This little vacation also involves visiting 2 Kung Fu schools and 2 symbolic historical sites, Hai Zhuang Temple (Hoi Tong Ji in Cantonese) in Guangzhou and the Ancestral Temple in Foshan. Hai Zhuang Temple was the very temple where Zen Master Ji Sim taught Southern Shaolin martial arts to monks and unshaven disciples back in the early Qing Dynasty. Zen Master Ji Sim was the teacher of our style’s founders, Hung Hei Gun and Luk Ah Choy. Luk Ah Choy would then pass down the art to Wong Fei Hung, who would then bring the style’s legacy to new heights.
Even in the late Qing Dynasty, the temple would still have a group of dedicated warrior monks practicing Southern Shaolin Fist. Southern Shaolin Fist is very similar to our Hung Gar style, with the latter specializing in lethal methods of killing in war. When we visited the temple, there were no warrior monks or specialized Kung Fu training equipment, but the moment we stepped foot into the temple there was an atmosphere of pugilism surrounding us. We then practiced in the temple grounds. Just like the warrior monks and unshaven disciples in the 19th century, their spirit lives till now.
Looking at the bronze incense tanks in the temple, we can really imagine the ancient martial artists holding still in the horse stance till the incense stick burns out. This is some food for thought, for us to humbly train ourselves up in remembrance of our mighty founders. Hai Zhuang Temple is located in the North Western part of the Haizhu district in Guangzhou. From there one can take a walk along the Zhujiang to enjoy the sights of downtown Guangzhou.
Speaking about the Zhujiang, it is the third biggest river in China, apart from the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. The Yellow River is the lifeblood of the early Han people. As civilization progressed and China’s national boundaries expanded, the Yangtze river flows by the famous Jiang Nan cities, from Chongqing, to Changsha, to Nanjing and eventually Shanghai. The Zhujiang is the center of commerce and culture for the Lingnan people of China. Ling Nan is the area at the far Southeast of China. North Vietnam used to be a part of Ling Nan.
The Ling Nan region of China contributed significantly to history, commerce and culture in the later dynasties. Although Taiji Quan(a Northern Style which received very much attention in the modern era due to its emphasis on health) and other Northern styles are very popular among countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but our ancestors mainly come from the Ling Nan region of China, from Fujian and Guangdong provinces.
Singaporean born Chinese like me are of either Fujian, Chaozhou, Hainan, Canton or Hakka ancestry (the former 3 being Min Nan dialect groups). Due to geographical and cultural factors, Ling Nan culture has notable differences from Jiang Nan and Central Plains cultures, despite also being Chinese Han people.
Guangzhou and its neighbouring cities such as Foshan, Dongguan and Shenzhen are the most developed cities in the Ling Nan region today. Transport in Guangzhou is very convenient, as the subway trains (called Guangzhou Metro) link different parts of Guangzhou in an interesting pattern. Guangzhou Metro also extends into the heart of Foshan, which they are currently building more lines to connect various parts of Foshan. A short trip of 3 to 5 stations costs 2 RMB.
For Singaporean or Malaysian Chinese, language is also not a problem. Even if your family only speaks Hokkien, you can still communicate with the Guangzhou locals in Mandarin. There are many people from other provinces such as Hunan, Zhejiang and Shaanxi living and working in Guangzhou, so Mandarin is the main tongue there. The locals are also quite used to talking with immigrants from other provinces in Mandarin. Of course, if you can speak Cantonese they will appreciate it. The Cantonese still speak Cantonese within their own groups.
There are also many Teochew and Hainanese people in Guangzhou and Dongguan. However our Singaporean Min Nan dialects are significantly different from the mainland, so it might not be directly intelligible.
Taking a stroll in the agricultural towns is a very pleasuring experience for those who are looking to escaping the overcrowded streets and social distractions of big cities. The farmland extends for miles, with some local folks going to the market and vehicle repair workshops in the town center. Besides walking in the farmland, you can also walk along the river. There are many water channels in the Pearl River Delta, many of them in the countryside are scenic spots for those of us who have only lived in cities for our whole life. There is nothing much except for the hills on the other side of the river and the clear blue sky, you can space out into the scenery peacefully, forgetting your urban troubles.
The agricultural lifestyle of the residents is still well preserved. This means the food culture is also very well developed, with all sorts of local delicacies from steamed to boiled, claypot, smoked, preserved, fried and roasted. In Singapore duck can be much more expensive than chicken; in China they are about the same price. In Singapore goose is almost non-existent; in Guangzhou and Foshan goose and pigeon delicacies can be easily found, and not much more expensive. Sitting down in a cozy corner of an eating house and having steaming hot food on your table is also one way to get away from the cold.
As it does not snow in Guangzhou, crops are being produced year round. This is good news for veggie lovers. Even meat lovers have to balance their diet with vegetables to keep their bowels smooth. News about China’s food hygiene standards are circulating around the internet, but it is still safe if the locals (born in Canton) introduce you to eateries or if you know how to stay away from suspicious looking stalls. If you are lucky, you can get really big, ripe and fresh vegetables direct from the farm, through the street vendors. These are like corn, yam, sweet potato and pomelo. You can really taste that it is organic.
This year's winter was particularly cold. It was as cold as summer in the same year was especially hot. They call it the Yin and Yang effect of our planet Earth. Even hot blooded Hung Fist people like us have to put on at least 3 layers of top clothing to prevent ourselves from getting chilled. If you have gotten used to the cold, the lack of humidity can actually be quite relieving. I took a break from sweating and wearing sleeveless tops. I am quite thankful for it because I don't have to do so much laundry.
The cold can be a good reason to move your body, work out some heat. Hiking is one of the recommended activities. It's less likely to fatigue from heat exhaustion or dehydration. Whatever heat your body is generating neutralizes the cold environment. In Guangzhou it is not too cold and not snowing, so life can still go on. Snowy places, we can try in the next few years.
Within the cities, there are still preserved old districts within the main roads. These enclosed neighbourhoods have narrow alleys, classical Chinese style architecture and are populated by the local Canton people. It was quite nice strolling within these communities because we get to witness the lifestyle of the locals. While the adults go to work and children go to school, the elderly will hang out with their friends in their neighbourhood, some making dinner awaiting the return of their loved ones.
While we stayed in Guangzhou for most of our trip, we also visited Foshan Zumiao. Foshan is now quite built up with some tidy streets and many shopping centers. Transport is also fairly convenient with the subway and town buses which fares are from 2 RMB onwards. You can find some local delicacies on the street. There are many family restaurants selling authentic Canton and Hunan food. Food was never an issue in Canton.
Foshan also has many renovated heritage sites such as the Jiangnan Tiandi which is near Zumiao Metro station. It’s like our Boat Quay with British colonial buildings. Except that the historical buildings in Foshan are really of pure Chinese origin, which I really appreciate and encourage Singaporean Chinese to go and experience.
Foshan Zumiao is a well known attraction in Foshan, especially when it houses the Wong Fei Hung Memorial Hall and Ip Man Wing Chun Hall. The Wong Fei Hung Memorial Hall was established to honor this folk hero. It is a museum with artifacts and records of his martial art skills. We found stone locks and Zi Mou Sheung Dou (aka butterfly swords) in one of the galleries. There is also a hall of fame for the numerous movies made about Wong Fei Hung.
The Wong Fei Hung Memorial Hall has great meaning to us because it is symbolizes our great founder’s Kung Fu legacy. Although it might be a tourist attraction to most people, but to us Hung Gar practitioners the memorial hall holds evidence of our great founder. More importantly is his community spirit to lend a hand to the poor and needy, and his sense of righteousness to settle unfair treatment of the town folk. We must not just learn his skill, we must also adopt his virtues.
Walking along the display galleries of Wong Fei Hung Memorial Hall, we could see that much effort has been made into providing the right information. The historical records depicts that Wong Fei Hung is a practitioner and important figure of the Hung Gar Kung Fu style as well as an important folk hero among the commoners in the Pearl River Delta.
This honors the man as a standard bearer of Hung Gar Kung Fu, the most prolific and influential pugilist of Ling Nan at that time. Modern depictions has portrayed Wong Fei Hung as a random Kung Fu figure whom some have made it out to be Northern Songshan Shaolin, or even a Tai Chi or Baguazhang master. If you are new to Kung Fu, really like Huang Fei Hong movies and still believe that he is a Tai Chi master, you can visit the Huang Fei Hong memorial hall in Foshan to see for yourself. Huang Fei Hong is a Guang Dong Hong Jia Quan master.
Real fighting is also not very beautiful; it is filled with fear, hatred and regret because your opponent will want to hurt you badly to protect themselves and their pride and you will be doing the same thing. However one who have really matured over the course of Kung Fu journey (like Wong Fei Hung) will have the moral cultivation to manage nasty emotions that naturally come with combat.
So if you love Wong Fei Hung’s character, perhaps you would want to start learning Hung Gar Kung Fu to experience a small fraction of what it’s like to be him. Not the type that teaches you to pose in patterns. I am referring to the type of Hung Gar Kung Fu which makes you work from your foundation skills up, and drill you in the combat applications before you eventually learn the forms, like what we do in our Kung Fu school. This is because Wong Fei Hung wasn’t a dancer, he was a fighter. You may not encounter the need to fight someone for real in this lifetime, but you could at least go through the same training to experience what makes the legend that he is.
Guangzhou and Foshan are nice cities with a rich history, with lots of good food. There is the city life, if you like karaoke, massage and shopping. You can take the bus to nearby scenic spots such as the nature reserves and some attractions with old preserved architecture. There are also temples and monasteries for those interested. You can also rent a bicycle to cycle around the outskirts of the city. Cycling is very convenient because there are cycling tracks that link many places. My personal favorite is to hike up mountains and gaze at the vast lands from the peak.
We certainly like to go to Guangzhou and Foshan again in the near future. There is still so much on the map left to be discovered. We encountered many names of towns which we have read in our history and heritage records, in fact many people in Singapore and Malaysia came from places like Huadu, San Shui, Huangpu, Panyu, Heshan and Taishan. It is definitely meaningful to visit Canton cities because of the relevance to our ethnical identity, compared to areas around Beijing and Shanghai.