When he was a teenager growing up in Warwickshire, England, in the 1970s, taking off for Hong Kong to learn Chinese gongfu was a remote dream for Mark Houghton.
He had watched the movie Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979) when he was 17 and decided that he wanted to learn the Hung Gar style of martial arts of its director, Lau Kar Leung.
Hong Kong martial artist-turned-film-maker Lau, who died at the age of 76 in June, was a fourth-generation disciple of Chinese martial arts legend Wong Fei Hong. His directorial resume includes The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978) and Drunken Master II (1994). Houghton, now 51 and the owner of Lau Family Hung Gar Kung Fu School in Hong Kong, was in town recently to promote the opening of a branch here.
Dressed in a black gongfu-style tunic and sporting Chinese tattoos and a necklace with a jade brooch, he looked like he would fit right into the busy milieu of Hong Kong, where he has been living for more than 30 years.
Actually, he looked like he had just stepped out of a Hong Kong gongfu flick - he was involved in many of those after being rejected by the Hong Kong police force.
Recalling the early years of his love of gongfu, he said in a thick Cantonese accent: "I was so crazy about Chinese martial arts, I even applied to join the Hong Kong police force."
The application was rejected because he lacked university qualifications, but he ended up doing the thing he really wanted anyway.
"I was working as a bodyguard in England, having picked up martial arts in Malaysia, and I got to know a Hong Kong businessman who told me that he knew Lau and could introduce me to him.
"It was a dream come true for me to even have a meal with him, let alone become his disciple," said Houghton, who also goes by the Chinese name Ho Mak.
Subsequently, Lau offered him a role as a stuntman in the movie Aces Go Places 5: The Terracotta Hit (1989) as well as took him under his wing.
Following that, Houghton, who is divorced and has a 23-year-old daughter, served as a stuntman, actor and martial arts director in more than 60 Hong Kong films from 1989 to 1998. He retired from the industry due to injuries suffered from his stuntwork.
1. What was it like working as a stuntman in Hong Kong films?
Stuntmen are more like human props in the Hong Kong industry - they really suffer. The stunts are well known for being very dangerous, but if you hesitate to do a stunt and say you are frightened or complain, you will never get hired again. So no matter how difficult the stunt is, you have to do it without hesitating. That's the only way to survive in the industry.
2. How popular is martial arts in Hong Kong now?
Hong Kong people are not so health-conscious anymore and the lifestyle there is very fast-paced and hectic. So they are not very interested in the traditional culture of martial arts. My master said that the future of Chinese martial arts will be in the West, because the young generation of Asian people now are no longer interested in their culture. It's a sad thing.
3. Do you often feel like you are a Chinese man in a Westerner's skin?
All my friends call me "custard bun" - white on the outside, yellow on the inside. My mentality and the way I live now are more Asian and when I go back to Europe, people don't accept me. They hear my accent and the way I talk and they don't think that I am English. I feel more at home in Asia, I don't think I will ever go back to the West.
4. How has gongfu transformed your life?
It has given me the opportunity to go into the movie industry, to meet people whom you see only on screen or dream of. But it's a very hard life being a martial artist. I have sacrificed my family and a lot of things to get to where I am today.
5. What is the difference between martial arts and stunt fighting?
Martial arts deals with practicality and self-defence, but stunt fighting is different because you've got to sell a movement and make the actor look good by exaggerating your reactions. I acted in a fight scene with a six-year-old boy once and people were laughing at me for being beaten up by him. My friends were incredulous but I took it as a compliment that my acting was convincing.
6. Why does Hollywood never get action flicks right?
The stunt directors get a lot more control in Hong Kong films. When shooting action scenes, they take over from the director and not only choreograph the scene but also edit the footage. It's a lot more hierarchical in America, where you have three to four people with different ideas looking at a scene - you have no idea what you will end up with.
7. What do you think of the mixed martial arts trend now?
Mixed martial arts is very practical and focuses on using power, whereas traditional Chinese martial arts have lost contact with reality because there is too much talking and not enough fighting going on. If you lose in a fight, you lose face and maybe you will lose your school.
But in today's society, people don't want to listen, they want action. With mixed martial arts, it's more clear-cut. You fight, you win, then you talk. I want to show people that martial arts can also be useful.
8. How would you like to be remembered?
That's very hard to say. Some people might feel that I've done a lot but I don't think I've done anything particularly outstanding to benefit society that will make people remember me. I've still got a few years to go, so maybe I may achieve something by then. As long as my own family remembers me, I'm happy.
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