Would You Be Interested In Going to Hong Kong?
Written by Carlos Kelly
In my early teens, during the early 1980s, I had read John le Carré’s novel, The Honourable Schoolboy. More than simply an espionage novelist, though he is certainly one of those, le Carré is a commentator on the frail human condition, and how it is impacted by events and people beyond one’s control. The Honourable Schoolboy involved the use of a British agent to stalk a Chinese tycoon in order to reach the tycoon’s brother, a Chinese engineer working in the Soviet Union. Much of the novel’s action takes place in Hong Kong. Of le Carré’s gifts as a novelist, one is the ability to create a vivid setting, putting the reader in a very definite time and place. In The Honourable Schoolboy, le Carré created a fascinating picture of Hong Kong in the mid-1970s: a crowded, fading outpost of colonialism. This picture captivated me the first time I read the novel, and I have re-read it many times since then, always wanting to make the journey halfway round the world to Hong Kong, the West’s gateway to the Middle Kingdom.
Yes, I would really like to go to Hong Kong.
The route to Hong Kong was indirect for me. In 2009, I turned forty. As I came closer to my fortieth birthday, I contemplated a life change, something for the next forty years. Of the various things I considered, studying the martial arts seemed the most useful. In November of 2009, I began studying wing chun, a form of kung fu (or gung fu) based on very close quarters fighting directed to the opponent’s centerline, and jeet kune do, Bruce Lee’s concept of fighting “having no limitation as limitation” and “no way as way,” as he put it, which combined striking, kicking, and grappling, and incorporated principles of wing chun. It was some time after completing my first year of training with my sifu, Grandmaster David Gallaher, that he asked me if I would be interested in training in Hong Kong with his sifu, Grandmaster Chan Chee Man, one of the senior instructors under Grandmaster Yip Man, the father of modern wing chun. In the spring of 2012, I was ready to say yes.
Sifu, another wing chun student named Sean Lowry, and I left for Hong Kong from Fort Myers on May 15, flying first to Newark and then, non-stop, from Newark to Hong Kong. Leaving Fort Myers in the morning on one day and arriving in the evening in Hong Kong the next day made for a lot of flying. I was able to sleep on the Newark-Hong Kong flight, waking up perhaps an hour before landing, glimpsing a very broad, very brown river meandering through southern China. As we descended toward Hong Kong, the mountainous outlying islands came into view, green-covered, bulging like muscles. As we dropped even closer to the sea, I saw huge commercial ships that appeared to be container ships and oil tankers. Then Lantau Island was underneath us and we landed, just over fifteen hours after we’d departed Newark, half-way around the world.
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, as Hong Kong is formally known in English, is made up of several islands, including Lantau Island, and the mainland peninsula of Kowloon and the New Territories. According to Wikipedia, the whole land area of the SAR, as it is sometimes called, is about 426 square miles and contains seven million people. The nighttime drive from the airport to Kowloon offered a telling view as we crossed the Tsing Ma Bridge: water-front high-rise apartments lit like Christmas trees, and in the background, jagged hills resembling small mountains. The terrain reminded me of Tacoma, Washington, where a large port lies at the foot of a rocky shoreline that quickly becomes mountainous inland.
By the time we arrived at the Langham Place Hotel, it was around 8 p.m. local time. Our room was on the thirty-sixth floor and provided floor-to-ceiling views south to Victoria Harbour and beyond to Hong Kong Island. We were not tired, so we decided to eat, picking a Thai restaurant for our first meal in China. After dinner, we walked around Mongkok, the commercial district where we were staying in Kowloon. The crowded, neon-drenched streets made me think of Manhattan’s Times Square. Everywhere we saw masses of people window shopping and texting.
May 17 was our first full day in Hong Kong. We ate breakfast at the hotel’s buffet, and I had a chance to try several new things: dim sum, which was a Chinese pastry that contained spicy meat, and dragon fruit, which looks and tastes like kiwi, but is white. After breakfast, we visited the Kowloon Walled City Park. The park occupies the site of the former Kowloon Walled City, a 6.5 acre area that, at one time, housed 33,000 people, according to Wikipedia. The Walled City was somewhat notorious, being beyond the authority of the British government during the time Hong Kong was under British rule. As a result, gambling and other unlawful activities found a home there, alongside everyday people who were just trying to live their lives. Today the Walled City is a beautiful park with a museum that gives visitors a sense of what was there before the park. While at the park, we saw a woman demonstrating wing chun for a local television reporter. Our sifu spoke with her for a short time; she knew the high reputation of Chan Chee Man, with whom we would begin training on the next day.
May 18 was our first day of training, and the day began gray and wet, and rain poured all day long. Each time we went to the window in our room, it seemed that the big rain clouds had only slightly changed position, hanging heavily over the Kowloon peninsula. The downpour ruled out walking to Chan Chee Man’s apartment, so we caught a cab. Chan Chee Man’s apartment was northwest of the Langham, close to the road that once defined the boundary between the Kowloon peninsula and the New Territories. We were a bit early, so we walked to a nearby park in the rain. As we walked, I noticed, for the first time during the trip, that we were the only Westerners. In Mongkok, there were other Westerners, especially in and around the Langham. Here, the faces of the people in the neighborhood showed curiosity, registering surprise at seeing one-two-three of us in a row walk by!
After walking around the park, we returned to Chan Chee Man’s apartment building, where he greeted us, walking in from the street, having just returned from an errand with his wife. My first impression was of a cheerful grandfather, eager to make us feel at home. We took the elevator up several floors and followed Chan Chee Man to his apartment door. He entered and then ushered us in and we began our training. Sean performed the first three wing chun forms, siu lim tao, chum kiu, and biu gee, while I took notes for him and sifu watched Sean’s training. After each form, Chan Chee Man commented, making adjustments here and there. Sean trained under Chan Chee Man’s watchful eye for an hour-and-a-half. Then Chan Chee Man asked me to demonstrate my forms for him. I performed the first two forms, siu lim tao and chum kiu. Chan Chee Man, as I expected, made many adjustments to my form. After several rounds of training, one of the issues—not enough ging, or “pop” at the end of movement—began to resolve itself. Sean took notes during my training, while sifu observed. At the end of the session, which was three hours in total between Sean’s training and mine, Chan Chee Man remarked on our height, saying it was good for wing chun to have tall students.
The next day, May 19, the sun was a welcome stranger, so sifu, Sean, and I walked to Chan Chee Man’s apartment. Sean trained first, so I went to the small park a couple of blocks away to wait. Just as I had the day before, I saw some very old people exercising on the park’s sidewalks. I found a quiet spot of my own where I could train wing chun forms. I worked through each of the first three forms, pausing for about five minutes after the siu lim tao and chum kiu to reflect on Chan Chee Man’s instructions and consider whether I had been able to implement them. In the midst of the third form, biu gee, a young man approached me and asked about my training, recognizing the wing chun form. Surprisingly, he asked if I were training with “Master Chan,” as he put it, becoming very animated when I said yes. He pulled out a smartphone and showed me pictures of his own training and also pulled out a business card of Chan Chee Man, which, indeed, referred to himself only as a “Master.” It seemed that Grandmaster Chan Chee Man preferred to be modest in his reputation, which to me signified real character.
By now, it was my turn to train, so I returned to Chan Chee Man’s apartment, where he asked me to demonstrate biu gee. After making many adjustments, Chan Chee Man asked me to train in a lap sau drill. I struggled with the lap sau exercise, having difficulty stopping his attacks, but Chan Chee Man patiently helped me make the necessary adjustments and I could tell I’d made progress by the end of the second day of training.
That evening, sifu, Sean, and I walked from the Langham to the Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon’s waterfront promenade. The skyline of Hong Kong Island twinkled in neon to us across Victoria Harbour, as crowds of people lined up to take pictures. The Hong Kong Cultural Centre is at the waterfront, occupying a striking semi-circular building. We stopped inside, sight-seeing for a bit before walking back to the Langham. We walked a lot that night, so much that the soles of my shoes separated from the uppers!
The next day, May 20, I trained chi sau, or “sticking hands,” with sigong (in Cantonese, “grandfather,” a term used when referring to your teacher’s teacher). Chan Chee Man told me that he was 76 years old, but I couldn’t tell after a morning of chi sau with him. Chi sau is a vigorous hand-to-hand exercise and Chan Chee Man wore me out, 76 years old or not. He corrected my bong sau (my elbow needed to be higher, with the forearm turned up and the fingers loose), my tan sau (I needed to keep my wrist high, palm straight, and thumb tucked), and my fook sau, or “monkey paw” (I needed to fold my hand into a hook, keeping the hook on my opponent’s wrist, with my elbow supporting the fook sau). We also trained on the lap sau drill, as we had the day before. Chan Chee Man said I had improved since yesterday, which cheered me greatly. We also trained in dan chi sau, a single-armed version of sticking hands, and he made adjustments in my form.
After we finished training, Chan Chee Man took us to eat for lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was the first Chinese food I’d had since being in Hong Kong, other than dim sum at breakfast. I had a black-eyed pea broth with chicken, along with beef curry. Both items were good, especially the beef curry. After lunch, Chan Chee Man took us to a temple, where we saw giant rings of incense smoldering against the deep red of the temple’s interior. We took many pictures, being careful to respect the traditions of the temple. After we explored the temple and its grounds, Chan Chee Man took us to a gung fu supply store, where sifu and Sean picked out baat jum do knives. I tried to find some traditional gung fu shoes to train in, but my size was hard to find, so I settled on a pair of shoes that I could use recreationally.
That afternoon, Sean and I went to the Ladies Market to buy souvenirs. I found a Bruce Lee shirt for my wife, which she’d asked me to get for her, and a string of ceramic red chiles for my mom, who collects chile strands, known as “ristras” in Spanish. The next day I trained the lap sau with Chan Chee Man again, trying to incorporate his various adjustments of the past few days of training. We alternated between training lap sau and chi sau. Chan Chee Man continued to patiently make adjustments to my hand positions and energies. I was pleased when I heard him say I was getting better.
After training, sifu, Sean, and I took the high-speed ferry to Macau, Special Administrative Region. Like Hong Kong, Macau was formerly a European colony, having been administered by the Portuguese before reverting to Chinese authority. Located on the westerly shore of the Pearl River, some forty miles from Hong Kong, Macau has become the world’s gambling center, exceeding even Las Vegas in this regard. The trip over took only an hour, but the seas were a bit choppy and the woman across the aisle from me became seasick. Once we reached Macau, we took a bus to the City of Dreams resort, where we enjoyed a water show. The show featured numerous high dives and tumbling, along with daredevil motorcycle stunts. The return trip to Hong Kong at night was even rougher than the trip over. With the heavy seas, it took an extra half-hour to make the trip back.
May 22 was my last day of training with Chan Chee Man. With that in mind, we reviewed all the exercises and forms that I had trained with him. We worked on the lap sau exercise extensively, along with the siu lim tao and chum kiu forms, and chi sau. We paid special attention to my footwork in the exercises and the forms. I asked many questions, as I had each day, since sigong and sifu had both encouraged Sean and me to ask questions. It was bittersweet to complete the last day of training with Chan Chee Man: I was very happy to be going home to see my wife, but I had become very fond of Chan Chee Man, a kind and patient teacher. His good humor made each session not only useful, but fun.
In the afternoon, Sean and I walked south from the Langham and caught the subway to the Tsim Sha Tsui, where we caught the venerable Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island. I was excited, as I would be realizing my childhood dream from long ago to visit Hong Kong Island. Despite the language barrier, we had no trouble navigating the subway system on the Kowloon side or catching a bus once we reached the Hong Kong side. (The subway system in Kowloon is very clean and efficient, comparable to the Washington, D.C. Metro.) Viewed from a bus, Hong Kong Island seemed more Western, and less exotic, than the Kowloon side. As our bus climbed the Peak, Hong Kong’s most famous landmark, we enjoyed a postcard view of Victoria Harbour and, on the far side, Kowloon. Hong Kong Island seemed like one of our Rocky Mountains without the snow. Steep ridges, deep valleys, covered with a green glove of vegetation, with the Peak knifing upward toward a blue, blue sky. At the Peak Galleria, a small and refreshingly semi-deserted mall, we had the best view yet, enjoying views on three sides of the Island. The sea’s blue tablecloth, dotted with ships at the gateway where East and West had met for so many years, made for a magnificent view to end my trip of a lifetime. I am grateful to my sifu, David Gallaher, for inviting me to train with his sifu, Chan Chee Man. The trip would not be complete without me saying, “Sifu, thank you for the opportunity.”