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 ~

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Shaolin Kung Fu Legend: Ark Wong Huey

Some time ago, I posted a clip of Grand Master Ark Yuey Wong. Recently, there was an article about him at the excellent blog, Kung Fu Tea. Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here.

1965 was a pivotal year for the traditional Chinese martial arts in North America. Simply put, it was the moment when everything changed.

While a handful of non-Chinese students had been studying these fighting systems in the US since the late 1950s, most western martial artists got their first detailed look at Kung Fu in January of that year. Ark Yuey Wong, an established master of Guangdong’s southern Shaolin methods, was the one who declared that the door was open.

While it is often debated which instructor was the first to teach non-Chinese students, for most American martial artists the dawning of the new era was announced on the cover of the January 1965 issue of Black Belt magazine.  Wong, dressed in a black Kung Fu suit, was the first Chinese martial artist to grace the cover of what was then the “publication of record” for the US martial arts community.

Nor would readers seeking a more detailed discussion of the Chinese martial arts be disappointed by the volume’s contents. The tone of the issue was set by the very first letter to the editor requesting more information on the Chinese martial arts. In retrospect this growing wave of interest is understandable.

By the early 1960s the Japanese arts (Judo, Karate and Akido) were becoming established as respectable athletic endeavors in the west. Judo had even been admitted to the Olympics. As American students became more deeply versed in these arts they increasingly encountered stories and lineage histories suggesting that the ultimate origins of their practice might be found in China. Many martial artists wanted to know more.

While a small number of western individuals had studied the TCMA prior to the early 1960s (Sophia Delza, R. W. Smith and Jim Anestasi to name a few examples), it was actually the media that would first bring most martial artists into contact with the Chinese styles. To understand the significance of 1965 it might be useful to think in terms of information “push” and “pull.”

Prior to this point individuals who wanted to know more about these subjects had to work hard to discover or “pull” this information towards themselves. After 1965 the media (first the publishing industry, then TV and finally movies) increasingly began to integrate the Chinese martial arts into their narratives. These were then “pushed” into the homes of consumers, regardless of their preexisting level of interest.

The January 1965 issue of Black Belt represents the beginning of a sustained wave of medialization of the Chinese martial arts which would extend through the era of Bruce Lee to the current day. Prior to that time the magazine had focused almost exclusively on the more popular Japanese styles.
There were a few exceptions to this trend. In 1962 Prof. William C. C. Hu, who would later become a regular writer for the magazine, introduced the terms “Kung Fu” and “Shaolin” during the course of his discussion of the historical origins of Karate. Two years later in 1964 there was a short profile of a “Shaolin” school in Connecticut. But it was not until the January issue of 1965 that the Chinese martial arts started to receive sustained coverage.

This seems to have been thought of as something of a “special edition” for readers who might be interested in the Chinese martial arts. Pride of place was given to an exploration of Ark Yuey Wong’s school in Los Angeles. In an interview the master discussed both his background and philosophy of the martial arts. The magazine’s editors put great emphasis on the fact he was both metaphorically and physically opening the doors of instruction to all students.

The same issue also featured an extended profile of Zheng Manqing (Cheng Man-ch’ing), the renowned master of Yang style Taiji (and instructor of R. W. Smith) who had recently moved from Taiwan to New York City. While stories circulated about Zheng defending the honor of the Chinese martial arts back on the mainland, in New York he accepted a diverse student body that included a large number of western students.

There was more. The same issue also featured a detailed article by Prof. William C. C. Hu about the meaning of “Kung Fu.”  His discussion delved into the etymology, popular usage and philosophy of the term on a surprisingly nuanced level given that for many of his readers this might be their very first exposure to the word. Lastly there was the latest installment of a multiple part series on the early history of Taijiquan.

Prior to 1965, one had to search for any sort of reliable information of the Chinese martial arts. After that time it would increasingly be delivered to your door (or television) for a nominal fee. This single magazine issue introduced readers to important Chinese martial artists on the East and West coasts, to the rich traditions of Yang style Taijiquan and Southern Shaolin, and to both the scholarly examination of the TCMA and some well-worn historical legends.

In my view this document is a time capsule, capturing the moment when the Chinese martial arts in America started to change. What had once been esoteric and private, hidden behind the walls of the various Tongs, was coming out into the open. Black Belt had determined that the Chinese fighting arts could be marketed to mainstream martial artists. It was Ark Yuey Wong who both verbally and symbolically opened the doors.

This was all the more interesting as Wong himself was very much the product of the previous era.

 Over the course of his life he saw immense changes in the nature of the Chinese martial arts, and how they were presented to the public, both in Guangdong and California. As someone who lived and taught in both places, Wong was a critical bridge helping to convey the innovations that were sweeping through China to diaspora communities on the other side of the Pacific.

While Wong is often remembered as the first (or one of the first) teachers to open his school to westerners, in truth his contributions to how the martial arts were taught and thought about within the Chinese community more generally may have been just as important. For all of these reasons Wong was a true pioneer of the Chinese martial arts in America.

Before moving on to a more detailed discussion of Wong’s life I should offer a few disclaimers. First, I am not a student of his style or connected with his lineage. Nor do I claim any special or secret knowledge about his life history. This short profile relies on a number of publicly available biographies (most of which are generally in agreement with each other) and published statements made by Ark Yuey Wong himself.

My goal in writing this is to illuminate the context of Wong’s life and career to better understand his contributions to the spread of the Chinese martial arts. Additionally, a detailed study of his early years (something that I can only touch on here) may also help to add nuance to our understanding of the evolution of hand combat within Chinese popular culture during the early year of the Republic period.

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