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

What's to come?
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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The family trip to China was three weeks long and harried. We rushed from incredible sight to incredible sight. Every morning, I’d wake up and remind myself I needed to call Lancelot Chan and talk with him about this fighting-the-first-time-we-met thing. It seemed prudent for me to have a here-and-now, one-to-one exchange with the guy to establish whether he might cut up a foreign devil with the same aplomb as he sliced pig carcasses. But, of course, every night as we went to bed recounting what amazing things we’d done that day, I’d say, “Crap! I’ve got to call Lancelot tomorrow!”

So it was that I found myself in Hong Kong the day of the fight having never communicated with Lancelot since the email exchange months ago back in the United States of America. Furthermore, I had managed to misplace his phone number and, despite the fact that this was ultra-modern Hong Kong, the Internet in our hotel was down. All I had was an address for someplace deep inside “Old Hong Kong.”

Suddenly leaving my happy, healthy well-adjusted family in our hotel and taking a cab into Old Hong Kong to meet some guy I didn’t know and to brandish swords at each other seemed like a lot of effort—and possibly suicidal. But some combination of mindless momentum and hunger for adventure propelled me out the door. I copied down the address Lancelot had given me and handed it to my wife.

“So we know where to look for your body?” she asked gaily. Hilarious, my wife.

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Just before 6 o’clock, a cab took me to a street overflowing with a night market. The driver considered the address, grunted, and pointed down the alley. Was this the right place? He said a few words in Cantonese Chinese that I didn’t understand. I responded with a question in Mandarin Chinese that he didn’t understand. We stared at each other.

“Get out,” he said in thickly accented English. Fine, then.

In the lobby of the building sat a bored security guard who looked me up and down. To my surprise, and slight horror, he uttered two words, in slow drawn-out English as if he were pronouncing a vile curse. He said, “Lancelot Chan.”

Though not comforting, this was confirmation I was in the right place. I took the elevator to the top floor, and when the doors opened, there was a Chinese man, holding two swords, two helmets, and two pairs of gloves. Looked legit.

“Cooper Moo?” he asked. Who else would I be?

“Yes. Lancelot?” Like there was any doubt?

“Yes,” he confirmed. “We should fight. It’s getting dark, and security is coming.”

And security is coming? What the hell, I usually only need one reason to fight.

We reached the rooftop by way of a narrow staircase. The emergency door to the roof was locked, which would seem a problem in the event of an emergency—like, say, bloodletting. But no matter, my host had a key. Then, suddenly before me was the mystical rooftop I seen many times in the YouTube videos.

Lancelot handed me a helmet, gloves, and a foam-covered sword, then pulled a video camera out of his pocket. He set the camera on a chalk-marked “X” on the floor and walked me over to the proper spot on the rooftop to be in view of the camera. He put on his helmet and motioned for me to do the same.

We bowed. Time to fight.

Though I get in a couple of good strikes, Lancelot undeniably hands me my ass.

First mistake was my stance. I held my sword fully extended in front of me in what the Italian sword master Fiore called posta longa and Neal calls the “scared little boy” stance—the pose any boy fighting with a stick instinctively adopts. It’s an attempt to keep the other guy as far away from you as possible, and it’s among the worst opening positions in the pantheon of sword-fighting stances.

The primary problem is that your arms are already extended so you cannot strike without first pulling back, and in this instant any experienced sword fighter will strike. The position also leaves the hands exposed. In our Fight Club rules, this didn’t matter. We took all kinds of hits to the hands, body, and head—you kept fighting until you were injured or couldn’t breathe. But in “real” sword fighting, if you allow your hands to be cut, the fight is over—you can no longer hold your weapon.