Future Tense

Sword Fight on a Hong Kong Rooftop

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

Mongoliad author Cooper Moo scores a clean decapitation.

Mongoliad author Cooper Moo scores a clean decapitation.

Photo by Neal Stephenson.

In 2004 I joined a fight club. It was more of a sword-geek guild, really. We met every Sunday morning in a nondescript warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, made our own weapons, and fought with them. It was gloriously homegrown and savage. Olympic fencing this was not.

Our rapiers were hockey sticks with modified handles and a retracting spring mechanism built into the hollow fiberglass shaft to allow us to stab without injuring one another. Much. Our long swords were true-to-form in weight and balance with a wooden core and a metal crosspiece at the hilt. The blade was clad with high-density foam wrapped in ballistic cloth. The handles were covered with the grip tape used on tennis rackets. Shields, when we used them, were wooden and also covered in foam—because a protective shield can become an offensive weapon. For armor, we wore thickly padded martial arts gear and helmets with face cages. Our gloves of choice were either hockey gloves or well-padded “extraction” gloves used by prison guards.

We looked much more Mad Max than Aragorn, and we couldn’t have cared less. In fact, we took a fair amount of pride in suiting up for battle, often acting as squire for one another, strapping up Velcro and slapping the fighter around before he stepped onto the mat.

The rules were simple—try not to damage each other too much. Pain was fine, even respected, just no semi-permanent or permanent damage, especially to the head or hands. We all had day jobs that involved thinking at keyboards, after all.

You can imagine the scene: two 30-something men covered in black plastic and foam, sporting helmets with face cages, circling each other, wielding foam swords while some smart ass on the sidelines hummed the fight theme from Star Trek. (This quickly became a sword-punishable offense.)

We beat the hell out of one another every Sunday, went to work bruised and bleeding on Monday, and came back the following Sunday to do it all over again. This went on for almost two wonderful years until, one fateful day, Neal—one of our founding members—had some bad new for us.

We were doing it wrong.

We were swinging the swords like bats, he explained, striking our opponents with a contact point about two-thirds of the way down the blade from the hilt. We weren’t sword fighting; we were beating one another with sticks.

The problem with Neal is that his last name is Stephenson. This means that he is a science fiction writer with unlimited time to study the pedantic details of historical sword fighting and tell us why we’re doing it wrong.

Neal’s revelation meant we were going to have to change what we were doing—but I unabashedly loved what we were doing. OK, maybe it wasn’t sword fighting, strictly speaking. Who cared? It was fun! I knew damn well what becoming real sword fighters was going to mean. It was going to mean training in technique, drills, and structure. It was going to mean the end of “Sunday Swords” as we knew it.

I fought this epic shift for months. But even my reluctant mind was changed after Neal brought in two of the nation’s foremost sword makers, Tinker Pearce and Angus Trim, to show us the error of our ways. (Pearce and Trim make swords. Naturally.)

The first time we visited Tinker and Angus, Tinker unsheathed a beautiful, long sword. “This,” he said, “is sharp. Really sharp. If you handle it wrong, it will cut you. Badly.”

So much for my beloved foam swords and plastic armor.

“When you cut something correctly with a sword, you cut it with the last six inches of the blade. Not here.” He indicated our baseball bat contact point two-thirds down the blade.

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.

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.

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.

Twelve seconds in, Lancelot hit me with a move known as “the fool.” He simply brought his sword up from a low starting position and slapped my hands from below. The move is possible only if your fool-of-an-opponent leaves his hands where they can be hit. Which I did—for almost the entire fight. Still, I had a fair amount of time in the ring and a natural fighter’s sense of timing and speed. About 15 seconds in, I disemboweled Lancelot with a cut across the gut. It was dramatic and looks cool, but it was also suicidal. Lancelot’s sword naturally fell on my back. If these had been real swords, we’d both be dead.

About 52 seconds in, I got in a decisive strike to Lancelot’s head. Eight seconds later, in a wonderful display of German technique from “the ox” position and an obvious example of “I can reach out and touch you if I want to” Chinese chutzpah, Lancelot stabbed me in the throat. Like a boss. It was a great, clean hit—and it scared me. Back in Seattle, a neck guard protected our throats. That was not the case on Lance’s rooftop. Fortunately, he had pulled the thrust so as not to seriously hurt me.

(The choking, gagging sound I made as I was stabbed in the throat so entertained the guys back at the office that they sampled it and made it the incoming email sound in my Microsoft Outlook email program. Every time I’d get a new email I was treated to the amplified sound of me being stabbed in the throat. Har har.)

It was like playing chess with a master. There was no doubt I was going to lose, but it was a pleasure sparring with someone who really knew what he was doing. I was thoroughly enjoying the interaction and was disappointed when he glanced at his watch.

“Security,” he said glibly. He picked up the camera, switched it off, and headed into the stairwell. I pulled off my helmet and realized I was drenched in sweat. The humid Hong Kong air combined with 20 minutes of instructive battle had me tired, breathing heavily.

Lancelot led the way back downstairs to his sword shop, where we closed the door and listened. Within a minute, the security guard walked past us in the narrow hallway and went up to the roof. The guy was patrolling—looking for wayward sword fighters. But Lancelot knew his schedule.

“That man hates me,” Lancelot whispered. I nodded and smiled. This was cool.

After the security guard left, we went back onto the rooftop. It was getting dark, and Lancelot had students coming at 7 o’clock, but we took a few more minutes to fight one last time. No instruction this time, no camera, just full-out slashing. These minutes were among the more memorable of the entire experience. Because we were really going at it, but also because we’d gained an audience.

People in the taller, newer apartment buildings that surrounded Lancelot’s rooftop were standing in their windows watching the fight. I could see at least half a dozen figures silhouetted against the lights. Several of them flashed their lights on and off after Lancelot or I scored a great hit. The effect was crazy cool. We were sword fighting in a Chinese Thunderdome!

The fight ended when Lancelot’s students showed up. I stayed through the class and helped as I could, placing plastic bottles on the cutting stand and cleaning up the remains. And I returned to the hotel a wiser man.

Back in Seattle, our swords routine changed dramatically. Instead of strapping on padded armor and flailing about, we consulted several classic sword-fighting texts Neal had acquired. We drilled on many of the same moves Lancelot had shown me on the rooftop. Custom steel helmets replaced the off-the-shelf kind. We started using real metal swords made by Tinker and Trim instead of the foam “boffers” we’d made ourselves. Taken together, these changes allowed us to truly train in Western sword fighting and gain a working knowledge of the art.

In early 2010, Neal Stephenson proposed our band of merry swordsmen put down or weapons and pick up our pens to write The Mongoliadthe story of how an intrepid band of men saves the Western world from being overrun by the Mongol empire. I jumped at the chance to join the project, and when it came time to write fight scenes I didn’t have to look far for inspiration—I just relived that night on a Hong Kong rooftop. You can bet my main characters don’t fight with bad stances like some n00b, they wield their weapons with the competence and deadly skill of a Lancelot Chan—like a boss!

Book 2 of the Mongoliad trilogy will be released by Amazon.com’s 47 North on Sept. 25.