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Full Circle

Nigel & Fong Presentation

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Full Circle

The first demonstration of the Year of the Horse; invited by one of our shixiong to perform at the 90th anniversary of Penang Jing Wu, Fong and I readily accepted. The celebration dinner was held in an up-market Chinese restaurant in Georgetown. It was a chance to meet up with old friends and to make new ones. It was also a chance to reflect on the way that for me my martial path had completed one of its many full circles.

In 1985 fresh from my time in China, I met Mr Huang Jifu a middle-aged Malaysian Chinese who was a pillar of his local Chinese community and more importantly to me at the time, a teacher of taijiquan. We met through introduction at one of his classes and I started training with him straight away. His knowledge was prodigious, every meeting was a precious opportunity to learn more. I too was useful to him, freshly returned from China I had trained intensively in the 24 and 48 step forms, of which he had no direct experience, for as a Malaysian Chinese he was prevented by a lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries from visiting China. Within a matter of weeks he had appointed me as his assistant instructor.

Mr Huang, mr was the only title he would accept, was born and brought up in the town of Ipoh in North Malaysia, later he went to study in Singapore. From a young age he studied the traditional martial arts of China as taught at the Jing Wu Athletics Association both in Ipoh and in Singapore.

Thus it was that his martial studies were imbued with both the traditions and spirit of Jing Wu. Founded in 1910, the Association had as its famed Grandmaster and the “face” of Jing Wu, Huo Yuan Jia who was a renowned martial artist and whose death shortly after its foundation did much to spur Jing Wu’s growth.  Established at a time when Chinese national pride was at a low, one of its main aims was to strengthen the Chinese race in the hope of ridding them of the hated epithet of “the sick men of Asia”. Recognising the important role that Chinese martial arts could play in strengthening both the race and the nation, the committee which originally set up the Association, established a set of rules embodying the ethos that these arts were open to all regardless of creed, dialect or ethnic origins. Furthermore the rivalries between different schools which were based on identifying the differences that separated them rather than the similarities they shared, were to be outlawed in the Jing Wu Association via the teaching of a basic syllabus which took the best points from a number of different schools. All students would be required to master this foundation syllabus before continuing to specialise in the art of their choice. In order to facilitate and gain support for this programme some of China’s finest martial artists were hired to teach for the Association.

Mr Huang graduated from this system and went on to study Praying Mantis, and then Taijiquan and Baguazhang under Grandmaster Tan Geok Ho, who had himself been a student of the prestigious Nanjing Central Martial Arts Institute.

At the Jing Wu Association there were no “bai shi” initiation ceremonies, no masters or disciples. Teachers were respectfully greeted as mr, the same two characters that in Japanese are read as sensei. In many ways including its embrace of what might be termed “cross-training” the Jing Wu Association was ahead of its time.

Under the watchful eye of Mr Huang I learnt several of the Jing Wu foundation forms as well as exercises and training methods from a wide range of styles: footwork patterns from praying mantis, hand conditioning from eagle claw and  stance training from several different southern Chinese systems.

When I finally got to Singapore I met Grandmaster Tan Geok Ho and attended his classes at the Singapore Martial Arts Instructors Association. The next year he visited the UK and Fong and I served as hosts and tour guides, as well, of course as his early morning students – oh the joy of training with an insomniac elderly teacher!

It is true to say that from these early days of training both Fong and I were exposed to both the training and the spirit of Jing Wu.

Fast forward the best part of a decade and Fong and I were living in the small town of Muar on the northernmost border of southern Malaysia’s Johor State. Here we were training with Master Liang He Qing on whom Jing Wu had also had a tremendous influence. This influence came in the form of one of his teachers, Master Yang Qing Feng. Master Yang hailed from Xiamen in Fujian province in China, where as a young man he attended Jing Wu classes. After his migration to Malaya he became a school teacher and taught martial arts in his spare time. With his background he emphasised the Jing Wu training method and spirit, whereby the student should seek to gain a strong foundation and then search for the essence of any art he encountered. Master Liang who had formerly specialised in Hainanese boxing then Wong Fei Hong’s Hongjia boxing, eagerly embraced this approach and throughout the course of his training life he dipped and delved into many different arts, sometimes learning only one form, sometimes several, adding to his repertoire that which he considered most embodied the training principle or approach that he felt typified that system. Again and again Master Liang told Fong and myself that we must hold true to the Spirit of Jing Wu, to recognise the value of all approaches to martial arts and to research and train with the mindset of being a perpetual student humbly seeking for the essence of all the arts we encountered.

Ah the memories, happy and bittersweet and now here we were performing under the watchful eyes of the great Mr Huo Yuan Jia and in front of his living martial descendants here on Penang Island. Of course now Mr Huo’s life, or a nasty silver screen distortion thereof, is  known to a wider audience, through the film Fearless (Huo Yuan Jia in Chinese). This movie depicts Mr Huo in his early adulthood as a vicious streetfighter intent on winning at all costs who ends up causing the death of his family in a murderous revenge attack. Fortunately this is all complete fiction without the slightest element of truth. Now don’t get me wrong as a martial arts movie this film is great but when it besmirches the reputation of a great man then it becomes just so much cinematic trash.

So to put the record straight Mr Huo Yuan Jia was born into a well-known martial arts family but was prevented from training because of his ill-health. Undeterred he trained in secret spying on his father as he taught his other sons. Then, so the story goes, when all of these brothers were unable to beat a challenger he stepped in and proved victorious. After that his father taught him the whole of his art and he grew up to be a great champion of the Chinese people, accepting challenges from foreigners and proving that the Chinese had the ability to stand up to foreign aggressors. After one such match when he had a relapse of the illness which had plagued him as a child, so the story goes, the Japanese sent a doctor to treat him. It was rumoured, however, that instead of treating him the doctor poisoned him, as shortly afterwards Mr Huo died.

It was this Mr Huo, hero of the Chinese people, whose stern visage stared down at us from a banner on the stage which served as the focal point for the assembled diners. Since the British were amongst those who bullied and shamed China at that time, I could not help but feel some shame and regret for the actions of my ancestors, but I also had a feeling of “rightness” that I should be here representing the tradition that he created and also as a  living embodiment of the Jing Wu creed of knowledge for all no matter what their race or creed.

But before it was my turn there were demonstrations by members of the Penang Jing Wu Association. These were predominantly from exponents of Seven Stars Praying Mantis, a style for a long time closely connected with the association. The performers ranging in age from their early teens to their forties exhibited superb power and speed and a grace which would have made Mr Huo proud.

These martial artists were not the first performers, however. Underneath the far-seeing eyes of Huo Yuan Jia a young female artiste clad in what might only be termed a “skimpy” costume sang popular mandarin songs; a cultural disconnect sufficient to send me down memory lane.

…Nights spent in seedy nightclubs accompanying my teachers and seniors in their search for entertainment, complete with enormous amounts of alcohol, young and pretty “hostesses” and being forced to learn the cha cha so as to avoid causing my teachers shame by my refusal to dance…

… And even further back the first teachings I received from a very serious Master intent on initiating me in the ways of the Jiang Hu (literally rivers and lakes, a term for the outlaw path of the martial artist). Always sit with your back to the wall where you can see the room; never drink outside the privacy and safety of your own home; always place your thumb over the edge of the rice bowl so it cannot be rammed in your face; when you shake hands be prepared to get out of a hold whether by kicking or ramming your knuckle into the back of your enemy’s hand…

…The realities of being a martial artist walking the Jiang Hu that dictated that as a senior student “coming out” to teach you should be introduced to the leaders of the local “black societies’ so that you were known and not a “loose cannon”…

Dragged back to the present, and again aware of the eyes of Mr. Huo that, in life, had seen so much of this world, had seen both the good and the bad, I was only too aware of the journey that I had taken from the pleasant suburbs of Surrey, via China, and many parts of southeast Asia, to this table here in Penang. At the table in front of me a group of young “soldiers” of the black societies sat watching the room with the young yet jaded eyes of those who had seen too much. On some hidden cue four of them got up and left the room together. They were gone for some time and once again I was taken back to other places, other times:

…A night club toilet, a group of four or five intent and serious as they concentrated on kicking the curled-up figure on the floor between them. The only sound other than the flushing of water, the relentless thudding of their boots and the grunting sobs of their victim…

….Staying with some seniors in Singapore I was woken in the middle of the night by the urgent need to relieve myself. As I passed the kitchen on my way to the toilet three of my seniors were washing blood from several hard wood batons; a grim menial task necessitated by their “night work”…

The four returned from whatever business that they had been about and sat down, grinning at each other and swigging back half pint glasses of red wine like it was water.

The genial MC’s commanding voice announced that now a Master of the Fujian White Crane boxing art would perform. The Master dressed casually in a pair of slacks and a martial arts club T-shirt, bounded up to the stage with a youthful vigour that belied his age for he was certainly in his sixties. Taking centre stage he smiled at his audience greeting them with the universal Chinese salutation of an open hand curled over a closed fist. What followed was a masterful demonstration of the shaking and pounding wave-like fa jing that is created by a Master of the White Crane style.

Amidst the usual jokes from the MC about a husband and wife who both practice martial arts and speculation as to who wins in our domestic life, both Fong and I strutted our stuff. I felt pride to be here, to be a part of these celebrations and in my own way to be honouring the legacy handed to me both by Master Liang and Mr Huang. Fong performed the fast taijiquan form in a masterful manner eliciting not only great applause but also compliments from the White Crane Master who praised the power of her fa jing – praise indeed.

Over on the other side of the banqueting room from where we were sat a nondescript middle-aged Chinese man dressed in casual clothes was engaged in some kind of comparison of techniques with one of the uniformed Jing Wu performers. What they were doing looked like a cross between pushing hands and sticky hands but obviously punctuated with attempts to apply techniques. Suddenly the older man pulled his erstwhile opponent towards him and smashed in a throat strike followed by an elbow technique to the head. In that flash he had changed the range from performance to function and although controlled his movements were both frightening and crackling with danger. The uniformed exponent smiled but there was nervousness in his motions and it was clear that he no longer wished to continue. The middle-aged man smiled too and sat down to continue his dinner.

At the table next to us were a group of our martial brothers and sisters from the Oriental Wushu Centre – the place where Master Zhao Wei Dong taught for years. It was because of Master Zhao and the Oriental Wushu Centre that Fong and I moved with our family to Penang and we spent a number of happy years training and socializing with these people. Indeed it was their kindness and generosity of spirit that helped us to set up our new lives in Penang. I remember all those mornings spent in standing post and then stretching followed by in-depth training in the neijiaquan of Master Zhao. I remember the Sunday treks up into the hills above Georgetown to the small temple where we drank endless cups of tea and ate fruit fresh from the hillside farms. Together with these same people we celebrated the third anniversary of their Centre and the fifteenth Anniversary of Zhong Ding.

One of these shixiong, nicknamed “Coffee Ming”, entertained us all with his fine rendition of a popular Hokkien song; I remembered him pushing hands, gaining skill and experience step by step through sheer courage and determination. The owner of the Centre, Chen Jian Xing was also there and we embraced warmly as old friends and brothers. His daughter Wei Wei fresh from completing her university studies in the UK was also there. How many endless times had we watched while she led the children of the centre including Lian and Min through their basic training. I remembered too the numerous hours she had spent perfecting her signature fan form while her elder brother sweated and grunted in effort as he strove to master his southern boxing forms.

Across the room Master Wong Jing Hui of the North South Shaolin Temple was joking and back-slapping with a group of older masters. From the time of our arrival in Penang he had been a good friend, mentor and protector to us. When a rogue student became involved with the wife of a dangerous, drug-dealing gangster, it was Master Wong who was the first to warn us and provide protection. Min and Lian both trained with him and Fong continues to do so to this day.

In this room I see one full circle of my martial arts life, from its birth and early growth shaped by the Jing Wu ideal, to its maturity under the kindly guidance of Master Liang He Qing with his constant refrain of “Jing Wu jingshen”, the spirit of Jing Wu. In this room I see the truth of the traditional martial arts, their living lineages; how they connect past and present and how, hopefully through the efforts of all of us who love, train and teach them, will continue into the future. The vision of those who founded the Jing Wu Association, the courage and dedication of Mr Huo Yuan Jia, are all present in this restaurant. The unbroken line from past to present to future is represented by the old masters, sitting laughing and joking around the food-laden tables, the teachers of the present, and the young students whose demonstrations prove their own enthusiasm to be a part of this martial story. The support of members of both conventional and “black” societies represents the dual yet intertwined history of those who walk the Jiang Hu and the ordinary people.

I am happy and proud to be part of this circle. Jing Wu Jingshen HENG HA, HENG HA, HENG HA!

Copyright Nigel Sutton 2014