Lung Ying (Dragon Shape) Kung Fu was defined and disseminated by Lam Yiu Gwai. No-one rivalled his speed or power. Few were able to raise a hand before being struck. Wu Hua Tai was a top student that spread the art from China to Australia.
Lam Yui Gwai 林耀桂 (1874-1965) came from a multi-generational family of kung fu masters that lived in Huiyang county. He studied the family style of kung fu – Zhu Jia Quan – from the age of six. For the first 10 years he studied with his grandfather, Lam King Chuen. Then from his father, Lam Yuen, until he was 21 years old. By now he had achieved mastery of the style and was teaching at the family kung fu school.
True mastery was achieved only after meeting the monk Tai Yuk, from Wa Sau Toi monastery on Mount Luofu. The family legend has it that the monk observed Lam’s students performing at a Lunar New Year festival in around 1900. He was visibly unimpressed which upset the students. After the subsequent skirmish, it was clear that Tai Yuk’s Lung Ying 龙形 kung fu was incredibly advanced. Lam Yiu Gwai immediately bowed to the monk and requested he become a student. An alternate story is that Lam’s father recommended his son to Tai Yuk, in order to further his kung fu studies.
For four intense years, Lum Yiu Gwai grew his kung fu skill under Tai Yuk at the mountain-top monastery. During this time there was enormous effort put into physical conditioning. The basic Na Ma stepping routines, practiced in the mountains, built his legendary power source. Before being sent home to spread the art, he also mastered the full set of six Lung Ying forms.
Moving to Canton (now Guangzhou) in the 1920s with his eldest son Woon-Kwong, Lam became close friends with two other kung fu masters: Cheung Lai Chuen (Bak Mei Kung Fu) and Lam Yung Tong (Mok Gar Kung Fu). Together they become known as “The Three Tigers” of the district. Their relationship spurred their kung fu expertise whilst also creating opportunities to teach.
Army camp kung fu was common at this time. Most employed instructors to teach the workers and soldiers and Lam Yung Tong was involved with many. He connected Lam Yiu Gwai with the right people in order that he may also gain a commission. Lam Yiu Gwai was soon employed to teach, whilst also managing his own martial arts school. He also undertook formal college training in order to qualify and prepare for running mass drills for 100s of soldiers.
Instructors were competitive and sometimes clashed. An instructor of northern-style Bak Kuen kung fu, Wong ‘Loong Fu’ (Tiger), had a big martial arts reputation and did not like the southerner Lam taking his students. He criticised Lam’s Dragon Style as useless. In a commercially-minded move, Lam Yiu Gwai countered this by offering a public, full-contact challenge match. No gloves or padding. With the help of the commander, Lee Chai Sum, a match billed as “Southern Tiger versus Northern Tiger” was arranged. It was advertised and tickets sold. There was a huge crowd. When the match started Lam launched forward with his favoured technique, the Boi Gim forearm strike. Wong had barely moved when the blow crashed into his head, knocking him out. The disgruntled crowd wanted more action, so Lam demonstrated his Lung Ying Mor Kil form to showcase his skills and further enhance the reputation of the style.
Reorganisation of the whole Lung Ying system came after Lam’s experiences running large-scale military academies. Conducting mass drills was proving too unwieldy, so together with his sons and students, he worked on making it a more orderly program of learning. Sup Luk Dun became the basic form that all students must master. It was simplified, reducing the hand techniques from 16 to 6, making it better suited to mass drill training. The full sequence now became:
- Sup Luk Dun, 十六动 (Sixteen movements, basic training)
- Sam Tung, 三通 (Passing the bridge three times)
- Ying Jow, 鹰爪 (Eagle claw)
- Ng Ma Gwai Choi, 五马归槽 (Five horses returning)
- Lung Ying Mor Kil, 龙形摩桥 (Dragon arm touching)
- Mui Fa Cha Lu, 梅花七路 (The Seven Paths of the Plum Blossom)
The changes defined the system from then on, whether in army camps or at his own schools. Thousands of students were taught, but few were to emerge as exceptional.
An East versus West challenge occurred when a troupe of Russian acrobats and performers toured through China. A very strong Russian boxer had been observing kung fu practitioners on his travels. He had come to the conclusion that martial artists in China were weaklings and loudly proclaimed this at every opportunity. Lam was incensed to hear this and immediately proposed a challenge match. In response to the Russian’s dismissive attitude, he found a translator and proposed an alternate view. He looked the towering boxer in the eye and whilst gesturing toward his face, said “Teeth extraction”. To make sure it was understood, he repeated it, ensuring an imminent match. The fight lasted only a few seconds, when Lam’s lightning foot speed brought him into range within the blink of an eye and his Boi Gim – a slashing forearm strike – shattered the boxer’s face. Teeth fell. The larger man slumped to the ground unconscious.
Two highly skilled students were produced from Lam Yiu Gwai’s school in the 1930’s. Wu Hua Tai was already an accomplished martial artist when, as a young man seeking to test his kung fu, he was introduced to the grandmaster by Lam Yung Tong. It was a quick and humbling encounter. Lam’s forward momentum combined with an arm-jamming technique – the one he reserved for friendly matches – lifted Wu backwards and through the air. He found himself several feet from his starting position, with the 50-year-old grandmaster still with him, holding a fistful of his now torn silk shirt. It was settled. Wu became a devoted student for the decades that followed. As a wealthy entrepreneur, he had no need to work and was able to focus completely on martial arts training. Like the grandmaster, he knew that the path to mastery required intense study and the breaking of style boundaries. In order to obtain the fast, soft hands that the grandmaster possessed – that he described as incredibly fluid “like water” – Wu undertook additional studies in Yang-style Tai Chi Chuan 太极拳 and Liu He Ba Fa 六合八法拳, engaging the services of the masters of these styles.
The other student was known as Ah-Singh. He was renowned for having developed incredible arm strength. To test himself, he would tie three lengths of bamboo together and place them between supports. He would then strike down on them with his forearm, breaking all three. As a result, few students were willing to do the Lung Ying partner exercise Chuk Sarm Dim with him, for fear of having their arms broken. The one exception was Wu Hua Tai, who accepted every opportunity to train harder and longer. This included training at the grandmaster’s house, after buying him dinner, together with other senior students. It was not a place to learn ‘secret techniques’. The secret was hard training of Na Ma stepping to develop power through the hips and fast hands. Many students didn’t recognise the value and didn’t persist with these extra sessions. However, when Wu returned to the kung fu school, he found that something had changed. His partners in Chuk Sarm Dim would now “fly off” his hand techniques.
A decade of change arrived when Lam Yiu Gwai was around 60 years old. The Japanese invaded China in 1937. He relocated to British Hong Kong with his younger son Lam Chan Kwong and was offered an instructing post at the fire brigade headquarters. For 8 years he taught many students there. When the Japanese were driven out of China in 1945 he returned to Canton to oversee his schools. His two sons stayed in Hong Kong. A few years later, in 1948, the communist revolution arrived, effectively closing the borders and cancelling out any wealth that individuals like Wu had amassed. But the kung fu training continued undeterred.
The grandmaster’s final years were marred by deteriorating health. In the early 1950’s, when in his mid-70’s, he suffered a stroke. Treatment options at this time were not very advanced. Communist China gradually opened up a little and by 1960 he was able to return to Hong Kong, reunite with his wife and sons and receive improved medical treatment.
He lived until 91 years of age, passing away in 1965. His faithful student Wu Hua Tai was executor of his will. His sons carried on the Lung Ying Kung Fu tradition in Hong Kong, founding the Dragon Sign Athletic Association there a few years later.
Dragon Shape went global from the 1970’s on, carried to a great many countries as students emigrated from Hong Kong and Southern China. Wu Hua Tai transferred his art to students in Guangzhou and ultimately to Australia, when his son-in-law Kenneth Yu settled there. In his subsequent visits to Melbourne throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, Wu comprehensively passed his martial arts practice to Barry Pang’s long-established Wing Chun school. Today it is Barry Pang Kung Fu’s mission to preserve these centuries-old arts and maintain Wu Hua Tai’s and Lam Yiu Gwai’s legacy.
- Wu Hua Tai profile
- Wu Hua Tai journey to kung fu mastery
- Wu Hua Tai Dragon Shape Kung Fu lecture
- Experiencing Dragon Shape Kung Fu in China
Article: Written by R Zandbergs
References: Wu Hua Tai oral history; Real Kung Fu magazine 1976; Inside Kungfu: Chinese Martial Arts Encyclopedia 2015.