The True Tales of Training – Hong Kong
an Illustrated History
We were getting old. I was twenty eight and Dale, well no one knew how old he was since he never told anyone. Some said late thirties, even forty. Whatever age we were we still had some wild oats in us that we sowed where possible. But encroaching on the edge of awareness was the reality that the heady days of youthful adventure were waning.
I met Dale at a mutual friend’s farmhouse where he had converted a one time general store into a split level party room. There on weekends Arnis, the mutual friend, would indulge his passion for music, whiskey, and hashish, with good friends such as ourselves.. How Arnis came to know of Dale I have no idea, but Dale was invited over one weekend because of his reputation as a guitarist and singer. Arnis repeated some gossip on Dale, who had a bad reputation in the small nearby farming town of Aliston. Arnis recounted the reasons for his reputation. Dale was a Black Belt in Karate. Apparently the mere possession of a Black Belt implied you went around kicking hayseed ass all the time. I imagined him the scourge of the town’s three seedy country and western bars kicking farm boys to the toe tapping tunes of ‘Stompin’ Tom Connors.
“Oh but he also raised and fought roosters in illegal cockfights, he trained them in a secret abandoned barn deep in the woods outside of town.” Arnis added. The litany of suspicious and fearful behaviours went on. He is one of eight licensed trappers in the province skinning and tanning the pelts of the beaver he trapped which he sold to the Hudson Bay Company. Dale was also a coon hunter who travelled to places like Arkansas and Alabama where he would roam the swamps at night with his Blue Chip Hound dogs in the company of unsavoury characters not unlike those in the movie Deliverance. As if to stretch the bounds of credulity even further, Arnis said that Dale was also a ‘Biker’ and an Indian Shaman.
“Well goodness”, I said, “does he also fart pixie dust?” I was thinking this guy must be a consummate bullshit artist. I understood why Arnis was afraid of him. Arnis was a prince, but he had a character flaw shared by most, he was timid. Anyone that exhibited a strong personality or individuality intimidated him. But ironically it is by being around such strong personalities that Arnis found the most excitement and stimulation.
“No he really does all those things.” Arnis reassured me.
Well we’ll soon find out if he’s really a Black Belt, I thought.
Several weeks later I met Dale at the farmhouse. He drove up the long gravel driveway on a custom chopper, fitted with Fat Boy tank, custom made black leather saddlebags, and chrome sissy bar to which was strapped a guitar case. On the back seat was a buxom blond girl half his age. She was dressed in halter top and cut off jeans like Daisy May and who went by the name “Blondie”. Dale was dressed in square toed cowboy boots and black leathers. He sported the most outrageous mane of tightly curled hair I had ever seen, but for which, he would have looked the spitting image of Wild Bill Hitchcock. Blondie’s apparent function was to jiggle in her halter top and fetch beers for the men folk.
We made our introductions and before the pipe was even empty the subject of martial arts came up. I kept my Kung Fu uniform and sparring gear in my car at all times, and upon my invitation of a future sparring match, Dale revealed that his gear was similarly stashed in one of his saddle bags, and what better time than the present.
I started liking him right away. I had made a vow to myself when I started training to try and not be too much of a pussy. I would never reveal pain or weakness and would always accept all and any challenge until I became a Master, whatever that meant. To my surprise the world is full of pussies and even a little courage can make you a hero in these times. That Dale took me up on my challenge right away was a good sign. Dale and I changed into our uniforms and strapped on the sparring equipment and designated a level path of ground out behind the barn. We agreed that no rules, no points, no eye gouging was all that was needed between gentlemen. We fought long and we fought hard.
There is an old Chinese saying that says “Never trust a man until you’ve gotten drunk with him” to which I would add; “Never believe a martial artist until you fought him.”
Modesty prevents me from revealing that I won the match handily, but we both came to earn a heap of mutual respect. Later we sat around an open fire in the back field and Dale proved his credentials as a guitar player and singer. We all demonstrated our other talents at hot knifing hash and downing shots of Canadian Club with beer chasers.
That summer Dale recruited a backwoods idiot savant of a fiddle player named Davy La Due and with yours truly taking up the bass again we formed a bluegrass trio and played venues only seen in old episodes of the Twilight Zone. As it turned out Arnis was right about Dale all along, he really was all those things.
I fancied myself an intellectual. Part of my interest in martial arts was to counter the natural tendency of cerebrals to become timid, and soft. Dale was a true mountain man, a hunter, trapper, and warrior. But there was a third force in our lives and the reason for our pursuit of the martial arts, that was the spiritual. Dale was indeed a Shaman. He had studied under a Crow Shaman when he married the Shaman’s niece and went to live on an Indian reservation in Northern Ontario. For Dale martial arts was just the natural extension of learning the ways of the ancients.
I was exploring the Fourth Way and Zen after having studied dozens of religions and philosophies. There were several similarities between our paths and Dale honoured me by inducting me into the Bear Spirit Clan with a ceremony we performed together deep in the Minnessing Swamp. He gave me a necklace made from a canine tooth that he took from a black bear he had killed with a bow and arrow. He assured me he ate the bear’s still warm heart immediately after the kill to honour it’s spirit. There’s not a lot of people that do that anymore.
Lest the reader be deceived into thinking that our spiritual and martial motivations necessitated eating rice and abstaining from sex let me dispose of hypocrisy and set the record straight. Our motto was work hard, train hard, party hard, and nail everything that moved. We were true Hedonists in the original Greek understanding, to develop spiritually by experiencing all life had to offer.
In the three years since we met, Dale and I trained and sparred together almost every weekend. We visited and trained with dozens of martial artists and clubs, participated in tournaments, and had impromptu sparring matches with anyone willing. But our hunger for more martial arts knowledge and skill was not sated. Somehow we decided we had to travel to Asia and search for the ‘old masters’ and learn directly from them.
Now this was in the day before the internet and I had to go to the library to look up the names and addresses of possible teachers in Asia. I wrote dozens of letters to various associations and embassies throughout Asia. Each letter basically stated our intended purpose of studying martial arts and could they recommend a reputable teacher that would accept western students. In the meantime we both worked two full time jobs to save enough money to travel and live in Asia for what we expected to be a six month stay. After two years of writing letters we had received only four invitations. A Karate School in Japan, a Tae Kwon Do school in Korea, a Preying Mantis School in Singapore, and a Hung Gar school in Hong Kong.
None of the schools or teachers were familiar to us and it was really a toss of the coin type of decision. But we decided on the Hung Gar school in Hong Kong since of the four, I, and as a result of our training together, Dale as well, knew something of the Hung Gar style.
It was the best choice we could have made.
I wrote back to the Hong Kong Athletic Association that we would be honoured to study at the Chan Hon Chung Gymnasium and that we would arrive late December that year.
We had worked hard, trained hard, and partied hard the final six months before our departure and we felt we were ready for whatever challenges awaited. With only a carryon gym bag containing our uniforms and one change of clothes we arrived in Hong Kong at midnight of Dec 19th 1985 and checked into the YMCA in Kowloon.
And so it began, the replaying of a tale so ancient. I, a prince of the city, who met and fought a wild hairy man from the forest, only to find in each other a spirit able to keep pace with the other, becoming fast friends and setting off on a journey to distant lands in search for secret knowledge and the meaning of life. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the original buddy road trip, reincarnated again.
December 20th 1985
The next day we headed out in search of Master Chan’s Gymnasium. Armed with a tourist map and an address we decided the best way to get there was to walk which would give us a chance to see the city. Our route took us north along Nathan road. Four generations earlier the British Governor of Hong Kong from 1904 to 1907, Sir Matthew Nathan, began the construction of a wide four lane boulevard stretching from the tip of Kowloon peninsula all the way to the New Territories. It was nicknamed Nathan’s Folly since at the time Kowloon was nothing more than a vast swamp dotted with fisherman’s shacks and the four lane road led to literally nowhere. Today Nathan’s Folly has been re-nicknamed the Golden Mile, the most income productive piece of real estate in Asia next to the Ginsa.
The Golden Mile begins near the grand but fading Peninsula Hotel, the former haunt of colonial Taipan’s. The gold now stretches north far beyond its original mile. On both sides and for four blocks in either direction the streets are crammed with cacophony of shops selling the latest in discount Japanese electronics and gadgets of such dizzying variety that their functions stretches credulity. Who, for example, would need a belt buckle that is also a cigarette lighter? Each window is ablaze with strobe lights, lasers, and blinking neon all screaming for your attention. There were money changers, department stores, western pharmacies, fashion boutiques, Dim Sum restaurants, noodle shacks, hostess bars, hotels, nightclubs, MacDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Huts. Along the sidewalks there were street vendors selling barbecue chicken and Tofu fish balls on skewers cooked on small charcoal fires from small wooden push carts. Newspapers were sold from crates resting on blankets, leathery amputees lay nearby holding tin cups with arms outstretched.
Progress was slow due to the heavy pedestrian traffic. We moved through a living mass of humanity, six abreast, shoulder to shoulder and butt to groin front and back. Since we towered over the general population by a head, our view was one of a river of shiny black hair undulating like a black river through a gorge.
“It must be market day or some holiday.” Dale wondered aloud as though to explain this multitude of people. But it wasn’t market day, or a holiday. It was a just another day.
Mong Kok Today, no more beggars and street vendors
Progress was further hampered by the constant sidestepping we had to do to avoid crashing into oncoming traffic. After about an hour we realized we were the only ones side stepping. Dale was pissed and he said he wasn’t going to side step anymore. We continued down the street, Dale, with his shoulders pulled out square and his chest slightly puffed out, strode like a juggernaut. Men, women, even little old ladies, bounced off Dale like bowling pins, all were pushed aside into the surrounding mass of humanity that absorbed and swallowed them without a trace. Eventually the mass, through some unknown communication, sensed Dales approaching menace and parted to allow our progress. Later we learned that pushing, shoving, cutting ahead in line, and the occasional elbow to the ribs was proper etiquette when in public.
Nathan Road, Kowloon
We arrived at the intersection of Nathan road and Mong Kok boulevard, a crossroads of concrete canyons that trapped the heat, humidity, and diesel exhaust, that blended with the stench of the nearby fish market, and the ever-present smell of sandalwood incense. To recreate the experience, hold a stick of incense in one hand, a rotting fish in the other, and stand behind an idling city bus under the burning sun of a sticky August afternoon.
On the northwest corner, under a spider’s web of electric cables, was 27 Mong Kok road. There was no gymnasium in sight, only a cigarette vendor standing behind a chrome and glass cart displaying an assortment of English and American cigarettes. On one glass shelf were cigarette lighters that resembled half scale handguns complete with little leather holsters. Another had British cigarettes. Fortunately we had with us the letterhead of Master Chan’s reply on which was the name and address in both English and Chinese. We showed this to the tobacconist. He was in his late fifties with slicked back hair that was too black to be natural even for an oriental. He was dressed rather businesslike in a grey plaid polyester safari suit, white dress shirt, black tie and black patent leather loafers each sporting a rather overlarge brass buckle.
I pointed to the letterhead and, employing a sign language used by Indian scouts in Hollywood westerns from the 50’s, I asked for directions.
`You,’ – point finger at person,
`Know,’ – point finger at head and look thoughtful,
`Where?’ – hand held under nose with forked fingers protruding from the eyes. Scanning back and forth.
`This.’ – point to letterhead.
He looked at the letterhead and then looked up suddenly, mouth open in a part smile and part surprise as if he just recognized that the person who was standing before him was an old school friend.
“You, Gung Fu?” he said assuming a fighting position, smiling, hands held in a manner characteristic of the Eagle Claw style.
“Yeah. We Gung fu.” I replied patting my chest.
“Me too Gung fu” he gestures to my arm, I extend my arm. Grasping my wrist with one hand, with the other he uses an Eagle Claw squeezing action directed at a pressure point in my biceps. I guess he wasn’t used to westerner’s anatomy since he was off by more than an inch. I felt no pain, but to save the old guy ‘face’ I pretended I did.
“Oh sorry.” He laughs and bobs his head to indicate he didn’t mean to hurt me.
“Me Eagle Claw Gung Fu” said the tobacconist.
Thereafter Dale named him `Old Eagle Claw’.
Eagle Claw motioned towards the storefront. Behind the vending cart was an entrance to the store. On either side were bay windows with neon signs in both Chinese and English. One said Tailor Shop, the other Travel Agent. The door was open and Old Eagle Claw shooed us through, and followed after us waving us ahead with assurances of `Yes! Gung Fu’. We passed large wooden tables and walls lined with shelves holding bolts of cloth. The Tailor was standing behind a desk in his vest and shirt, glasses low on his nose, tape measure hanging round his neck. He bobbed and smiled politely at first but scowled when he realized we were just passing through. There was no sign of a travel agency.
At the back of the tailor shop was a small office. `Medical Clinic’ in black letters were painted on the glass pane door. Old Eagle Claw moved ahead of us, knocked gently on the door, and spoke out in Cantonese. The door opened and we were greeted with an overwhelming smell that made our eyes water.
The clinic was a small room in which was squeezed a desk, treatment table, four small folding chairs, and three 10 gallon cooking pots each set on a small propane camping stove. In the pots there was a black tar-like substance bubbling like an active volcano. As each bubble slowly expanded and burst, a white puff of smoke was released. This was the source of the overwhelming stench.
Two walls were covered in moisture slick white and yellow tiles. The other two walls were covered in diplomas, acupuncture charts, and glossy black and white photos of Master Chan and various dignitaries. There was a photo of Master Chan and some Caucasian dressed in British military ceremonial dress, another of Master Chan and some men in business suits, Master Chan shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
It was then we noticed a younger man in his late thirties, wearing a blue polyester business suit and leaning nonchalantly against the wall. Noticing our reaction he explained the smell by saying. “Kung Fu Medicine, ancient Chinese secret.” he laughed a short mocking laugh. Strangely over time, we came to like that horrible wonderful stench. Wherever one trained in China, there would be a pot of home made medicine to soothe the injuries and pains of training. Each master had his own recipe for what is generically known as Dit Da Jou, ‘Iron Strike Wine’. Meaning that if you use this medicine you could strike steel without injury. For those that practice Kung Fu the stink of Chinese medicine means relief from the pain of training is on the way.
Master Chan was busy treating an elderly woman who, we were told afterwards, had been struck by a car that broke her right shin. She sat on one stool with her black and swollen leg propped up on another stool. Old Eagle Claw motioned for us to sit on the two remaining stools. Master Chan was reaching into the one cauldron that was not boiling and pulling out a handfuls of dark reddish brown paste which he applied to the leg with a plasterer’s trowel.
After the leg was encased in this reeking compost he wrapped the leg in clean white bandages. He spoke in the low calm voice of all doctors advising their patients. The prognosis must have been good since the old woman was bowing her head, eyes grateful. Only after the old Amah bowed her way out the door did Master Chan acknowledge our presence.
Master Chan was seventy five, about five feet two inches tall, with the slight paunch that is common to men his age. He was completely bald which seemed to accentuate his large ears from which grew thin tufts of long white hair. Both his face and body was sagging into a pear shape. I could see on the wall behind him a yellowed black and white photo. Taken what must have been fifty years earlier, it showed a young shirtless Master Chan with piercing eyes, thick hair, strong jaw, and muscular build. ‘And to this end we all must come’ I thought as I looked at the wizened old monkey that young man in the photo had become.
The somewhat aloof man leaning against the wall introduced himself in English as Eddy, Master Chan’s son. He was a good head taller than the old man, thin with a square face and slicked back hair. Eddy was to act as interpreter setting up our formal introduction to Master Chan and arranging lessons. Eddy’s English was good and his manner polite and friendly, but you got the impression that it was an act, that he was being sly with you. After briefing Eddy on our backgrounds, who in turn translated for his father, Master Chan requested a demonstration of our abilities.
“What here? Now?” I asked, “We hadn’t brought our gear.” We were wearing tight jeans. You can’t do anything in jeans.
“Yes of course, why not.” replied Eddy without translating my previous question.
There was really no way out of it. It is customary for the Master of a Kung Fu school to see your abilities before deciding to accept you and being unprepared was no excuse. Later I would see other foreign visitors being asked to demonstrate their professed prowess in the martial arts. Most made the excuse of being unprepared and bowed out of any demonstration. All the Chinese students knew then that everything they said was bullshit. If you can do something then do it, but if you’re not prepared to show what you’ve got, then shut up about it. Dale and I both knew this was a test. The only solution was to do what you can and if the Master thinks its shit, then take it like a man.
We followed Master Chan out of the clinic and back into the tailor shop where we took a left down a short hallway that led into the ‘gymnasium’ a room twelve feet by twelve feet. Along the walls were two altars, one to the god of war Kuan Gung, the other the traditional family altar. Along another wall were a set of barbells and bench press table, two lion heads, two hanging bags, weapons racks, punching pads, and a Mok Jong (wooden dummy). Leaning against the mirror along one wall was a folding table and chairs used when the gymnasium fulfilled its other functions as a mess hall and Majong parlour. A narrow spiral staircase was barely noticeable behind a collection of weapons and mops in the corner of the room. Two Chinese men in white undershirts sat on the steps observing. The four of us were crowded into the remaining space.
“Well, who goes first?” I asked looking at Dale.
“Its your bag Hoss.” Dale replied.
Awkwardly, I walked across the room to the hanging bags. I was going through a quick stretching routine and about to throw a few punches into the nearest bag. I noticed one of the men on the staircase grinning expectantly. I stopped and felt the bag gently with my hand. It was filled with sand. Most people imagine punching a bag filled with sand would be pretty soft, like punching a bean bag. But in fact the weight and pressure of so much sand compresses it to a density approaching concrete. I’ve seen a half dozen guys limp away with broken fingers and feet because they didn’t check out a bag before wailing away at it.
I looked at the guy grinning on the stair and gently rapped my knuckles on the bag like knocking on the door. I nodded my head with a smirk. So you thought the big dumb Gwailo was gonna break his hand on the bag eh? I thought to myself.
He caught my meaning and nodded in return and laughed.
I performed the two most advanced routines I knew, `Taming the Tiger’, and `Tiger Crane.’ This took about twenty minutes, by the end of which I was drenched. The heat, the small space, and the extra pressure of performing took its toll in a torrent of sweat running down my stomach and back. My pants were soaked in way that resembled wetting oneself. Eddy wheeled out a stand-up fan and aimed its breeze in my direction.
Master Chan nodded his head politely. He said nothing.
“Very good, very good.” said Eddy with the sincerity of a palace eunuch.
“OK you next.” I said hoping to take attention away from my still flowing perspiration.
Dale performed two advanced Goju Ryu Katas. Everyone was polite.
The show being over we returned to the office and negotiated a deal whereby we where given a room, three meals a day and training six days a week beginning at seven in the morning until four in the afternoon with a one hour lunch break. We were expected to breakfast with Master Chan at six in the morning.
We hadn’t expected to stay at the gymnasium nor to train so long everyday but the cost was surprisingly cheap. Room and board, daily lessons six days per week, for a month, for what it would cost for a weekend at a cheap hotel. Training would begin the following day.
Master Chan sat down at his desk and he brought out from drawer a large book. He handed me a pen and motioned to sign. There were hundreds of pages of signatures. Some in English, most in Chinese.
“You must promise never to use kung fu for selfish purpose, or to take advantage of weak people.” Eddie explained.
I signed and passed the book to Dale who did likewise.
“Okay, tomorrow, Six am meet here outside go breakfast with Master Chan.” Said Eddie.
I asked if he would also be joining us for breakfast and training.
“Ha no!” Eddie laughed sarcastically. “I don’t have time for Kung Fu. Too busy making money neh?”
To be continued…
Next: The Ghosts of Chau Cheng Island.