Research Note: A Challenge Match in Hong Kong, 1890
Vintage Postcard (undivided back) dating to the late Qing dynasty. Source: Author’s personal collection.

Today’s post comes courtesy of Joseph Svinth who shared an intriguing, if brief, find with me a few weeks ago. Kung Fu legends revel in accounts of high stakes challenge matches. In a typical story a young martial arts instructor enters a neighborhood seeking to set up shop.  He is challenged by one or more members of the local establishment on the understanding that if he loses, he must close down his school and head elsewhere.  Such showdowns are the bread and butter of martial arts films and novels. Their memory even seems to affect the behavior of contemporary North American martial artists as I have, over the years, heard of a good number of challenges issued and received under various circumstances.

I suspect that casual brawling between rival martial artists was probably more common in the 1970s and 1980s, but a certain amount of this still happens. Of course, in the current atmosphere such standoffs may be more likely to end in police involvement than in the past.  Or maybe not.

The following article lets us take a close look at how one specific challenge match evolved between two martial artists in the Hung Hom neighborhood of Kowloon (Hong Kong) in the year 1890.  Not only do we get a glimpse of the truth behind the legends, but this account is interesting for two other reasons as well. First off, our would be combatants advertised their disagreements through a series of public placards, giving us a look at the sort of rhetoric that surrounded one of these events.  Unsurprisingly they attempted to hail the neighborhood, invoking its honor and making Hung Hom not just the prize, but a participant in their grievance. One wonders whether such a rhetorical strategy reflected the fundamental marginality of such figures and their attempt to claim a place within local society by loudly advertising that they alone could protect the neighborhood’s honor.

The second interesting thing about this fight is that it never actually took place. While our would-be participants felt that publicly posting placards was the appropriate way to go about airing their grievances, Hong Kong’s law enforcement officers strenuously disagreed. When the promised fight caused public excitement they swept in, removed the offending placards and apparently arrested Hok Lo Chun, the instructor who had more recently moved into the area.

This is a valuable reminded that the “good old days” were never quite so free as modern stories tend to imagine. Both the Qing Empire and later Western imperialists took a dim view of any type of public disorder, particularly episodes caused by martial artist in areas under their control. I wouldn’t say that challenge matches never happened, but they could and did result in serious legal consequences. It seems almost certain that we know about this aborted bout precisely because it generated a court case (and written records) that could be discussed by a Hong Kong reporter looking for a juicy story.

This brings us to the second point of significance. I am not yet sure which paper (or reporter) first published this account, but it quickly got taken up by a newswire service and was eventually republished around the globe in the autumn (August-November) of 1890. Joseph Svinth sent me a clipping from The Sportsman, an athletic newspaper published in Melbourne. A few moments of searching revealed that at least three other Australian newspapers carried the same story within a month of when the Sportsman ran it. It was also republished in the Boston Globe Weekly, the Times of Philadelphia and the London Evening News and Post.  I am sure that it made other appearances as well, but given how popular it clearly was, I did not feel like making a more comprehensive search.  I think it is sufficient to say that the account was widely read on at least four continents…in 1890.

To put this in a more historical context, a decade before the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion we can already find stories about Chinese martial artists circulating widely in the global press. The ways in which they were reported was unflattering to be sure. Yet this suggests that the existence of unique forms of Chinese hand combat was not unknown to the reading public.

A few notes on the article itself may be helpful before going on. As is often the cases in news reports from this era, the romanization of Chinese names and places did not enjoy any universally agreed upon standard. The “Hungham” neighborhood that the reporter identifies is almost certainly Hung Hom. Likewise, I suspect that the Kwan Yun Temple of Hungham is a reference to Hung Hom’s Kwan Yum (or Guan Yin) temple, which was a prominent structure in the region at the time.

I haven’t located any information about the two martial artists discussed in the piece.  Lau A Kwan seems to have established a successful public school in Hung Hom sometime before 1890. Sadly, the article says nothing about his style.  Hok Lo Chun, who subsequently moved into the area, is said to have studied both boxing and fencing.  If anyone has insight into these two figures, feel free to contact me or leave it in the comments bellow.

A Chinese Boxing Professor’s Challenge

A Chinese professor of boxing and fencing in Hong Kong published, by means of placards, the following challenge:–“Having been informed that a man named Lau A Kwan, who keeps a place in Hungham, where he instructs pupils in the art of fighting and self-defence, boasts that he has no equal in his profession, and that he is a perfect Hercules in strength and offers an inducement in the shape of 10 dol. to anyone who has the courage to meet him at the manly art and bend his arm—his strength being equal to several hundred cattles [sic.]—now I, Hok Lo Chun, have traveled over many countries of the globe, but never met a man who was so boastful and proud of his superiority in his profession.  I also have some knowledge of fighting, and therefore write this and post it up, so that all men can see me challenge him to meet me at the spot in front of the Kwan Yun Temple, Hungham, at 5 p.m. this day, man against man, there to try with me his skill in fighting, and the results of the test will be to settle beyond a doubt who is the best man.  If this Lau Kwan refuses to come out, then he is a vain boaster and rank coward, and he must clear out of the place all together, for he is only an upstart, and, and when put to the test, a baby at heart, and therefore not fit to associate with respectable men. I hope all people will excuse me.  Dated this day of the 3rd moon. Hop Lo Chun.”

The placards were removed by the police after attracting much attention, and the pugilist himself was arrested and punished.

The Sportsman, Melbourne, October 29, 1890. Page 2.
Boston Globe weekly on September 6, 1890. Page 4.
The Times (Philadelphia), August 24, 1890. Page 7.
London Evening News and Post, August 5, 1890. Page 3.

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