When our pioneer generation talks about the heydays of Kung Fu in Singapore, Hung Gar is a style that will frequently come into mention. Even today and for years ahead, we Singapore Kung Fu School are practicing the art and actively educating people about Hung Gar as a part of Singapore's heritage.
Hung Gar has left deep tracks in Singapore's history, starting even before World War 2. Since the Chinese immigrants started to settle in Singapore in the early 19th century, many in the Chinese population has already practiced Hung Gar. However it was in 1939 that the first Hung Gar Kung Fu class in Singapore was commenced. This class was taught by none other than our great grandmaster, Sung Siu Bo. Sung Siu Bo is now the lineage founder of Singapore and Malaysia Hung Kuen.
There is a unique flavor to Singapore's Hung Gar. The way we execute our strokes is powerful and relentless. We emphasize on heavy hits over speed and graceful flow, compared to fast punches in Hong Kong's Hung Gar that has strokes performed in more observable rhythm. Singapore's Hung Gar is hardly flowing and rhythmic. During a lion dance performance it is common to follow the rhythm of the drum, but during usual training one should focus on power and targeting instead of rhythm. There must be strong leverage in every joint of the body. Every ounce of force must be applied onto the target before the fist is retracted, one must not ‘pull punches’ to look fast.
At that time, the Chinese people were not as recognized and well established in Southeast Asia as they are now. They were often subject to racial discrimination both by the Westerners and the native community. More than 2 thirds of the Chinese in Singapore were men who left home to make money for supporting their family back at home in mainland China. Men often formed secret societies to give themselves social security but these frequently led to only more trouble to the common people and the government.
Only the rich and established Chinese men could afford to bring their wives to Singapore and raise children here. These family could afford to hire bodyguards, while the rest of the people have to fend for themselves. Great Grandmaster Sung Siu Bo was one of the many who came down south to Singapore to seek a new life. Prior to his migration, he was a Kung Fu disciple in Foshan, Guangdong Province of China.
His grand teacher is none other than the folk legend Wong Fei Hung, and his teacher is one of Wong Fei Hung's top students, Lam Sai Wing. In 1937 he and his nephew Sung Chiu Yuen joined the Kong Chow Clan Association in Singapore. Since young, Sung Chiu Yuen has been learning Hung Gar from his uncle. Two years later, having shipped the training equipment from Foshan to Singapore, they commenced Singapore’s first Hung Gar class.
When people are poor and desperate, they can easily cast their conscience aside and harm others for their own benefits, even among their own brethren. That is why Kung Fu was highly valued by men and women alike before we became a developed country. Things only got worse during the Japanese occupation when Singapore became Shonanto, a territory of the Japanese Empire. At that time, Sung Siu Bo ceased his Kung Fu classes at the clan association. The Japanese at that time would abuse their social status as conquerors and mistreat the locals. Their authorities would not hesitate to imprison or execute anyone they dislike. They were very different from the honest and courteous Japanese people of today.
During the occupation Sung Siu Bo was the treasurer and security officer of a recreation center (what we know as nightclubs today) in the New World district (known as Farrer Park today). One night, a Japanese army officer came to the club and caused trouble for the operators. He would confiscate people's belongings without consent, and insult people that gave him a bad impression.
Out of duty, Sung Siu Bo negotiated with the officer of a tyrant and advised him not to harass the other patrons and damage property. Sung was responded by an arrogant stare, and was suddenly struck by a backhand slap to the face from the Japanese officer. Sung reacted instinctively with a 'Beauty looks in the Mirror' blocking palm which flung the officer's arm aside. Disgruntled, the Japanese officer struck back and their arms clashed in a violent battle. While coping with the lightning fast reflexes of the aggressor, Sung sprung forward with Hung Gar's 'Chain advancing steps'. Due to its wide stride and blistering speed, the Japanese army officer could not keep up.
Sung Siu Bo then did something the Japanese army officer did not expect, crashing his stance into the loosely standing legs of his opponent. The Japanese army officer was startled and immediately struggled to regain his balance. Sung's advancing steps allows no time for recuperation, for it is coupled with three consecutive punches, thrashing him onto the ground.
The Japanese army officer slowly stood up under the watchful eyes of Sung Siu Bo. He smiled and remarked, 'Good, good fight. Chinese martial arts is remarkable, not bad at all.' He must be amazed by Sung's dominating footwork and solid defense. Seeing that he no longer has any intent to stir trouble, Sung politely sent him to the door. Sung Siu Bo is not a man to back down when things has to be done, for he has a strong sense of duty.
Three days later, Sung Siu Bo was keeping watch at the club. The Japanese officer has returned, this time bringing along a short and plump interpreter, and wearing a Japanese katana on his belt. He directly approached Sung, through his interpreter telling Sung that he has two purposes for his visit this time. One, to offer an apology and two, to test his skill with weapons.
Sung Siu Bo was being challenged to a weapon duel. He did not consider rejecting the challenge, as it will not reflect well on his Sifu and other Chinese martial artists. Sung nodded his head, showed his opponent to an open area and took out a guard truncheon from behind the door. As the officer drew his blade from its sheath, Sung Siu Bo fixed his eyes on him preparing to intercept any attempt of attack from his opponent. In a sword fight, any mistake could mean severed fingers or deep maiming cuts. In this case, it is certain that the Japanese army officer would not hesitate to take his life.
The battle commenced, with the army officer raining down fierce and relentless slashes at Sung Siu Bo. Sung skillfully neutralized his katana with the 4 symbols defense strokes of the Wulang 8 Trigram Staff. In the past, people used heavy hardwood poles as batons, and these were as long as a person’s shoulder height. Although the razor sharp edge of the katana is deadly, in skilled hands a hardwood pole would easily break the opponent’s bones.
Sung did not intend to let the dangerous game drag too long. Gathering his focus, he parried his opponent’s katana to the side and struck down on its handle. The katana fell onto the floor with a loud ring; the Japanese army officer has been disarmed. As he panicked and reached for his sword, he was stopped by Sung’s truncheon pointing at his throat.
The Japanese army officer was dumbfounded by Sung’s skill of subduing his swordplay with a dull looking guard truncheon. He confessed his admiration for Sung’s skill and told Sung that he is keen to learn his Kung Fu. Sung was surprised at his opponent’s request and was not sure of how to answer him. He would not want to raise more trouble for the people around him, but neither would a Chinese pugilist expert teaching a Japanese person be acceptable in those times. Sung told the army officer that he will give him an answer a few days later, and that if he has no further business with him, he should leave and come back in a few days.
The next day, Sung Siu Bo packed his belongings and travelled to Malaysia to seek refuge, till the end of the war. In 1946, after Singapore returned to peace and life resumed, Sung Siu Bo returned to Singapore and continued teaching Hung Gar to the local Chinese as the first generation’s Kung Fu instructor. Today while we continue practicing Great Grandmaster Sung Siu Bo’s teachings, it is inspiring to know that there was once a man who used his Kung Fu to shield the helpless from the aggressive and arrogant.