On March 10, 2017 a local martial arts school lost one of its most honored and beloved members. Mint Hill Kung Fu School mourns the passing of Grandmaster Chi Li Keung. He was 63 years old. He is survived by his wife, Fu and two sons, Matthew and Michael. Referred to as Grandmaster Li, Si-Gung Li or Sifu Li, his presence will greatly be missed as an integral part of bringing the ancient martial art of Lai Tung Pai to Mint Hill, and was the founder of this school.
Grandmaster Li brought Lai Tung Pai, meaning coiling fist, to the states from Hong Kong. Lai Tung Pai is a Chinese martial art believed to have originated in China around the 1600’s. Sifu Li began training in Lai Tung Pai in the late 60s with Si-Gung Kong Hoi. Kong Hoi had three sons, one of who is married to Sifu Li’s sister. As is tradition, Sifu Li moved in with Kong Hoi and trained. After three years, Kong Hoi retired from teaching and shut down his schools. Sifu Li continued to train and left Hong Kong for America in 1978. He settled in the Charlotte area in the 80s and eventually, in 1990, was promoted to Sifu by Kong Hoi thus giving him permission to carry on the art of Lai Tung Pai. Present owner and Mint Hill resident Sifu Christopher Facente studied under Grandmaster Li. Chris, along with others at MHKF are dedicated to carrying on this martial art form. I discussed Grandmaster Li’s influence with Sifu Chris in hopes our readers will understand who was in their midst and how his legacy continue.
Sifu Chris studied with Grandmaster Li (or Sifu Li) for 30 years. He was not only a teacher to Sifu Chris, but also a good friend and very influential in Chris’ life. Chris says that Grandmaster Li was so many things to so many different people. At the school, when you walked in where Li was teaching or training, you’d see an “old Chinese man” and think you were walking into an old Kung Fu movie. He spoke broken English but was easy to understand. Grandmaster Li showed kindness and love to his students and especially children. He enjoyed making dumplings from scratch and those lucky enough to get a bag were particularly appreciative. One of the ways Grandmaster Li was special was his humbleness regarding his skill. Chris recalls, “At his funeral, his neighbor stood up and said he never knew Sifu (Li) was a master of martial arts. He was just someone who they ate dinner with on Sunday nights and that he was a great cook.” Grandmaster Li is irreplaceable and the MHKF students pledge to carry on the art of Lai Tung Pai to honor him and those that came before him.
One of Grandmaster Li’s principles was “Teach once, learn twice”. Not all students had the opportunity to train with him before his passing, but many did and will continue to teach this martial art to students entering the school. Grandmaster Li enjoyed traditional lion dancing, which was incorporated into his funeral. To honor the Grandmaster, a special lion dance was performed with the participants uniformed entirely in white (the traditional Chinese death color). For 30 days after being laid to rest, students wear white sashes in remembrance. As is tradition in Hong Kong, his urn sits in the school for all to see and know his legacy.
The connection between Chris, Mint Hill and Sifu Li runs deep. Chris started the Mint Hill Kung Fu School in 1993 after Sifu Li gave him the opportunity, having owned the school up until then. Sifu Li took an out of town job and told Chris and his school brother Anthony Stephenson to take over the school. Having been told he would take it over, Chris has owned it ever since. Sifu Anthony opened another school in Kings Mountain and now has a school in Dayton, Ohio.
What drives Chris to keep his school running? “Everything good in my life has come from Kung Fu. I met my wife Gabriele there (they were married at a martial arts tournament in 2009). I had the drive to earn my MBA through the strength the school has given me.” Chris has competed internationally (placing 4th) and has traveled to Hong Kong, Korea and Malaysia – all through his relationship with Kung Fu. In 2004, Chris had the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong and train with Grandmaster Li’s teacher, which is a huge honor in the martial arts world. Learning from the teacher who taught your teacher means you are no longer teacher/student but brothers.
Being in Mint Hill has been good for the school. Grandmaster Li picked Mint Hill because it reminded him of the small Hong Kong village where he grew up.
What can you expect when you visit MHKF School? Your first class is free and you’ll be put with another instructor for the entire class. If you join, you’ll get personalized training for the first few months. You’ll learn Kung Fu incorporating traditional stances and exercises. Lai Tung Pai is similar to the popular Wing Chun style, which is the first style of Bruce Lee. For strength training and conditioning, the Muk Jong(Wooden Man) and traditional Chinese weapons are incorporated, making the training interesting and fun. The school is involved in national and international tournaments each year and sponsors the annual CACMA tournament held in Charlotte.
To learn more about the lineage of Lai Tung Pai or to get more information on class pricing and schedules, check out the Mint Hill Kung Fu website at www.mhkungfu.com.