Hong Kong project digitally preserving local Kung Fu

A project is underway in Hong Kong to digitally preserve more than 400 different types of Kung Fu styles.

At a time when such skills are being passed on from one generation to the next less and less, the Hong Kong Martial Arts Living Archive is intended to ensure that many of the less-practised styles of Kung Fu are not lost. It is also hoped that the visual archive will provide an invaluable resource for newcomers around the world who want to master different martial arts styles.

Digital Kung Fu
Digital Kung Fu
designmilk,Flickr CC License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/designmilk/27628108465

Hong Kong’s Kung Fu history

Hong Kong has a very special association with kung Fu and Chinese Martial Arts more generally. As well as being a historical base for Kung Fu, it is also the location from which Kung Fu conquered the world in the 1970’s.

It was in Hong Kong that Bruce Lee was raised and learned his art. And it was here that he made the first of the films that would catapult him to global stardom and bring worldwide attention to Chinese Martial Arts.

Bruce Lee was the first global Kung Fu star to emerge from Hong Kong, but he was by no means the only one. From Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-fat to the latest star, Donnie Yen of Star Wars: Rogue One fame, the conveyor belt has continued and Martials Arts have remained in the spotlight.

But what many global fans didn’t, and still don’t, realise was that Kung Fu was not a single discipline. There are hundreds of different varieties, but many are struggling to find new disciples in the modern world.

bruce lee statue hong kong kung fu
Bruce Lee statue, Hong Kong
By Mk2010 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Kung Fu variants

Time magazine sent a report last year to meet Lee Chun-lam, a master of Kung Fu known as “Jiangxi Bamboo Forest Praying Mantis kung-fu”. He currently has just 8 disciples at his base in Wo Hang village in the New Territories region of Hong Kong, although he does teach a few others in mainland China too.

Comparatively speaking, Jiangxi Bamboo Forest Praying Mantis Kung Fu is doing ok. Time magazine also wrote about other variations such as “Iron Ox Praying Mantis Kung Fu, whose 62-year old master has just five disciples.” And there are numerous other forms, such as Wat Shek Gau (“Rolling Rocks Teaching”) and Lau Man Gau (“Drifting People’s Teachings”) which have disappeared completely.

It would be easy to dismiss the loss of these relatively obscure forms of Kung Fu as progress and the world changing. But as Chao Hing, the CEO of the International Guoshu Association explained to Time, Kung Fu represents a lot more to Hong Kong than a simple form of self-defence. Rather it is “an embodied system of knowledge and communication” as well as a significant part of the country’s history.

Hong Kong Kowloon Panorama Victoria Peak
By chensiyuan (chensiyuan) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Living Archive

Which is why the International Guoshu Association has been instrumental in the creation of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Living Archive. They have worked with Hong Kong City University on the project which employs motion sensor technology, as seen in modern movies such as Avatar and Lord of the Rings, to record those minor Kung Fu styles which are still practiced before they die out altogether.

The various masters are invited to the university where they are fitted with more than 100 sensors and then recorded using 1000-frames-per-second cameras and virtual reality projections.

As Reuters has reported, the project has so far recorded more than 50 different styles so far, including the Jiangxi Bamboo Forest Praying Mantis Kung Fu variant.

The archive ensures that those variants will be preserved for future generations, but it also had bigger ambitions. Chao Hing hopes that the project could eventually lead to an Institute for Chinese Martial Arts in Hong Kong, which he has argued would be the best way to ensure that the huge number of different variants of Kung Fu continue to be practiced.

In the meantime, Hong Kong City University is embarking on some less conventional way to attract the interest of young Hong Kongers in some of their traditional martial arts. The data is also being used to create various different art installations and interactive exhibitions, which have been opened at the University.

Thanks to the determination of organisations like the International Guoshu Association, the future of many of Hong Kong’s more obscure forms of Kung Fu have been secured. But there is much more to be done if they are to continue to be practiced and to continue to provide a vital link to Hong Kong’s cultural heritage.

Hong Kong City University Kung Fu
Hong Kong City University
By WiNG (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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