Mongoliad, Neal Stephenson: Sword Fighting on a Hong Kong rooftop with Lancelot Chan.

A Real Fight Club With Swords—and a Famous Sci-Fi Writer

A Real Fight Club With Swords—and a Famous Sci-Fi Writer

The citizen’s guide to the future.
Oct. 2 2012 6:00 AM

Sword Fight on a Hong Kong Rooftop

How Neal Stephenson and I stopped bashing each other with sticks and learned real swordsmanship. 

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And then we were off to sword fight for real—with water-filled soda bottles placed on top of 55-gallon drums. In a demonstration, Tinker unleashed a single deft stroke, cutting a two-liter bottle in half. Looked easy enough.

He stepped back and held the blade out in his left hand for someone else to try. The fact he didn’t offer any instruction, any hints or details as to how he’d done what he’d just done, should have been a dead giveaway. Regardless, I stepped forward and took the sword from Tinker’s skilled hands.

I wanted to cut the bottle, not hit the bottle, I reminded myself. In as smooth a motion as I could muster, I pulled the blade back and swung. I must have blinked on impact, because the next image in my mind was the empty top of the 55-gallon drum—no Mr. Diet Pepsi. He was gone, skittering ignobly across the parking lot and spewing water everywhere. Markedly different result from Tinker’s example.

 “Actually, that wasn’t bad for a first try,” said Tinker.


I breathed a sigh of relief. I felt gratitude—and respect. This sword master wasn’t here to make me the fool; he was here to teach.

“Why didn’t Cooper’s bottle stay on the drum?”

Since he’d spoken about me in the third person, I knew it wasn’t my question to answer. No one spoke for several seconds. Neal, who had done this once before, said simply, "Hasuji." Then, for the benefit of non-Japanese-speaking non-pedants, he explained, “Blade angle.”

“That’s right, Neal—exactly. Blade angle.” Tinker nodded. “You guys have been hitting each other.” His gaze swept our group. “If that were the point of sword fighting, we’d all just grab sticks and have at it.”

“A sword,” and now he did look at me, “is a bladed weapon. You cut with it. You don’t hit with it.”

Over the next couple of hours, we received expert instruction on the art of cutting while wielding some of the best handmade blades in the business.

I was so taken by the experience that later that week I got on YouTube and started searching on phrases like “how to cut with a sword” and “cutting party.” There was very little to be found—with one significant exception.

A man in Hong Kong who called himself Lancelot Chan was not merely cutting pop bottles of water—he was cutting pig carcasses. And he was doing it on a high-rise rooftop. Cool. And by sheer luck, my family and I were already headed to China and would leave in just a few weeks. I emailed Lancelot immediately. To my delight, he responded the very next day. He not only invited me to join a sword-fighting class, he extended the ultimate offer, a chance to fight!

After reading Lancelot’s email, I rushed to tell my wife the good news. I described how I’d found videos online of a guy named Lancelot Chan chopping pigs in half on a rooftop and how he’d agreed to meet and fight in Hong Kong and wasn’t this was just the coolest? Her expression said, “I’m listening to a teenage boy tell me what a cool design idea he has for a full-body tattoo and he doesn’t even realize what a completely idiotic idea it is in the first place.” I found myself reining in my enthusiasm before I’d even finished telling the story.

“Besides,” I finished lamely, “I don’t have to go. We’re just discussing it.”

“Ha! Yeah, right,” was her derisive and dismissive response. “Like you won’t go.”

She had a point.