Chapkoondo, Ring of Fury, Xinjiaquan: The tragic history of Martial Arts in Singapore

Whether in sports or fiction, be they for fighting or pure form, martial arts seem not to resonate with Singaporean culture.

In 1968, the first Southeast Asian Leitai Tournament took place in Gay World Stadium in Kallang, Singapore. This would constitute an all-out brawl where competitors from Malaysia, Hong-Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia fought against one another in the hope of making martial arts recognized as a real competitive sport. For seven days, they fought, in front of more than 80,000 spectators with according to sources from the time rudimentary techniques and no art, because of a point system and poor arbitration¹. Three years prior, Singapore had been forced to leave Malaysia. Maybe the Singaporean spectators saw this event as some kind of revenge, maybe those people needed to take their mind off the event which had such an impact on their daily lives, or maybe it all came down to bad referees, but still, a lot of Singaporean fighters won first place.

The first Southeast Asia Heavyweight Champion was named Leong Siew Chong, he took place in the competition right next to his brother Steven Leong Siew Wah who became the first Southeast Asia Lightweight Championship trophy, at age 15. Both brothers had been raised by their father, a Chinese Kung-fu Master, this heritage associated with those accomplishments may well have been what gave the two man the idea to make the first Singaporean martial, by mixing five Kungfu systems to a form of karate. They would call it Chapkoondo².

The Leong brothers founded their school in an epoch which saw the rise of Bruce Lee, a time were martial arts became viral. Siew Chong stayed home to maintain the dojo while Steven toured the world, obtaining Middleweight championship belt, training students and police officers worldwide and even obtaining a tv show on Canadian television. After those accomplishments, Steven tried to make it big inside the kung-fu movies industry and earned spot as a bad guy in a few productions.

Alas, in 83, Steven got back home. The golden days were over, chapkoondo much like martial arts as a whole were becoming a thing of the past. Bruce Lee had died, the Shaw Brothers were declining, and much like those stars, the Leong brothers’ schools had closed one after the other. Nowadays, Chapkoondo, Singapore first martial art, appears to only exist in Greece, where if you checked on the numbers of the Chapkoondo Institute on Youtube, even there, interest seems to be frail. Leong Siew Chong is dead and Steven, who has become a traditional medicine dealer has but only one student. Chapkoondo, much like ninja flicks, appears to have been crushed by the 21st century. Still, one of the interesting thing about Steven Leong Siew Wah’s past is his statement that he once met and sparred with Bruce Lee. Although this cannot be proven, as no evidence exist ; another Singaporean once met the martial art legend and it changed his life.

Iron Mask talking to his men

Tommy Yeow tried all his life to be a good filmmaker in an industry which didn’t want him. Still, looking back on it, it appears the filmmaker took everything with a smile, being known for catchphrase such as “I’m a has-been that never was,”³. After meeting with Bruce Lee with who he wanted to do a musical and learning of his death, Tommy who at the time worked in tv decided to fund the first (and only) Singaporean kung-fu film. For this project he associated with James Sebastian, who also worked in tv. The duo would release upon the world: Ring of Fury.

Even though its title directly pays homage to Fist of Fury, in which Bruce Lee had to fight a bunch of Japanese karateka during the Occupation of China, Ring of Fury much more resembles The Big Boss. In both movies, a young man has to deal with street thugs with his fists. As often was the case at the times, societal problems are solved by one man who learns kung-fu and decides to stand up for his community. Even though, in Cheow and Sebastian movie, the actual leading role has to learn kung-fu beforehand.

Being in 2020, both filmmakers are now deceased⁵ and we will never know if their first idea was to contact one of the Leong brothers. What we do know is that the duo sort of harassed Peter Chong until he agreed to act in their vigilante kung-fu flick⁴. Peter Chong was famous at the time, for having been trained by Mas Oyama and he still is, you can find video of him doing the split on Youtube even though he’s 79 now. Until 2018, he stayed International Committee Chairman for Asia and the Middle East in the International Karate Organization and he still happily talks about Ring of Fury which was the only movie in which he starred. At some point James Sebastian wanted to do another movie with Chong but this never saw the light of day⁶.

As Ring of Fury itself, it was dubbed “an advertisement for gangsterism and vigilantism” by the Singaporean censors at the time. It’s pretty sure it played a part in Tommy Cheow’s career never really taking off. According to Chong, censors of this era didn’t want the idea of gangsters populating the street of the once-Malaysian city which is ironic since the film crew, shooting on a budget of 100,000 dollars and in a guerrilla fashion had to pay real gangster just to be left alone.

This is where this gets interesting, according to Cheow and Sebastian, at the time they finished the movie, they didn’t have any cents left to pay their leading actor, Peter Chong, so in place of a payment they gave him a print of the movie which the karate master stuck in his fridge for 30 long years. According to him, he tried to send it to the censors in 94 but they cut part of the fight and the sex scenes, which becomes kind of obvious when you will witness two actors getting on a bed, touching each other backs and the scene cutting to a dancefloor. Still, this is the copy that surfaced on April 2020 on Youtube. Sure, it first had to be restored, because old celluloid films, when they are not stored properly, tend to become red. Still, it is this sole surviving copy which grants us the right to finally see the only kung-fu Singaporean movie ever made.

Update : it appears the link for the restored movie on Youtube as disappeared even though a VHSRip still exists, still you can find the restored version HERE.

Trailer for the restored version of Ring of Fury.

Coming bcck to the Southeast Asian Leitai Tournament in 1968, another Singaporean karateka got second place who would go on to invent his own martial art⁸. In 1985, Teo Choon Teck created Xinjiaquan or Singafist. Muck like the Leong brothers before him, Teo used a mix of different martial art, namely: Silat, taekwondo, karate, kungfu, judo, aikido and silambam.

Alas, Singafist which once assured the Grand Master a peaceful revenue has declined. Teo thinks it’s because of its origins, that nobody wants to train in a martial art made in Singapore. This might be true, but also the fact that Singafist is a martial art of form, meaning not created to fight, but more along the line of learning katas, combos of movement may have played a huge part. As already stated, kung-fu, karate and all martial arts once were really successful thanks to movies produced by the Shaw Brothers or the Cannon. This genre grew big enough that American film studio once made successful kung-fu flicks. Still, at the time, there was no such thing as the internet, meaning people would learn anything they could get their hands on just to try and be the new Karate Kid.

This was the 80s, a sublime era where people wore bright colors (just like today) but didn’t have access to much information. Sadly, organisations such as K-1 (a big tournament ere competitors from all fighting background could fight) and UFC has come and taken all the light. People now want real fighting which would help them in the street, which would make them alphas or more secure.

This can be seen in the development of martial art such as systema or krav maga. Rows and rows of people are congregating around instructors who will teach them how to fight an adversary in the street, leading sometimes to complete scam but we’re not here to talk about this.

As of today, Singafist classes happen on Saturday mornings, in the streets, with no more than ten students. Even if this is way more than the chapkoondo cited earlier, this fact seems to have taken its toll on Teo who stated in an interview that Singafist wasn’t sexy enough, that it should be left to die.

An engraving representing a dragonboat competition

Bon Om Touk¹⁴, the Water Festival in Cambodia, is an annual event meant to celebrate the reversal of the Tonle Sap River. For over a century, Cambodian authorities have made it a day on which dragonboat¹⁵ races would take place. Dragonboating, at first may appear like rowing, but a team of dragonboat is composed of 22 people, be they male or female, it is comprised of one drummer, one steerer and twenty rowers. With that in mind, the appeal of seeing a bunch of crews, each as large as two soccer teams, fighting in a race on elongated boats adorned by exquisite figurehead gains that much more weight.

In 2007, Cambodia for the first time decided it would invite its fellow ASEAN, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, companion nations on the action. While Myanmar did not send a team¹⁶, Brunei Darussalam, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and of course Singapore, all answered the call. Thins did not go well, things went so wrong, Cambodia would never invite other nation once again¹³.

On the 23rd of November 2007, the Singaporean dragon boat team decided, after completing their first race, that they would need to train a little more on the difficult water of the Tonle Sap River, and began to row back to the starting line all by themselves. Before the race, the team had decided against wearing life jackets as this was not mandatory to compete. They had almost got back to the shore when their boat was swept back by a strong current and came crashing onto the pontoon which marked the starting place. Ten teammates were instantly swept away, watching the video of the tragedy nowadays, you can’t help but feel hurt watching the team disappear into the muddy waters¹².

Five of the rowers did not survive. Chee Wei Cheng, Jeremy Goh Tze Xiong, Stephen Loh Soon Ann, Reuben Kee En Rui and Poh Boon San never made it ashore despite the efforts of the authorities, and part of the attendance, who were able to rescue five of the ten missing rowers. The search for their bodies lasted for three days before they’d been found.

This tragedy, which transformed those five athletes into nationwide heroes, was largely reported upon at the time, in Southeast Asia at least and it is not hard to imagine Singaporean news outlet following the search for each and every one of them by the minute, as every bit of hope faded.

Still, this tragedy led to a sort of rebirth in the Singaporean dragonboat community¹¹. A little-known sport had suddenly gained a very intense media coverage, even if it was under tragic circumstances. And the weight of the memory pushed the Singaporean to be better, to honour their dead. This led to them winning medals after medals in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. Nowadays, as the families of those fallen still visit the memorial of their loved ones, who were put right next to one another as the brothers they were in life¹², the numbers of dragonboaters in Singapore is still expanding.

As if, in the Lion City, it is much more preferable to begin small before you reach any kind of success.

This is my second paper on Medium, I hope you liked it.

If you want to take a look at my previous work you can read ONE tip from a Dilettante Writer, or, if you’re in the mood for some fiction , you can dwelve into the shorts stories I wrote which were inspired by the art of Astor Alexander by clicking HERE.

Releasing a paper every Friday.

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