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, June 01, 2018

Kung Fu Pioneer, Lau Bun

One of the first Chinese Kung Fu masters to openly teach non Chinese, was Lau Bun in San Francisco. 

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.


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.


Lau Bun’s career is interesting precisely because it spans two eras.  When he first arrived, dominant white society had adopted a stance of active hostility towards Asian Americans.  Lau Bun was fiercely loyal to his community, and drawing on the tradition of the Foshan Hung Sing Association (which was famous in the 19th century for its “Three Exclusions” policy), refused to teach Kung Fu to non-Chinese individuals.  Still, given the active hostilities between these communities, and the general lack of knowledge that the Chinese fighting arts even existed, one suspects that that beatniks from San Francisco were not exactly knocking down the door of the Wah-Keung Ckung Fu Club demanding instruction.

In the late 1950s and 1960s things were different.  Lau Bun was now in his 70s.  Both his reputation and school were well established.  The “yellow peril” that had dominated the 1920s and 1930s had all but disappeared from the public discourse.  In some ways community relations were much freer than they had ever been in the past.

And now a new generation of young adults actually was banging on the door of the Hung Sing Association asking to be admitted as students.  Bing Chan was the first of the San Francisco instructors trained by Lau Bun to begin to openly admit non-Chinese students to his classes.  Jew Long, who was Lau Bun’s actual successor, also began to work with Caucasian students at almost exactly the same time.

Students of Choy Li Fut and martial historians are lucky to have some home movies shot at a public demonstration, probably sometime in the early 1960s.  The atmosphere in these films is festive.  They record Lau Bun performing a butterfly sword routine, which is probably the earliest footage of the hudiedao being used in America that I have seen.  A wide variety of other demonstrations are also performed by second and third generation students.  It is interesting to note that not all of these students are Chinese. Larry Johnson, a student of Jew Long, can clearly be seen demonstrating the Tiger Fork in one section of the film.


Lau Bun opened the first known school, and his students (along with Ark Yuey Wong) were among the first individuals to openly teach the Chinese martial arts to all races in the US.  Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to reduce his life to a series of “firsts” or colorful anecdotes.  I prefer to focus on the ways that his biography demonstrates how the martial arts interacted with other elements of Chinese society, both in Guangdong and throughout the diaspora.

His life experience points to the importance of globalization as a central force in the social destiny of both southern China and the Chinese martial arts.  Further, I find it fascinating that within his lifetime the martial arts were used both as a tool to police the boundaries between communities, and as a doorway to bridge them.  That is a valuable lesson to remember as we think about the shifting relationships between the traditional Chinese martial arts, identity and nationalism today.

If you were looking for a figure to act as the foundation for a major martial arts film franchise, Lau Bun’s life would provide plenty of material.  If instead you are interested in the development of modern Chinese martial culture, his biography would also make for interesting reading.  I hope that this brief sketch inspires other academic students to start to investigate and write about the history of Choy Li Fut and its leading figures both inside and outside of China.

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