Mastering Virtue: The Cinematic Legend of a Martial Artist
Monograph published by the Hong Kong Film Archive, book in Chinese text with English translation on CD-ROM.
It’s an exciting time for kung fu history geeks. In the old days, oral traditions and hero stories were passed down through generations of disciples in martial schools. Now scholars are beginning to look at the historical record, at documents that were never before translated into English, and they’re correlating the old kung fu stories with events in Chinese history and literature. Over the past hundred years, photos of famous masters and printed training manuals have supplemented earlier practices based on memory alone. A handful of very old films of Chinese boxers exist, some in the archives of established schools. One of the best-documented kung fu styles in history is the Hung Gar, or Hung Family, fist of the Wong Fei-hung/Lam Sai-wing/Lau Cham lineage. Wong Fei-hung, a late 19th-early 20th century master of southern Chinese boxing, taught Lam Sai-wing, whose students became some of Hong Kong’s first kung fu filmmakers. The story of Wong Fei-hung, the hot-tempered patriotic sifu from Foshan, has inspired over a hundred kung fu movies. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Gordon Liu have all played Master Wong, but the original Wong Fei-hung was Cantonese opera star Kwan Tak-hing, who portrayed Wong for over thirty years.
Director Wu Pang (center front) with the cast and crew of THE STORY OF WONG FEI-HUNG, PART 3: THE BATTLE BY LAU FA BRIDGE (1950). Wong Fei-hung’s widow and son are in the center of the two back rows.
Why Wong Fei-hung? As pointed out in Po Fung’s essay “Wong Fei-hung and His Three Companions“ and Peter Wong Chung-ming’s contribution, “Triumph of the Martial Spirit: The Rise and Fall of Guangdong–Hong Kong Combat Novels,” in “Mastering Virtue: The Cinematic Legend of a Martial Artist,” the new HKFA publication devoted to the long-running film series, newspaper stories about Wong Fei-hung were popular, but there were other martial heroes, both real-life and fictional, who were just as engaging. For Cantonese director Wu Pang, the appeal was in the southern Chinese setting of Master Wong’s story. South Chinese martial arts have a distinctive look, more grounded than northern styles. When Wu was planning the first Wong Fei-hung movie back in 1949 (THE STORY OF WONG FEI-HUNG), he wanted the Hung Gar techniques to be authentic. He brought in Lam Sai-wing’s students Lau Cham and Leung Wing-hang to choreograph the films. The original newspaper articles were written by Chu Yu-chai, another student of Lam Sai-wing. Chu contributed screenplays to the ongoing series based on his sigong, or teacher’s teacher, for years. Master Wong’s widow and sons were involved in some of the early productions, and many students from the lineage made guest appearances in the films. By the mid-1950s, the series’ regular performers included Kwan Tak-hing and Lau Cham, along with Tso Tat-wah (who always played Wong’s disciple Leung Foon), Shek Kin (nicknamed “Villain Kin”), Yuen Siu-tin, Yam Yin, and Lam Kau. Only Sai Kwa Pau, who played comic relief Bucktooth So, had a non-action role. The others had either kung fu or opera training.
Flyer for WONG FEI-HUNG STORMS PHOENIX HILL (1958).
An entire generation of stunt performers and choreographers were trained on the Wong Fei-hung sets. Lau Cham, who usually played Lam Sai-wing in the films of the 1950s, brought his son Lau Kar-leung to join the team. Yuen Siu-tin brought his sons in to help out and learn. In the movies as in real life, in Hong Kong at that time, people from north China and people from south China were working together. The Wong Fei-hung movies continued to show real Hung fist but also invited other masters, and showcased other styles. As the years went on, Lau Kar-leung was the filmmaker who kept the Hung Gar tradition alive, in his films from the 1970s and 80s. For fans of a certain generation, Gordon Liu’s Hung fist in movies like THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN and MARTIAL CLUB is instantly recognizable. It’s very cool to see that his moves are almost identical to the Tiger and Crane fist demonstrated by a Master Chan Hon-chung in the first Wong Fei-hung film made some 30 years earlier.
Although the series was conceived as a tribute to Cantonese culture, outside influences crept in almost immediately, from music to politics to eventually (gasp!) kung fu. As essayists Ka Ming (“ The Patriot Wong Fei-hung as Portrayed on Television”) and Matthew Cheng (“Destroy the Old to Establish the New: Wong Fei-hung Films of the 1970s”) make clear, the cinematic Wong Fei-hung can change, chameleon-like, from Confucian paragon to naughty boy, from Cantonese sifu to Mandarin-speaking nationalist, from southern boxer to northern kicker. The one thing that doesn’t change is his awesome kung fu.
Kwan Tak-hing as Master Wong takes on his perennial adversary, played by Sek Kin.
My favorite section of this book is one of the appendices. The HKFA screened about twenty clips of fighting scenes and form demonstrations from Hung Gar films ranging from THE STORY OF WONG FEI-HUNG, PART 1 (1949) to LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (1982) and invited three Hung Gar (Lee Chan-wo, Lau Ka-yung, and Pang Chi-ming) masters to comment. Their discussion was transcribed and it’s very insightful.
“Mastering Virtue: The Cinematic Legend of a Martial Artist” is worth tracking down despite the awkward format. The English text downloads as a pdf – just text, no photos (the photos in the book have English captions). If you’re interested in real kung fu movie history, this book represents a valuable contribution. The HKFA deserves thanks for making their publications available in English. The Hong Kong Post Office, which handles overseas sales for the HKFA, seems to be currently sold out of this title, but keep checking the HKFA website for updates.
Check out the table of contents:
Mastering Virtue: The Cinematic Legend of a Martial Artist
Wong Fei-hung and His Three Companions
Triumph of the Martial Spirit: The Rise and Fall of Guangdong–Hong Kong Combat Novels
Peter Wong Chung-ming
Revisiting Wong Fei-hung Movies Past 70 Years of Age
A Preliminary Study of the Mise-en-scene in the Late-1960s Wong Fei-hung Movies
The Patriot Wong Fei-hung as Portrayed on Television
From Sun Liang Chau to Wong Fei-hung: The Life and Career of Kwan Tak-hing
Alter Ego of the Wuxia Hero: ‘Villain Kin’
The Music of Wong Fei-hung Films in the 1950s and the Historical Music Culture Within
Destroy the Old to Establish the New: Wong Fei-hung Films of the 1970s
Regional and Anti-foreign Sentiments of Kung Fu Genre as Reflected in Wong Fei-hung Movies
About Chu Yu-chai
Makers of the Wong Fei-hung Legend
Hung Fist Masters on Their Craft
Collated by Lau Yam
Photo of Wong Fei-hung?
Wong Fei-hung Films and Related Works
Compiled by Lau Yam