Kung Feud?

Not among the most forgiving: that can be truly stated about martial artists. After all as the saying goes, “Art is long and life is short” so artistic differences can show amazing longevity. I’m not talking about the affaires, embezzling and thievery which, though amusing, is ultimately just a part of normal life when people come together. I’m talking about disgruntlement that is strictly within the art, the cold black memory no bigger than an olive pit and just as liable to choke you.

Here’s a light-weight example from a famous book seen literarly by hundreds of thousands of people: Bruce Lee’s first Kung Fu book written when he was in his twenties. To really understand the flack you have to go back to an earlier book on Kung Fu in English, one of the few at the time, by T Y Wong. We just got our hands on another of these collectibles from the 60’s and all the gossip came flooding back.

As the story goes James Y Lee—who became famous as a major influence in the creation of Jeet Kune Do and also one of the first authors in English on both subjects Kung Fu and Iron Palm—was early on a student (as was Leo Fong) of T Y Wong’s in his San Francisco studio on 880 Sacremento St.. Lee had been with Wong for about three years learning his Southern Shaolin and was working out in the studio one day practicing a form he had known for a long time, probably the one from Wong’s first book: Lin Wan Kune (Continuous Returning Fist) roughly the Southern Shaolin version of Lien Bu Kune. Anyway Lee was working hard and noticed that Wong’s son, about seven years old at the time, was peforming the same form across the floor. The difference, though, was evident. The version Wong’s son was peforming had “meaning”, was neither toned down nor bowdlerized. As the story goes Lee rolled up his uniform and left the school that day never to return.

Flash forward a bit to meeting Bruce Lee, certainly a major event in James Lee’s life. They click and talk comes up for a book on Bruce’s revolutionary viewpoint (at least for that time and place). They do the book and decide to include an applications section. To prove his point Bruce is going to take some classic movements and expose their inefficiencies. So, out of the closet comes T Y Wong’s distinctive uniform with its dancing white trim. James, wearing the Southern Shaolin uniform repeats the exact same moves demonstrated in the Wong’s original book, with Bruce snappily showing the flaws in this sort of “traditional” rigamarole. For those in the know, the criticism was silent but obvious.

Next Phase:
That had been the story as I had heard it until I got my hands on this next book of Wong’s. I have no proof but it seems to me that this second text might be an attempt at rebutting James’ criticism: almost the entire book centers on applications along with a fighting set. The kicker, though, comes on the very last page for there is a photograph of a little boy, probably T. Y’s son and probably the one James Lee saw practicing, breaking a board and in exactly the same pose as Jimmy Lee had on an early edition of his famous Iron Palm book (and Al Novak—the subject of many stories of his own—had on the later edition shown here).

So this, as far as it goes, is just a round of minor jibes and pokes.James is offended at Wong’s Kung fu teaching, leaves, insults Wong in Bruce’s book, so Wong shows how great his fighting skills are and insults James by having his own son perform the same break in the same pose. Despite all this, James Lee has an ad for T Y’s book in his own Modern Karate-Kung Fu book along with the line “Limited copies left – reprints doubtful”. He was right, of course, T. Y. Wong’s book is pretty much impossible to find today. But James probably never guessed that his own books, even with their remedial figure drawings would be collector’s items today and the first edition of Bruce Lee’s book… forget it!

It goes round and round, the digs, the pokes, the jabs and the hurt feelings. Sometimes, as someone recently suggexted to me, it all revolves around the duds. Clothes may not always make the man, but often they do make the style.

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One Response to “Kung Feud?”

  1. Kirk McNeill says:

    This kind of feuding reminds me a lot of what happens sometimes in the blacksmithing community. I call it the ‘tempest in the teapot’ I think it’s typical of tight knit arts communities where people are very passionate about their arts.

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