeat 300 times. That would take about two hours every day. I would of course use medicine, and would plunge my fingers into bowls filled with short nails and hot stones. But that sort of training was more appropriate to the old days, when people needed to have stronger hands to fight, and when people fought more with their hands and more often for protection.
Second, for various historical reasons there are not too many good sifus these days. In China, traditional kung fu stopped a long time ago, when the Communists came into power. Training was mostly outlawed for about 40 years. Those sifu who weren't killed and who left went out everywhere, to Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan. And so there are not enough traditional kung fu masters left in China, and those who are left are old and dying. Nowadays, in China they focus on the new wushu, they have changed things and mixed different styles together into single forms. You just have to learn the different movements and step to the timing. This is often done in order to have a standardized form that can be judged for competitions, but it's not a real form and has no application for fighting - unlike traditional kung fu, which provides a good foundation for real fighting.
Another reason traditional kung fu is dying is that people these days do not have the same time or inclination to do the training. They work too many hours at their jobs, and spend too much time sitting at the computer and going on the internet. People are scared of the hard training, they don't want to learn, and the quality of kung fu training is slowing down.
Also, a lot of the people training in martial arts these days want to win medals in big competitions. So they learn karate, tae kwon do, and other things, not Chinese kung fu systems.
Another problem is that many people are in a rush to become sifus. They learn for maybe one or two years and then open a school. I knew this one sifu, he only had one form, but he opened a school to teach kung fu! Another sifu came to my school and asked me to teach him something that night, or he would have nothing to teach his class the next day! Learn today, teach tomorrow - that's not good.
So with the loss of the old masters, and the diminished training standards, step by step, the quality of traditional kung fu is deteriorating. It is not dead, but the quality is generally very low.
LE: Would creating a system of guidelines for kung fu help restore quality to teaching and training?
CKC: Well, first of all, there are too many styles, and it is very difficult to compare them or to set up a comprehensive model or guideline. Second, real kung fu sifus are very independent people. Also, with levels, you get people arguing about what level they are and how long they have been training, but none of it is related to real fighting. Some teachers will say they have studied for 14 years, but what they really mean is that they studied with a sifu for one or two years and have been practicing on their own ever since. They will say they are Grand Super Master, but the level of their kung fu is in fact very low!
Finally, some people do not like the idea of creating an organization that will issue licenses. Their experience with or knowledge of what happened to kung fu in China, where the government creates cultural associations that do not really support kung fu and try to make it into dance, means they do not like the idea of having to register or get a license, or having to pass a government test, like you would need to open a mechanic's shop. The government supports culture and sport, not fighting. In the past, the government has tried to kill traditional kung fu, and to focus on the new wushu, as well as other innovations such as San Da.
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About Len Epp:
Len Epp is a writer who has studied Fukienese White Crane Kung Fu for over two years with Sifu Lorne Bernard in Montreal, Quebec. Previously, he studied WTF Tae Kwon Do for three years with Grandmaster Kee S. Ha in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.