Mark Houghton (known as “Ho-Mak” in China) has been a highly respected name in the martial arts, stunt and movie industry for decades. He’s one of the old-school masters of the Hung Gar lineage and is in fact, the official direct successor to the late legendary Hong Kong martial arts master, stuntman and action/fight choreographer extraordinaire, Lau Kar Leung!
We are very fortunate indeed to have Mark generously share his time, extensive knowledge and insights in this exclusive interview. He talks about his martial arts background, training, movies and stunts in Hong Kong, his work with Master Lau Kar Leung even down to the origins of that classic split bamboo stick fight scene in “Drunken Master 2” which will doubtless be riveting for all fight and action-movie fans out there.
Mark is also giving a special Hung Gar seminar (“Secret Applications of Hung Gar”) on 16th-17th of July in Birmingham (see below for more info) which you should definitely check out if you can! Without further ado, here’s Master Mark Houghton.
Hi Mark. Hope you’re well. We’re really glad you could schedule some time to spend with us!
No problem Raj, you’re welcome!
Did you have a chance to look at our main site?
Yes, it’s got a lot of good information on different martial arts, it’s well laid out and looks really interesting.
What do you think of the name, Kung fu Kingdom?
It’s catchy and it really stands out, you see it and immediately want to know more, it’s pretty cool!
Thanks so much! OK, so let’s launch into this if you could start with some basics like when and where you were born and so on?
I was born 8th March 1962 in Nuneaton just outside of Warwickshire. My family were from a small town called Bedworth in an area now better known as the West Midlands. My birth name was Henton but when I was about six or seven, I changed my name by deed poll to Houghton. In Hong Kong, I have a Chinese name (makes it easier for the ID card!) which is “Ho-Mak”. (Ho from “Houghton” and “Mak” after Karl Maka, the bald-headed actor from “Aces Go Places”!)
Haha cool! So, what’s your height and weight now?
I’m 5ft 8 and I’m about 85kg. My fighting weight was 79kg. I’m getting a bit old and putting on weight I went up to 90kg.
How come, what happened?
Well, it was because of doing stunts, I smashed up my hips and had both hips replaced. I had my knee replaced, I had a plate put in my ankle, because I broke my ankle on set 20 years ago. I didn’t know I broke it, so I was walking around for 20 years with a deformed ankle. When I got to 53, my ankle started to really hurt. So, then I went for an X-ray and they told me it’s pretty broken, they had to reset it for me.
I’ve been out of commission for the last three years and already retiring from the movie industry. My last movie being Tsui Hark’s “Knock Off” (1997), with Jean-Claude Van Damme. So now you understand why I’ve put on a bit of weight which I’m trying to get down now.
Tell us a bit more about how this has affected you, what you’re doing now and what’s prompted you to make a comeback?
Well, with my injuries I just couldn’t do anything and it got so depressing to think of what I used to be able to do compared with not being able to do anything. So, I kind of pushed the movie industry and martial arts outside and I stopped teaching as well, for a while. I had the hip operations and then the recent operation on my knee so I’m just starting to build back the muscles in my legs and to get back to training.
In the meantime, I went into scuba diving, I started doing that more than martial arts. I started teaching scuba diving, I also teach body recoveries, teaching the police, fire and marine departments to do underwater body recoveries.
On 8th March 2013 my Sifu, Lau Kar Leung called, he knew it was my birthday and he asked me to go and have lunch with him. So, I did, by that time his cancer was pretty bad and he was very thin. Basically, he looked at me, smiled and said, “If I died tomorrow, I would be really happy…” I said “What are you talking about?!” He was in so much pain, I said “Well, don’t say that you’re going to live for another 20 years or more!” And he said, “No, no…look, as long as I’ve got you as a student and you promise me you’ll keep teaching and you’ll go back to the movies, then I will die happy.” So, then I promised him that I’d go back, so that’s why I’m starting back in the industry now.
That’s some powerful motivation! In that regard you have a Hung Gar seminar coming up on 16th and 17th July in Birmingham right?
Yes, it’s called “Secret Applications of Hung Gar”, and this two-day event will take you through the hidden applications of Hung Gar and their devastating impact. I’m going to teach how to fight. I’m going to teach how to train and condition the body and how to use real kung fu in real life situations. There will be a question and answer session for you to ask about the style and forms. There will also be an opportunity to privately view “White Tiger” a recently released documentary on my life as well.
Sounds great! Can you tell us more about these recent documentaries you’ve made?
Yes, so I’ve done two documentaries, one is called “The Hands of Lau.” which is about the next generation of Lau family stunt men that I’ve trained. We shot that two and a half years ago and took it to the States and we’re in talks with TV stations and other people there. They’re interested to do a 10-episode kung fu reality show, so that’s what we’re negotiating on. The other documentary about my life is called “White Tiger” as just mentioned. I’m going to bring a copy to the UK and do a special screening of that. We’re also looking at screening it at the Korean Film Festival (in Korea) to start selling it.
I’ve got another five or six scripts, but because I’ve been out of the industry for a while, I don’t want to go back in on a big budget movie. I first need to get back to my previous condition. Plus, there’s a lot of new technology in the movie industry now, which I’ve got to learn.
Lau Kar Leung doesn’t like wires and he doesn’t like special effects, he likes real kung fu and that’s what I want to stay with. I think it’s a good idea to learn the new digital filming techniques.
Absolutely makes sense.
So, step by step I’m building up my confidence again, which is why I’m starting off with these documentaries. Now we’ve just got another script called “China Heist,” which I originated. It’s kind of like “Ocean’s 11” but this is six people and myself. It’s about an ex-stunt man that got injured doing stunts, he recruits six other stuntmen and women that go into China to steal a jade artefact that’s worth 100 million (US) dollars.
Now China will not agree with us stealing anything from their country and getting away with it. So, we’re going to have two endings, one for the Chinese where we get caught and arrested and one ending for the West, where we get away with everything and end up on the beach somewhere!
So, from those two documentaries, we jump into this movie! The script’s being written in LA as we speak. I have a partner Brian Chumney who’s the head of sound, for George Lucas’ Ranch. He’s done a lot of the sound for all the big movies. He’s worked with Spielberg etc, now he wants to go on to become a director, so he’s hooked up with me. We want to do Asian type action with Western actors. I’ve come up with this idea, now he’s got scriptwriters from the Lucas Ranch to write the script for us. I’m doing filming for a couple of weeks there with my daughter who’s already there.
Sounds really exciting to know what you’re working on! Let’s back up a little and talk a bit about how you first got started in the martial arts, how old were you etc?
Basically, the same as everybody else, Bruce Lee movies!
I started martial arts when I was about 14, doing Judo and when I got my blue belt in Judo I lost interest and moved over to Karate which I did for a while and got up to green belt in that. Then I dabbled a bit in Tang Soo Do and Taekwondo just trying to find something more suitable for me. Every time I was doing these other martial arts, I felt there was something missing for me, it was not whole. Then I started looking at Chinese martial arts, but at that time in the UK, it was very, very hard to find a real Chinese martial arts teacher. Of course, like everybody else, I went to the Lau Gar school in Temple Street, Birmingham to check that out and did actually join it for a month travelling from Coventry to Birmingham, Temple Street, once a week to train.
One night I met a Chinese guy called Willie Wong (Wong Ah-cheng) doing weight lifting at Ernsford Grange School and Community College. They had a big sports gym there and it was open at night to the public. I found out that we actually worked at the same company (GEC Telecommunications) and he’d done his degree at Salford University and was an electrician of some sort. He was 27 years old while I was 17. Anyway, we got talking and somehow just clicked, we became close friends.
One day about a year after knowing this guy we were at his house and I was trying to do the splits on the floor and he looked at me and goes, “What are you trying to do?” I said, “I’m trying to do the splits.” Then he just slid off his sofa into a full box split! I looked at him and he stood up lifting his leg up to 180 degrees in a side kick. “I’ve known you for a year and you didn’t tell me you knew Kung Fu!” He said, “You never asked!” So, from there he started teaching me, I started training with him.
There came a point when I mentioned that I didn’t want to work for GEC for the rest of my life, because I liked martial arts and wanted to learn it. Willie suggested I go East. Long story short, I applied to the Hong Kong police force which didn’t work out, then Willie suggested I work at his parents’ hotel in Malaysia which I did. His family adopted me and I grew up there. So, I first learned White Crane kung fu there because the school was a two-minute walk away from the hotel.
Nice back story and as much kung fu as you like!
Yeah! One day a friend told me there was a big night of kung fu movies and if I’d like to go see a movie with him. So, I went to watch: “Mad Monkey Kung fu”. After seeing that, I didn’t want to learn White Crane anymore. I enquired the style used by the martial artist in the movie and learned that his core style was Hung Gar. I then found a Sifu teaching Hung Gar and first learned from Sifu Ho Kam Wai. When I first saw his student I went, “Wow, a body like Bruce Lee!”, but when I saw the sifu I thought, “He’s so skinny, what can he do?” In my mind I was thinking even a teenage kid could give him a slap and he’d fall down! But when he started to perform, my mouth just dropped open, my eyes widened, and it was like, holy sh*t! this guy is a master, unbelievable!
So, I asked, “How much do you charge to learn kung fu?” He said, “I don’t believe you will last a week. So this is what I’m going to do; you come to my house every night, from 7 to 9 for one week. If at the end of the week, you still come, I’ll teach you for free. But, I don’t believe you will last 3 or 4 days”.
I accepted the deal. The first lesson I had with him, he taught me to stand in horse stance and with a cane in hand he stood behind me and every time I stood up from stance, he’d hit me with the cane. If I fell down, he’d beat me. He hit me so hard that welts would come out on my legs and on my back. His idea was to beat me so hard that I’d be too frightened to return. After doing stance training, he’d have this really thick 15-20 inch diameter bamboo hollowed out and filled with lead, so now it was very heavy. He hung it from the ceiling and used it as something to hit against to harden the forearms. He’d make me hit it until my arms swelled up, get all bruised and my hands would be shaking.
So, my legs were shaking from doing stance, my hands were shaking from hitting this bamboo. He kept doing this, every day, for one week. On the 8th day, I came back, knocked on the door and asked if he would teach me for free now? Then he started teaching me for free!
Sounds very colourful, and I don’t just mean getting black and blue from the bruising! So, you’ve been in the arts and training for 40 years…
Yes. 40 years.
So they were some of the main formative influences for you, we’ll talk more about Lau Kar Leung later of course!
Well, the most influential on me is Lau Kar Leung with his movies as well etc, but if it wasn’t for Willie Wong then I would never have started this journey. He’s the one that pushed me in the right direction and gave me the opportunity to follow my dream.
One time I got into a fight in Malaysia when I was 21. I was stabbed three times; in the arm, through the lung and in the leg, in the femoral artery so blood would shoot probably, 5 to 6 metres. I nearly died from loss of blood, but one of my friends took a handkerchief, wrapped it around his fingers and stuck it in the hole to stop the bleeding, luckily they got me to the hospital in time. After this incident, I left Malaysia and went back to the UK and opened my first kung fu school in Coventry.
Later, I opened one in Birmingham and among my students was Lay Chan Thoong, on Facebook known as Le Chan Tang. She now has her own Wushu school in Birmingham and started with me with she was 14 and actually started teaching when she was 16. One of her students was Scott Adkins whom she taught Wushu and flips to. In the west, she’s probably my most well-known student, but she went into Wushu more, and stopped Hung Gar.
Gee…tough experiences…amazing! OK, can’t wait for this, just burning to ask, can you tell us what it was like meeting your hero Lau Kar Leung?
Well, I was speaking to a friend I asked if I could be introduced to him if I went to Hong Kong for a holiday. I just wanted to take a picture with him and put it in my kung fu school which at the time was above New Street station. So, in short, I met my hero, Lau Kar Leung in 1988 and after demonstrating my kung fu to him he was quite impressed, we had dinner and things just grew from there. While I was working with him on “Aces Go Places 5” he asked, “What are you going to do when you finish this movie, are you going back to the UK?” and I said, “Yeah.” Then he said, “Well, why don’t you stay here? You can work for me and do some films, learn kung fu from me.” Right then, I picked up the phone, called back to the UK and said “Close my school up I’m never coming back” and that was it, I stayed here.
Big decision, but easy to make given the offer! So what was Lau Kar Leung like to work and train with?
For sure. Well he was very, very demanding. That Sifu character you see in the movies, he’d wear that exact same countenance in real life as you’d see when he’d be teaching on film. It was actually his real life character. He was also fully aware when making movies that time was money, if you made a mistake, if you wasted time, it’d cost more and more and then you’d go over budget and destroy the whole production. So, when he’d be working on a movie, he’d be very, very, tough on people. He was 100% like that on everybody. But once the movie work was done then he’d show his jokey side, he’d sit and joke and fool around with you too. He’d slap you on the back and the next thing you knew; you’d be sitting three feet away from him or on the floor just from the slap. He was so small, but so fast and the power he generated was unbelievable!
Intense at work and at play!
Yes! You know, at first his father didn’t actually teach him, and he got bullied at school.
School kids used to play a game where they’d stand on top of the table and have a competition to see who could push the other one off and he kept getting pushed off. So one night he went to his father’s kung fu school and watched them doing stance training. He started training the stance himself and would go and stand on the table tops in school. When he used his practice he became able to push others off the table and he would win.
Then his father (who became a student of Lam Sai Wing and also taught the Hong Kong Police Force) noted his son’s growing ability and started teaching him kung fu. At the age of 13, he went to Macau and opened his own kung fu school teaching adults! He did that for 3 years then came back to Hong Kong joining his father in the black and white movies with the likes of Kwan Tak Hing. That’s when he stated his career as a stuntman.
His father was a really good fighter; you saw “Drunken Master 2” right? Do you remember the teahouse fight scene with Jackie using the bamboo?
Absolutely, for sure, it’s one of our favourites movies!
Well, that was a true story from Lau’s father’s life. In a fish market in Chung Wan on Hong Kong Island there was a big fight, there were three of them taking on sixty people and it was reported in the Hong Kong newspapers. Lau’s father took a bamboo pole and smashed it against the wall so it splintered. Then he used that to hit people with the shattered bamboo acting like knives that cut. So, Lau took that from his father’s real life experience and put that into “Drunken Master 2”. That’s where that scene came from. So, his father was a really good fighter and also kind of naughty himself when younger, he got into loads of fights.
That was a great, frantic and totally riotous scene!
Please share more on Lau Kar Leung…
So Lau Kar Leung had traditional kung fu and movie kung fu. Most traditional people think whether you are karate or kung fu, that’s very narrow minded. They will say, this is our style, my style is this. They won’t look at other things, so they don’t know how to evolve and grow.
So well said!
They just stay inside their own little world and stagnate. Being an action and stunt coordinator, you’ve got to teach people that don’t know kung fu how to fight. So, you start analysing body movement and there’ll be movements which might seem simple to you but how come this or that person you’re working with can’t do it? You have to start analysing their body structure and movement.
Lau Kar Leung had a different way of thinking. When you look at people you can see straight away what they can and can’t do, how to adapt and how to change things and make it look like they can do it. So, he started looking at body structure, he took his traditional and movie kung fu and considered body positioning and natural body movement, he joined them together and with that just progressed his kung fu above everybody else’s.
Brilliant! Thanks for sharing his process. With this documentary you’ve filmed, “Hands of Lau”. What interesting stories can you share about that -you must have had to go through a lot of archival material, and tremendous memories of experiences you had. How did that go overall?
Well it was emotional and stressful and you’re right, it brings back memories…The night my Sifu passed away, I was driving past his house and I kind of blacked out and heard a voice which asked, “Who are you looking for?” I looked around and my car was at the security office outside his house and I have no clue how I got there. Because I would have had to make two or three left turns, stop at two traffic lights and then get to the security house. So, I’ve got no clue how I got there…the next morning, I found out he’d passed away.
For the funeral, we took his body to Lantau Island, where the big Buddhist statue is and we did the cremation there in the temple which is only meant for monks. Because of his films and honouring Shaolin kung fu, the government allowed his body to be burned there with the same rites the monks receive. We closed the doors and only his wife and I were there and we watched his body burn, we left the oven doors open watching the coffin burn and we saw his body burning. Afterwards, I went through the ashes, picked out his bones and took them to his gravesite and resting place. So, as you can imagine, that was really stressful, emotional and upsetting.
RIP Lau Kar Leung…Thanks for sharing that Mark…In keeping his legacy alive, what are some of the best tips he and you would give to martial artists, looking to use their skills in the movies or on TV?
Welcome…Well, the first thing is, it’s not about you, it’s not about how good you can kick or how good you can punch. It’s how good you can make someone else look. Now you might be a great puncher and kicker but if you can’t make that style look good, they’re going to kick you out. No one is going to hire you. You’ve got to play down your punch and kicking skills. Because you don’t want to outshine their lead actor or star. That’ll just get cut on the editing room floor anyway.
So tone down your strikes, still make them look reasonably good, but don’t make the actor look bad. Then you’ve got to exaggerate your reactions and sell the actor’s fight, his punches and his kicks. If you can make someone look good, they’re going to hire you again and again and again.
That’s a gem right there. So, you’ve been involved with a lot of these well-known actors body guarding them and so on right?
Yes, I had done that for a lot of Hong Kong actors, Jackie Chan, Andy Lau…
What was it like working with Andy?
Andy is great, very professional, very polite, he has no ego. I body guarded him on “Drunken Master 2” when we were in China, because he just got mobbed when he’d come out on set.
You might like to know, none of these newer actors in Hong Kong can really fight, they’re all dancers and singers. So, that’s why the industry here is on a downer, you can’t get any replacement for the old guards. I mean once Donnie Yen is gone, that’s pretty much it!
What a dilemma! Did you mentor British stuntman Mike Lambert to some extent?
Well, he’s someone that’s made the most of his career here. He asked me for advice and I told him to learn Cantonese first before doing anything. He did that then came into the movie industry and got into the Stunt Association. I said to him, you’re never going to be a star here, but what you can do is learn the action from here, then go back to the UK, become a stuntman there and then a stunt coordinator, then you’ve got a job for the rest of your life.
You also knew and worked with British martial arts actor Darren Shahlavi (RIP) is his early days, can you tell us more?
Darren Shahlavi was my student. When he was 18 years old, he came out to Malaysia and worked on movies with me, I actually helped him start his career, I taught him to be a stuntman. Then he came back to Hong Kong and lived with Winston Ellis and a friend of mine. Going back, Winston Ellis initially hired him as a 17-year-old boy to work in his bodybuilding gym in Reading. So it was Winston that brought Darren out, then he introduced Darren to Bey Logan and Bey Logan introduced him to me and I hired him for three movies in Malaysia.
As to the range of moves they could do, well, you don’t get really big guys doing great somersaults. Gary Daniels is pretty big and he can do a backflip and a front somersault, but that’s about it but his flexibility is extraordinary, like Darren’s was.
Some interesting history there! OK, you had a really good fight with Sammo Hung in “Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon”, what was that like?
That was one of the best fight scenes I’ve done. But they edited the whole fight so when they released it half the fight was cut! There is an unedited version floating around though, I’ve seen it. When we were doing that fight scene I already had a good relationship with Sammo and the director of the film, was Lau Kar Wing, my master’s younger brother. So, they brought me in to fight with Sammo. Sammo said that he was pretending to be Bruce Lee in this film and that they wanted to restage the fight scene between Chuck Norris and Bruce in the colosseum. So, that’s what we based that fight on.
When we were doing the fight, Sammo turned round and said, “Hong Kong movies are known for the action, not the acting.” I said, “Yeah, yeah!” He said, “For every next movie we’ve got to do something even better, to give it more of a wow factor”. He said, “When I fight with you, let’s make it real, can I really hit you?”
“Sure let’s go for it!” I replied. So, when we did that fight, he really, really tried to knock the sh*t out of me!
Well he’s very strong, isn’t he?
Yeah! In the end bit you see him hit me in the stomach and when I bend down the camera is right in front of my face. Then his foot comes up between the camera and my face. He looks at me, he says, “If I don’t hit you, the camera is going to see it, can I really kick you in the face?” I said, “Let’s do it!” Then he says, “Okay, I’ve got an idea.” So, he took off his shoe and got a one-centimetre-thick foam pad and put it on the instep of his shoe. “Look!” He says, “I put a pad inside my shoes so there’s some protection for you, nice soft, spongy pad.” So, I go, “Okay, never mind let’s do it.” So, he put the pad in his shoe, put his shoe on and the camera is in place. So, ACTION! he hits me in the stomach, BAM! I go down, his foot comes up, WHAM! hits me on the side of the face and I flip up on my back then he jumps on top of me, WHAA! and finishes it. Then at the shout “CUT!” everybody asks me “Are you okay, are you okay?” I just put my hand up in the air and wave because I can’t talk! My head is dizzy, spinning like hell and it takes 10 minutes, before my head kind of settles down.
Sammo comes over to me and says; “Thank you, thank you!” I go, “It’s no problem, no problem, finished now?” He goes, “Yeah, yeah, finished.”. So, I got changed, got paid and said goodbye to everybody, because I wouldn’t be coming back to the set. As I was about to walk out the door, Sammo says “Tomorrow be here at 7 o’clock in the morning.” And I go, “But my part is finished, right?” “Yeah, but you can come here every day, 7 o’clock in the morning; you get changed; you go over there, get one of them mattresses; lie on the mattress and go to sleep, until we finish work. Then you get changed, we pay you and you go.” He paid me for an extra 7 days, just because I let him kick me in the face for real.
That’s very cool!
I mean, Sammo is fantastic, the way he thinks and the way he looks at things, he looks at the whole picture and he wants to expand on that. He always wants to go one step further, there’s no limitation for him. Working with Sammo is so good because he always likes to be the underdog, he likes you to beat him up so, there’s some suspension, some excitement in the fight you know. Every time you see Sammo fight with someone, he always lets that person beat the crap out of him then after you’ve knocked him down, he gets up and fights back and eventually wins, so, he really allows you to shine. As you know, Sammo’s still very busy in the industry, his latest movie “My Beloved Bodyguard” is out now.
There are three people I really love working with; of course my Sifu, Sammo Hung and Phillip Ko Fei, they’re just magical when it comes to fight scenes.
Philip Ko Fei was the head monk in “The Fifth Diagram Pole Fighter” who teaches Gordon Liu and then there’s “Fight or Run”, he’s probably done about 200-300 movies in total and often playing a baddie in Jackie Chan movies. He’s still around and actually wants to sign my daughter Charlene up for a picture deal which we’re negotiating at the moment.
What fun experiences you had with Sammo and some of the best action directors in the industry! OK, so did you train Charlene from a very young age then?
Thanks. Well, Charlene started around 3 or 4 old until about 6 years’ old then I stopped teaching her because she knocked some boy’s teeth out at school. Then she started training again between the ages of 14-18 then quit again, due to college and university where she studied sports and got her degree in it. After university she became a personal trainer and she took up training yet again. She teaches martial arts, kung fu, Hung Gar, kickboxing, Thai boxing, Western boxing, gym, weight training and nutrition.
Sounds like she’s the go-to trainer then, that’s awesome! You mentioned “Knock Off” earlier, what was it like working with Jean-Claude Van Damme?
Yeah! Well, I only had one scene with him, after a car crash he throws a kick at me, then he disappears and I’ve got to chase him before some American guy uses a cash machine to hit me in the back knocking me down. Van Damme likes to let people know he’s around and he likes to enjoy the fame. My encounter with him was brief, he was polite and he’s professional.
Neat! You also made an appearance in “Angel on Fire” which starred Darren Shahlavi and Cynthia Khan, what was that like? How did things go for Cynthia (which many of us remember from “In The Line of Duty 4” with Donnie Yen)?
Well that film was with Philip Ko. He would call me to come in and help coordinate some of the fights. So, I coordinated the fight between Darren and Cynthia Khan. She’s okay, she’s a nice girl, was trying to follow in the footsteps of Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock but she just wasn’t in their class, there’s just no comparison. I mean, Michelle was a ballet dancer, she wasn’t a martial artist. The thing is, Michelle is willing to do her own stunts, she got the respect from the whole Stunt Association and learned martial arts as she went on. Since she was a professional ballet dancer, her flexibility and her body movements were so good. She could pick up any movement, whether it was dancing or martial arts. So, to find someone else like Michelle…well, it’s going to be very difficult to fill her shoes.
What a conundrum eh! How about Tony Jaa from Thailand, your views?
To me the guy is amazing, I’ve been to Thailand and met with friends there many times.
When you see people of poverty, they’re willing to do anything to get out of that state. They’re not frightened if they die, because dying is better than living in that poverty! A lot of these people have a really, really hard life and then they see these movies and all these somersaults like what Jackie Chan was doing and so on.
Tony actually learned to do these somersaults he saw on film for real not realizing that they were done using wires, trampolines and stunt doubles. This guy can do things in reality, that every other movie star does with wires and stunt doubles. He’s taken Thai boxing one step further by mixing it with tricking and he’s just become phenomenal. On screen, he could outfight Jackie or any other Hong Kong actor.
People like Tony start off being in poverty and so poor, that they’re willing to suffer, they’re willing to push themselves and willing to risk getting seriously hurt because they see this on film and think this is for real. They can do this stuff for real when they come into the film, they’re like “Wow, you guys can’t actually do this?” So, it’s amazing, the guy is really good.
He met my Sifu once. They did talk about working together once but it never happened. That’s why in part of one of his movies, “Tom Yum Goong” (you know the one with the elephants) he does Hung Gar in it. Just before they shot that movie he met my master. So, there was an influence of my master in that film, even afterwards Tony wanted to learn some more Hung Gar.
That’s really fascinating to know! OK, we’ve gotta do this, Mark Houghton’s Top Martial Arts movies!
OK! For me, it’s my master’s movies, “Mad Monkey Kung Fu”, “Lady is the Boss”, “My Young Aunty”, “Legendary Weapons”, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”, “Return of 36”, “Disciples of 36”, “Cat vs Rat” (with Sheng Fu and Adam Cheng, it’s got Lau Gar Wing, Hsiao Ho and all the normal Lau stunt people and actors in it) “Seven Swords”, because my master’s in it. “Ong Bak” and “The Raid”. For “The Raid” they took the Silat martial art they do and made it believable, made it real and in addition, they’ve got that gruesome side to it, the killing and everything.
Awesome list, want to revisit some of those definitely! What are your three favourite movie fight scenes?
The end fight scene in “Martial Club”, the athlete’s fight in the alleyway. The end scene in “My Young Auntie”, with my master fighting Wang Lung Wei and the end scene in “Legendary Weapons of China”, where my master fights his brother.
Will revisit those too. OK Mark, let’s talk a little bit about your martial arts training, what kind of training did you do, was it full-on martial arts, focusing on flexibility and such or did you go to the gym, lift weights etc as well?
I’d start off in the morning with flexibility, so I’d do all the splits and everything along with stretching. Then I would go to the gym and work on cardio and muscle mass; because for the movies, you’ve got to look good. Then in the evening then I’d practice kung fu. I’d start with stance work, basic body conditioning and then forms. Then I’d go into movie reactions and basic falls. So, I used to do about 8 hours a day, training every day when I was first in Hong Kong. From the age of 22 to the age of 39, I was a professional martial artist and stuntman.
Well, I wouldn’t go for definition; my DNA type doesn’t give me six-pack abs or things like that but I’ve always had good muscles. Just because you have a six-pack doesn’t mean you can fight!
Totally. Can you tell us a favourite exercise tip for martial artists or people who want to get trained in film combat, any special techniques?
My teacher always said to me, people have lost the insight of martial arts. They want more instead of less and they think because they know 40 forms that it makes their kung fu better. Actually it makes it weaker, because they have no foundation. Also, if you don’t have the conditioning, all these kung fu moves are going to be useless. You might as well do dancing and ballet, because the movement is going to look the same. So, he says, “the most important when you’re training in martial arts is to train the power and conditioning of the body, that’s related to the movement”. You saw my master’s film, “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” right?
Yes, of course it’s an enduring classic that we never tire of!
Well, when I opened my school in Hong Kong before, I built it in a similar way to my master’s 36 chambers of Shaolin with eight different chambers inside; one was a leg chamber, another an arm chamber, all these chambers. These would develop and condition different body parts and the strength of those parts.
Love these old school, hard core ideas! What did Lau Kar Leung say about chi (qi) power, did he ever talk about the esoteric side and how to develop that?
We have a form called iron wire boxing and we perform this. There are other practices which correspond to the five main emotions; joy, worry, sadness, fear and anger which in turn relate to the five major organs; the heart, spleen, lungs, kidneys and liver. So you would need to have a balance of external and internal conditioning.
Then you have sounds that you perform as you’re doing the practice that help to strengthen these major organs. When you get hit, you use a series of dynamic tensions which will condition the outward muscle while the breathing and the emotion strengthens the internal organs. So, if you get hit, the internal organs don’t get damaged.
Intriguing! We should certainly go into this more in future. OK, so, what’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?
Yes sure. Well, I jumped off the roof of a 4-floor building for the movie “Black Snow” with Michael Wong (known for his roles in “In The Line of Duty” films with Donnie Yen etc). So the stunt was to jump to the opposite side of the building and onto the third floor with a metal verandah which you hit, bounce off, go back to the building on the opposite side and hit the verandah on the second floor. Then after hitting that, bounce back onto the building on the opposite side of the first floor. I did that with metal pads on (pads with metal plates on top of the pads) and strapping them all in place. So you’d basically flip from one building to the other and just keep bouncing backwards and forwards as you’re falling.
Yeah, that was a scary stunt to do. When I hit the side of the verandah, I think I cracked my ribs.
Yikes! How did you work around the injuries then, how do you rehabilitate yourself?
When I was young, my pain tolerance was pretty high and I just didn’t want to let people know I was injured or in pain. So I just worked through it, just pretending it didn’t hurt. I just kept pushing myself. Now every time I teach people to do stunts, I always teach them about safety and about looking after their bodies and using the right pads for the right stunts. The sad reality is that if you get injured, that’s it, nobody cares and people forget about you really fast. If you can’t work, you’re of no use. Nowadays instead of trying to prove or trying to do everything myself, I’ve gone to the next stage, becoming a teacher and looking out to find the next generation.
Definitely a wise move! What do you like to do to de-stress from a very physically all out day?
I like scuba diving. Because even in martial arts or when you’re meditating there are still noises you can hear and things that can disturb you, unless you’re in the middle of nowhere with no sound around. When you go scuba diving you’re weightless like being in outer space, with nobody talking to you. You can still hear a lot of sounds in the water and there are many things to see but because you’re weightless, it puts you in a state of relaxation. So, I use scuba diving to relax, get away from all that stress.
Interesting…you’re the first to mention scuba diving for stress relief! Can you tell us what kind of diet you follow now, do you observe anything special?
No, I’ve never done that! Gary Daniels tried to teach me once, because he’s got a really strict diet, he measures everything -every four hours he eats and he measures it. When he goes out, he carries little boxes of food with him but I’m not that type of person, I just eat what I want, when I want. I don’t have the DNA to have a physique like “He Man” anyway!
Which foods do you find help give you energy then?
Well, I don’t eat beef, I prefer chicken, fish and lamb. I like lots of bananas and rice. I also like to eat durian fruit. I find that gives me a lot of energy. A lot of western people don’t like it, because it smells really bad like smelly socks, but in Asia we call it the king of fruits. It’s spiky, with yellow flesh wrapped around a little stone and it’s so soft and delicious, it gives you a lot of carbs and a lot of energy too, it’s the best. But just don’t drink alcohol with it as it can be dangerous, you’ll overheat do yourself harm, might even die.
That sounds mega potent! OK, can you tell us one geeky thing about you that people don’t really know, something you haven’t mentioned yet perhaps?
Yeah. I’m scared of spiders. I really don’t like spiders. When I was young in Malaysia my adopted family asked me to go to the back storage in the hotel to bring out some bottles of beer, to stock the bar. The storage was in the middle of a banana tree plantation. So I picked up three crates from there with my hands at the bottom and my chin at the top when a huge banana spider crawled up the side of the crate and on to my face. So, after that I really got scared of spiders. Banana spiders are poisonous, the poison won’t kill you, but it’s going to put you in hospital for a while.
Must’ve been a mammoth one! If you could be a super hero, who would you chose?
I’d chose Lau Kar Leung! (both laughs) He’s my super hero, he was a strict Buddhist as well.
What’s your favourite kind of music?
I like all types of music. I like soft music, I like reggae, I like house music; go to Malaysia and everybody is taking ecstasy and doing raves! For me, I don’t mind, any music. It depends on the mood and the situation. When I pray and meditate of course we have a type of music for that as well. To me all music is good, but it has to have its right time and place. If it comes at the wrong time and wrong place, then of course you’re not going to feel it, you’re not going to like it.
Okay, you mentioned TV, what are some of your favourite American films then, if any?
Actually, at the moment, I can’t even say I’ve been watching a lot. Now when I watch movies, I don’t watch movies like normal people would watch them. I watch the camera angle turns and I’m saying; okay, cut there, now they’re going to move the lights and move the camera then they’re going to get this…I see movies as individual shots and I’m always thinking how they make this shot…how they do that shot. So unless it’s a really good film, I don’t care too much about the story, I’m just looking about how they shoot it.
I want to make action movies in which people believe that the action shown could really be done with fight scenes that look real and could actually be seen in the street with the story carrying along the reasons for the fight, so the story has to be strong.
We need to see more of that for sure. OK, so, what one thing in life would you say you:
- a. Like and
- b. Dislike?
One thing I really like is sharing and helping others. One thing I really dislike is selfishness and people pretending to be something they’re not.
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far.
To have my hero become my teacher.
You seem to have successfully condensed all your experience into wisdom, everything you’re saying has a lot of philosophical conviction behind it.
Well, I’m very spiritual in a sense, very religious. I’m a Buddhist and always have been. At home I’ve got figures of Monkey King, Kwan Yin and lots of Thai Buddhist things and I pray every day. Life is so physical, you have to have something that’s opposite, to create a balance, calm you down and bring you back to reality. It reminds you that you’re just a human being and that your time on this planet is very short. You know you’ve got to make the best of it. Helping yourself is selfish. Nobody remembers someone who’s selfish. If you want to achieve greatness and leave a legacy, you’ve got to help other people. That’s what I want to do in the next 20 years.
Did you mention this in other interviews you did?
No. You’re the only ones that’ve talked to me like this.
Well, we’re very honoured. So, what are you keen to accomplish in the next five years?
To fulfil my promise to teach martial arts and to go back to the movie industry to train and produce the next generation of Lau family stunt people. Also to finish his last movie, from the last script he ever wrote which I have in my possession called “Luk Ah Choi”. While Hung Hei Goon founded Hung Gar it was Luk who passed it on and started teaching it outside the Shaolin temple. So, this is the story of Hung Gar through Luk Ah Choi’s eyes.
Not to say too much, when the film’s end credits shall roll, we’ll put all the names of the lineage: Hung Hei Goon, Luk Ah Choi, Wong Tai, Wong Kei Ying, Wong Fei Hung, Lam Sai Wing, Lau Jaam, then we’ll finish on Lau Kar Leung with his picture as well and then my name under his picture as his student. So, in effect, we bring it from the history of the first development, right up to today.
Looking forward to that! Can you share a piece of wisdom, a quote or saying from Lau Kar Leung that he’s passed down to you, something that motivates, and inspires?
He always used to say, you only live life once. Don’t live life for somebody else. Live it for yourself but also try to help people. So, if you have a dream, follow it. Don’t give it up and don’t care what other people say. You might not succeed, but at least you wouldn’t have wasted your life, at least you spent it trying. At least you’re going to be happy and content that you did try! But if you didn’t try, you’re always going to have regrets.
Brilliant! And on that high note, what special message you would like to share with Kung fu Kingdom readers around the world right now?
The next generation of masters, whether it’s in kung fu or Japanese, Korean, Thai or Indonesian martial arts, (it doesn’t matter what martial art you do) it’s all in your hands now. If you have a dream of becoming a master, then practice hard and make it work, if you have a dream to be a movie martial artist or real martial artist, believe in yourself and follow your dreams. That’s really it!
That’s solid as a horse-stance gold right there, thank you!
So where can people find more information about you, connect and find out more about your seminar on 16th-17th July that you mentioned earlier?
Actually, we’re developing a website now designed to teach martial arts as well as the movie side of the business. I’m also going to open a community for casting, for people interested in becoming stuntmen, or action actors/actresses. I’m also going to do a stunt course for those who want to do martial arts stunt work. If people really have a dream of becoming an action actor or a martial artist and think that I can help their career and to achieve their dream, they’re welcome to contact me.
They can find out more (and book their place if interested) via the Five Thunder Chinese Martial Arts Association.
(Update: at the time of publishing there are just a handful of tickets remaining)
Well Mark, we just want to thank you so much for sharing so many amazing things about your martial arts, stunt career, life in the Hong Kong movie industry and particularly your up close and personal experiences with Master Lau Kar Leung (RIP), it’s been a real pleasure and an honour, we really, really enjoyed this.
Well to hear out all my experiences and stories would take at least a couple of weeks straight!
Sure let’s do that! Keep in touch, thanks again.
You’re very welcome, thanks for having me on Kung Fu Kingdom.
Note: You can also connect with Mark here via Facebook.
(Photo credit: with kind permission by Thomas Sandfield)