The Source of Cai Li Fo (Choy Lee Fut) Martial Arts

Located to the Southwest of the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong Province, Jingmei (King Mui) Village is a quiet and isolated place at the foot of Mount Gudou. For generations, the simple and honest villagers have observed the old tradition of farming from sunrise to sunset. It is in this simple place that the talented and famous martial artist Chen Xianggong (Chan Heung) was born. He founded the popular Cai Li Fo Martial Arts system more than 160 years ago and since then it has spreaded widely like the branches of a tall tree. All this glory has its source in a small place – the Yuanfuci Chen Family Ancestral Hall in Jingmei Village. While standing in this ancient location, I was lost in thoughts of the olden days. A scene of Dragons rising and Tiger leaping came into my mind and I asked myself, “Would anyone who loves martial arts not admire the incomparable and powerful Cai Li Fo Kung Fu?” It is while I was researching material for this short preface that suddenly realized that it is this village that I am standing in now that gave birth to Cai Li Fo and it is also Cai Li Fo that has made this village famous. For this, I would like to write briefly about the virtues and the achievements of the generations of masters gone by and the rich contents and spirit of the Cai Li Fo Kung Fu.

The spirit of “never forget the source of your art” is the cohesive driving force that has kept the Cai Li Fo followers together. This idea was reinforced by the fact that Chen Xianggong refused to name his Kung Fu by his own name but by his masters’ names, thus indicated that he has a high moral standard and a low regard for fame. His keen sense for achievement is a good example to begin with the history and development of Cai Li Fo.

Cai Li Fo martial art was founded in the 16th Year of the reign of Qing Emperor Daoguang (1836), the year when Chin Xianggong opened his first Hongsheng Guan (Great Sage Hung Sing Gwoon School) here in Jingmei Village. Following his master’s instruction to revitalize the Shaolin Arts as his life’s goal, Chen Xianggong committed himself to teach as many students as possible his brand of Shaolin Kung Fu. He sent his disciples Chen Yanyi, Chen Dianyuan, Chen Daji, Long Zicai etc to various places in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces to open up new branch schools. In several years, Hung Sing Gwoon branches were widely spreaded in over 40 places and the students came in great numbers. Even under the harsh conditions that the Qing Government did not allowed the Han nationals to learn Kung Fu, Cai Li Fo managed to grow and prosper at a rate no other schools can match and rarely could be seen again in recent history. From this we can see the position of Chen Xianggong in modern martial arts and the richness of Cai Li Fo.

White Hung Sing Gwoon schools were flourishing, China broke out in peasant uprising. Many of Chen’s disciples joined wit the Taiping Rebellion and made contributions to the revolution, especially those from Xunzhou, Guangxi Province who have joined the army led by Feng Yunshan (the “South King” of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom). Chen Xianggong also upheld banners and launched the uprising in Goushan, Jiangmen with the help of his senior disciple Chen Songnian, who later became an advisor to Shi Dakai, “Wing King” (another one of the five armies) of the Taiping heavenly Kingdom. After the Nanjing Internal Conflict, the revolution wane and to avoid being captured by the Qing government, Chen Xianggong traveled around South – East Asia and also America via Hong Kong. He taught Kung Fu and treated patients in his clinic as he moved from one place to another. Because of the difficult conditions, the Hung Sing branches developed differently to each other due to lack of communication and long distance between the schools.

During the reign of the Qing Emperor Tongzi, Chen Xianggong was invited to Hong Kong to teach at the Guangdong Guild Association and he was determined to revitalize the Hung Sing Gwoons. He sent for his son Chen Guanbo and his first disciple Long Zicai to follow him closely and the Jingmei, Guangzhou, Foshan and Jiangmen Schools became active again. Chen Xianggong at that time accepted his last disciple Zhang Yan (Cheong Yim) who was living in Hong Kong and had been learning Hongjia (Hung Gar) Kung Fu since he was a child. Zhang Yan made remarkable progress and learned the art from his teacher in a short time. Chen Xianggong was pleased with his talent and sent him to Singapore, Hong Kong, Foshan, Jiangmen and other places as the head instructor. Zhang Yan adored Chen Hianggong and remembering the glory and the achievement of Hongsheng and Cai Li Fo, he changed his own name to Zhang Hongsheng.

There are many stories I can tell about Chen Xianggong, such as the time when he turned hatred into friendship with this influence over the follow instructors in the Fujian and Guangdong Guild Associations; the time when he dealt the local tyrants in San Francisco as deadly blow when they tried to bully the overseas Chinese and the time in Hong Kong when he knocked down the overbearing Russia boxer, giving full play of his deadly martial arts skills. In 1869, when Chen Xianggong was old, he went back to his village and devoted the rest of his life to studying the martial arts and compiling the Cai Li Fo teaching manuals. Since he looked after the ancestral school in Jingmei, his Chen Gongbo and disciples Long Zicai and Zhang Yan took charge of the various branches of the Hung Sing Gwoon, making it the second wave in the development of Cai Li Fo.

Chen Xianggong died in the first year of the reign of Qing Emperor Guangxu (1875). A bright star had fallen and Cai Li Fo followers have lost their beloved master. Yet Cai Li Fo continued to pass on from generation to generation, beyond passing of time and tide. Up to date, Cai Li Fo may be divided into three main branches.

The first branch derived from Chen Gongbo, Chen Xianggong’s second son, who in turn passed his skills onto Chen Yaochi, his son. Yaochi had many students and before the founding of modern China, he was the Kung Fu instructor in the Ancestral School in Jingmei. He also taught in the Chinese Guild Association in Hameng, the Guangdong Village Association in Bachen and over ten Middle Schools and Trade Unions in Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The fourth generation disciples such as Chen Huaxian, Chen Yaoyuan, Chen Bingxuan and Chen Botian all have been teaching in Xinhui, Hong Kong and Macao, in particular Chen Huaxian had been teaching around Yaxi and Huicheng and accepted many disciples. Even at the age of 80, he was still busy collecting Kung Fu material and books so that Cai Li Fo can spread widely from its original source. In the Guangzhou area, Chen Yaochi’s 12 “Inner Chamber” disciples including Hu Yunchao, Pan Feng etc, were very famous in Guangzhou, the provincial city that many students from Hong Kong and Macao came to study with them. The fifth generation descendent, Mr Chen Yongfa, who is Chen Xianggong’s great-great-grandson, he succeeded in continuing down the authentic art as passed down by his grandfather Chen Yaochi and his father Chen Yunhan. He is now living abroad and is committed to promoting Cai Li Fo overseas. He loves his hometown and has done his best to revitalize the Jingmei Ancestral School.

The second branch is derived from Long Zicai, the first disciple of Chen Xianggong. He was from Xi Guan in Guangxi Province and he has passed his art onto many capable students such as Luan Hai and from Luan Hai to Fang Yushu. The former Vice Chairman of the Guangdong Provincial Wushu Association, Mr Ou Hanquan, learned his Kung Fu from Fang Yushu and Chen Yaochi. Mr Ou has done a lot to promote Cai Li Fo and trained many well-known instructors and Southern Wushu Champions such as Chen Changmian, Dong Deqiang and Qiu Jianguo etc. Because of their influence, the official competition form for Southern Wash routines had adopted the Cai Li Fo features of a strong bridge and horse stance. This is the spirit at work of Chen Xianggong’s dedication devoted to revitalize the Shaolin Art.

The third branch is derived from Zhang Yan, a Hong Kong resident of Xinhui origin. He was a gifted disciple accepted by Chen Xianggong in his later years. Zhang toured around Singapore and Hong Kong and Foshan and took charge of the schools there, thus making a great contribution to promoting the art of Cai Li Fo. His disciples included Li En and Chen Sheng. Li En in turn accepted students such as Huang Xingquan and Tan San as his disciples. Tan San was a friend of Gu Rushang, who practiced Northern Shaolin and was known as one of the “Five Tigers” in south of the Changjiang River area. Since Tan taught in Beisheng district of Guangzhou, his style became known as Beishang or Bak Sing Cai Li Fo.

As the popular saying goes, “All water goes to the sea”, we all took advantage of Chen Xianggong’s achievement in founding the Cai Li Fo system. His vision and broadmindedness helped to prevent Cai Li Fo from fractional fighting. Right at the start he gave instruction that not one of his followers is permitted to name his school after his own names so that there is no sectarian bias amongst his followers. We all came to admire his lofty ideal, his vision and his aspiration. Without doubt, it is the spirit of “never forget the source of your art” that has kept Cai Li Fo together and going strong. However, Cai Li Fo did experienced internal frictions came from different interests during its development between the third and the fourth generation when the 1911 Revolution, the Anti-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War took place in China. The social turmoil and instability took its toil even though the principles of “Revitalizing the Shaolin Art” and “Fighting against the Qing Restoring the Ming Dynasty” were adhered to. During that period, schools in Hong Kong and Foshan have changed their name to Xiong Sheng and Hong Sheng respectively and other branches like Beisheng by a different name appeared. Further more some of the later generations twisted Chen Xianggong’s principle and vision and did what suited them. Some even denied Chen Xianggong as the founder. These behaviors were contrary to the fine tradition of Cai Li Fo, where the evidence of Chen Xianggong’s instructions was clearly written in its original birthplace. We, as followers of Chen Xianggong from his birthplace, have not shirked from our responsibility in continuing to develop Cai Li Fo in a healthy manner, enriching its tradition and following the trend of the time.

In the last century, since the reform and the opening up of China, Kung Fu has undergone a revival. The Hung Sing Ancestral School was reopened and many young people in the Jingmei Village came to learn martial arts again. In 1999, disciples in Hui Cheng made preparation and held a Conference in Memory of the Founder of Cai Li Fo. In October 2001, the Jingmei Village Committee, elders and relatives decided to renovate and to change the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall back into the Ancestral School again and a Cai Li Fo Martial Arts Museum to encourage the younger generation to carry on the tradition and to upgrade the overall quality of the environment to make a worthwhile contribution to the country as a whole.

I was thinking of the antithetical couplet which says, “Great achievements relaying on literary pursue and successful strategies depending on martial arts”, where the first word of each couplet made up the character of Hung Sing, when I thought of how profound it is and the more I think of it the more I find myself relating to the story of how Guan Yu was holding up the candle while reading the military books all night long, trying to find the best way to conduct the next campaign and the story of how Yu Fei was rolling in thoughts all day long, trying to serve his country the best way he can and the story of how Xin Qiji wrote his patriotic poems while trying to express his worries and sorrows for his country. All these heroes of the past were well versed in both literary and martial arts skills and this is the best way to train the people for Kung Fu. Learning martial arts can help to build a stronger body and learning the literary arts can help to develop a broader mind and a deeper understanding of the profound meaning of martial arts. One the contrary, if one only learns Kung Fu without literary pursue, he is an ordinary person with reckless courage and can hardly passes his true skill and his name onto the next generation. They are like the vain fighters who waved their fists and kicks without knowing the real meaning of martial arts. They are in vain and that is why all famous martial artists like Chen Xianggong not only stress on the fighting skills but also the internal principles of the arts and the philosophy when they teach their students. Chen Xianggong put all he had learned in into books, he set up rules and told his followers that they must not only learn the martial skill but also the virtue and the ideals associated with the art. He also said that the martial arts could be used for fighting if you are a soldier serving your country and for building a stronger body if you are an ordinary citizen. His aspiration for us is full of vitality and surely his martial art will pass on without decaying.

I am delighted to see Beijing has succeeded becoming a host for the coming Olympic Games and hopefully, Wushu will be accepted as a competitive sport. With the help of his lucky East Wind, Cai Li Fo Martial Arts will blow stronger in the new Spring.

Written by Chen Zhongjie – Fifth Generation Disciple and Direct Descendent. Mid-Autumn 2001.



Born and educated in Guangdong China, the late Grandmaster Kwan Mun Keng started his martial arts training at a very young age. His first teacher was one of China’s prime pugilist, Master Tham Lup of the gongfu Choy Lee Fut School. Grandmaster Kwan furthered his training under another renowned Choy Lee Fut master, Choy Yat Kew. It was also from the latter that he acquired a vast knowledge in the field of Chinese herbal medicine and osteopathy.

Twelve years later, Grandmaster Kwan traveled to Shanghai where he met a leading boxer from the Shantung Northern Praying Mantis School, Master Hong Tak Mo. Master Hong taught him all that he knew in this northern art. When war broke out in China, Grandmaster Kwan was forced to leave for Penang where he practiced the Chou style of martial arts with Sifu Lee Kwun.

In the year 1936, Grandmaster Kwan arrived in Singapore and took up journalism with the now defunct Kwong Wah Daily News. He was a versatile man with varied interests ranging from martial arts to Chinese brush painting, Cantonese opera, calligraphy to poetry writing. His knowledge of martial arts was soon put to good use at an encounter with a gang of thugs. The dozen odd members of the gang, many of whom were armed, were given a good thrashing and some were badly wounded. They had underestimated this scholarly looking journalist. News of this incident spread like wild fire and soon Grandmaster Kwan was a much sought after man by many guilds and associations to impart gongfu to their clansmen.

In 1965 many of his supporters and students encouraged him to start a martial arts school. The Singapore Hong Sheng Koon Chinese Koontow and Lion Dance Society was thus formed in that year and officially registered in 1966. (The word “koontow” is a colloquial for gongfu and had been adopted because the former was more widely used in the early 1960s.) In the early days, Grandmaster Kwan did receive a number of uninvited guests at the Hong Sheng Koon premises as some martial arts exponents who were skeptical about the effectiveness of Choy Lee Fut fighting system came explicitly for a few rounds of “friendly exchange of skill”. They inevitably left convinced and many became friends of the late grandmaster, although a few of them had to be carried out after the “friendly exchange”. Hong Sheng Koon continued to grow in status and fame.

Besides teaching Choy Lee Fut pugilism and lion dancing at the Hong Sheng Koon, Grandmaster Kwan also put into practice his knowledge of herbal medicine and osteopathy. (He was a certified Chinese physician) A benevolent man, he often gave the needy free medical treatment while those who could afford were charged a nominal fee. Many of the rich who came to him as a last resort were astonished at what this Chinese sensei could do to their ailments where their costly consultations at modern clinics and hospitals had failed.

In 1968 Grandmaster Kwan led a delegation from the National Pugilistic Federation of Singapore to Taiwan and Hong Kong. While in Hong Kong he encouraged the martial arts schools there to likewise form a unifying body for the promotion of Chinese martial arts.

Grandmaster Kwan also played a pivotal role in spearheading the call to settle a long-standing feud between 2 major martial arts schools in Hong Kong – the Choy Lee Fut and the White Crane School. The reconciliation brought much joy to both schools It was at the First Southeast Asia Pugilistic Meet in 1969 that the “chup kuen” or the leopard punch – hallmark of the Choy Lee Fut pugilism made its’ official debut. It was to many locals at that time, an eye-opening experience and many of the uninitiated called it the “leper’s punch” for when clenched, the leopard punch resembles the deformed hand of a leper. And not a few participants at that pugilistic meet realised soon that like the leper’s hand, the Choy Lee Fut’s devastating leopard punch was to be avoided at all cost.

Grandmaster Kwan was a very progressive-minded teacher who did not believe in witholding his knowledge of martial arts to his students. His philosophy was that “Only when the students excel the teacher can there be progress”. However, he did caution that it takes time to attain a high level of skill in martial arts. And even in attaining the skill is only half the success. “Without good morals a skilled martial arts exponent is like a tree with decaying roots, it cannot flourish for long.”

It was unfortunate that the grandmaster’s generosity in imparting his knowledge was not always reciprocated with kindness or even gratitude. In 1971, two brothers who had been his trusted lay-students for about five years, broke away to form their own martial arts school, teaching a potpourri of martial arts with Choy Lee Fut pugilism. They had the audacity to further break the cardinal rule of martial arts practitioner is not acknowledging the grandmaster, but declared in public that they had acquired their gongfu knowledge from their father, when it was known to all who knew their family that their father who operated a factory manufacturing carton boxes was a non-practitioner of martial arts.

If at all there was any consolation in this unfortunate case, it was that both brothers only managed to acquire some very superficial skill from the grandmaster in their relatively short period with him. However, by such act of the otherwise colourful and brilliant tapestry of Singapore Hong Sheng Koon’s history. This had been a painful experience to our late grandmaster who still recounted it during his last days and had requested his disciples to place this on records that future generation may have knowledge of it.

Grandmaster Kwan had written memoirs on Chinese herbal medicines & osteopathy, the Chinese martial arts and the Origin and Art of Lion Dancing. The Origin and Art of Lion Dancing was serialized and broadcasted on the Singapore Rediffusion network in the early 1970s. His frequent contributions to the Chinese press on these subjects played a great part in educating the public on the historical and cultural aspect of this art and had in no small way elevated the status of Chinese martial arts.

The grandmaster passed away on May 16, 1976. He was survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters. His children were taught in Choy Lee Fut pugilism since young. In accordance to the late grandmaster’s will, the mantle of Singapore Hong Sheng Koon was passed on to his most senior disciple, Sifu Chia Yan Soon who is the current master-in-charge (Jeong Moon Yan) of Singapore Hong Sheng Koon.



The Past

Sifu Chia grew up in the tough neighborhood of Beach Road – a notorious place in Singapore in the late 1950s to 70s.

“Teak Pasar” or “Iron market” as the wet market was known because of the iron grilles that surrounded the vicinity where housewives would do their daily marketing and spice traders would ply their trade, was a landmark of the place. Two blocks of modern office buildings have now replaced that landmark of yonder years.

It was around this area that the young Chia Yan Soon lived and worked. This was also the very place where gangsters and bullies would swagger in insolence.

His encounters with the various gangs became so frequent that his name was known amongst them. They knew him as “Hainan Khor” – Hainan brother because of his fluency in that dialect. The shopkeepers and traders in that area looked to him for assistance each time they get unduly harassed by the gangs.

Some former residents and shopkeepers in that area remarked that whenever the young sifu Chia clashed with the gangs in those days, he would fight like it was his last and that really scared the daylight out of even the most hardcore street fighters. When asked to comment on that remark, the now silver – hair master threw his head back in laughter and said “There are two types of people you must try to avoid in a fight – one who has just fallen out of love and one who is heavily in debt. These two categories of people tend to have moments of affective disorder when they have a very depreciated value of their lives. It just so happened that I was in either one of the categories during those fights” That’s one human side of a real life “Jeong Moon Yan” which your screen idol would never deliver. Sifu Chia is reluctant to talk much about the past. He remarked that life was hard during those periods and many people joined the gangs for survival.

The Present

A founding member of Hong Sheng Koon, Sifu Chia was with our grandmaster long before the founding of the school. He was made the headmaster or “Jeong Moon Yan” of our school in 1979, in accordance to our late grandmaster’s wish. A consummate pugilist and a respectable figure in the regional martial arts fraternity, Sifu Chia dislikes the limelight and prefers to go on promoting Choy Lee Fut in his quiet ways. When elders from the Choy Lee Fut fraternity received news of our late grandmaster’s wish to have sifu Chia installed as the headmaster, they volunteered to form the “Jeong Moon Yan Inauguration Ceremony Team”, and came to Singapore to institute the formal installation of the “Jeong Moon Yan”.

Sifu Chia’s prowess in Choy Lee Fut is well known not only in the “lui tai” – pugilistic tournaments but in real life combat on the streets as well.

He is usually an amiable fellow, unless provoked by disparaging remarks on Choy Lee Fut or Hong Sheng Koon. He can be very demanding as a master but that cannot hide his benevolence. Trained in Choy Lee Fut and osteopathy by his late master, Sifu Chia is known to be generous even to strangers when they come seeking treatment for physical injuries.

Sifu Chia laments that the very traditional gongfu brought to the shore of Singapore by many famous masters from China is losing its appeal to the younger generations who prefers the more flamboyant calisthenics. He also found lacking in the new generation the fortitude and ability to “eat bitterness” – endure tough training, which is essential in martial arts training. Cinematography and the birth of gongfu stars have made the arduous kung fu training looked like to piece of cake on celluloid screen and on TV. It makes street brawling looks hype and cool and flirting on bamboo stilts such an attainable skill that many youngsters have a very distorted view of kung fu. “Many so called young masters now are securely wrapped in the comforting womb of abstract. The law in our society does not permit it now but in the old days, “tek kwoon” was a very real and frequent happening. There is the pros and cons to such sub-culture” said the sifu.

He hopes that the traditional schools would come together to promote this time – tested skill together. Traditional gongfu training had in the past instilled the values that helped built strong characters of value to our nation building program. Such values and character – building are still relevant in our Internet Age. He opined that confidence and strong characters are especially essential to see a nation through in tumultuous times ahead. He hopes the present generation of leaders and masters would learn to treasure what we have and not discard it for something flamboyant but could not stand the test of time. He did not put it in so many words but his thoughts in summary are that, if the real stuff had been given to the enthusiasts and practitioners, the many charlatans who tried to pass out as the real masters would not have easily fooled them.


Chia Yan Soon

Kwan Mun Keng

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