Hong Kong sword trainer Lancelot Chan brings 'Game of Thrones'-esque action to life
Hong Kong is a world away from the epic sword and lightsabre fights on the Game of Thrones and Star Wars. But a local sword-fighting master is bridging that gap between fantasy and reality.
His name, aptly enough, is Lancelot Chan Ying-chih, according to his HKID card. The 37-year-old’s full-time job is creating realistic swords for training purposes, and he also teaches students how to fight with the replica weapons.
Chan says a childhood illness, an iconic movie and make-believe duels brought him to where he is today.
As a child, he would often roughhouse with two friends using broken TV aerials and sticks. Chan used to study martial arts as a boy, but one day, while he was Primary Five student, he suddenly found himself unable to move.
He was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. In secondary school, he took medicines to reduce the inflammation, but he lost the flexibility and endurance he once had. He stopped doing hand-to-hand combat and started training with weapons (for fun), which is less physically demanding.
Later, when he began studying at a technical school, he learned how to use a drill and other equipment to craft swords.
“Before class, we’d all go crazy and fight each other,” he told the South China Morning Post. Our teacher would yell, ‘Stop, or you’ll all get detention.’ He did that from a safe distance, of course.
“Our metalworks teacher wanted us to pay attention to him, so he said if we listened to him, he’d teach us how to make an aluminium ruler. A few of us learned how to make one and that made for an excellent weapon that lasted a long time. That was funny, but that’s also why I can’t tell you which school I went to,” he said.
He has come a long way from fighting with rulers. He now makes a variety of training weapons, including Chinese swords, a German bastard sword, Japanese katanas, a European rapier and a Zulu war spear.
He has around 20 students training under him as part of the Ancient Combat Association, where he is the swordsmanship director. The association, founded in 2003, promotes “freestyle swordsmanship” or allowing students to train with a variety of swords.
The number of practitioners is unclear but several countries including Canada, the US and China have sword-fighting schools. In March, Russia launched a mixed martial arts division where fighters dress up as knights and fight with swords and shields.
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Chan chose the name Lancelot when he became interested in sword-fighting and after he saw the movie Excalibur. Lancelot ignited his imagination more than the other knights of King Arthur’s Round Table because he “wasn’t a perfect example of virtue”. Lancelot made mistakes and ultimately redeemed himself, explains Chan.
But the name choice seemed stranger than fiction to some.
“I got in trouble while registering for my HKID card; the person didn’t know this is an English name and gave me one day to prove that this was an actual name. I had to run to a bookstore, buy a very thick dictionary that had the name Lancelot and show it to the person, who made a photocopy of the page,” Chan says.
He also got in trouble when he went to his first swordsmanship forum in the United States in the 1990s.
“They didn’t let me register under the name Lancelot. I didn’t realise how strange this name was to them. They asked me to prove it, and I showed them a scanned copy of my HKID card.”
“I said, ‘Now that I’ve proved it, can you apologise?’ The guy refused, and shortened it to Lance. That happened at several forums I went to when I was younger. But later I got more famous, or maybe organisers just became more liberal, so it’s fine now.”
Chan studied information technology in university and upon graduation started teaching IT with his father. But his real passion called; he took up sword-fight training in earnest.
In 2001, he figured out how to make training weapons that weighed and felt like real swords – but without the risk of injuring someone.
His swords have a steel core and are wrapped with an outer layer of foam rubber, similar to the material used for foam blocks or pool noodles. The replicas cost around HK$800 to HK$1,000 each.
His wife, Annie Ma Cheuk-yin, says he was already into sword-fighting when she met him but at first thought he was just bragging about his skills. Chan sometimes spars with Ma, who uses a spear.
Chan tries out real swords so that he can mimic the look and feel of the weapons as closely as possible. When there are weapon exhibitions in the city, Chan contacts the organisers and arranges a private viewing session. He also requests hands-on experience with the ancient swords.
In May last year, he was able to try out the swords of Chinese master Hu Xiaojun, whose work was displayed in Hong Kong that month. He also grasped in his hands the swords from Macau’s “Masters of Fire” exhibition almost a decade ago.
As long as he proves that he makes swords for a living and signs a liability waiver, Chan says he can handle the genuine weapons. Besides, he says, he knows most of the exhibitions’ organisers.
He says hands-on exhibits are more popular now: the swords are placed inside acrylic glass cases with a hole in the middle, so that people can feel the hilt.
Chan has been making swords and teaching sword-fighting full time since 2005, and says he has no control over the number of clients and students. His experience in the trade also gives him access to a network of potential customers worldwide.
“This comes from the blood and sweat of a lot of my supporters,” Chan says of his business. “Once you lose your health and your basic mobility, there’s not much you can really do. [So] now that I’m somewhat healthy, I decided to just take the plunge.”
Chan says most of his students are men – among them Taku Mak Ming-ting, 30, who has been learning from Chan since 2008. Mak even made his own armour from plastic boards and sometimes brings his wife to trainings.
Mak, who knows Taekwondo, said he wanted to try an activity that felt more like actual combat.
“I feel like if you’re learning martial arts, of course you want to find something that’s as close to the real thing as possible. It’s like when you’re driving: you don’t want to drive a fake car; you want to drive a real car, or even a racecar.”
Mak and Chan both say that they pay attention to sword-fighting sequences in TV shows and movies, though most of them are disappointing.
“In a real fight, the goal is to not let your opponent know how you’re going to strike. If even the audience can see what you’re going to do, your opponents definitely do, too, so they can easily block your attacks.”
Chan cites Highlander, a 1986 action-fantasy film about immortal warriors, as having the most realistic fight scenes. The movie stars Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery and Clancy Brown.
Chan says he knows of only two other full-time sword enthusiasts like him: a man in Japan who lives with his family, and another in Germany who sells sword-fighting videos online.
Chan says he will stick to his craft despite challenges. “I’ve been doing this since 2005 and if I get back on the job market now, I won’t be able to find a job,” he says. “I’ll keep doing this until the property prices drive me out of business.”