The origins of Southern Dragon kung fu are hard to place since most of the history is oral, very little being written down. Southern Dragon kung fu style as we know it today is comprised of Hakka kuen, Shaolin and Taoist forms. The recognized Master of Southern Dragon was Lam Yiu Quai who was born in 1877 in Wai Yeung district in Guangdong province in Southern China. Lam Yiu Quai studied with teachers of Hakka kuen, Southern Shaolin and Taoist kung fu. He synthesized all he learned from these teachers into the Dragon Kung Fu style we know today.
An important influence in Dragon Kung Fu was Hakka kuen. This style was influenced by a monk who came to Guangdong in the 1700’s, known as Gee Sim Sim See (“Very Virtuous Master”). He taught his style of Dragon kung fu to a number of people in the surrounding area. Some people learned it in more depth and detail than others, because of their aptitude and ability. These people in turn began to teach with several variations, due to the differences in their understanding and length of time in training. This style eventually combined with the local styles of the area and became known as Hakka Kuen due to the large number of Hakka people who lived in this area of Guangdong province. Hakka Kuen is one of the elements of the Dragon Kung Fu style.
In the 1750’s, the kung fu styles in this part of Guangdong province became collectively known as “East River Fist” due to the geography of Pok-Lo County which is east of the rivers in Guangzhou. All of these local styles had similar characteristics which denoted where they originated. East River Fist eventually influenced the development of Dragon kung fu style as we know it today.
Lam Yiu Quai was born into a family that studied and taught martial arts. His father and grandfather were both proficient in martial arts. Lam Yiu Quai’s father, Lam Qing Yeun, was a store owner at the base of Luo Fo Mountain. Lam Quig Yuen learned East River fist from his father Lam Yao Hing, and taught martial arts in his village.
Lam Qing Yuen also studied with the monks on Luo Fo Mountain. This mountain is famous for its many temples, both Buddhist and Taoist, located at different levels on the mountain. Some temples specialized in martial arts, some in herbal medicine, and others in meditation. Lam Qing Yeun knew many of the monks on Luo Fo Shan and was welcomed all over the mountain. He was close friends with several of the Teachers at Wah Sa Tsoi (White Hair Temple).
One of these Teachers was a monk who went by the name Hai-Fung. Hai-Fung was not his real name, but the name of the area where he was from. Hai-Fung was also known as Gong Gee Dai See (meaning “Upright River”). He came to Luo Fo Shan around 1848 from Fujian. Another monk, Tai-Yut, also came from the southern temple and was quite proficient at his boxing skills. Wong Lee Kiu was a Taoist who lived on the Mountain. Lam Qing Yuen learned the kung fu taught on Luo Fo Shan from the monks Hai-Fung Yung, Tai-Yut, and Wong Lee Kiu. He studied techniques and more importantly, the concepts and principals of the Dragon Kung Fu style.
Lam Yiu Quai was born in 1877 and at a young age he started to learn Dragon Kung Fu from his father and grandfather. He was quite good and progressed quickly. In his early teens he was able to beat grown men. He thought himself quite accomplished. But there were several of his uncle’s students and some of his father’s students he could not best, no matter how he tried. His father worried because Lam Yiu Quai’s physical ability had grown faster than his emotional refinement, as is the case of all young men.
Lam Yiu Quai made the decision to follow in his family’s way and go to Wah Sa Tsoi to study Dragon Kung Fu. When he arrived, and had gone through the process of introductions and acceptance, he was asked to perform in order to evaluate his knowledge and understanding. He was able to overcome several students but not all. There were some he could not overcome and he did not understand why. His teachers recognized he needed to study the mental and spiritual aspects of Dragon Kung Fu. Part of his training at Wah Sa Tsoi was to learn the subtleties of unifying the natures of heaven and earth (Yin and Yang). These practices were made clear to him.
Lam Yiu Quai studied with the monk Wong Lee Giu who taught him the Saam Tong Gor Kiu form (“Three Ways to Cross the Bridge”) and with Ke Hing Ma who taught him Mui Fa Chut Lo (“Plum Flower Fist in Seven Sections”). He learned the concepts and principals of the Dragon Kung Fu style, with all its subtlety and nuances from all his teachers. Lam Yiu Quai made several stays at Wah Sa Tsoi to completely understand the essence of Dragon Kung Fu style.
When Lam Yiu Quai returned to his village, he had integrated all he learned. He continued teaching and helping his father. He showed his father what he had learned from his studies on Wah Sa Tsoi temple. His father was no longer worried about his son. His son had grown up in his ethics and his abilities. He was able to demonstrate clearly the powers of the Dragon Kung Fu style to a very high level.
Lam Yiu Quai married and had several children. In the early 1920’s, Lam Yiu Quai went to the city of Guangzhou where he had heard there was a need for martial arts teachers. Lam took his oldest son with him to make a living teaching.
Once in Guangzhou, he was introduced to Lin Yum Tong, a Mo-Gar master. Lin was from Dong Gwan County just south of Po Low County. The two of them became friends. Later they learned they had studied on the same mountain in Guangdong; Lam Yiu Quai at Wah So Tsoi to learn the Dragon Kung Fu style and Lin Yum Tong at Chong Su Gwan studying meditation and medicine.
Lin Yum Tong introduced Lam Yiu Quai to General Lee Yum-Chu The General hired Lam Yiu Quai to teach martial arts to the troops. Because Lam Yiu Quai was the new teacher, there were times where he had to demonstrate his ability. He gained the name Tiger Lam of East River due to his success with martial arts skills.
Lam Yiu Quai established a number of the Dragon Kung Fu style martial arts schools in Guangzhou and had several senior students to assist him. The assistant instructors were Ma Chai, Lam Woong Gong (son), and Tsoi Yiu Cheung who went on to become teachers of the Dragon Kung Fu style themselves carrying on the tradition of the Dragon Kung Fu Style.
Lam Yiu Quai also opened several schools with Cheung Lai Chen, a Bak-Mei master. They taught Dragon Kung Fu at some and Bak-Mei at others. Cheung Lai Chen and Lam Yiu Quai were good friends in their youth and later related through marriage of their relatives. Both styles are based on the same principles but with slightly different order of importance of these principles. Having grown up learning all the differences between the styles, it was not hard to switch from one to the other. The closeness of styles can be seen in that Lam Hap and Lam Quig Yeun both learned the set “Three Step Push” which became “Nine Step Push” in Bak-Mei and “Sixteen Steps” in Dragon Kung Fu.
During the 1930s, General Lee went to Nanking to ask permission to open an official martial arts training school for the purpose of training teachers in Guangzhou. Permission was granted by Jueng Gee Gong. Five teachers were sent from the North to implement the courses. The five masters coming down to teach in the south were Fu Gong Jeung, Man Ni Sing, Wong Sui Jow, Fo Jin Sun, and Bit Duk Hoy. They were known as the “Five Tigers of the North”.
There was apprehension between the “Five Tigers of the North” and the Guangzhou teachers. The most famous of the Guangzhou teachers at that time were Lin Yum Tong (Mo-gar style), Lam Yiu Quai (Dragon Kung Fu), and Cheung Li Chen (Bak-Mei style). In order to equalize the status of the local teachers, these three teachers became known as the “Three Tigers of the East River”.
Later General Lee was replaced with Cheung Dai-Tong who admired the “Three Tigers” and sent them to teach troops in other divisions. Lam Yiu Quai was busy with his military assignments as well as his own schools.
In the early 1950’s, Lam Yiu Quai had a stroke. Because of his connections with the government, he was able to secure permission to move to Hong Kong for medical treatment. In 1965 he had another stroke and passed away in 1966.
This is a short version of Lam Yiu Quai’s history, and while there are numerous stories associated with Lam Yiu Quai, many are colorful and not always factual.
As to the origin of the Southern Dragon Kung Fu style, its roots are in the north but the flower is in the south. Dragon style as we know it today is comprised of Hakka kuen, (the style of Lam’s grandfather and father) Shaolin, (his Teachers from Wah Sa Tsoi) and Taoist forms (from Wong Lee Giu). He kept the sets he learned from his teachers intact, but he also created new sets which blended all the concepts and principles of his studies. This is the true genius of Lam Yiu Quai: his depth of understanding of the underlying principles, and his ability to create a teaching curriculum to pass on this understanding.