A Kung Fu Odyssey in Penang
Author of 'Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster', Nick Hurst, trained and travelled with the grandmaster in 2006 for three years and Penang was one of the places they visited. Here he recalls the experiences and the grandmaster’s life.
Heading out alone to Malaysia to meet an 80-year old kung fu master is an intimidating experience. Particularly when armed with no more information than rumours of said master’s gangster-fighting past and ill-tempered present, both backed up by an ability to break marble slabs with his bare hands. It certainly wasn’t the average response to a promotion in an advertising agency – I’d become disillusioned with my career, and having done martial arts since university days a kung fu tour of Asia seemed a good way to take a break.
I went to train with Sugong (grandmaster in Hokkien) because my master was a Chinese Malaysian who had trained under him before moving to England. However, nagging doubts persisted. Sugong only spoke Hokkien. Most worryingly, there was no way to contact him in advance about my arrival.
Perseverance Won The Day
I over-estimated my chances of a warm welcome. On first meeting, I arrived to find Sugong berating a group of students. Although he agreed to teach me, he appeared distinctly unimpressed. This turned out to be a high in our early relationship. With each passing day he held me in lower regard. I started training each day at 6am. Yet within a couple of months it seemed that while I was an expert in receiving profanities in Chinese, I had learnt very little in the way of martial arts.
Nick Hurst's training session with Sugong
Fortunately, a corner was soon turned. One day after two and a half hours of caustic Hokkien rebuke, Sugong finally appeared impressed with my new skills. ‘He takes a scolding well,’ he commented. With that he started to balance his telling offs with kung fu. An unlikely friendship started to form between a 30-year old middle class Londoner and an elderly Chinese man from the toughest of backgrounds.
Where He Came From
His background was revealed through anecdotes translated over obligatory post-training breakfasts. With an opium addict for his first master, he had needed to steal from an uncle’s stash from the age of seven to pay for his lessons. And before he was sixteen, he was expelled from school for fighting a teacher and embroiled in a family feud that saw him kidnapped and nearly killed.
Sugong in his younger days
He left China in 1948 after escaping army conscription in the Chinese civil war but was forced into opium running in Singapore to repay the relocation debts. His escape from this predicament saw him confined to a temple, training under a Shaolin warrior monk who was no less fearsome than the gangsters he had escaped.
Outside the temple love affairs led to broken engagements, angry mothers and more difficulties for Sugong. His ability to find trouble didn’t lessen when he moved to Penang in 1956. Once more gangsters were difficult to avoid as his limited income could only afford rent in the rougher parts of George Town. Again, he found tempestuous relationships too tempting to resist.
No End to Trouble
It was a combustible mix with explosive consequences. Having been lured into a female gangster head’s web with legitimate tasks Sugong soon found himself in a quandary when they began to overlap with illicit jobs. Shunning the gangster’s line of work was in itself guaranteed to bring retribution, but her wrath multiplied when this was combined with his rejection of her daughter in favour of another girl.
The streetwise gangster quickly took matters into her hands: salacious rumours spread about Sugong; thugs were set upon him; and worst of all a culmination of events led to a near-fatal fall-out with his master that saw him beat a temporary retreat from his favourite town. Moving to Kuala Lumpur didn’t bring quieter times. By the end of the ‘60s Sugong found himself an unwilling participant in the May 13th race riots and on the run from Special Branch
Home Away From Home
It was Penang that remained his spiritual home – its food, the outgoing nature of its predominantly Chinese folk and the Hokkien they spoke. While his nomadic nature would still see Sugong move on to Taiwan, Singapore and China, it was always to Penang he would return.
A tea ceremony with Sugong
I first met Sugong in Kuala Lumpur but he would regularly insist on taking me to Penang to force-feed me local delicacies and generally lead me into trouble. For while he had led a very different life to mine, I soon found myself caught up in his adventures. Whether being pulled into triad confrontations or plied with cigarettes and alcohol by his family I was never in danger of being bored.
A Life’s Tale
Somehow, despite our vastly different backgrounds and inability to speak in anything other than sign language, Sugong became a scary surrogate Chinese grandfather. It was this closeness that meant he trusted me enough to recount his life. So, it was that after three and a half tortuous years I returned to England a fitter man with an impressive vocabulary of Hokkien swear words and a book to my name.
As for Sugong, he eventually returned to Hokkien (Fujian) in South-East China where he continued to blaze a cyclonic trail of energy until a day in February 2010 that saw him admitted to hospital with a pain in his leg. Within half a day he was dead. Receiving a call in the middle of a busy workday in London telling me of a Shaolin Grandmaster’s passing in China was both surreal and sad. However, after 82 years a life that ended with such short discomfort after Sugong had been practising his beloved kung fu just the day before seemed a pretty good deal bartered out of life.
Nick Hurst’s book about his grandmaster’s life and his own experiences, ‘Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster,’ has just been released on Kindle. Check out this website for more details.