‘Who wants ugly hands?’: Made-in-Singapore kungfu falls out of local favour, but flourishes in Greece
Only two Singaporean “chapkoondo” practitioners remain: One of them is co-founder and grandmaster Steven Leong Siew Wah, formerly a globetrotting TV and film star with a Bruce Lee tale to tell.
SINGAPORE: A framed, grainy photo of the Singaporean man hangs on the wall. With a black belt wrapped around his waist, he strikes a menacing fighting pose while his stern visage peers over students practising kungfu in the quiet Nikaia suburb of Athens. This is the Singapore Chapkoondo Institute, and it is one of five schools imparting the titular made-in-Singapore martial art to hundreds of followers all over Greece.
Yet in its birthplace of Singapore, there are no schools and only two active practitioners left. Leong Siew Chong - chapkoondo co-founder and the man in the picture - died recently, leaving his younger brother and co-inventor Steven Leong Siew Wah to carry the torch along with a sole disciple.
Half a century ago, the Leong brothers first planted chapkoondo’s roots by contesting a brutal, bare-knuckle “leitai” contest at Southeast Asian level. Forged by the rigorous tutelage of their father Leong You - a native Chinese kungfu master - Siew Chong emerged heavyweight champion while Steven, at just 15, won the lightweight title.
“We both used a signature short, sharp punch - ‘chap’ - to knock out our opponents,” said Steven, now 65. “So we took the name ‘chapkoondo’ and started a dojo after experimenting for a few months.”
The duo mixed and merged techniques from five kungfu systems - Hung Ga, Choy Li Fut, Shaolin, Eagle Claw, Qigong - and later added the shitoryu blend of karate to produce, in 1969, the first martial art originating from Singapore, ahead of Xinjiaquan in 1985.
The latter, also known as Singafist, showcases a sequence of choreographed movements while chapkoondo, Steven said, is about “fighting and not for show only”.
Singaporeans were sold. “We had 200 students enrol in the first three months. Over the next five years, we had a total of six schools - all in the Orchard Road area - and over 1,000 members at one point,” he said.
Steven attributes this to the buzz generated by his and his brother’s leitai achievements, but also acknowledged the ‘60s and ’70s were a golden age for Chinese martial arts.
“Kungfu was very, very popular then. There were competitions being organised every year, and people wanted to join our classes to learn as both exercise and self-defence.”
THE JETSETTING YEARS
Now in his senior years, Steven adheres to a daily discipline of qigong and kungfu practice along with weights training at the gym.
Little wonder he is nimble as ever - capable of casually breaking out a gymnastic split or launching into a whirlwind nunchaku routine - all while cutting a robust and powerfully-built figure.
His left fist, in particular, ripples with thick sinews around the fingers, knuckles and wrist: A product of decades spent putting the “chap” in chapkoondo.
It’s not hard to see a prime, teenage version of himself receiving multiple offers to teach martial arts overseas. As Siew Chong stayed back in Singapore to run the schools, Steven either performed or instructed in many countries, including Canada, US, England, France, Greece, Italy, Australia, Japan, Nepal, Thailand and Malaysia.
He achieved the most success while based in Canada: In 1977 he won the world kungfu championship in the middleweight category, and that same year was appointed martial arts instructor to the Canadian police. Steven later went on to teach at Australian and American police academies.
Then came an opportunity to feature in his own kungfu TV show in Quebec. After weeks of demonstrating “kata” patterns and weapon use; breaking bricks and sparring with other martial arts exponents, local media dubbed him the “Canadian Bruce Lee”.
Television spots in other countries such as Japan followed and Steven, now bitten by the acting bug, decided to take his dreams to the silver screen.
His Mandarin name can be found in the starring credits of 1980 Taiwanese movie Prodigal’s Tears, and more prominently in Hong Kong kungfu flick The Young Hero which was released the next year.
Online footage of the latter shows Steven playing a Japanese villain, gamely executing his own stunts and putting the protagonist - the character of Chinese hero Huo Yuanjia - in a real spot of trouble early on.
Steven said there were other films, some even produced by Asian cinema icon Golden Harvest, but he has “chucked most of the posters”. “My thinking was just to enjoy the experience, not become a famous star,” he shrugged.
BRUCE LEE “WAS VERY FRIENDLY”
Amongst Steven’s tales and travels, one - if true - stands out most: a brush with the legendary Bruce Lee himself.
According to Steven, this happened in 1970, when he was in the US and a friend took him to Lee’s first school, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute in Seattle. At the time, Lee was in between an American TV role as Kato on The Green Hornet and his eventual breakout film The Big Boss.
“He was very friendly and we had a conversation in Cantonese. Then we did some sparring and playing around to learn each other’s style. His legs were very fast. But it wasn’t a real fight, so there was no ‘winner’,” Steven claimed.
This would make him perhaps the only Singaporean to ever have a pugilistic exchange with Lee - but no photos were taken and the only witnesses were a handful of Lee’s first-generation students.
Channel NewsAsia attempted to contact those still alive and was informed by the Seattle institute that Taky Kimura, one of Lee’s closest friends, now has advanced dementia at the age of 94.
Another disciple, 83-year-old James DeMile, said: “I doubt Bruce would spar with anyone in that period of time. Maybe talk about kungfu and review concepts, but spar, no. Bruce always looked at anyone from any kungfu background as a threat, and was very cautious about showing what he knew.”
Nonetheless, Singaporean newspapers ran with the story back in the 1980s, and Steven’s life and times even attracted the proposal of an autobiography - but halfway through the project the ghostwriter disappeared.
FROM SINGAPOREAN WANE TO GREEK BOOM
With acting offers drying up, Steven returned home at the age of 30, only to find a diminished appetite for kungfu in Singapore, just like the rest of the world.
His brother’s chapkoondo institutes were forced out by landlords several times, with each shift in location bringing about a loss of students. Gradually, they shut down all their schools.
Steven insisted the problem was not financial. “Yes, there was not much money to be made from the schools, with the fees only S$10, but we had a lot of students,” he said. “And we also sold traditional Chinese medicine we made ourselves.”
“We just didn’t know how to organise and manage things properly. I tried to form a school again, but it was hard - people were not interested or not free because of work.”
Steven wound up instructing martial arts to Gurkha soldiers in Singapore, and later followed in his old man’s footsteps to become a Chinese physician.
That was how he met his current and only student Ang Wei Lun, 30. “Thirteen years ago, I was injured in a fight in school and my mum told me to go see Steven. I went to his shop, saw all his trophies and photos and asked him to take me in as a disciple,” said Ang.
“At first he didn’t want to, but I kept dropping by and asking him to teach me, until he did.”
Some 10,000km away in southeastern Europe, there is no such paucity of interest in chapkoondo. It was Steven who started the first school in Greece while on his world tour of the 1970s - and till now this Singaporean martial art continues to make appearances on Greek television shows.
“They’re very active - over the years they’ve kept demonstrating and performing for people to see,” said Steven.
At present the largest school is the aforementioned Singapore Chapkoondo Institute run by Ioannis Leontaris, 55. He travelled to Singapore in the 1980s to learn from Siew Chong, who died in his sleep last month aged 85.
In 2011, Leontaris was appointed as the only official chapkoondo authority overseas.
“Through hard training, our students have become well-known for their successes,” he told Channel NewsAsia, pointing to his charges medalling at World Wushu Championships of recent years.
“There have been amazing fighters in chapkoondo, and it will be a pity if in Singapore they do not continue this wonderful martial art.”
A RETURN TO GLORY DAYS?
But Steven said he was not giving up - and together with Ang, is thinking of ways to “make chapkoondo big in Singapore again”.
“If there’s a chance to develop it, I want to … though I don’t have much time because of my business and my patients.”
“First, we must have a space, and in Singapore it’s not as easy as 30 years ago when rent was not so expensive,” he mused. “It can’t be taught in an open area where there’s no privacy and everybody can see.”
Said Ang: “Traditional martial arts should evolve with time but not lose its essence. I think chapkoondo has a place in modern society, but it really has to be repackaged - if not it’ll just be a community centre type of exercise.”
Steven agreed, saying he was open to modernising the system - but current priority still goes to recruitment.
“It’s just two of us, so we need more,” said Ang. “I’ve a few friends who are interested and I practice with them, but really, who wants to have ugly hands?”
Both master and disciple also rejected the oft-heard criticism of kungfu being useless in real-world applications.
“At first I didn’t think it would protect me in a fight either. But when I ran into trouble, I wasn’t injured,” said Ang, relating how he once used chapkoondo to take on eight drunk men who had initiated violence first.
Steven, too, has a similar story - one that was reported in local Chinese-language newspapers in 1986 with a headline that read “Robbers dare to attack kungfu star”.
“I was in Penang with a friend when a car tried to run us over, then two big-sized guys came out with parangs,” Steven grinned. “I fought them off with my kicks. No kungfu - die straight away.”
Today, he faces a different sort of battle to rescue a familial creation - and legacy - from extinction. With spirit willing and flesh far from weak, there is hope yet. Plus, just like it was in the beginning, he has a partner-in-crime steadfast and committed to the cause.
“I will do everything I can to make sure this tradition doesn’t disappear,” said Ang. “Chapkoondo is Singaporean, and I don’t wish for it to be lost.”