Learning > Inspiration

Fighting to keep choy li fut martial arts alive

Felicia Choo on 23 Apr 2018

The Straits Times


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Grandmaster credits it for saving his life when he was young, wants to share its skills and values


Duels in martial arts competitions are sometimes regarded more as a sport, but fighting used to be a matter of life and death in 1950s Singapore when secret societies ran amok, recalled choy li fut grandmaster Chia Yan Soon.


Then a teenager, Mr Chia had picked up martial arts skills out of interest and a practical need to fend off gangs from the fishmonger business he ran with his older brother.


"They didn't dare to bother us over protection money after my friend and I confronted and fought them," said Mr Chia, 81, with a glint in his eye.


The unarmed pair had faced off a gang of 15 men armed with parangs, baling hooks and batons until the police arrived - with Mr Chia crediting choy li fut skills for saving his life.


Choy li fut is a traditional Chinese martial art that originated in mid-1800s Guangdong during the Qing dynasty. Named in commemoration of three gongfu masters, it had evolved from other martial arts such as boxing and became linked to revolutionaries who worked to overthrow the Qing dynasty.


Mr Chia picked up the martial art at 18 from the then grandmaster Kwan Mun Keng, who also practised traditional Chinese medicine and worked as a journalist.


Mr Kwan, who was born in Guangdong, China, studied under renowned choy li fut masters there before fleeing to Penang when war broke out. He arrived in Singapore in 1963.


The monthly fee for classes then ranged from $3 to $5 - a hefty proportion of the $6 that the siblings' business brought in every month.


After four to five years of lessons, Mr Chia started teaching classes alongside his grandmaster in community centres and schools.


It was only in 1965 that the Singapore Hong Sheng Koon Chinese Koontow and Lion Dance Society was formally registered as an association and based at rented premises in Waterloo Street.


It is the only school teaching this martial art here.


Koontow is a colloquial term for gongfu and it was more commonly used in the early 1960s.


The association also teaches lion dance, which uses moves based on choy li fut. It moved to its current premises in Geylang in 1993.


"When we opened the association, the situation in Singapore was very messy and people had a lot of feuds to settle, so they came to us to learn gongfu," said Mr Chia, recalling that there were 400 to 500 members then.


The mantle of grandmaster was officially handed to him in 1979, three years after Mr Kwan died.


So devoted was Mr Chia to the martial art that in his 50s, he quit the fishmonger business - which later morphed into a frozen foods business - to focus on running the association full-time.


During his leadership, the association conducted martial arts and lion dance performances here and overseas, including places such as Malaysia and Hong Kong.


Mr Chia emerged as the first runner-up in the lightweight division in the first South-east Asia Pugilistic Meet, held in 1969 in Singapore.


But choy li fut has always been more than just a self-defence skill to him - it is a way of life.


"The three most important things are: loyalty to your school, respecting your elders, and being careful with your words and your actions," he said.


But he laments the fact that the number of members has dropped to 100 now, with the youngest member being in his 30s.


"Nowadays, people prefer to learn martial arts like wushu, which have competitions, unlike other traditional Chinese martial arts," he said.


Choy li fut is a combat art, while wushu is a collective term for martial arts that developed in China.


Despite facing disappointments from students who ended up going against the values of the discipline, Mr Chia still teaches classes two to three times a week and trains for half an hour every morning.


His younger son, 43, who works in the military, is a lion dance instructor with the association.


Mr Chia is married with four other children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.


His sixth-generation disciple, Mr Alfred Poon, 48, admires Mr Chia for his "unwavering" belief in the values of martial arts and his desire to right wrongs.


"My sifu ("master" in Cantonese) can be very friendly and jovial with his disciples but he will never allow any adulteration to the forms he teaches," said the country club general manager. "He expects his students to live with integrity and honour their elders."


On younger people picking up the martial art, Mr Chia said: "It is hard to say... some people learn from you and then discard your teachings.


"But I would still like to honour my grandmaster's request before he passed away, which is to pass down this martial art to future generations."


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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