Grandmaster John Leong doesn’t look like a man approaching seventy. He certainly doesn’t act like one. Every morning he gets up at 5:00 AM for a forty-minute jog. Then he practices Hung Gar kung fu for an hour and a half. After that, he grabs a quick bite and does his morning stretching. Once this morning ritual is complete, Leong is ready to face the day. His wife shrugs at her husband’s discipline. She recalls the prior week; they were in Singapore, simmering in sweltering tropical heat, and her husband still had to go out jogging. “It was so hot,” adds Leong, smiling back at his wife. “I just get out there and I just sweat. I love it. I like to sweat. Even this morning, I got up at 4:30 because I don’t get used to the bed, so I can’t sleep. So I thought I might as well run a few blocks. I run around at night time.” Not bad for the soon-to-be septuagenarian. As the president of the United States Traditional Kung Fu Wushu Federation, Leong not only represents the ideal of traditional kung fu practice, he exemplifies it.
Four Decades of American Kung Fu
“You know, I started teaching here in 1962,” reflects Leong. “Me and Bruce Lee started in Seattle at the same time. When we tried teaching kung fu, a lot of people didn’t know what kung fu is. They thought ‘oh, something to eat’ or something. But now, of course, all the kung fu is all over. Everybody knows. We don’t have to explain that anymore. Now, kung fu is a name that is recognized.” Lee and Leong were kung fu pioneers of the same generation, but unlike Lee, Leong has lived a long life.
Leong was born in Guangdong Province and began studying kung fu at twelve. Later, he studied Hung Gar under the late Master Wong Lee, a student of noted Hung Gar exponent Lam Tsai Wing. When he reached adulthood, Leong immigrated to America and settled in Seattle’s famous Chinatown district. There he opened the Seattle Kung Fu Club in 1963. About five years later, Leong began promoting tournaments and events to increase kung fu awareness in America, always donating the proceeds to charity. In 1973, the death of Bruce Lee and the premiere of Enter the Dragon sparked massive public interest in kung fu. Leong’s ’73 and ’75 international kung fu exhibitions drew audiences upwards of six thousand attendees. In the mid-eighties, Leong began leading cultural exchanges to China for his students and other practitioners. He pioneered American martial tours to China and became an eminent martial emissary in the process. Chinese officials began inviting Leong to participate in distinguished ceremonies as an honored guest. In 1990, Leong became an honorary advisory for the Songshan Shaolin Temple in Henan, China. Two years later, he was instrumental in organizing the very first Shaolin Monk tour to the United States. Together with Grandmaster Chan Pui and a Seattle Chinese Community leader named Lau Wah Oh, they brought a delegation of seven Shaolin representatives that included Grandmasters Liang Yiquan (one of the top ten masters of China), Shi Deqian (author of the Shaolin Encyclopedia) and the two monks who first defected to America, Shi Guolin and Shi Yanming. Throughout the nineties, Leong continued to work diligently promoting various martial arts events both in America and in China, all the while continuing to train the next generation, including his movie star son Robin Leong, at his Seattle school.
The United States Traditional Kung Fu Wushu Federation (USTKFWF) was founded in 2004. Their inaugural event was the First International Open Traditional Kung-Fu Wushu Championship, hosted in Seattle on Labor Day weekend that same year by Leong, who had accepted the presidency of the USTKFWF. A distinguished contingent from Hong Kong helped make the event into a strong showing for traditional martial arts in America. Last August, the Second International Traditional Kung Fu Wushu Tournament was held by Grandmaster Lily Lau in Oakland, California (see story on page 44. It’s worth noting that this interview was held at that event. As another testament to Leong’s character, his night-time jog mentioned in the introduction was in crime-ridden Oakland, the “eighth most dangerous city” in the nation in 2006.)
Leong believes these tournaments are critical to the mission of the USTKFWF, as well as to the vitality of traditional Chinese martial arts in America. “We hope to get kung fu together as much as we can to stay as traditional as we can,” says Leong. “We try to hold a tournament every two or three years. And we hope to keep doing that so more people interested. Of course, last time we had one in Seattle, three years ago. Now this time, Sifu Lily Lau do that, and I hope in a couple years we can have another one. Maybe Sifu Yim Tai in the east or Sifu Chan Pui over there in Florida do another one. So we keep people more interested into the traditional. We hope we can draw more people. That’s why we like to have more tournaments so we have more people interested. You know, in America here, they still like to be ‘I won something.’ They like that. They (are) looking for that. Just like some people give them a belt. They like that. Each color belt, they like that. So if we can keep doing more tournaments, get more people interested, that should help more.”
Despite the progress of traditional kung fu in America, Leong acknowledges the complexities. Today, people know that kung fu isn’t “something to eat,” but there’s still a lot that remains mysterious. “A lot of newer, younger people don’t understand some of it,” adds Leong. “That’s why we try to put on the exhibition and tournaments. So they can understand a little more.”
Are Traditional Martial Arts Dying?
With the hustle and bustle of modern-day life, few people can dedicate the amount of practice time that traditional requires anymore. This has raised fears that the traditional arts may soon be lost. The colossal scope of many traditional styles completely overwhelms the average weekend warrior. Generations of masters have added layer upon layer of complexity to the systems, entangling the practice in the trappings of thousands of years of Chinese culture. This complexity often obscures the obvious applications to combat, exacerbated by the lack of traditional fighters in today’s mixed martial arts arenas. Some now view traditional kung fu as a martial mammoth – plodding, cumbersome and, by some accounts, on the verge of extinction.
Even Grandmaster Leong has had to modify his teachings to accommodate today’s impacted schedules. This is demonstrated by his approach to horse stance practice, the cornerstone of Hung Gar. Hung Gar practitioners pride themselves on building their solid foundation on this basic stance, known in Cantonese as mah bo (mabu). “Way back, you stay in the mah bo more longer,” recalls Leong. “Now we got to cut shorter, otherwise they (new students) could not stay that long. A lot of people tell that story, ‘you stay in sei ping mah (sipingma – four corners horse) for months before you even learn your first step. It’s still important to have that mah bo. We still do, but a little bit shorter. We try to do traditional way as close as we can. We just couldn’t do it so long because (it’s) different now. We don’t have that much time. Before, practicing martial arts happened in the mountains. They got all day. They had nothing else to do. Now, people have a lot of things to do. Now, you have them do a stance for two or three months and he’s not there to practice anymore. It’s very different. A compromise. But you still have to learn a little bit about tradition.”
Nevertheless Leong is very optimistic about the prospects of traditional martial arts today. “Now, more and more people want to go back to traditional,” comments Leong. “In China, they are bringing back the traditional styles. They also recognize the traditional competitor going to the tournament. So there’s a lot more traditional now than ten years ago. Of course, forty, fifty years ago, it’s all traditional. Now they realize – don’t just throw away the tradition – get back to the root.”
Defining Traditional Martial Arts Ask any young master what characterizes traditional martial arts and they’ll reel off external details: stance, heel placement, lack of aerials and so on. Ask an elder master like Leong and the answer is quite different. Their approach is more philosophic. “Traditional has more respect – more health – (it’s) not just for fighting,” states Leong emphatically. It’s good to fight so you have confidence. But (it’s) also for your health, so you develop the discipline so you can practice more regularly. Put more discipline into it. Everything takes discipline. More discipline. Then you can do everything better. The traditional way is not just ‘I do when I feel like doing it.’ Traditional is more like you have more discipline to yourself and your practice – to do everyday right. You get better health that way instead of if you do whenever you feel like it. Then, all the time (you) put it off. ‘I do it later. I do it tomorrow.’ Not this way.
“In traditional, you learn respect. You learn to respect yourself and respect others. More respect of the elderly, like the teacher and the sifu (master). This is very important, like learning martial arts just like father to son, but a different way of fathering. A lot more people are into that now, so they are more (appreciative of) the traditional way. We come into the school. We respect the altar. Just like we have a sifu, a master, older brother, younger brother, it’s more traditional instead of just calling back a name. In traditional, each individual has a title. Older brother is called older brother. Older uncle we call older uncle. It’s more like family. It’s more spiritual, but not religious.”
Since China’s Cultural Revolution of the sixties, traditional kung fu has been in conflict with modern wushu. Modern wushu is the acrobatic sport version of Chinese martial arts that just made a failed bid to become an Olympic event for the 2008 Beijing games. Many traditionalists are quite outspoken about their disregard for modern wushu. One wushu form that receives considerable criticism is nanquan (southern fist). Nanquan claims to distill hundreds of styles of southern kung fu – each composed of hundreds of forms -all down to one acrobatic competitive form. However, Leong isn’t openly critical of modern wushu. In fact, the USTKFWF does allow for a wushu division at its tournaments, albeit a small one. When asked about nanquan, Leong sighs deeply and smiles. “It’s different. More flashy. People like to see flashy. Like (when) we (are) doing one of the internal forms, ordinary people don’t understand what it is and they get tired to see it. (In internal forms) we make sounds. We make sounds for a healthy body. You know, Chinese traditional medicine has five organs: heart, lung, kidney, liver, spleen. We make sounds because you cannot exercise the organ. The organ can only be vibrated. You have to vibrate the organ each day so you get healthy organs. Healthy organs, healthy body. When an organ goes wrong, it leads into other organ problems. So that’s why we make those sounds. You know, we do make (these) sounds in exhibition. Some people don’t understand. They don’t know so they laugh. Each sound, each organ, vibrates a little. Then, over the years, you get movement little bit, so you get healthy. (It’s) just like moving your arm, moving your leg, so they get healthy. Insides still have to be healthy so you can live better.”
For Leong, it comes back to that mah bo stance. The spectacular kicks of nanquan are superfluous. “Our style is southern style. We stay more to the ground instead of more high kicks, a lot of jumps, a lot of rolling. We do have that, but not like that, not as flashy. We developed the foundation – the mah bo. We have a solid foundation so you get more balance. For each individual, (if) you have more balance, you stay more healthy. Because when you get older, people lose balance. So you develop more balance. When you get older, you still have balance. This is very important. Mah bo is for long term and also for exercise in martial arts. It’s kind of hard at first – very, very difficult – this foundation.”
Tradition versus Mixed Martial Arts
Bruce Lee, an original mixed martial arts innovator, was known for his condemnation of traditional styles or what he called a ‘classical mess.’ Leong reflects on having a kung fu school in the same town as the immortal Little Dragon. “Me and him, we never say we hate each other or anything like that. You know, after he died, everybody say ‘I’m a relative’ or ‘I’m a student of his.’ Everybody using his name. I don’t talk about that. He still has a student in Seattle, Taky (Kimura). Me and him still good friends. Every time I have a tournament, he always come talk about me and Bruce Lee and all the times. But he had a lot of people just using his name to try to make a name out for himself. Matter of fact, after he died, he get more famous, more famous. Even in China now, they try to build a museum. He born in America here, but in his father’s village, they try to put a museum over there as if he belonged there.
“Well, he had his own opinion. I can’t say a thing about that. But when he went back to Hong Kong, a lot of people against him. A lot of people challenged him. Fight in the paper, but not physically. You know, everybody in magazine, in newspaper, all kinds of stuff. Of course, he wouldn’t say he would do anything. Nobody would. He had a name so big. He was just cocky.”
Today, the epitome of cocky is manifested in mixed martial arts. Like Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, MMA fuses all sorts of different styles into the fastest growing spectator sport in the nation. Many MMA proponents have slammed traditional kung fu as useless since it’s not winning in the cage. Leong reacts to their opinion in the same way he reacted to Lee four decades ago. “They got their own thing,” shrugs Leong in reference to MMA supporters. “They got their own opinion on that. Of course, there’s different way, different game, just like you put a judo guy against a kung fu guy or against a boxer. Those MMA competitors cross train that way. Everybody can train, but some people get better than others. But they all equal chance if you want to train that way. Just like anything else.” Does Leong watch MMA? “Sometimes I do, but I’m not a big fan. I think it’s good to show the public – like entertainment. It’s kind of surprising. I see so many people interested in watching it. I didn’t think Americans wanted to see that much violence.”
However, it’s a mistake to think traditional practitioners don’t fight. Quite the contrary, real kung fu always endorses sparring. “I like to train my students to be full contact all the time. My students go fight in sanda (free sparring) full contact. I don’t train them to be professional or to go all out for that. It’s just for the game, for fun, for safety, and to be healthy. Not professional. I send some students to sanda fights all the time, in Baltimore and in Texas. Last month I send students to go to Sifu Jimmy Wong’s place (Taiji Legacy). My student, Aaron Booth, fights heavyweight. He’s a really tall kid. He won the championship.”
The True Pearl of Traditional Kung Fu Traditional martial arts have stood the test of time and will continue to do so for many reasons. One key is longevity. People who practice traditional styles are in it for the long haul. Traditional kung fu is a practice that can last a lifetime. “That’s why I get up every morning and I’m still practicing,” testifies Leong. “I’m almost seventy now and I’m still practicing. I still do it all – each day. It depends on the individual to do that.”
“It’s important that we teach the traditional kung fu. We are not just teaching fighting only. Make them healthy. People get to forty, fifty years old, you know, the discipline is very important. So if they have discipline, they can watch what they eat and they stop whatever they want if they have to do. Some people just could not stop that. Then can cause problems. That’s why we want to help them learn discipline and to control whatever they do. That’s the main thing the students learn. Not just when you feel like it. When you feel like it is really hard. Because in America, too many things to go to. It’s a big country. They go here, go here, each day. But you go here, you can still do kung fu. You can still do it. Some people, sometime, they have too many things to do here and they slack off.
“Some of the people like to stay more traditional. I have a student who has been with me since 1963. I had many, many over thirty years. Twenty years, ten years, lot of students. Some people like to be more flashy, so it depends on the individual. I’m sure you see everything now. If they can just do kung fu two or three times a week, that should be enough for health. If they can do that, they’d be in a lot better health when they get older. When we practice those sounds, it’s important to teach those people to do that. But any kind of exercise, do two three times a week, it should really help. You’ll get a lot less problems later.
“Of course, I feel not as strong as before, but I still can do all my stuff. Sure, I don’t run as far as I used to be. I don’t run as fast as I used to be. But I still do my thing. I still feel powerful.”
For more information about John Leong and Seattle Kung Fu Club – Central visit his website at http://tirschelphotography.com and their listing on the Martial Arts Schools and Businesses Directory by clicking on the image on the left.