Is Pak Mei Shaolin?

There is a great deal of misinformation and half-truths generated by misinformed students of Chinese martial arts. The first misconception is the Shaolin Temple myth.

Many Chinese styles were village styles or family styles, which developed as a need for protection from bandits. Many became great boxers and as their fame spread they attached themselves to the Shaolin Temple. This could be likened to a boxer claiming to be taught by Muhammad Ali. This would bring instant fame and recognition using a name the public recognized. In those days a village boxer had to be good to survive. If he were beaten he would have to leave.

One example of a boxing style that originated from two teachers was choy li fut. The founder of choy li fut put together the boxing styles of choy gar and fut gar naming the style out of respect for his teachers.

Hung Kuen is often referred to the Shaolin Temple. The truth, as told to Lee Pai by the head of the Chinese Free Masons and todei of Lam Sai Wing is different from the general story given to the public. Hung Kuen (hung gar) was developed for the boat people who practiced on the top decks of saipans. The low wide horse stance was used for stability. The well educated did not practice Hung gar because it came from the docks and boat people were considered a lower class. The claim to Shaolin was to make the style more reputable.

The reality is that Shaolin Boxing styles came from boxers who sought sanctuary. These boxers had to earn their keep and the way to do this was to teach the monks. What else could these wanted men do? Stepping outside the temple meant death. Shaolin monks were Buddhists which means they were non-aggressive and non-violent. The original exercises given to them by Da Mo were meant for health. There cannot be a Buddhist style. This would break their code of conduct.

Today’s Shaolin Temple is merely a tourist trap. The senior monks were told by the communist government to teach or lose their temple. The monks were told to teach something they could live with. The income generated by this instruction would support the temple.

Daoist styles were practical and separate from religion. Daoist monks had no hang-ups regarding use. Pak Mei is an example of a Daoist style shrouded in mystery. The forms in Pak Mei were not made up by Cheung Lai Chun. He did, however, name the style after Pak Mei, the Taoist priest, to honour his teacher. The monks practicing these arts did not concern themselves with names, as they did not have dealings with the general public.

The reality is that a real art has history and tradition. The general public does not have access to seniors in the Chinese arts to ask questions. A two-week trip to Asia does not guarantee anything. It is common knowledge that many teaching today in North America were beginners in their native land and they did not spend the time to learn to use the art, as they were still children.

We are very fortunate to have our questions answered truthfully. Pak Mei seniors were doctors, engineers and businessmen, who were not about to stake their reputation on an art that didn’t work.

Pak Mei has a rich history and tradition. Lee often speaks of the training carried on in the Chan Family Hall, where he taught Pak Mei to his todei. Young Chinese would often claim to know Pak Mei. They were terrible, merely waving hands at clouds. In reality Pak Mei is taught one form per year, sometimes two years. Anything else is embroidered legs and flowery arms. There is one other point I would like to make. Not only does our family have the reputation of having learned from a most excellent source, but we also have a reputation in the Chinese community as ones who can use it.

Lee’s todei are working abroad. One is in England, while others are in different parts of Asia. They are professional men who do not have to teach for a living. Pak Mei is still underground in Hong Kong, which brings me to the subject of videos. As an educator, videos can enhance a class, provided the material is true. I have friends in other countries that often send me all kinds of material for my personal library and ask my opinion. I have seen everything put out by those claiming to do Pak Mai. One video of a demonstration in New York featured Pak Mei. Lee laughed and said “not only were they were backwards, but also the wrong set!” He also said they would have been better off trying to imitate the book, as their tiger fork set appeared to have been made up on the spot.

I have heard silly statements on who’s to say what is real. I can assure you that we do not do a set called bok mei hu chuan. In Hung Kuen the measure of proficiency is tiger and crane. Pak Mei’s measure is gau bo toi. Sup gee is the form allowed to be demonstrated in front of the general public. This would account for the many wrong interpretations that are out there.

In conclusion, I have often heard that there are more fakes in Hong Kong than here. Sadly, I personally think this is no longer true. North America is full of them. One of Lee’s friends is a senior in wing chun and spent years with Yip Man. There were originally more sets. Perhaps Yip Man felt that the essence was in only three. Many styles have core forms. Hung Kuen was originally a style practiced by boat people to protect themselves from bandits. Cheung Lai Chun and his todei proved their art in life and death confrontations. These were real arts, with famous people who have left their mark in Chinese martial arts history. These men proved a styles worth in reality. They did not play games of tag, with rules and a referee to intervene if the going got tough.
Mike Doucet
Pak Mei Pai