Sifu Shu Pui Cheung cites growing up in poverty in Hong Kong as a prime motivation for his study of kung fu. Sifu Cheung attended elementary school in Kowloon City—a unique area of Hong Kong, which, through a legal clause in the lease with Britain, was a sovereign area not subject to any British colonial law. Every day he passed through a maze of buildings in a legendary “separate society” few have had access to. His walk to school took him past hero in addicts, houses of prostitution, and people using public toilets as their bedrooms. By the time he was in seventh grade, his family’s poverty had forced him to quit school and begin work. When he was 19, Sifu Cheung saw the legendary actor/martial artist Kuan Dak Hing in a movie about Wong Fei Hung and realized that the traditional art form of kung fu could teach him how to be a good person, take care of others, and help poor people—in short, how to work to build a positive society in the midst of poverty.
Sifu Cheung studied kung fu at the Ho Lap Tin Martial Arts Academy in Hong Kong, which taught the Siu Lam Pai Hung Gar style. The training was rigorous, requiring between 15 and 20 hours a week of study. Sifu Cheung chose the school because of Sifu Ho’s reputation, moral character, and his commitment to serve poor people. At the time, many of Hong Kong’s kung fu schools were involved in illegal black market activities, and students were often used as “strong arms” for criminals. Ho Lap Tin’s school was known for its moral righteousness. Sifu Ho was an anti-imperialist who trained anti-Japanese forces in hand-to-hand combat in Canton during World War II. After the war, he became a sifu to the fishermen who lived and worked near the Shaukiwan fish market. He also practiced Chinese medicine and served the poor. All this attracted Sifu Cheung.
In 1974, Sifu Cheung was brought to Philadelphia on a one-year contract to teach martial arts. Another sifu of Hung Gar style who was scouting in Hong Kong and attending kung fu exhibitions and competitions there saw Sifu Cheung performing hand and weapon forms and invited him to come and teach in Philadelphia. By 1976 Sifu Cheung had opened his own kung fu school, which is located in Philadelphia Chinatown.
Nowadays, Sifu Cheung and his students are an integral part of major events in Philadelphia Chinatown, including Chinese New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival, business openings, weddings, and other celebrations. They have also performed in many places around the Philadelphia area. Sifu Cheung loaned one of his school’s lions to the Folklore Project’s “Folk Arts of Social Change” exhibition and has taught in the Folklore Project’s folk arts residency program.
Sifu Cheung is featured in two PFP publications: Look Forward and carry on the past: stories from Chinatown (video) and Walking on Solid Ground (children’s book)