Little did I know that Umeå, the “capital” of Northern Sweden, is the home of the nation’s foremost Kung Fu school. Umeå Hung Gar is hidden behind a neighborhood store (Charlies Kiosk) with its entrance at the docking platform. The building is tagged by punk and rock bands rehearsing in the eight or so studios in the basement. I approach the place curious yet have no idé what to expect.
Umeå Hung Gar School practices one of the seven major Kung Fu styles, which each has formed and developed by a specific Chinese family. This club, with its students, under the mastership of Mattias Lindh, has dominated Swedish Kung Fu the last decade. For the 2014 Swedish Championship they sent 7 competitors and took home 10 medals. In 2013 their 5 competitors scored 8 medals and in 2012, 5 competitors won 6 medals. Quite a record to show! Such is their reputation that the school has been invited to the birthplace of Kung Fu in Hong Kong to train and compete. For several years they have won medals at this foremost ranking place. Indeed, this club are trained directly by the Chinese Hung Kuen master in Hong Kong. Mattias travels there at least once a year to continue to learn and evolve. It is his responsibility as Sifu to bring back more advanced and refined mastery of the style.
“Hung Kuen is a pillar of Southern Chinese martial arts and one of the most respected and widespread systems of Kung Fu in the world today.” writes Lam Chun Fai in the book Hung Kuen Fundamentals that focuses on the Lam Family Hung Kuen with a Kung Fu linage dating back to Master Lam Cho. Martial arts in Southern China can be confirmed at least 2000 years back, but sources indicate that it may be much older, preceding their written history. It is during the turbulent 100 years, from late 18th century to the end of the 19th century, that the Hung Kuen style was formed. The training was used to protect oneself in the dangerous streets. While it is a rigors, disciplined and traditional martial art it is also rogue fighting. Perhaps this is why some are drawn to the style: its long history, disciplined form, yet can readily be translated to actual protection.
I am invited by one of the club’s members, Torbjörn Olsson, to observe a training session. Drumbeat and guitar licks from the garage bands in the basement vibrate the soft training floor of the school. But the Kung Fu students do not seem bothered, instead heavy metal is blasting from their own boom box as they are warming up. The eclectic and inviting feeling is prevalent throughout the entire environment. The entrance leads directly into a small lobby also furnished as a livingroom including a counter for food and steeping Chinese tea. Tens of red lanterns are suspended from the red metal ceiling. Lucky charms, martial arts banners and glittering medals decorate the room in a chaotic yet cared-for way. The training studio is an extension of this appreciated mish-mash of banners, lanterns, masks, swords, spears, drums and regular exercise tools. Not before long I find myself cuddled up in a sofa with a warm cup of exquisite tea in my hands.
In contrast to my preconceived notion of zealous Kung Fu fighters and a strict master, Sifu Mattias’ calm and engaged voice direct the students who all exude joy and lightness of being. Individually they warm up, followed by practicing the Lion Dance. In this fascinating and artistic dance the practitioners are dressed in a large lion costume fitting two people. There’s a complex and beautiful series of steps and maneuvers to bring the dragon-lion alive. It is captivating and intriguing. This dance developed in Southern China when the government forbid the practice of martial arts. In order to continue to train as well as to be able to protect themselves the Lion Dance was invented as a celebration which also allowed them to advance their skills under the radar of the authorities.
Sifu Mattias drumming out the rhythm ends and so too the Lion Dance. Costumes off and the group rejoins in an organized grid doing a series of forms traditional to their style’s family linage. It is meditative to watch them all move together. One moment I see what reminds me of an abstract dance, in the next, a concrete fighting strike and in another, the shape of an animal. Yet again, they shift mode. Now the swords, sables and spears are brought out. It looks dangerous, hardcore and very exciting. Still, in the same joyful and light attitude the training continues. They all seem safe with each other, the camaraderie abundant.
What might have been the most powerful moment for me as an observer was the combined breathing and controlled ending of Tit Sin – the Iron Wire ritual. So focused and intense that it seemed it shifted the entire energy field in the room. Suddenly, I could not do anything but to be still, emptying my mind and bringing it into a laser beam of concentration.
I am looking forward to their Lion Dance demonstration during Kulturnatta in Umeå. Saturday May 22 at 11:45 outside the library on Rådhusesplanaden.
If you are interested to visit or join the school you can contact Mattias Lindh at email@example.com or 070-222130.