Gar's Lam Chun Fai
by Martha Burr
Bringing the Hung Family History, Legend and the War Palm
to the 21st Century
own personal odyssey back into the Hung Gar legacy was in
1995, when I traveled with my sifu Buck Sam Kong and his
wife Nancy to Hong Kong to meet his sifu, the venerable
Lam Jo. Walking into the small studio in Mongkok I was overwhelmed
with history - the walls were covered with photos and articles
of a century of kungfu people and events. A huge portrait
of Lam Sai Wing dominated one wall, and a rack of well-worn
weapons, including an old kwan dao engraved with a tiger
and crane on the blade, stood in the corner. At 89, si-gung
Lam Jo was vigorous and robust, his handshake strong, and
his appetite at yum cha more than healthy. It was over dim
sum and dinner that I was first introduced to Lam Jo's son
Lam Chun Fai. I was struck with his intelligence, sensitivity,
and deep knowledge of kungfu. While he and my sifu caught
up on old times, I had a window into their youth, into the
long kungfu nights in the tiny, intense Hong Kong studio
under Lam Jo, young men taking on the mantle of the Hung
Kong remembers Lam Chun Fai visiting him for his tournament
in Hawaii in 1974, where they also went out on a short kungfu
tour on the island and in LA, Las Vegas and San Francisco,
with their kungfu brother Y.C. Wong. A black and white photo
of the three of them on stage still hangs in Kong's LA studio.
I started my story on Lam Chun Fai two years ago when we
met up once more in Hong Kong at the World Wushu Championships,
where he was an official. He showed me his own Hong Kong
studio packed with kungfu memorabilia, and I had another
wonderful yum cha with him and Lam Jo and his family. My
si-bak had fascinating stories to tell, both about growing
up in Hong Kong, and also about Hung Gar's famous master
Lam Sai Wing, Lam Jo's own sifu and uncle. He has since
been traveling abroad, spreading the art of Hung Gar around
the world. Here then, begins his story.
Inheriting Hung Gar's Legend
Growing up in the crucible of kungfu is both a wonderful
and a difficult thing. In Hong Kong, everyone knows the
name of Lam Jo. One of the last living grandmasters of a
great generation of what many consider to be kungfu heroes,
he is now in his nineties, and one of the few who can remember
knowing Southern China's famous folk hero Wong Fei Hung.
As the nephew of Lam Sai Wing, Wong's last disciple, Lum
Jo lived and breathed Hung Gar, and went on to dedicate
his life to preserving and propagating the art. Today his
son Lam Chun Fai carries the torch, illuminating not only
the legacy of his father, but of the entire lineage as well.
"My name was given by Lam Sai Wing, my great uncle,"
begins Lam Chun Fai. "He was born in 1860, and died
in 1943, at 83. When my father was born his parents died,
and Lam Sai Wing adopted him. He taught him everything about
dit dar and kungfu growing up. It was very hard. Lam Sai
Wing was a very stubborn guy." Witnessing Lam Jo's
own strong personality, you realize some of this may have
been organically nurtured. Lam Chun Fai started playing
kungfu when he was five years old. He recalls, "At
that time, when I was growing up, I had a big interest in
it, and I tried to practice and play better than the other
students. At that time my father trained us real hard, he
was very serious. Every morning we went to the mountain,
we lived not far from it on Hong Kong Island. I'd go up
the mountain at 5:30 am. to practice kungfu with my father
and some students. I was 14, 15 years old."
At that time there were many other sifu from different styles
that also trained up on the mountain in the early dawn hours.
Lam Chun Fai remembers, "If my father saw another style,
he'd ask me to take a look first. What is this style? My
opinion, he'd ask me. What are his good points and bad points?
How does he play? It was a continual martial examination.
I saw a lot of different styles, different lineages."
This was a skill Lam Jo was passing down to his son, a sort
of intuitive knowledge, an encyclopedic reference of living
kungfu. As Lam Jo himself refined the Hung Gar he learned
from Lam Sai Wing, part of his martial genius was also creating
innovations that would become part of his lineage. Says
Chun Fai, "I learned the Double Dragon sword from my
father, he created it. My father was incredibly smart about
kungfu, and very clever when he was young. When he went
out to perform at a holiday or banquet and he'd see other
sifu perform, and he could see a set one time, or two times,
and he could remember. The whole set. He didn't learn from
other sifu, only from Lam Sai Wing. But he was good friends
with other sifu, and when they'd perform he learned and
had a lot of knowledge."
Teaching and Bonesetting
Lam Jo's main school was in the Wanchai district of Hong
Kong. There were perhaps 50-60 students in the school at
that time. As a young teenager of 15 or 16, every day Chun
Fai practiced together with his father, and helped him run
his other two branch schools in Hong Kong, teaching different
nights at different schools. "I also had to train my
brothers and sisters," he notes. "My two sisters
and three brothers all learned kungfu. Later, we all helped
my father to teach. Now, it's only me and my brother. One
sister still helps my dad every day with dit dar."Lam
Chun Fai says that at that time if you weren't playing kungfu
well enough, it was because you weren't practicing enough.
When that happened, watch out. "My father would get
very mad. He always tried his best to make us much better.
At that time I had no choice. My father told me I had to
help him teach, to help patients in his dit dar clinic.
I cannot say no."
Dit dar, or the art of bonesetting and Chinese medicine,
is so closely tied to the Hung Gar tradition that it is
virtually inseparable from it in Cantonese and Hong Kong
culture. Even as a young boy Chun Fai studied the dit dar
alongside his father, inhaling the pungent healing herbs,
feeling injuries in patients to learn about muscle, bone
and tendon. "I learned kungfu and dit dar at the same
time," he says. "If you learn kungfu, you must
learn dit dar first. Because in kungfu you may injure yourself,
so it's important to know how to cure yourself. You must
study dit dar for many years to get good experience."My
brothers and sisters would also teach and do dit dar. My
two brothers helped my father with the Kowloon school, and
I would take care of the 3 schools on Hong Kong island.
Several of my father's students, Y.C. Wong and Tang Kwok
Wan also helped my father teach at that time. I taught morning,
afternoon and night, 3 classes. If we had any spare time,
we also practiced ourselves. We worked very hard."
While Chun Fai's long days were full of school and then
kungfu until past midnight, the martial education continued,
but so did the fun and excitement of being in the eye of
the Hong Kong kungfu storm. "When I was a teenager
I always performed in tournaments and doing demonstrations
together with my father. We did the 2 man sets. My favorite
was the dagger and spear with father, it was very fast and
tough, very dangerous, because the spear touches the body
a lot. My father, his students, my brothers - we'd just
go out and perform the set, and edit on the fly." Besides
performing, there was a lot of socializing among the kungfu
people at that time. Chun Fai remembers Kan Tak Hoi was
a good friend of Lam Jo's, and many times they would perform
together at banquets, festivals, and charity shows. The
Hung family was friends with Kwan Tak Hing, the famous actor
who portrayed Wong Fei Hung in 100 movies. However, notes
Chun Fai, "He didn't play Hung Style. We performed
together when he was more than 60. We asked him to come
and do lion dance."
Kungfu people often came together for fundraisers, to raise
relief money for disasters like floods in China. Whether
for charity, holidays or socializing, there was always another
aspect of kungfu performance in Hong Kong - and that was
to show the art to other people. "We'd always go out
and perform with the school," remembers Chun Fai. "Show
the people our style, they'd want to come and learn."
As kungfu popularity grew in the 60's and 70's, Lam Chun
Fai remembers the local Hong Kong shows thrown together
by promoters. "They would rent a theater, and they'd
have us performing kungfu and also ask actors and stars
to come sing. It was very popular. When we learned kungfu
in the old days the kungfu movies were not so popular. Only
many years later. When I was 20 a movie producer asked me
to do movies and become an actor. He wanted me to play Fong
Sai Yuk. My father said no. Otherwise, I would do movies.
If the first one was OK, then like the Wong Fei Hung series,
they'd make 10-20 pictures. At that time the income was
not so good. We didn't know acting would be so successful
later." Nevertheless, he did make some guest appearances
in Hong Kong film later on.
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