Singapore sword-fighting group revives a slice of medieval European history

Hannah Teoh
Senior Content Producer
PHEMAS’ members meet twice a week to study texts on sword-fighting techniques and to practise handling various medieval European weapons. (PHOTO: Hannah Teoh / Yahoo News Singapore)

The sound of steel swords clashing may not be out of place on a film set but the men who meet to spar every week at Ceylon Road aren’t preparing for a filming session – they’re having a training session in medieval sword-fighting right here in Singapore.

The Pan Historical European Martial Arts Society (PHEMAS) was founded in 2005 after an Australian and a Singaporean bonded over their mutual interest in medieval sword fighting and went to Helsinki to learn swordsmanship from the masters based there. From there, they began growing a small community in Singapore through informal meet-ups.

Historical European martial arts (HEMA) began as an academic pursuit for those interested in understanding the techniques Europeans used in armed combat during the Middle Ages. Researchers often have to refer to centuries-old combat manuals in an attempt to reconstruct these martial arts techniques. There are HEMA clubs all over the world with instructors who study such ancient sword-fighting texts and teach swordsmanship to HEMA community members.

Members of the group in Singapore come from diverse backgrounds and have varied interests. Some are fans of fantasy films and video games, while others are martial arts enthusiasts looking for something different. The group also attracts history buffs who also enjoy the academic aspect of studying the texts related to European martial arts.

PHEMAS’ Singaporean co-founder Greg Galistan, a Eurasian, obtained permission to use the hall at the Eurasian Association, and the group has been meeting at the premises since 2005.

The group now has about 20 members who train together twice a week. On Wednesday nights, the group starts off the evening with an intensive cardio workout before spending an hour learning new sword-fighting techniques and footwork.

On Saturdays, the more experienced members of the group take turns sparring with one another.

One member, 28-year-old Mark Christopher Tan, put down his interest in sword-fighting to a boyhood dream of owning a medieval sword. He then realised it would be fun to also learn how to wield the weapon correctly.

“HEMA is a term to encompass all the martial arts that were practiced in Europe during the Middle Ages, Renaissance and up to the Early Modern period. It’s lots of fun. Anyone can do it regardless of age, gender, physical attributes and you won’t regret it,” said Tan, who has been with the group for about three years.

He said he enjoy the focus of the sport, which centres on what would happen in a life-or-death sword fight.

“In comparison to sport fencing or kendo or wushu, the thing I like most about it is that (HEMA) hasn’t gone the way of ‘sportification’ where a sport is about gaining points to win,” he said.

“In HEMA there’s a very martial focus where we bring it back to the context of what would happen in an actual duel with sharp swords.”

Member Simon Sullivan, 37, said he got interested in the group after trying out other martial arts such as fencing and went looking for something more challenging. Sullivan, an Australian, reached out to the group before moving to Singapore, and has been involved with PHEMAS for three-and-a-half years.

“The passion, the skill of the teachers, the strength of the community is what really surprised me. It’s not something you’d expect to find in Singapore,” he said.

Sullivan added that he also enjoyed the intensity of the sparring, which he says is a “nice workout”.

Instructors in the group often go on overseas trips to learn from more experienced HEMA practitioners in countries such as Germany or Finland, then return and share their newfound knowledge with other members.

The group also organises overseas trips to HEMA-related conferences so that its members can learn more about the source texts on fighting techniques, and also learn from more experienced instructors. The group is planning one such trip to France this May.

PHEMAS instructor Rigel Ng, who has been with the group for over a year, said he grew an interest in sword fighting after watching the “Star Wars” movies. The 22-year-old national serviceman attended his first medieval sword fighting class at a friend’s insistence, fell in love with the martial art and then began learning it intensively. He quickly became competent enough to teach others.

As an instructor, Rigel said his satisfaction comes from seeing students learning the meaning behind the techniques. “You are discovering an ancient technique 300 years dead and you’re discovering this for yourself. It almost has a mystical feel to it, like you’re discovering a lost art nobody knows about. It’s very indescribable,” he said.

Since its founding in 2005, PHEMAS now has about 20 members and is looking to grow even further. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

Growth plans

PHEMAS president Robin Choo said the group has seen an increase in monthly attendance, with about four to five newcomers visiting the group every month.

The group’s regulars keep coming back because sword fighting is a process of self-discovery, he said.

“When you spar with someone, it’s like talking to them on a deeper level. Swordsmanship has the thrill of danger and excitement,” said Choo.

“Sparring with someone is to know someone through self. When in times of crisis, you reveal your true self – whether you’re a fair fighter or sore loser.”

Choo said the group is exploring the possibility of setting up interest groups in the local universities in order to attract more members. The group has also kept in touch with similar outfits in Malaysia and Indonesia in the hopes of organising an Asian HEMA conference sometime down the road.

Tan said being part of PHEMAS has given him an appreciation of the depth and richness of the ancient martial art form.

“What I’ve learnt about it is that it’s very deep and the more you learn, the more you realise how much you don’t understand about it. And you start to get a glimpse into how effective these medieval masters must have been in combat. It’s quite remarkable and quite humbling,” said Tan.