Yuen Kay San (1889 to 1956) from Futsan, often called by his nick-name “Yuen Lo-Jia” (Yuen the Fifth), was the fifth son of a wealthy fireworks monopoly merchant and one time mayor, Yuen Chong Ming.
Yuen Chong Ming was very wealthy. By today’s standards he would be a multi-millionaire. Yuen Kay San loved gung fu and, due to his family wealth, was fortunate to never have had to work. He did, however, qualify as a lawyer and often provided legal services to assist senior local merchants and officials.
Now, due to global US martial arts media promotion and the commercially inspired promotion of their students, when people talk of Wing Chun, it is usually other teachers, more well known in the West who are associated with this gung fu system. But in China itself, in Gwangjo, prior to the 1950s it was Yuen Kay San that was by for the most well known and acknowledged as the most senior master. From the 1920s through to the 1950s Yuen Kay San was well known as the undefeated death duel champion. When a challenge was made to Wing Chun by another art, it was Yuen Kay San who was acknowledged the right to accept them by the Guangdong Wing Chun community and to represent Wing Chun.
No “roof-top” scraps or cursory street brawls, then. These were the final days of the fabled “death duels”. Just as in the West in the days when duelling was permitted, it was a matter of signing and having witnessed “no responsibility” waivers absolving the opponent of injury or death and duelling until one person was seriously injured or dead! Alternatively, as was often the case with Yuen Kay San’s challengers, until he nullified their attacks and so conclusively dominated them that they conceded! Yuen Kay San is reported to have done this several times.
Yuen Kay San was fortunate in many ways. His father, Yuen Chung Ming, eager to assist his son, had investigated all the top sifus and styles and decided that Wing Chun was the superior art for his son to learn, it being the art most suited to scholars and gentlemen. Accordingly, he engaged a famous former Imperial marshall (“Bo Tao” – in essence a sort of bounty hunter), Fok Bo Chuen, to teach Yuen Kay San.
In those days the wealthy usually boarded their exclusive gung fu sifu in their homes. Thus, Yuen Kay San had a live-in teacher and trained most of the day for many years. We can certainly envy him that opportunity! Eventually, he had learnt all Fok Bo Chuen had to teach. It is said that eventually Yuen Kay San even exceeded Fok Bo Chuen in his skill.
Yuen Kay San’s second teacher, Fok Bo Chuen’s older gung fu brother and also a marshall, Fung Siu Ching, was a very famous gung fu master. Fung Siu Ching was planning his retirement when Yuen Chung Ming invited him to his mansion, Mulberry Gardens, in Futsan. After a grand feast, Yuen Chung Ming asked Fung Siu Ching could he assess his son’s skills. Sum Nung related this: Fung Siu Ching and Yuen Kay San tested skills three times with chi sau. As they were both Wing Chun practitioners a duel would have been inappropriate. On the first two encounters it seemed that no one had prevailed. On the third encounter, Yuen Kay San told Sum Nung “something wonderful happened”. When asked, Sum Nung simply said Yuen Kay San hadn’t elaborated. It wasn’t protocol at the time to ask, but I wondered what we might have known had he asked Yuen Kay San exactly what had occurred. Apparently, Yuen Kay San had backed Fung Siu Ching to a doorway then Fung Siu Ching employed “close body skills” to throw Yuen Kay San back to the middle of the room. Yuen Chung Ming was ecstatic! He had found the highest level of skills he had been seeking to have his son taught. Impressed with Yuen Kay San’s skills and having no successor, Fung Siu Ching agreed to live in the Yuen estate, Mulberry Gardens, and teach Yuen Kay San. He did this until his death several years later, teaching a small group with Yuen Kay San receiving special attention. Sum Nung related that during this time, Fung Siu Ching taught Yuen Kay San his close body skills and new methods for expressing power.
Although it was relatively unknown to, and rare in, the West until perhaps as recently as the 1990s, Yuen Kay San Wing Chun has nonetheless always had a majority following in Gwangzhou, Guandong. Said to have originally been referred to as “Lightning Hands” in the early days, Yuen Kay San Wing Chun was also called “Gwai Ga Kuen” or “Returning Home Boxing”, meaning that the practitioner went home whilst any hapless attackers didn’t! During Yuen Kay San’s own lifetime it was most commonly simply referred to as Wing Chun. When Yuen Kay San passed away in 1956, Sum Nung (aka Sum Num, Shum Ngan), the sole disciple of Yuen Kay San, promised his sifu that his name and fame would not be forgotten as he would call the art “Yuen Kay San Wing Chun” to honour him. Today, it is referred to as both Guangzhou Wing Chun and Sum Nung Wing Chun, after Sum Nung began referring to it using his name about 1990, thinking that Yuen Kay San’s name had already been sufficiently established in Wing Chun history.
Even though historical and cultural factors influencing knowledge of Wing Chun’s history in the West, have changed since the 1950s and 60s, the result has been that Yuen Kay San Wing Chun still has only a small representation outside China today. However, Yuen Kay San Wing Chun students of Sum Nung – sifus Kwok Wan Ping, Leung Dai- Chiu and Lee Chi Yiu did teach this art in traditional small group fashion in Hong Kong from the 1960s and 1970s. Leung Dai-Chiu taught at a gwoon in Lai Jie Gok Avenue in Kowloon. His junior, possibly better known classmate, Kwok Wan-Ping, taught at a gwoon in Fook Wah Street, Sham Shui Po, not far away. Lee Chi Yiu ran a gwoon in Mong Kok. Kwok Wan Ping is still active today in Hong Kong but has passed most of the teaching to his son, Garry.