Ponson Sin Lam-yuk was only eight years old when he started hitting the streets of Hong Kong’s notorious Wan Chai red light district and he was looking for battle.
“We were always wanting to fight,” Sin recalls of his time with the tearaways he used to hang with in the early 1960s.
“When we weren’t on the streets, we’d carry this heavy leather punching bag up into the hills and hang it from a tree and we tried to teach ourselves how to fight that way. Sometimes we even practiced on the trees.”
Back then, Victoria Harbor-side Wan Chai still pulsed with neon by night. Soldiers and sailors on furlough from the Vietnam War mingled with prostitutes and drug pushers, and the cops turned a blind eye to their nefarious shake-downs and stitch-ups.
Street gangs also ran rampant. All young Sin had to do was to step outside his apartment block and he’d find himself in the thick of it all.
Sin’s parents saw the way he was headed, and had other plans for their wayward son. But the irony of it all – looking back now some five decades later – is that in their efforts to take Sin out of the fight scene, they actually ensured he’d be in the thick of it for all his life.
“They wanted to give me discipline, so they made me join a martial arts school,” says the now-64-year-old. “That’s what happened. But I also got to fight as much as I wanted, because that’s what we did—almost every single day and night, up there on to rooftops.”
Hong Kong’s thriving rooftop fight scene of the 1950s and 60s has become the stuff of legend. It’s forged the careers and the lives of the likes of Sin, martial arts icon Bruce Lee and, before them both, the great Wong Shun Leung—a man said to have had hundreds of rooftop or beimo challenge fights.
Just how serious these were has long been the subject of debate. Some, no doubt, were used simply as training sessions, but others turned nasty. It was because of that, that police took an increasingly close interest in what the young Lee was up to, before they advised his family to send him to school in Seattle—for his own safety.
Up on the silver screen, these fight clubs were immortalized in the films of the Shaw Brothers, and later the Golden Harvest film studios in the 60s and 70s. They have also been revisited more recently in the Ip Man franchise of Hong Kong films, which center on the life of Bruce Lee’s main wing chun mentor.
For his part, Sin would go on to master the arts of tai sing pap kar moon (monkey axe fist) and to a professional fighting career with Hong Kong’s Full Contact Boxing promotion. He mixed disciplines decades before MMA became a thing, taking on some of the world’s best kickboxers and Muay Thai fighters. Sin also traveled Asia looking for fights – and for lucrative paydays.
“From what I had learned in those early days, I was ready for anything,” says Sin.
Bruce Lee had grown up across the harbor from Sin, in what was the decidedly more affluent streets of Kowloon. Lee had also run with street gangs, mostly students of the St. Francis Xavier’s College he attended, as they sought out fights that often involved students from arch-rivals from the King George V School. Lee similarly found himself taking on all-comers in the beimo bouts held on the rooftops around his home, far from the prying eyes of the police.
This was pre-skyscraper Hong Kong, where most residential and mixed-used buildings were walk-ups of not much more than three stories. They almost all had flat rooftop areas that were put to an astonishing variety of uses. Families would turn to the spaces for parties, kids would be up there flying kites, while small rooms were often tucked away in corners and used as shanty huts for the poor, or for laundries, or even brothels.
Post-civil war China had seen a mass exodus of martial artists, as the incoming communist rulers frowned on their practices. So for many, Hong Kong had become a new home, a place to continue their teachings.
They saw opportunity in these rooftops.
Space has always been at a premium in Hong Kong, and martial arts schools had quickly realized that they could use these open areas as an extension of their own studios.
Martial arts had fallen out of official favor in Hong Kong over the course of the early-to-mid-1900s, considered by the colonial government as a lowly past-time for criminals and thugs—and with public fights outlawed completely. But martial arts schools were still working away in the shadows, thanks to influx of these sifus from across the border.
Then, a ‘death duel’ between two martial artists was staged in the nearby enclave of Macau on January 17, 1954. The very idea of the brutal contest captured headlines in Hong Kong. But as a fight, it was somewhat of a sham—a bout between a 53-year-old and a 34-year-old that was eventually declared a drab draw. But it raised significant money for charity and, more importantly, it also captured the imagination of the public—and of a young generation of would-be fighters.
At the same time, Kung Fu was also rising in popularity across Hong Kong cinema, with the help of martial arts masters-turned-filmmakers, like the great Lau Kar-leung. And film started to play an increasingly important role in enshrining the art’s fame both at home and abroad.
Kung Fu would skyrocket in the early 1970s, as Bruce Lee gained international acclaim—both before and following his tragic death via cerebral edema on July 20, 1973, at the age of just 32.
For Lee – and for a generation of co-stars and stuntmen – it all began on the rooftops near their homes.
“In the bad old days of the 50s and 60s, almost all the martial arts gyms were on the top or second-top floor,” recalls James Elms. “Mostly the fights were more to measure how good you were. You’d hear about who was good and if you fancied yourself you would lay down a challenge.
“That’s not to say they didn’t get heated. There were often bloody fights and no one likes to lose. There were, as always, a lot of egos.”
The now 76-year-old Elms grew up on the same post-war streets of Wan Chai, the streets that saw Sin running around wildly. However, his fortunes turned when he entered the police force.
Elms was tasked with patrolling the very streets on which he had grown up. He had regular contact with martial arts schools and fighters in the district, and this would eventually lead him to help set up the Full Contact Boxing promotion in the early 1980s.
Looking back now, he says, is like looking to a different world.
“In those days, the back streets were away from the red light areas and the action,” says Elms. “They were little communities unto themselves with people making joss sticks and drying them in the sun, entertainers setting up stalls with monkeys and what have you, and then you had many martial arts schools up top, with students coming and going all the time.
“If you went to one of these gyms, you were automatically branded as a triad or a triad-to-be,” he said. “That’s just the way it was seen. But whether that’s what you became or not, there’s no doubt it was where you went if you wanted to learn how to fight.”
Ironically, the rise in the popularity of martial arts that Bruce Lee fueled also helped bring about the demise of the rooftop fight clubs.
“There was a death of a young man in one fight organized between two martial arts schools in the early 1970s. That brought government attention,” recalls Elms. “But the main factor that changed everything was that promoters started becoming involved as martial arts became popular again. Things became more organized and more people wanted to see fights.
“They could also bet. Although that was illegal, gambling made these events hugely popular. The fighters could make money, and they could become stars,” he explains. “So the old rooftop fight clubs were pretty quickly a thing of the past.”
The rise in Hong Kong’s population in the 1970s and onward meant rooftops were enclosed and became flats, rents rose and priced martial arts schools out of the market. The old tenements were replaced with tower blocks.
All that’s left these days are the memories.