Lights, camera, action for gongfu city

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 12, 2013

Mr Zhou Houning, a Guangdong province martial arts gold medallist in 2007, giggles as he moves his thick arms in circular motions around his chest area.

"It's said that Yong Chun originated as a kind of gongfu for women as a lot of its strokes protect women's sensitive areas," the 64-year-old tells The Sunday Times, referring to the style better known by its Cantonese name Wing Chun.

Feminine or not, this style of martial art has become almost as popular globally as taiji, thanks to recent movies about Ip Man (1893 to 1972), master of Wing Chun and of the late Hollywood star Bruce Lee. The films have made gongfu sexy once more in Foshan, Guangdong's third-biggest city, with seven million residents and the cradle of martial arts in south China.

Indeed, Foshan can lay claim to not just two but three renowned gongfu masters in Wong Fei Hung (1847-1924), Bruce Lee (1940-1973) and Ip Man. All were born or have ancestral links here and are worshipped as heroes.

These days, young people across the city are learning to punch and dodge, while enthusiasts and movie crews from elsewhere are flocking here to bone up on flying fists and scissor kicks.

After the Communists took over China in 1949, martial arts schools were closed down as they were feared to be hotbeds of unrest. These were allowed again only in the 1990s after China became more open. Now with help from the Ip Man movies, there are about 200 gongfu schools and nearly 100,000 people learning these skills in Foshan, said Mr Xue Mianben, in his 60s, head of the Foshan Martial Arts Association.

Wing Chun master Guo Weizhan, 60, whose late father Guo Fu was a disciple of Ip Man, has expanded his school premises to cope with increased interest. "Nowadays, every young person has heard of Wing Chun," he said.

Most in Foshan learn this refined style traditionally practised by rich men's sons like Ip. Others practise hong jia quan or hong ka kuen in Cantonese, a more macho form linked to Wong Fei Hung.

One recent Sunday, a dozen teenagers and middle-aged pugilists in white T-shirts and black pants were moving their arms silently inside the Nanhai Yijing Garden condominium.

Student Pang Zige, 16, said she picked up Wing Chun after watching Ip Man films three years ago.

"After I watched the Ip Man movies and found out that he was from Foshan, I thought why don't I try?" she said.

Likewise, construction supervisor Liu Fuze, 45, was inspired after seeing his heroes on screen. "I idolise Bruce Lee and Ip Man. Especially Ip. I saw his love for the country from the movies," said Mr Liu, who drives 90 minutes each week from Dongguan City to come for class.

Wing Chun was already known among enthusiasts after Lee shot to fame in the 1970s. But the Ip Man movies, beginning with Ip Man (2008) starring Hong Kong star Donnie Yen, have made Wing Chun known to even more people.

In Singapore, the martial arts style has also grown in popularity as a result of the movies, with several schools teaching it.

The movies have also raised hopes that Foshan's gongfu heritage can be revitalised.

Historically, the city of commerce was a magnet for "crouching tigers and hidden dragons" - martial arts exponents, many of whom were rebels against Qing rule (1644-1911) who escaped to the south. It was an open and tolerant place that embraced pugilists of all sects, said Mr Xue.

During the Mao Zedong period (1949-1976), Foshan's gongfu tradition was kept alive by enthusiasts who passed on their skills by secretly training disciples, said Mr Herman Leung, 43, head of its Chin Woo athletic association.

Another gongfu city, Dengfeng, home of the illustrious Shaolin Temple in central China's Henan province, has cashed in by parlaying Shaolin's martial arts heritage into schools catering to hundreds.

Foshan, though, has not really promoted itself as a destination for budding Bruce Lees. For it is already a factory hub making goods like porcelain wares and undergarments, and home base of major Chinese appliances maker Midea.

"Even before 1949, its economy was more developed... martial arts was a hobby and not for earning a living," said Mr Xue.

But some say Foshan can now ride on Ip Man's fame to spread its name. Mr Leung, also vice-president of the World Wing Chun Union, said he plans to have gongfu activities with Hong Kong groups. He is also hoping to go to north China to promote Foshan's southern gongfu, like the white-brow fist and eagle's claw.

He said: "With China becoming richer and stronger now, our hopes are high that Foshan gongfu's golden age will come."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 12, 2013

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