Grandmaster Chiu Kow has experienced enough in his life that several films could be filled with it. Unfortunately, they would not be peaceful, feel-good flicks, but tough stories about the life of a long-suffering person. What makes him stand out is that despite all his experiences, he has managed to pass on Hung Gar’s high moral and human standards to his own successor.
A difficult start in life
Chiu Kow was born on 3 August 1895 in Samkong, Canton. Life for the population in large parts of China at that time was characterised by poverty. The decline of the Qing Dynasty was already becoming apparent. In addition, the great empire lost the war against Japan that year and the unrest that would lead to the Boxer Rebellion five years later had already begun. Chiu Kow’s parents, like many other Chinese, had nothing, and even this nothing became less and less. In 1905, they sold the boy as a labourer. Whether this was done out of self-interest or in the hope of securing a future for Chiu Kow with a job remains to be seen.
Slave to Malaysia
Chiu Kow was brought to Malaysia. At that time, the country was under the rule of various colonial masters. A large part belonged to Singapore (and thus Great Britain) or was under direct British rule, while a smaller part of the country was ruled by Thailand. Unfortunately, I could not find out where exactly Chiu Kow was taken. Since slavery had already been abolished in Thailand at that time, I assume that he had not been in one of the Thai-controlled northern four states, but that is speculation.
The boy was put to work in coal and tin mines. This work was hard and the workers had no rights. Mistreatment, sometimes to the point of death, was commonplace. Young Chiu Kow realised during this period of his life how important it was to be able to fight. To fight in order to survive. At the age of fourteen, around 1909, he managed to escape. This led him to Singapore.
Life in Singapore
In 1909, Singapore still belonged to Great Britain. Since rubber had become very important as a commodity, the island and city state mainly exported just that. It was during this period that Chiu Kow found work with the Lok Yau family. Their wealth was based on the aforementioned rubber tree plantations. The family not only used the financial means for their personal prosperity, but was also very committed to education and the building of universities.
However, the cityscape of Singapore at the beginning of the twentieth century was significantly different from today. Even then, the city was one of the most important trading centres and historical photographs already show a clear city character. However, the location on the main and numerous side islands made it necessary to distribute the population into numerous villages with connections to Singapore. (Even today, land reclamation is an important issue for Singapore. Since the 1960s, 140 km2 have been filled up). Moving between the villages and the urban area was not without danger and once again Chiu Kow was faced with the need to fight. The question of where he should gain advanced knowledge, however, remained open.
A fight as a turning point
During this period, duels between great fighters were fought on a large stand called a lei tai. This was often high and surrounded by sharpened sticks. Whoever fell down was seriously injured or died. Both opponents also had to sign a contract in which they agreed that the fight could end in death.
One such fight, one of the biggest of the time, was observed one day by Chiu Kow. The Hung Gar fighter Leng Sai Yuk was fighting an opponent named Ha Saan Fu. The latter was himself a great kung fu master, but also a member of a criminal organisation, which in turn stood in the way of Leng Sai Yuk. This fight was to bring clarity and, if Leng had his way, the end of criminal activity. The Hung Gar fighter quickly turned the tide in his favour and the fight ended with Ha Saan Fu’s death.
Chiu Kow sought out Leng Cai Juk after the fight and asked to learn from him. The latter, however, refused on the grounds that he himself had not reached the rank of Sifu. But he did not see this as an obstacle to the young Chiu Kow’s will to learn, for he brought him to his own master, Wong Sai Wing (Note: Not to be confused with Lam Sai Wing, but also a disciple of Wong Fei Hung). The latter took him in as a disciple. For ten years, Chiu Kow followed Wong Sai Wing and learned both martial arts and medicine from him. Together they travelled throughout Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Soon Chiu Kow also began to teach. Even today, many schools in these areas refer to these two great fighters.
The non-teaching Chiu Kow
After Wong Sai Wing died, Chiu Kow, like many other expatriate Chinese, travelled back to his homeland in 1927 at China’s call to join the Red Army. However, he was not selected to fight for his homeland and was completely disillusioned and disappointed. He settled in the district of his birth. There he was soon known for his good kung fu, but also for not wanting to teach. That is why he was nicknamed ‘Chiu But Kow’, meaning ‘Chiu Kow who does not teach’.
Chiu Kow and Shiu Ying
Arriving at his new stage in life, Chiu Kow actively sought a wife and thus met Wong Shiu Ying. She and her family practised Mok Gar. The two young people found a basis for their life together in their shared passion (both martial and healing arts) and decided to marry. Together they moved to Chiu Kow’s home village to a small farm.
Disciple of Lam Sai Wing
In the turmoil of the Chinese Civil War, Chiu Kow learned that the famous Lam Sai Wing was teaching in Hong Kong. He and his family had been threatened by communists for some time and were also very interested in learning from this master. As Chiu Kow had already learnt from one of Wong Fei Hung’s students, they also belonged to the same kung fu family and thought they had a good chance of being accepted as students. They seized the opportunity and left the village. So the family travelled to Hong Kong, where Chiu Kow works as a tailor. There they entered the school of the famous master. The branch was run by Tang Hin Choi, who was not yet a Sifu himself at that time. Only in the course of time was he appointed one, which makes Chiu Kow and Shiu Ying undoubtedly disciples of Lam Sai Wing. (This fact has already been disputed in conflicts.) As already advanced students, Chiu Kow and Shiu Ying were soon taught by Lam Sai Wing personally. Exactly when the style succession passed to him is not known.
Teacher and doctor
In 1931, with the permission of their teacher, the couple opened their first school in Hong Kong. As it was common at the time for challenges to be issued to test the quality of a school, physical altercations were commonplace. Chiu Kow quickly made a name for himself as a good fighter, but did not limit himself to that. Together with his wife, he also opened a medical practice and took care of people’s health. He often did this for free and cared for anyone who needed help, regardless of whether they could be paid. Chiu Kow was the first doctor in Hong Kong to own an X-ray machine.
Second World War
During the Second World War, Chiu Kow had to close his school and leave Hong Kong. During long journeys they worked as kung fu teachers and doctors, meanwhile supported by their older children. It is assumed that much of what is known today as ‘Village Kung Fu’ can be traced back to their efforts to teach people self-defence.
Back in Hong Kong
After the war ended, the Chius moved their residence back to Hong Kong. Chiu Kow opened four schools, which were very successful. He also competed a lot (and very successfully). He more than lived up to his reputation as a great fighter, but also as a righteous man. Like others of his lineage, he actively opposed the Chinese mafia and its crimes.
As a great master, Chiu Kow was invited to the official government tournament in 1956, which was to become the foundation stone for the development of Modern Wushu, officially recognised in 1959. Chiu Kow won the tournament and his art was incorporated into the new national style.
Handover to Chiu Chi Ling
At the age of 70, Chiu Kow handed over his schools to his youngest son and heir Chiu Chi Ling. However, like his wife, he continued to teach in these schools into old age. Chiu Kow died on 20 January 1995 at the age of exactly one hundred, but as a sign of respect and in honour of his great achievements, he was granted three more years of life. That is why it is still often read today that Chiu Kow lived to be 103 years old.
The main source for this article is the book of my Sifu’s Grandmaster Martin Sewer, whose source in turn is his own teacher and Chiu Kow’s son, Chiu Chi Ling. Where possible, I have cross-checked the facts with historical facts. The photo is taken from my Sifu’s book with his kind permission.