China of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was a society under assault from both within and without. Corrupt officials of the decadent and declining Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty took advantage of the poor and displaced. Western commercial powers backed by Western gunboat diplomacy threatened traditional Chinese society. The times and the people called out for a hero.
Wong Fei-hung, one of China's most celebrated martial artists, was the son of Wong Kei-ying, himself a famous martial artist, physician and one of the original Ten Tigers of Canton. Initially, Wong Kei-ying refused to teach his son martial arts, for his own protection.
If this sounds odd, consider this: in certain ways, 19th century Canton was like the American West of the same period, only more populated. If you're the big gun in town, trouble comes looking for you. If you're the quiet proprietor of an honest pharmacy, you're more likely to die in your own bed surrounded by generations of filial descendants.
Wong Fei-Hung's training in kung fu began with his father's teacher, Luk Ah Choy, who taught Wong Fei-Hung the basics of Hung Gar. Later, Wong Kei-ying took over his son's training, in addition to educating him in the theory and practice of medicine. He eventually inherited his father's famous medical clinic, Po Chi Lam. By his early 20's, Wong Fei-Hung was nearly as famous as his father for both his medical and martial skills. He served as martial arts instructor to the 5th Regiment of the Cantonese army and to the Guangzhou Civilian Militia. He was known as a protector of the weak and poor from persecution by both criminal elements and the government that was supposed to protect them.
His own contributions to the development of Hung Gar include the Tiger-Crane Form and fighting combinations now known as the Nine Special Fists. Additionally, Wong Fei-Hung was known for his skill with weapons, especially the staff; on one occasion he reputedly defeated a gang of thirty men on the docks of Canton. Wong Fei-hung was also a highly skilled practitioner of the traditional Southern Chinese art of Lion Dancing; in Canton he was known as the "King of the Lions"
Wong Fei-hung married four times: his first three wives each died young. His fourth wife, Mok Gwei Lan was quite young when they married and outlived him by many years. She moved with her children to Hong Kong after Wong Fei-hung's death in 1924 and continued to teach kung fu, as she had in her husband's school for many years previously. She died in Hong Kong in 1983.
The fate that Wong Kei-ying feared for his own son befell one of Wong Fe-hung's sons, Wong Hawn-sum, when he was killed by a drug gang in the 1890s. Afterwards, Wong Fei-hung refused to teach martial arts to his other nine sons, unless necessary for their personal protection.
Among Wong Fei-hung's students was Lam Sai Wing, a pork butcher known as the Magnificent Butcher. At least one of his students, Lau Cham, father of Liu Chia Liang, worked in the Hong Kong movie industry, inaugurating the tradition of martial arts movies ...
The name of Wong Fei-hung is known to afficionados of classic martial arts movies through over 100 films. After his death in 1924, Wong Fei-hung was elevated to the status of legend by a series of novels, written by Woshi Shanren. Former practitioners of Peking Opera, then working in the Hong Kong movie industry, turned these popular stories into a series of feature-length films. The series ran from 1949 to 1970; all the 99 films starred Kwan Tak Hing, who represents Wong Fei-hung to generations of Hong Kong audiences. Unlike previous films that displayed unrealistic feats of martial prowess, the Wong Fei-hung series of films featured "real" kung fu, according to Kwan.
More recent portrayals of Wong Fei-hung include:
Once Upon a Time in China series
Drunken Master II: Legend of the Drunken Master
Tsang Sze-man is unique in being a female, portraying the juvenile Wong Fei-hung.
In the movies, legend has overtaken reality. The events depicted in the Wong Fei-hung movies belong to the imaginations of the screen writers. The movies offer a picture of Chinese society of the late Qing dynasty, but the actual events are fictional. None of this, of course, diminishes the stature of Wong Fei-hung: China's greatest martial arts hero.
Sources: Mark Pollard, Wong Fei Hung: The Man & the Legend, Kung Fu Cinema, http://www.kungfucinema.com/
Hung Kuen Net, http://www.hungkuen.net/
Wong Fei Hung:The Eternal Hero, Hong Kong Express, http://members.lycos.co.uk/oscar_chan/