Kung Fu Tea blog, there was a nice article about Lau Bun, who brought Choy Lay Fut kung fu to the US. Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here.
Lau Bun: A Pioneer of the Chinese Martial Arts in America.
Most observers of the Chinese martial arts agree that Lau Bun was the
first individual to open a permanent, somewhat-public, Chinese martial
arts school on the American mainland. That fact alone makes him an
important figure to know about. However, the details of his life are
fascinating for other reasons as well. As well as illustrating many
aspects of the Chinese American experience, his career demonstrates the
many ways in which the martial arts intersected with, and were useful
to, the broader political-economy of immigrant communities.
Whether it was providing physical protection, settling disputes, or
creating a sense of cultural continuity, Lau Bun’s life provides us with
an interesting window into how the martial arts interacted with, and
were used by, the broader Chinese society in the early 20th century.
For that reason I felt that a brief biographical sketch of his career
would make a valuable contribution to our lives of the “Chinese Martial
Before starting I should state that my own background is not in Choy
Li Fut. Rather, my interests in this subject are purely historical and
social. When discussing the background of Choy Li Fut in China I have
relied on Zeng Zhaosheng’s 1989 volume Guangdong Wushu Shi (A
History of Guangdong Martial Arts). I have drawn the basic facts of Lau
Bun’s life from a 2002 article entitled “Remembering Lau Bun” by Doc
Fei-Wong published in the July edition of Inside Kung Fu. Lastly
I would like to thank Derek Graeff for his insights into the history
and development of the American Choy Li Fut community.
Lau Bun was born in Taishan in Guangdong province at the end of the
Qing dynasty in 1891. Taishan is southwest of Jiangmen and sits on a
coastal region of the Pearl River Delta. The area is known for both its
musical traditions (something that Lau Bun enjoyed and promoted
throughout his life) as well as its large expatriate community. The
local language spoken in the region is Taishanese, a cousin of
Large groups of Taishanese speaking immigrants left for the American west in the middle decades of the 19th
century. Some of these individuals worked for the railroad, while
others took service jobs in gold mining communities or worked in San
Francisco. Until very recently, Taishanese was the most commonly
encountered dialect spoken in Chinese American communities.
While the working conditions endured by these early immigrants were
bleak, the wages they earned were often quite generous compared to what
was being made in their home villages. Family members in America often
mailed home some of their salaries as “remittances” which became an
important source of liquidity in the local economy.
Lau Bun was born into a family situation that was deeply dependent on the tides of late 19th
century globalization. His father worked in California and sent home
the remittances that supported his mother and siblings. This source of
income allowed the divided family to enjoy a comfortable standard of
For Lau Bun this meant that his family could afford to hire martial
arts teachers to instruct him (recall that at this point the idea of the
“public commercial school” had not yet become standardized across the
region). Accounts state that his early teachers may have exposed him to
Hung Gar and Mok Gar. For whatever reason, the family continued to
look for a teacher and eventually settled on a well-known Choy Li Fut
teacher named Yuen Hai.
Yuen Hai was trained at the Hung Sing Association Hall in Foshan,
north east of Taishan. Following the death of the legendary Jeong Yim
(who did much to establish Choy Li Fut as a major force in the Pearl
River Delta region) Yuen Hai was sent to Taishan by the new leader of
the organization (Chan Ngau Sing) for the express purpose of opening a
Choy Li Fut school and promoting the spread of the style. This probably
happened in 1893-1894, but there is no universally accepted date for
the death of Jeong Yim which complicates our account. It is also
important to note that these sorts of assignments are not all that
uncommon in Choy Li Fut’s history and they may help to account for the
arts rapid geographic spread in the late 19th century.
Yuen Hai’s career was rich and varied. He quickly became caught up
in the expatriate driven economy that was so important to the region.
When he first moved to the area he rented space in clan temples to
conduct his classes. This was a fairly common practice in the era,
especially in Guangdong where clan associations were strong and owned
most of the real estate. Later Yuen Hai traveled to Indonesia where he
worked a five year stint as a private bodyguard for a wealthy
businessman. After returning to the region he once again took up
teaching Choy Li Fut.
It was at this point that Lau Bun began his studies with Yuen Hai.
He also is reported to have learned a “Shaolin Five Animals Form” from
his teacher’s wife, who was also an accomplished martial artist. Most
accounts of Lau Bun’s life are brief and do not give exact years.
Still, we can make some informed guesses about when this instruction
The Boxer Uprising in 1900
proved to be a watershed moment for martial artists across the
country. In Guangdong the provincial governor had every martial arts
school and association in the province closed in the wake of these
events. This order was taken quite seriously and was actually
implemented by local officials. The great fear was that local martial
artists would seek revenge against foreign traders in the region, or
engage in copy-cat anti-Christian violence, giving the British a pretext
to seize the entire Pearl River. Nor was this fear unreasonable. The
British were looking for an excuse to expand their holdings in the area.
As a result of this order the Hung Sing Association in Foshan was
forced to close its doors, and many of its instructors actually ended up
going to Hong Kong for a few years to seek other means of employment. I
expect that the same thing happened in Taishan, and that Yuen Hai’s
five years contract working as a bodyguard in Indonesia probably spanned
the period from 1900-1905. It just wasn’t possible to teach for much
of this time.
After 1903-1905, the order restricting martial arts schools was eased. The Hung Sing Association in Foshan reopened its doors, Chan Wah Shun rented a new school space in the Ip family temple
(effectively inaugurating the modern era of Wing Chun) and Yuen Hai
returned to Taishan and resumed teaching Choy Li Fut. Still, his
teaching career had been disrupted at a critical time, and this may have
limited the size of the organization that he could build.
Luckily the remittances from America allowed the families of his
students to pay consistent tuition.
Lau Bun studied diligently and
eventually became his teacher’s successor. I point this out because I
find it interesting that apparently none of Yuen Hai’s first generation
of students (who studied with him from 1894-1900) remained in the
lineage after the Boxer Uprising. This is a valuable reminder of how
volatile events were at the turn of the century and the impact that they
had on the development of the martial arts.
Lau Bun had sufficient time to complete his martial arts training,
but the situation in southern China was becoming strained by the middle
of the 1920s. Warlordism became a major problem and the Nationalist
government struggled to assert control of the country. The economy of
Guangdong was slow to industrialize in the 1920s and did not receive the
same level of investment as more quickly growing areas like Shanghai.
Economic opportunities started to dry up, crime and narcotics became an
increasing problem, and in 1927 the Hung Sing Association was officially
suppressed by the Nationalist Party because of its association with
leftist political elements (the CCP). Adding to this general sense of
calamity, as some point during this period Lau Bun’s father appears to
Sometime in the 1920s Lau Bun followed the path of so many of his
countrymen before him and decided to seek his fortune in America.
However, this process was now vastly more complicated than it had been
half a century years earlier. A series of legislative acts passed
between 1870 and 1924 essentially banned all legal immigration from