Wong Fei Hong, the martial arts folk hero most famously portrayed by Jet Li in popular movies, “Once Upon A Time In China”, has become a larger than life character. In earlier decades, Kwan Tak Hing acted as Wong in over 100 of movies. How much of this legendary figure is myth and how much of it is fact?
So who exactly is the real Wong Fei Hong? Martial arts expert and skilled physician no less, but did you know that he was rumoured to be a curse on his wives? All his three wives had died on him, the first one having died within months of tying the knot. Superstition or not, it prompted him to address his fourth wife as “concubine” even though she was his full-fledged wife.
His fourth wife, Mok Kwai Lan, was his partner in martial arts as well as in life. Having inherited the Mok’s Family Fists, her martial arts improved by leaps and bound under Wong’s coaching. Legend has it that he met his wife in a rather amusing encounter. According to the account, Wong was performing the Yiu’s Family Trident when his shoe flew off and hit Mok in the face. Incensed, she jumped up the stage and slapped Wong. She reprimanded him, “Do you know you could kill someone like this? What if the next time it’s your weapon that flew off and not your shoe? For someone of your skill, something like this should never have happened!” Though Wong’s disciple was infuriated at this young lady’s audacity, Wong fell in love immediately. Apparently he just smiled and said, “You’re right. I was careless.” Then Mok disappeared into the crowd. After that, Wong made enquiries, eventually found and married her. Now one wonders why no movie had ever depicted this feisty lady instead of the fictional Thriteen Aunt in “Once Upon A Time In China”.
Wong’s Martial Arts
If you were wondering about his actual prowess, he is indeed as formidable as he is made out to be. And yes, the famed, “Shadowless Kick” (无影脚), is one of his signature style. Perhaps what it less known is his mastery of all the Tiger style strokes, earning him the nickname of “Tiger Crazed”. Having learnt martial arts from his father at the tender age of 5, he started off life as a street performer at 12 before moving on to be martial arts instructor at various places including the army. When he was made the instructor at the Guangdong’s infantry regiment succeeding his father, he was the youngest instructor in the Southern Style kung-fu then. He was recruited by Jiming Provincial Commander-in-Chief, Wu Quanmei to be the medical officer and martial arts drill instructor of the local militia of Guangdong. He was also made the chief instructor at the Fujian province army by the Commander-in-Chief, Liu Yong Fu. Wong had even fought alongside Liu in Taiwan against the Japanese.
The Hong Family Fist (also known as “Hong Gar” of “Hong Kuen”) which Wong learnt from his, father, Wong Kei Ying, was founded by Hung Hei Kwun. It was said to be originated from a group of deposed monks of South Shaolin Temple when the Qing dynasty government sacked the temple. From his father, he inherited the Single Bow Fist (單弓拳), Double Bow Fist (雙弓拳), Tiger Taming Fist (伏虎拳), Tiger Fist (.虎拳), Black Tiger Fist (黑虎拳), Mother & Son Butterfly Swords (子母雙刀) and Fifth Brother Eight Trigram Pole (五郎八卦棍). He was also known for his Yiu Family Trident (瑤家大扒)
Although his father was one of the “Ten Tigers of Guangdong” – a group comprising of the top ten martial arts exponent of Southern China – Wong had taken lessons from various masters. He acquired the much celebrated “Shadowless Kick” (无影脚) from Song Fai Tong and the Iron Wire Fist (铁线拳) as well as the Flying Sling (双飞砣)from Tit Kiu Sam’s disciple, Lam Fuk Sing.
Wong was often credited to be the Father of Modern Hung Fist as he systematized the form and rearranged certain aspects of the techniques. He choreographed his version of the acclaimed “Tiger Crane Paired Form Fist” (虎鹤双形拳), which incorporates his “Ten Special Fist” (十绝手). He is said to have added the bridge hand techniques and horse stance of master Tit Kiu Saam as well as long arm techniques, attributed variously to the Fat Ga, Lo Hon, and Lama styles. The “Tiger Crane” combined the prowess of the Tiger and the gracefulness of the crane; marrying strength and fluidity.
He developed the “Five Animal Fist” (五形拳) which serve as a bridge between the external force of “Tiger Crane” and the internal focus of “Iron Wire”. “Five Animals” refers to the characteristic of the Five Animals of Southern Chinese martial arts, namely the Dragon, Snake, Tiger, Leopard, and Crane. Together with “工character Tiger Taming Fist” (工字伏虎拳), “Tiger Crane” and “Iron Wire”; these formed the four pillars of Wong’s branch of the Hung Fist.
Though Mok was a young bride of 19, she did not produce any offspring probably due to Wong’s considerable age when they got married. His other three wives bore him four sons before they passed on. Of his four sons, Hon Sum, his second son, was Wong’s favourite and inherited the most of Wong’s martial arts. He had worked as a bodyguard in a security firm. One of his colleagues had challenged him to a duel but lost badly. Harbouring resentment, he made Hon Sum drunk on Mid-Autumn Festival and shot him dead. He later convinced the authorities that it was Hon Sum who first shot him in his drunken stupor and in self-defence, had opened fire and killed Hon accidentally. Heartbroken over the death of his beloved son, Wong swore never to impart his skills to his other sons. That is why, his youngest son, who looked the most like him, does not possess any martial arts skills.
Wong the Physician
Besides being an accomplished martial arts master, Wong was also a skilled physician, especially in the art of ‘Tie Da’ or Chinese bone-setting. He set up “Po Chi Lam” (宝芝林), his clinic and medical shop, producing his own ‘Tie Da’ ointment. He soon became known as one of the top 4 Chinese physicians in Guangdong at that time.
Wong’s Last Years
An upright man of great virtue, sadly Wong died a poor and broken man. A riot broke out in 1924 and his medical shop fell victim to the fire set by the rioters. It was rumoured that it destroyed his only surviving photo. (Though some have disputed this.) Devastated from the blow of his massive losses, he took ill and died soon after. Having lost all his money, his disciple, Dang Sau Keng took care of Wong’s funeral arrangements. With the help of his disciples, the acclaimed Lam Sai Wing and Dang; Mok immigrated to Hong Kong with Wong’s two sons. She set up a martial arts school and continued Wong’s legacy.
A righteous man with a strong sense of justice and one who is always willing to lend a hand, especially to the weak and serve society, Wong was also a visionary who was ahead of his time. He believed that anyone who was capable could be a master and was against the establishment of sects in the world of martial arts. Besides milestones in martial arts, not many knew that Wong condemned the practice of matching one’s social status in marriage and was against the age-old Chinese custom of favouring males over female. He was one of the first to accept female disciples and formed the first female lion dance troupe. Well-known female disciples include Mok Kwai Lan and Dang Sau Keng. His other accomplished disciples include Lam Sai Wing, Leung Fun, ….
Arguably the most famous son of Nanhai County (now a District), Foshan City, Guangdong province; Wong has left an indelible mark on many around the world as his Wong branch of Hung Family Fist spread as far as the United States and Mexico, South East Asia, Hong Kong and Macao.