“In the Qing dynasty, the Tibetan Monk came to the mainland, A lot of fighting in the city, the Ten Tigers of Guandong made the earth tremble, The heirs of Lama Pai spread under the summit of Hingyun Monastery, Boxers practice ten thousand punches”
– Poem of Lama Pai
Most stories about Chinese martial artists fighting are little more than the stuff of legends. Even matches featuring famous figures from the recent past are scant on details and lack external validation. One of the few exceptions to this is the Lei Tai matches of Lama Pai grandmaster Wong Yan Lam. His matches are universally recognized, even by those teachers not affiliated with his line or martial arts tradition, and there is contemporary third party verification. While the often sighted one hundred and fifty matches are probably an exaggeration, we know the event was still quite a phenomenon. It lasted several days and we know that challengers were dispatched with more than simply punches and kicks. Quite a few were thrown until they submitted and at least one succumbed to a choke hold.
Wong Yan Lam is the first “historical” figure in the lineage. Events prior to his challenge, even much of his early training, fall within the realm of “legend.” Wang Yan Lam supposedly learned from a monk who came from the “Tibetan” region (what would now be Qinghai in western China). The monastery where his training took place appears to be a location long associated not only with martial arts, but with secret societies and revolutionaries. We ask, are details hard to come by and blurry because of the association with such societies and revolutionary activities? Or, was this association with this monastery rather a legitimation device? We will probably never have a complete picture or a definite answer.
Wong appears in Guangdong City with a reputation as an escort and bodyguard. He erected a large wooden stage in front of Hai Tung Monastery (海幢寺) and announced that he would accept any challenger. At the time, the city was southern China’s foremost center for martial artists and fighters and such challenges were not taken lightly. Matches such as these had no rules and no restrictions and permanent injury and even death were common.
Over the course of eighteen days, the claim is made that Wong defeated over one hundred and fifty challengers. “Either the challenger was maimed or killed,” said noted Hap Ga Sifu David Chin. “He never let one challenger leave his school without injury. He was a master of using the technique of ruthlessness (殘)”. While there is no question that Wong Yan-Lam erected the stage and earned his reputation because of it, the details have been questioned. Undefeated in one hundred and fifty matches might appear inflated, especially the roundness of the number seems suspect, to Westerners at least. In the context of Chinese culture, it appears quite less controversial. Rounding of numbers is common practice, the author personally knows a woman who celebrated her 60th birthday at age 57! However, there are conventions to how this is done. The cited hundred and fifty matches may have indeed been less, but it was clearly more than a hundred.
There was a considerable about of press and documents regarding this event, and much of it still floats around. Romantic visions aside, some matches resulted simply from the challenger being forced off the stage, perhaps even jumping off the stage of their own volition once they realized they were no match. A few are said to have been knocked unconscious, and remarkably we are told that at least one was choked (the use of Baai Heih or “sealing the breath” 閉氣). There is nothing supernatural or extraordinary in any of the descriptions. Wong Yan-Lam is described as a well-rounded fighter with a great deal of experience who appeared to have no reservations when it came to beating challengers to establish his reputation.
A few comments regarding this event, and what we can learn from it.
– If you are from this lineage, it means NOTHING about your own practice or abilities!
– Wong won his matches with solid basics, a variety of tactics and an attitude.
– There were no secrets, no magical powers, and most likely some of the matches were just “ugly”!
– Considering how many accepted and lost, overestimating abilities is probably not a new phenomenon.