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Ethnic City: not your everyday kung fu grandmaster

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Lily Lau's fortune for the Chinese New Year could have promised a pound of cocktail peanuts and many happy returns. Her schedule called for her to fly to Chicago from her home in San Francisco, then on to Puerto Rico to dance the Chinese lion dance for the Chinese consulate, after which she would fly back to Chicago, drive to a kung fu school in Michigan, then return to Chicago for the Chinatown parade on the 17th, in which she'll lead approximately 100 kicking and screaming (if not leaping and twirling) students, all of whom attend the Lily Lau Eagle Claw Kung Fu school on Peterson. The only woman in Chinese history to be grandmaster of a martial arts system has a lot of responsibilities.

Kung fu encompasses hundreds of fighting systems based on animals like the monkey, tiger, or praying mantis, and altered states or whimsies such as drunken fighting and wing chun (popularized by Bruce Lee, it means "forever spring" or "always changing"). Along with the spelling of kung fu (some prefer gong fu) the subject of who can be called a grandmaster is a matter of controversy, as many forms have been practiced for thousands of years, and their origins are cloudy. According to rules of succession dating back to the 17th century destruction of the Shaolin Temple, the title is hereditary but must also be earned. Until 1964 the lineage was exclusively male, passed on through brothers, sons, or favorite disciples. Then Lau's father, Lau Fat Mang, grandmaster of the Eagle Claw style (a fast, gymnastic form of kung fu), died without having named a successor.

Lau was 19 at the time, the eldest of her brothers and sisters, and the only one able to take on the title and run the Eagle Claw school in Hong Kong. Now 57, she doesn't own all the 200 or so Eagle Claw schools in the world, just 10 of them. Nor does she run the school here--her student Alvin Raul Cardona does. But she says all the schools recognize her as grandmaster. This wasn't the case when she first came to America in the late 1980s. In Hong Kong, she says, she was the undisputed Eagle Claw grandmaster. In California she found a grandmaster in every strip mall.

Apologizing for her slight difficulty in speaking English, she says, "I'm surprised, and then I ask and somebody try to explain to me. 'OK, it's just like grandma. He have a student, and his student have a student. So he's grandmaster.' This is not a problem with me, but I want to tell you, every style [has] only one grandmaster!"

Eight generations of Laus have been in charge of the Eagle Claw system, Cardona says. "Each style, since it was entrusted to each family, there's only one keeper of the system in the world. My teacher, grandmaster Lily Lau, is the keeper of the Eagle Claw style. It's accepted in China and all over the world."

In 1968 Lau began acting in a series of popular Hong Kong films based on the life of kung fu master Wong Fei Hung. She was married briefly in the 70s and has two sons and a daughter. The daughter was a foundling--Lau was already divorced in 1978 when she discovered the baby abandoned on the beach and took her home. Her marriage couldn't last, she says, because she was married to kung fu.

Lau established her first U.S. school in 1995, in California, and has visited Chicago twice a year since Cardona established the North Park school the same year. She moved to the U.S. for good in 1997, just before the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong. Last year, she discovered a former student, Sam Ma, in Chicago; he called the school after an article about Lau appeared in a Chinese newspaper. He invited her to participate in the New Year's parade, and to move here permanently.

Lau's been considering it, "Because I'm free, only by myself, I can go everywhere." Sometime later in the Year of the Horse she plans to move to Chicago and join Cardona at the school, where she says she'll teach the Eagle Claw system to students who might be ready to learn from the one and only grandmaster.

The Chicago school of Lily Lau Eagle Claw Kung Fu is at 3439 W. Peterson; call 773-583-5597 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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