Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, May 03, 2013

Lau Bun, One of the Kung Fu Pioneers

At the Kung Fu Tea blog, there was a nice article about Lau Bun, who brought Choy Lay Fut kung fu to the US. Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here.

Lau Bun: A Pioneer of the Chinese Martial Arts in America.
Most observers of the Chinese martial arts agree that Lau Bun was the first individual to open a permanent, somewhat-public, Chinese martial arts school on the American mainland.  That fact alone makes him an important figure to know about.  However, the details of his life are fascinating for other reasons as well.  As well as illustrating many aspects of the Chinese American experience, his career demonstrates the many ways in which the martial arts intersected with, and were useful to, the broader political-economy of immigrant communities.

Whether it was providing physical protection, settling disputes, or creating a sense of cultural continuity, Lau Bun’s life provides us with an interesting window into how the martial arts interacted with, and were used by, the broader Chinese society in the early 20th century.  For that reason I felt that a brief biographical sketch of his career would make a valuable contribution to our lives of the “Chinese Martial Artists” series.

Before starting I should state that my own background is not in Choy Li Fut.  Rather, my interests in this subject are purely historical and social.  When discussing the background of Choy Li Fut in China I have relied on Zeng Zhaosheng’s 1989 volume Guangdong Wushu Shi (A History of Guangdong Martial Arts).  I have drawn the basic facts of Lau Bun’s life from a 2002 article entitled “Remembering Lau Bun” by Doc Fei-Wong published in the July edition of Inside Kung Fu.  Lastly I would like to thank Derek Graeff for his insights into the history and development of the American Choy Li Fut community.

Lau Bun was born in Taishan in Guangdong province at the end of the Qing dynasty in 1891.  Taishan is southwest of Jiangmen and sits on a coastal region of the Pearl River Delta.  The area is known for both its musical traditions (something that Lau Bun enjoyed and promoted throughout his life) as well as its large expatriate community.  The local language spoken in the region is Taishanese, a cousin of Cantonese.

Large groups of Taishanese speaking immigrants left for the American west in the middle decades of the 19th century.  Some of these individuals worked for the railroad, while others took service jobs in gold mining communities or worked in San Francisco.  Until very recently, Taishanese was the most commonly encountered dialect spoken in Chinese American communities.

While the working conditions endured by these early immigrants were bleak, the wages they earned were often quite generous compared to what was being made in their home villages.  Family members in America often mailed home some of their salaries as “remittances” which became an important source of liquidity in the local economy.

Lau Bun was born into a family situation that was deeply dependent on the tides of late 19th century globalization.  His father worked in California and sent home the remittances that supported his mother and siblings.  This source of income allowed the divided family to enjoy a comfortable standard of living.

For Lau Bun this meant that his family could afford to hire martial arts teachers to instruct him (recall that at this point the idea of the “public commercial school” had not yet become standardized across the region).  Accounts state that his early teachers may have exposed him to Hung Gar and Mok Gar.  For whatever reason, the family continued to look for a teacher and eventually settled on a well-known Choy Li Fut teacher named Yuen Hai.

Yuen Hai was trained at the Hung Sing Association Hall in Foshan, north east of Taishan.  Following the death of the legendary Jeong Yim (who did much to establish Choy Li Fut as a major force in the Pearl River Delta region) Yuen Hai was sent to Taishan by the new leader of the organization (Chan Ngau Sing) for the express purpose of opening a Choy Li Fut school and promoting the spread of the style.  This probably happened in 1893-1894, but there is no universally accepted date for the death of Jeong Yim which complicates our account.  It is also important to note that these sorts of assignments are not all that uncommon in Choy Li Fut’s history and they may help to account for the arts rapid geographic spread in the late 19th century.

Yuen Hai’s career was rich and varied.  He quickly became caught up in the expatriate driven economy that was so important to the region.  When he first moved to the area he rented space in clan temples to conduct his classes.  This was a fairly common practice in the era, especially in Guangdong where clan associations were strong and owned most of the real estate.  Later Yuen Hai traveled to Indonesia where he worked a five year stint as a private bodyguard for a wealthy businessman.  After returning to the region he once again took up teaching Choy Li Fut.

It was at this point that Lau Bun began his studies with Yuen Hai.  He also is reported to have learned a “Shaolin Five Animals Form” from his teacher’s wife, who was also an accomplished martial artist.  Most accounts of Lau Bun’s life are brief and do not give exact years.  Still, we can make some informed guesses about when this instruction started.

The Boxer Uprising in 1900 proved to be a watershed moment for martial artists across the country.  In Guangdong the provincial governor had every martial arts school and association in the province closed in the wake of these events.  This order was taken quite seriously and was actually implemented by local officials.  The great fear was that local martial artists would seek revenge against foreign traders in the region, or engage in copy-cat anti-Christian violence, giving the British a pretext to seize the entire Pearl River.  Nor was this fear unreasonable.  The British were looking for an excuse to expand their holdings in the area.

As a result of this order the Hung Sing Association in Foshan was forced to close its doors, and many of its instructors actually ended up going to Hong Kong for a few years to seek other means of employment.  I expect that the same thing happened in Taishan, and that Yuen Hai’s five years contract working as a bodyguard in Indonesia probably spanned the period from 1900-1905.  It just wasn’t possible to teach for much of this time.

After 1903-1905, the order restricting martial arts schools was eased.  The Hung Sing Association in Foshan reopened its doors, Chan Wah Shun rented a new school space in the Ip family temple (effectively inaugurating the modern era of Wing Chun) and Yuen Hai returned to Taishan and resumed teaching Choy Li Fut.  Still, his teaching career had been disrupted at a critical time, and this may have limited the size of the organization that he could build.

Luckily the remittances from America allowed the families of his students to pay consistent tuition. 

Lau Bun studied diligently and eventually became his teacher’s successor.  I point this out because I find it interesting that apparently none of Yuen Hai’s first generation of students (who studied with him from 1894-1900) remained in the lineage after the Boxer Uprising.  This is a valuable reminder of how volatile events were at the turn of the century and the impact that they had on the development of the martial arts.

Lau Bun had sufficient time to complete his martial arts training, but the situation in southern China was becoming strained by the middle of the 1920s.  Warlordism became a major problem and the Nationalist government struggled to assert control of the country.  The economy of Guangdong was slow to industrialize in the 1920s and did not receive the same level of investment as more quickly growing areas like Shanghai.  Economic opportunities started to dry up, crime and narcotics became an increasing problem, and in 1927 the Hung Sing Association was officially suppressed by the Nationalist Party because of its association with leftist political elements (the CCP).  Adding to this general sense of calamity, as some point during this period Lau Bun’s father appears to have died.

Sometime in the 1920s Lau Bun followed the path of so many of his countrymen before him and decided to seek his fortune in America.   However, this process was now vastly more complicated than it had been half a century years earlier.  A series of legislative acts passed between 1870 and 1924 essentially banned all legal immigration from China.


CARDINAL999 said...

Within that Five Animals Internal exercise, there are a few sequences that possessed any real reference to internal martial arts practices. The rest of the set have the external southern flavor of hard power from a static stance.

A few sequences of movements from Lau Bun's spear set have the Northern flavor of speed, accuracy, coordination and power.

The rest of the set has the basic southern staff flavor of power, coordination, accuracy and speed (in that order).

Rick Matz said...

Cardinal999's father was a direct student of Lau Bun, and he himself was taught by one of his father's school brothers; another direct student.

CARDINAL999 said...

I have now gone on other ventures especially the practice of performing the Zhang Liang's method of remote strategizing while walking the circle. ... I should work on my JTG's method of fishing with a line that hides the hook. ...

Unknown said...

Can you name him? I studied under Jew Leong.