Sugong, By Nick Hurst


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The Independent Culture

David Carradine's role as a Shaolin warrior monk in the early-Seventies American TV series Kung Fu sparked an interest in martial arts in the West, but few had the discipline to keep going.

Nick Hurst is an exception: tiring of life in a London advertising agency, he went to Kuala Lumpur to train for four years with a real Chinese kung fu legend taught by Shaolin monks. Sugong – or "grandmaster" – stood just over 5ft but had a swagger and well-muscled presence that belied his stature. Aged nearly 80, he could still hammer six-inch nails into a plank of wood with his bare hands. Hurst's account reveals the brutal training regime he suffered at Sugong's hands, at times literally, before winning grudging respect. But when the Englishman asked to write about his master's life, the response was initially hostile. It is an extraordinary story.

Sugong paid for his early lessons by stealing opium from an uncle. Expelled from school, kidnapped and nearly killed in a family feud, he avoided army conscription by fleeing to Singapore, only to be dragged into life as a drug-runner to pay for his passage. To escape, he spent eight years at a Shaolin temple. Always restless, he left to live on his wits and fists in triad-dominated Taiwan, then founded martial arts schools and enjoyed peace and prosperity back in Malaysia before dying aged 83 in 2009. By bringing his dramatic tale to a wider audience the English pupil has amply repaid his debt to his master.