Updated: Sep 4, 2022
By Stuart Morales, Editor
Master Donald Hamby recounts the four directions of his life that made him who he is today.
Few people in the traditional martial arts community have not heard his name. From international tournaments in mainland China, starring in “The Black Kung Fu Experience,” winning “The Steve Harvey Big Time Show” to running his own showcase “The Gathering of the Masters,” Master Donald Hamby has contributed much to his art.
Growing up in the Tumultuous South
Hamby’s philosophy of giving more than he is asked, can be traced back to his upbringing. When asked about growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Hamby states the memories bring back anxiety, fear and a pit in his stomach. He recalled referring to the city as Bombingham due to the 50 explosions that rocked the city from 1947 through 1965. He also remembered frequently leaving school because the Ku Klux Klan threatened with further violence. While the Civil Rights movement marched forward, as a boy he witnessed police using water cannons and dogs against peaceful protestors.
Often his mother instructed him to avoid the sidewalks when White people were walking on them and to never look them in the eyes. On the bus he was directed to sit in the back and if the bus became full of white people he would have to stand up or get off. When it became full, they would kick African Americans off, without regard to where the bus was.
“Why are they doing this to us,” said Hamby. “What did we do to them?”
To escape this harsh environment, Hamby would lose himself in books filled with stories of the oceans and pirates. He knew one day he would travel the world that he read about.
Journey to the West
Knowing he had to escape the racism of Birmingham, Hamby asked his mother if he could visit his cousin in Los Angeles, California for the summer. He had no plans of ever living in Alabama again. Convincing his mom that the schools were better in Los Angeles, she allowed him to stay and finish his education at Dorsey High.
While in Los Angeles, he asked his cousins to take him to see the ocean that he had read so much about in his books. Driving down West Pico Blvd., he cleared a hill where he saw the ocean for the first time.
“I thought the water was going to come down on me,” Hamby joyfully recalled, “I did, honest to God. It was like Heaven.”
In Alabama, there was always a fear and formality that hung over him. In Los Angeles, he felt like he was born again; he could hitchhike, wear sandals to summer school, and people were genuinely friendly to him.
Training in Eastern Martial Arts
Growing up with four sisters in an unsavory neighborhood of Birmingham, he often had to confront bullies. His fascination with Chinese kung fu first came in the form of watching Bruce Lee and his lightning fast kicks on “The Green Hornet,” as it did with many youth growing up in the kung fu movie craze of the 1970s.
“In the South, you do not kick a person,” Hamby elaborates. “That’s considered like putting a person on the level of a dog. You kick a dog. You do not kick a human being. So when I saw him [kick], I said ‘Wow, I want to learn that.’ ”
He was walking down the street when he found the art that would come to define him throughout much of his adulthood. Looking through the window, he thought the Chinese kung fu forms reminded him of the yoga exercises that had recently become popular in Los Angeles. When he joined the kung fu school under Grandmaster Buck Sam Kong, he was instructed to sit in horse and forward stances for extensive periods of time with the result often being that his legs would shake uncontrollably -- he almost quit.
Being a bodybuilder did not help him in class and he realized the strength required for kung fu was different from lifting weights. Later on he realized Hung Gar kung fu focused on building strength in the ligaments and tendons, not muscles like bodybuilding.
The sense of community within the school is one of the reasons that Hamby stayed for 27 years under Kong. He recalled that there were many people from various walks of life and cultural backgrounds but they acted like family with one another. They did everything together, inside and outside of the school.
Hung Gar’s fighting techniques and applications are what drew Hamby deeper into the system. Sometimes “rascals” would come to the school to cause trouble and see if kung fu was effective. Often, Hamby would “smash” them. Kong did not mind as long as he himself did not have to get involved, according to Hamby.
Recalling another incident, Hamby remembered an upstairs room for those who were interested in watching the class but one person kept interrupting. Kong and Hamby came to the agitator with Kong saying to him that watching was allowed but asking the man not to “interfere.” The man retorted, “what if I do,” to which Kong calmly asked him to “just leave.” The man motioned as if he were going to attack. Kong reacted by executing a tiger claw technique to the man’s eyes and told him, according to Hamby, “If you move, I’ll blind you.” Hamby and Kong then threw him out. Hamby often cites his training with Kong as the primary reason for the development of his fighting skill.
Returning to the Source of Modern Hung Gar
Always looking deeper into the art, Hamby sought to find the origin of what he was learning from Kong. In 1977, he met Kong’s elder classmate Sifu Lam Chun Fai who was visiting Hawaii from Hong Kong the few times he would visit Kong’s home over the years. In 1983, Hamby went with his teacher to Hong Kong where he met Kong’s instructor, Grandmaster Lam Cho who was the head of Lam Family Hung Gar for more than 30 years, and had been teaching generations of masters since 1926. Unfortunately, he did not get a chance to train with him at the time.
In 1999, Hamby went back to Hong Kong and was able to train with Chun Fai. His dream of going back to Grandmaster Lam Cho’s house was fulfilled. Hamby was treated very well while in Hong Kong due to the articles he had written about Lam Chun Fai, Lam Cho and the style in martial arts magazines.
The training in the United States and Hong Kong differed with their approach. In Hong Kong, the practice focused mainly on hand forms, two man forms and techniques with little sparring. Chun Fai explained to Hamby this was because his father did not like him teaching people how to fight. In the past, students would get in trouble for fighting and would be brought back to the school by the police.
In the United States, Hamby recalls his training as more difficult due to the emphasis on basics and fighting. He attributes this to Kong’s personality, where he would fight people of any size or style. Kong would spar with the entire school and anyone who wished to test him because of his faith in his technique. Hamby had a revelation on how to improve his teaching after having had corrections in Hong Kong. Chun Fai and other senior instructors would often guide his focus on his footwork, stance, breathing, hip and hand placement. The combination of his foundation with Kong and refinements from Hong Kong elevated Hamby’s skill to another level.
Moving North with the Mighty Elephant
Hamby looks towards the future and what he can do to contribute to the art that gave him so much. His next project is a book about the famed Tiger Crane two man set that he is writing with the blessing of Chun Fai. In this he hopes to spread the art of Hung Gar for future generations.
This article was written in memory of Carol Hamby, wife of Donald Hamby and mother of their two children, Odell and Nadell.