Grandmaster Flesh

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The tale of a martial arts hero.

Quitting your job, turning your back on your homeland and heading to Asia to work with an 80-year-old kung fu master is an 'intimidating experience', according to Nick Hurst, author of new tome, Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster. The writer, who grew up in London, penned his debut – a 'part biography, part social history, part memoir' – after quitting his advertising job in the West and heading East for the spiritual and physical journey of his life.

Hurst gained a black belt in the UK but, aged 30, contacted his grandmaster Sugong – a teacher with a reputation as 'an extremely short-tempered man with fearsome martial arts capabilities and a background with gangsters' – in China. And, without Sugong's acceptance, Hurst travelled to meet the man and asked to be trained. "When you're armed with no more information than rumours of said master's gangster-fighting past and ill-tempered present," says Hurst, "backed up by an ability to break marble slabs with his bare hands, it certainly isn't like a promotion in an advertising agency. But I'd become disillusioned with my career, and having done martial arts since university days, a kung fu tour of China seemed a good way to take a break." Sugong's name means 'grandmaster' in the dialect of southern Fujian province, where he is based. Hurst says he chose him because his master in England had trained under him. "But nagging doubts persisted," he says. "Sugong only spoke Fujian. More worryingly, there was no way to contact him in advance about my arrival. I overestimated my chances of a warm welcome. On our first meeting, I arrived to find Sugong berating a group of students. Although he agreed to teach me, he appeared distinctly unimpressed."

Hurst calls that first encounter a 'high' in their early relationship. "With each passing day he held me in lower regard," he says. "I started training each day at 6am. Yet, within a couple of months, it seemed that while I was an expert in receiving Chinese curses I had learned very little in the way of martial arts."

Fortunately, recounts Hurst, a 'corner was soon turned'. One day, after two-and-a-half hours of 'caustic Fujian rebuke', Sugong finally appeared impressed with the author's new skills. The master apparently said 'he takes a scolding well' and with that he started to balance his tellings-off with kung fu. "An unlikely friendship blossomed between a 30-year-old middle-class Londoner and an elderly Chinese man from the toughest of backgrounds," claims Hurst. "With an opium addict for his first master, Sugong had needed to steal from an uncle's stash from the age of seven to pay for his lessons. Before he was 16, he had both been expelled from school for fighting a teacher and embroiled in a family feud that saw him kidnapped and nearly killed."

Hurst says Sugong left China in 1948 after escaping army conscription in the Chinese civil war but was then forced into opium running in Singapore to repay the relocation debts. His escape from that predicament saw him confined to a temple, training under a Shaolin warrior monk who was no less fearsome than the gangsters he had escaped.

Outside the temple, love affairs led to broken engagements, angry mothers and more difficulties for Sugong, says Hurst. His ability to find trouble did not lessen when he moved to Malaysia in 1956. At the end of the 60s he found himself an unwilling participant in the May 13 race riots and on the run from Special Branch. "It was very different to my life in London," says Hurst, "but I soon found myself caught up in his adventures. Whether being pulled into Triad confrontations or plied with cigarettes and alcohol by his family, I was never in danger of being bored."

"Somehow," Hurst continues, "despite our vastly different backgrounds and inability to speak in anything other than sign language, Sugong became a scary surrogate Chinese grandfather. It was this closeness that meant he trusted me enough to recount his life. And so it was that, after three-and-a-half tortuous years, I returned to England a fitter man with an impressive vocabulary of Fujian swearwords and a book to my name."

Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster is published by SportsBooks, priced $62. For details, see sugong.co.uk

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