Hap Gar Kung Fu: Interview with David Rogers Sifu

Hap Gar Kung FuHow would you describe Hap Gar to newbie/pro?

For the newbie: Hap Gar is a martial art from Southern China with roots in the Tibetan systems.

It is characterised by ‘long arm’ movements in which strikes are thrown in wide arcs, generating a lot of force. The routines are very beautiful to watch- often mimicking the movements of the white crane with its wings and beak. In Canton, the style has won many competitions for performance. Also the large movements and stances means that it is an excellent form of exercise literally using every part of the body, developing cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and strength. The movements have been well and truly ‘battle tested’ and have been proven to work well for real combat.

Some styles of martial arts are good for fighting but not so good to look at. Some styles are pretty but useless from a combative point of view. Hap Gar is excellent for both!

For the Pro: The footwork and long punches work well, both in an MMA environment and a street encounter where there might be more than one opponent. The general strategy is to attack the opponent from a dominant angle, firing strikes from outside his field of vision. Rather than the strikes being ‘non telegraphed’, they are combined into continuous barrages where each strike loads up and makes way for the next. Long range using the fists and feet, mid range the elbows and knees, close range butting with the shoulders, hips and head.  There is little ‘sticking hands’ as favoured by styles like Hung Gar or Wing Chun, rather the Hap gar stylist will strike at the opponents limbs to avoid a bridge, and if the opponent manages to enter, wrestling is the default response. Trips, throws and sweeps are common. On the ground there is no ‘rolling’, however, falling skills, getting up from the ground, kicking/sweeping from the bottom and punching from a kneeling posture are practised. Kum La (joint locking) is included but is not emphasised as the major strategy since the fighter wants to remain standing and free to move if possible.

What would be your most important advice for beginners/advanced students?

For beginners: Stretch! Once you are flexible enough you can perform the postures correctly without strain and power will come naturally. More relaxation will develop the looseness necessary for generating force, plus your health will benefit, you will not get injured during practise and you will have more stamina, since tension wastes energy.

For advanced students: Constantly work to improve your basics rather than merely accumulate many forms. The key is to deeply understand the principles behind the moves and develop your body and mind to powerfully and intuitively express those principles.

If your goal is to be able to realistically use your techniques- sparring is a must. Don’t always go ‘full contact’- rather put on protective equipment and play! Animals learn best by playing and we are the same. If you are serious about fighting you will need to occasionally ‘pressure test’ by harder sparring or competition. Then take the lessons learned back into play and continually improve. If you always spar too hard you will accumulate injuries and Chinese Martial Arts is fundamentally about good health. Also, if the practise is enjoyable you will much more likely stick to regular training and not give up.

What is your point of view as for traditional Chinese martial arts vs. modern MMA/Reality-Based self defence?

Hap Gar Kung FuMMA: I’m all for it! In my teacher’s time fights were common, so he had a lot of real world experience. For me, brought up in a peaceful town, I didn’t really get into fights. After starting martial arts at 14 years of age, I only had to use my kung fu to defend myself very few times. When I taught kung fu I was always saying ‘my Sifu once had a fight and did this…’ One day I thought ‘That’s all very well- but what can I do?’ I felt a bit of a fraud because although I trained hard and had good techniques, my experience was mostly second hand.

That’s when I began to get more seriously into Sanda. When MMA started, I began to study no-gi jiujitsu with a very high level teacher and I continue to have a private lesson every week. From training with the Brazilians I have adopted the practise of ‘specific sparring’. In grappling the idea is to work a specific position and try to solve it- develop a ‘game’. Applying the same concept to kung fu was a revelation for me!

Using mats, training weapons, helmets etc. I now test EVERYTHING. I no longer teach only from my Sifu’s experience- I have my own. Safe, realistic practise has enabled me to practise for thousands of rounds without serious injury- so I now have MORE fighting experience than I could have got from fighting outside, without the ethical and legal ramifications!

Some of my students enter MMA competitions and I enjoy coaching them, sparring with them, cornering them etc. They have had good success. For me, it’s not about competition, just testing and improving my skills, but without competition, martial arts would not have evolved so rapidly- so we can all benefit from that.

Reality based self defence: Most of what I’ve seen has little in the way of ‘reality!’

Look- if I put on a satin Chinese suit and perform a spear set, I’m demonstrating something cultural. It’s pretend. I’m not deluding myself that I’m a soldier. If somebody performs wearing army clothes and demonstrates eye gouges and throat strikes against a compliant partner it’s no more real. Some people are deluded about this.

The truth is simple- if you want to be able to defend yourself practise against a resisting opponent and as you get better, practise against more resistance and better opponents.  People no longer buy the ‘Oriental mystery’ fantasy that was popular when I was a teenager, but now they will buy the ‘special forces’ fantasy or something else.

Most people learn self defence because of fear. If you do realistic training like MMA you will develop confidence because you have learned to really use your techniques. You may never become ‘super deadly’, but you will understand that neither is anybody else and you can move on to more healthy pursuits, perhaps cultural or fitness or sport. If you practise something that is called ‘realistic based self defence’ and there is no sparring, grappling or resistance then it is just role-play. You may feel cool practising it, you may fool some people, but deep down you will still be scared, because in your heart you will know its not real. This can transform into unhealthy practises to validate yourself- obsession with ‘rank’ or status within the group to enforce the shared delusion of being deadly. It’s a trap.

Scholar/warrior: What do you think about martial/cultural aspect of traditional Chinese martial arts?

Martial: The martial aspect of the traditional Chinese martial arts is passed down in the forms. These were a very efficient mnemonic before the days of videos, youtube and when most were illiterate. Forms (taolo) were one of the three pillars of practise along with conditioning (lin gong) and sparring (san sau). Practising a form will have benefits to your cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, health, core strength and coordination, but the sequence must be unravelled to be useful for fighting.  If the Sifu cannot (or does not) explain the concepts behind the moves, the student may end up with no real skill. With the correct understanding, the student can then train the moves in san sau practise to develop combat use.

The major difference between traditional Chinese martial arts and others is the scope of the practise: Punches, kicks, wrestling and joint locks, weapons training with a variety of blunt and edged weapons, plus moves that were developed for a battlefield situation against multiple opponents are all common parts of Chinese Kung Fu.

Cultural: Chinese martial arts have a rich culture: History, philosophy, art and science. It has been a lifetime study for me. For example- in the Southern styles the Lion Dance is very common. This dance contains many cultural references that have been preserved in the dance. Practised by kung fu students it is great for developing stamina, strength in the arms and legs and builds the spirit of the school. I have also studied Chinese medicine especially acupuncture because for me it seemed to really symbolise the Chinese culture and I really wanted to understand it. The concepts of Mo Duk is an important part of kung fu culture and is concerned with the development of a good human being, not just a good fighter.

Many people practise Kung Fu for cultural reasons and do not want to be a fighter. Kung Fu practise has many benefits and as long as you do not delude yourself that practising forms will make you a fighter without having to do conditioning or sparring then it is a very healthy thing!

ALL martial arts are developed within a cultural framework and have values that are impossible to separate from the physical techniques. Modern MMA in my opinion is no different and has good and bad in its culture.

I would aspire to having the best of both traditional and modern in my school- From traditional martial arts I would take the values of healthy practise for all ages and respect for everybody on their personal journey, but I would drop some of the culture that is not relevant or healthy today, for example- unquestioning loyalty, secrecy, stopping students cross training and superstitious practises are things that I do not promote in my school.

Hap Gar Kung Fu

Closing thoughts

In the 21st Century, more people than ever are overweight and unfit. Excessive use of computers and video games have created people who are uncoordinated and out of touch with their bodies. Not everybody likes competitive sports, and the practise of a traditional martial art can be a very healthy and worthwhile undertaking.

However, to survive in the modern times, traditional martial art has to adapt and learn from sports science and modern combat sports, to make sure that it is offering the best and most up to date methods for its students.

Otherwise it will become like a classic car that has appeal for the enthusiast, but cannot compare with the performance of a modern car.

Some Kung Fu teachers are making that shift and will be called ‘untraditional’ by others, but after all, the art has evolved and grown for 1500 years. Why should it stop now?

About: David Rogers runs the ‘Rising Crane Centre’ which is a full time school of Chinese martial arts and a clinic of acupuncture. He has trained Kung Fu since 1984, and is a graduate of the ‘South China School of Martial Arts’ in Canton and the ‘College of Integrated Chinese Medicine’. He is a disciple of Deng Jan Gong, who is the 5th generation Kung Fu master in his family and a Chinese National Champion.

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