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A Brief History of Ngo Cho Kun

by Alex Co

Usually, whenever anything is written on Chinese kung-fu, the material is either based more on hearsay or previous writings rather than on direct experience. That is why there are often many controversies surrounding a given art’s history and the techniques behind the style. Ngo cho kun, likewise, was not spared from this predicament. There exists various versions regarding the origin of ngo cho kun. The most popular version is that it was invented by Chua Giok Beng. This was the history handed down to me by my sifu, the late Tan Ka Hong, whose father Tan Kiong Beng was a direct in-door disciple of the founder. The history presented here came from a direct lineage of actual transmission from founder Chua Giok Beng to Tan Kiong Beng to his son, my sifu, Tan Ka Hong. I’ll try to present the other versions in a future article.

Ngo cho kun was invented by Chua Giok Beng (1853–1903) during the declining years of the Ching dynasty (1644–1911). Chua combined the best of the existing five famous styles of kung-fu from Fukien at that time into a composite style. It was therefore made up of the following styles: peho (white crane), Tai Cho (Sung dynasty emperor boxing), lohan (Buddhist arhat methods), kao kun (monkey), and tat chun (Bodhidharma’s method). Chua called his style ngo cho kun, or “fist of the five ancestors,” in honor of the five styles he combined.

Chua came from a wealthy family. His father invited the Shaolin master Ho Yang to become Chua’s private teacher by providing food and shelter for the master. When Master Ho Yang died of old age, Chua fulfilled his duty as a disciple by giving Master Ho Yang a proper burial. Since the Shaolin master came from the north, Chua escorted his teacher’s remains back to Honan, as it was customary for the Chinese to be buried back at their place of birth. Chua took advantage of the journey by seeking out kung-fu teachers on his way home. When Chua finally came back home he had spent all his family fortune on his quest for kung-fu. Not bothered by his loss of fortune, Chua concentrated his efforts on combining his knowledge of kung-fu into a new style called ngo cho kun. Chua classified his style techniques into finger strike of the white crane, palm technique from the monkey, kicking technique from emperor boxing, footwork from lohan boxing , and body posture of Tamo.

As a founder of a new style, Chua was not spared from the common practice of kung-fu at the time, which was to face challengers who will come to test your technique. Chua was able to defeat all his challengers. He became a phenomena among teachers of his era. Undefeated in his time, the people nicknamed him Beng Lo (elder Beng) and also Mua Lo Hiong (Popular all the Way). Many of those masters who suffered defeat from Chua in turn became his disciples. Famous among those are Lim Kao Say, a Tai Cho master, and Wan Tian Pa, a constant trouble maker who was famous for his expertise in foot sweeps.

As Chua’s reputation grew, he accepted many disciples. The more famous ones are known as the “Ten Tigers of Ngo Cho.” Among them is Tan Kiong Beng, a wealthy merchant. Tan went to the Philippines in the early 1900s, where he made his living as a bone setter.

Tan’s expertise in ngo cho kun was soon discovered by the overseas Chinese in Manila, who persuaded him to teach ngo cho kun. Tan accepted a few disciples. In 1935, Tan’s students in Manila requested him to formally open a school in the Philippines.

But Tan wanted to enjoy his twilight years in his hometown in Fukien, China. So instead, he sent his son Tan Ka Hong to Manila. Before leaving for Manila, Tan made his son swear before the altar of the sijo (founder) that he would follow the code of kung-fu and spread ngo cho kun in the Philippines. Equipped with only a few kung-fu weapons and a sworn promise to spread the art, Tan Ka Hong set sail for the Philippines. There he established the Beng Kiam school in 1935 with the help of some of his father’s disciples. This school was to become the pioneer kung-fu school in Manila. Ngo cho kun has since spread from Manila to different parts of the Philippines and America through the students of Tan Ka Hong.

Today the school is run by Tan’s son, Benito Tan, and his classmates Alex Co, Willy Keh, Daniel Go, Alfredo Ngo, Tony Lim, Jose Ang, and William Uy. In the United States Beng Kiam is being represented by Bonifacio Lim, Ben Asuncion, Christopher Rickets, Mark Wiley and Francis Cipinpin.

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