Every big city in the West has a Chinatown. A place to eat Cantonese dim sum and spicy Sichuan cuisine, buy sandalwood incense, paw-waving lucky cat figurines and study Kung Fu.

And Westerners loved Kung Fu in the 1970s and 1980s. Late night, ganja fueled double bills of Shaw Brothers flicks at the local cinema; The Water Margin and Monkey on BBC2 on Friday afternoons after school; Bruce Lee rice flails and throwing stars getting banned by the authorities (but making your own in metal shop and woodwork was OK back at school). We couldn’t get enough of this chop socky action. It was a sociological event. Everyone seemed to know about Kung Fu fighting. Well, at least they did back then.

Learning Kung Fu in London’s Chinatown

London, United Kingdom aa 30th January 2011. Tradtional Chinese New Year toys for sale on an outdoor stall in London's China Town.

It’s not just political. It’s personal. Kung Fu and me go way back. My earliest memory in England was watching David Carradine as the Shaolin monk on the run in the 1970s American TV series Kung Fu. The image of him lifting the urn and receiving the brand of the dragon and the tiger on his forearms haunted me throughout childhood and adolescence.

There was nothing toxic, stupid or macho-masculine about this painful looking rite of initiation. This was Kung Fu. Something spiritual, something holistic, something more than just a pastime or a 1-2-3 system of 30-day self-defense.


What hooked me next on the Kung Fu path was a book by Douglas Wong called “The Endless Journey”. What struck was its title. If I were to do something like Kung Fu, it would have to be an “endless journey” for it to really mean something. Aged 13 and small change, I bought the book, tried to teach myself a few moves but soon gave up.

To learn, I would have to go to class and be instructed properly. There wasn’t any Kung Fu at the local sports centre. Just Karate, Jiu Jitsu and Tae Kwon Do, and I wasn’t much interested in the pajama-suited fighting arts of Japan or Korea. I wanted to learn Kung Fu. And the logical place for that was Chinatown in London’s Soho district.

Men in a gym practising the martial art of Wing Chun

My first true fix was in the summer of 1985. I was a skinny, noodle-limbed 15-year-old, and, like most Western kids my age, what I knew about Kung Fu came from Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan snake fist movies out of the local video store on Notting Hill Gate. I walked around the supermarkets, restaurants, pagodas and stone lions of Chinatown’s glowing neon, took down the particulars of a few schools in the area and began the “endless journey” to martial learning.

Yap Leong (Left)

The first art on the road was Shaolin Fists and the man who taught the class was an unassuming gentleman by the name of Yap Leong. Shaolin Fists is a form of Kung Fu that incorporated hard and soft techniques based on the Five Animals. A top rated exponent of the Five Ancestors style, Leong is famous in Chinatown for the annual New Year Lion and Dragon dance team. He wasn’t impressed, however, when yours truly turned up to class with a Marlboro cigarette hanging out of the gob.

Unlike Ip Man, the famed Grandmaster of Wing Chun, Mr. Leong was a confirmed non-smoker. I attended classes for a few months and gave up by Christmas. More fool me.

Time in London’s Chinatown

"London, United Kingdom - 26th September, 2006: People reading menu in front of chinese restaurant at Gerrard Street in London Chinatown district"

The next place in 1988 was a badass Wing Chun club run by Sifu Austin Goh. He’s famous for opening the first Wing Chun school in Europe in 1973 and for teaching the Bil Jee form to Westerners (incurring the wrath of some in the Wing Chun world). The club regime was hardcore traditional with lots of bowing and scraping.

As for the esteemed Mr. Goh, he was all over the walls of the school, and the t-shirts of his students, but hardly ever there to teach a class. That duty was left to his stern faced senior students, Vegas and Andrew. They loved the physical training and served up copious amounts of press-ups and bullyboy put-downs.

Austin Goh

My one abiding memory of Goh’s joint in Chinatown: throwing a “slap kick” (a tame version of a Muay Thai round kick) and seeing my black Kung Fu slipper fly out of the window onto the pavement of Earlham Street down below. I lasted a year and switched to a JKD club on Old Street. I haven’t looked back ever since.

These days I’m an ageing nak muay (Thai style boxer) in America with loads of JKD concepts bunged in for good measure. Kung Fu led me to that, but should I go back to Chinatown for a dose of the old school? Would it be the same or would I glean something new that would lead me on a different, endless journey? Or maybe I’m just going back to the place from whence I came out of sheer curiosity? Time for a class or two, next time I’m in London’s Chinatown. For old times sake, at least.


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