Grand-Master Lee Kiang-Ke: Bringing White Crane into the 20th Century
Historically, with the end of feudal social systems and the widespread use of firearms, advanced methods of combat are no longer an every day necessity. This fact of life, combined with the traditionally secretive nature of kung fu instruction, is contributing to the loss of an irreplaceable part of China's cultural heritage. Many of the hundreds of different styles of kung fu are in danger of being lost or diluted to the point of extinction.
For practitioners of Fukien-style White Crane Kung Fu, the life of Grandmaster Lee Kiang-Ke (1903-1992) represents both a link to the past and window toward the future. To properly understand the reverence a martial artist has for his or her Grandmaster, it is necessary to view the martial art in its proper historical and cultural context. One important difference between the martial arts and other forms of physical activity is that martial arts can be practiced and enjoyed for a lifetime, and progress can be made at virtually any age. As such, many older masters are considered living treasures, due to the decades of accumulated knowledge, experience, and teaching expertise that they possess. Today, fewer and fewer people are willing to devote their lives to the study and teaching of martial arts as was done in the past. Because of this unfortunate reality, priceless martial knowledge often disappears forever upon the death of an elderly Grandmaster. This is especially true in the many styles of Chinese martial arts, where kung fu Shifus were secretive about their personal fighting art, and unwilling to disseminate it indiscriminately.
Fukien Shaolin White Crane Kung Fu is continuing to thrive, thanks to the enlightened thinking of one of its foremost proponents. Third-generation Grand-Master Lee Kiang-Ke was the single most influential person responsible for the preservation and dissemination of the flying crane system of Fukien White Crane. His choice to open to the public what had previously been a closed-door system ensured the survival of a most complete and devastating Chinese martial art system.
Grandmaster Lee Kiang-Ke (Lee Kiang-Kay) started to learn Kung Fu from his father at the age of seven. After 10 years of arduous training, his father sent him away to live at a temple (Bai He An) where he furthered his martial knowledge under the instruction of a temple monk known as "Nine-dots Monk." This temple specialized in the instruction of Fang Chi-Niang's White Crane techniques. After four years of intensive study, the young master returned home to assist his father in teaching White Crane and in practicing herbal medicine. In time, he became the chief instructor and medical practitioner in his community. Later on, the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist government) invited him to join the 49th Army Division as a medic. He ended up also teaching the soldiers the long handled broadsword (Da dao).
When his time of service was completed, he returned home and continued teaching martial arts and practicing medicine. Thereafter, Lee Kiang-Ke moved to Singapore where he stayed for six years. In an effort to escape the Japanese invasion forces, he then moved to Kuching, East Malaysia. Unfortunately, the Japanese invaded Malaysia soon after. Following the war, fellow martial artists invited him to open a club. He did so and named it the "Martial Heroes Association" (Woo Ing Tong).*3 It prospered for many years. During this period, Malaysian society was quite rough-and-tumble. Polite tests of skill were fairly common. Less friendly challenges and outright life and death self-defense situations also occurred. Master Lee was famous amongst his peers for never losing a challenge.*4 In 1963, he moved to the city of Sibu (also in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak). Eventually, he directed several schools in local communities including Kuching, Sibu, Sarikei, and Bintulu.
In 1967, the first South East Asian Kung Fu Tournament was held in Singapore. Lee Kiang-Ke's Kung Fu brother, Lee Wen-Hung, came from China and competed. Lee Wen-Hung had studied with Lee Kiang-Ke under Lee Mah-Saw. Despite his somewhat advanced age, he won first place in combat. He then he settled in Singapore. In 1973, a White Crane student representing Sarawak (East Malaysia) went to compete in the third South East Asian Kung Fu Tournament where he won second place in combat.
Grandmaster Lee Kiang Ke retired in 1978 leaving his son, Shifu Lee Joo-Chian, the leadership of the head school in Sibu, East Malaysia. Master Lee Joo-Chian's own training reveals the hard work needed to acquire some real skill (Kung Fu). Like his father, he started training at the age of seven. Classes were generally two and a half hours long. As the climate is hot and humid, warming up time was very brief. Students practiced forms for a half hour without any break. Thereafter, they briefly rested and recommenced their training of forms and basic moves for another half hour. Two-person forms were then practiced for another half hour followed by conditioning drills or weapons training. Finally, the last half hour was reserved for free sparring practice. The young Lee Joo-Chian followed this grueling schedule three times a day, six days per week! Morning class was at 4.30 A.M. Then the children went off to school. Upon his return, Lee Joo-Chian helped teach the afternoon class. Around eight in the evening, Lee and his sisters trained once again. Master Lee likes to remind people that there was little television in those days.*5
One of the foremost proponents of the White Crane system in North America is Shifu Lorne Bernard, based in Montreal. He began his studies with a student of Grandmaster Lee, Shifu Augustine Ngu, who immigrated to Canada in 1977. Shifu Ngu now operates a large Kung Fu academy in Mississauga, Ontario. Later he was able to continue his studies under the direct tutelage of the heir to the system Master Lee Joo-Chian. Shifu Bernard travels to Malaysia on a regular basis to learn from the various White Crane masters both in and out of the Lee family. He has also arranged for the system's present leader, Shifu Lee Joo Chian, to travel to Canada and teach for an extended period of time on several occasions. Access to such highly skilled practitioners permitted Shifu Bernard to gain a deep understanding of the theories and finer points within the art.
In addition to teaching at two schools in the Montreal region, Shifu Bernard has arranged for White Crane to be taught at a major university in Montreal ( Université du Québec à Montréal). Shifu Bernard has also trained several instructors, and assitant-instructors thus ensuring the continued growth and expansion of the White Crane system.