Wong Fei-hung is the most famous representative of the martial arts of southern China, and his work has become a legend. About a hundred films have been made about him, including 77 by the actor Kwan Tak-hung, inseparable from Wong in the 1950s and 1960s. To his life have been dedicated radio plays, book compilations, newspaper and television series. At one point, none of the seven newspapers published serialized stories about Wong at the same time.
Who is Wong Fei-hung?
The martial arts master became known to international audiences in the 1990s when he was played by Jet Li Lianjie in the highly successful film series Once Upon a Time in China. Regardless of his status as a folk hero, little attention has been paid to Wong and his life. No doubt many of Wong’s experiences have been overshadowed by the fictional adventures attributed to him. As American director John Ford says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” which was certainly the case in Wong’s case.
Jet Li plays Wong Fei-hung in China 2 (1992), coordinated by Cui Hark. Jet Li plays Wong Fei-hung in China 2 (1992), coordinated by Cui Hark. Lee’s escape as Wong Fei-hung in China 2 (1992), coordinated by Tsui Hark. “Wong Fei-hung was very popular during his lifetime, but he received little attention,” says Woshi Shanren, who wrote books about the warrior in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, even the only photo believed to be of him turned out to be that of one of his children. Yu Mo-wan’s research, published in his 1981 essay “The Miraculous Cinematography of Wong Fei Hung,” revealed some basic facts about his life. Since then, other facts have come to light.
Wong Fei-hung’s father was a respected martial artist.
Wong was conceived around 1847 in Guangdong, China, or near Foshan. His father, Wong Kei-ying, was one of the famous Ten Guangzhou Tigers, a collective name for the best martial artists in Guangdong in the 19th century. It is said that the Ten Tigers all date back to Buddhist warriors in the South Shaolin Monastery. If such a place existed, it would be in the Fujian region of southeastern China and correspond to the original Shaolin Monastery in northern Henan.
Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan in front of the camera in Once Upon a Time in China (1991).
It is said that Wong Kei-ying concentrated under the legendary Luk Achai, former abbot of the southern Shaolin monastery and expert of the “flourishing” kung-fu style of the northern wing and the Ga style of the southern wing. As a child, Luk saw the Kei-in practicing martial arts and acrobatics in town and offered to teach him. (Wong Fei-hung himself later became one of the ten tigers, perhaps in his early twenties, but it is sometimes said that he was not among the original personalities.)
Wong Kei-ying became known for his ability to practice ga kung fu and teach martial arts to the military. Remarkably, because of his low salary, he also worked as a doctor – an herbalist and eventually a specialist in bone formation (known as da) – and founded the Po Chi Lam pharmacy in Guangdong. Wong Fei-hung acquired his father’s skills in medicine and martial arts, and later in life he would run the Po Chi Lam pharmacy.
The beginning of the journey
Wong Fei-Hung learned kung-fu – mainly the hangman style – from his father when he was about five years old, and traveled with him to various villages in Guangdong to demonstrate kung-fu on the streets and offer medicine to make a living. An article by the great gallows master Frank Yee tells how Wong first became famous during one of these sales campaigns with Kei-ying. At the time, when he was about 13 years old, Wong angered another martial artist, Hung Kwan-dai, who was also demonstrating in the streets, because his presentation attracted a large crowd. Hung Kwan-dai challenged Kei-ying to fight, but instead, Kei-ying raised his young child to accept the challenge.
The fight in the mine ended with young Wong’s instant defeat against his opponent, thanks to a strategy of poles eight in diameter, a long base favored by hanging Ga types. This fight made Wong Fei-Hung famous throughout Guangdong. Wong was also famous for his skills as a lion dancer, which were featured in films about him. Wong Fei-hung, who was one of the best lion dancers in the region, was called the “Lord of the Lions” in Guangzhou,” wrote Yu Mo-wang.
The Legacy of Wong Fei-hung
Wong distilled and formalized the hanging Ga frame developed by Hong Xiguan, another Shaolin hero. “He was an expert of the Hungarian school of Shaolin martial arts and also an expert of the Iron Fist, the Fist of the Five Forms, the Tiger Victory Fist and the Shadowless Kick,” wrote Y.A. Wong, author of The Shaolin Fist. The Shadowless Kick is a popular side kick, though probably not developed by Wong, in which the opponent kicks the ball into the air three times in a row.
Kwan Tak-hing (vorne) in der Titelrolle in The Wong Fei-hung Story, Part One : “Wong Fei-hung’s Whip Who Beats the Candle” (1949).
Wong was married four times and had four famous children, but there is only information about his fourth wife, Mok Kwai-lan. Mok, who married the elder Wong in 1915 at the age of 23, was an outstanding martial arts master. She practiced Mok-Ga, a Shaolin style that emphasizes close-range combat strategies, and Wong incorporated many elements of this style into Draping-Ga after they met.
Mok surpassed Wong for many years and died in 1982 at the age of 90. In 1936, she moved to Hong Kong, where she ran a pharmacy and a bone repair shop and taught in Hang Ga. She married Wong so late that researchers say she could not give much information about her personal history. The TVB series “Grace Under Fire” was mistakenly based on her life.
The story of Mok and Wong Fei-hung.
There is a famous, but perhaps apocryphal, account of their encounter. In 1911, Wong was giving a kung fu demonstration when his shoe came off and hit a watching Mok in the face. The burned Mok grabbed the shoe, ran through the group and punched Wong in the face. He told him to be more careful because next time he might make a similar mistake with a gun and injure the man in the audience.
Jackie Chan as Wong Fei-hung in the film “Drunken Master” (1978).
They met again after Mok’s uncle, who was also his teacher and martial arts instructor, asked Wong to apologize for his behavior. The romance blossomed, and Mok and Wong married. Like his father, Wong also taught martial arts in the army. He joined the Fifth Regiment of the Guangdong Army as a martial arts instructor and later the Guangzhou Civil Guard. Toward the end of his life, he taught martial arts and managed the Po Chi Lam pharmacy in Guangzhou and another pharmacy in Foshan. According to Yi, Wong was devastated when his home and pharmacy burned down during anti-government riots in Guangzhou in 1924. Wong became ill and died in 1924 or 1925, or perhaps even 1933. It is believed that he did not lose any battles in his life.
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