Monthly Archives: August 2009

Hiatus

11

Just got back from casualty, after being knocked off my bike. No-one in China looks where they are going, and one of them finally got me.
My right wrist is fractured and will be in plaster for at least a month. More alarmingly, something severely gashed my abdomen, and was closeto injuring the intestines but after many x-rays and ultrasound it seems i’ve got away with 6 stitches. of course the guy who knocked me off didn’t wait around. Seems i’ll be a regular at the hospital for a while! I owe a debt of gratitude more than i can say to S, who came out of bed, met me at the hospital, and stayed with me all night. To be honest, i got close to calling for a medevac to singapore, but i seem to have been patched up ok. there’ll be some stories to tell about the hospital!

So, it’ll be quiet here for a while. No capoeira for me!

I can’t wait to get back to singapore.

Category: Miscellaneous

In the moment

1

I headed down to the Jiangjinjiu bar between the Drum and Bell Towers last night. To be honest, it’s a favourite place, because it’s a music bar, and they often have free gigs by bands from Xinjiang, though lately they’ve had some good Latin stuff as well.

Last night, though, was my first time attending Beijing Improv, the theatre group that meet up there every Wednesday night. I’ve thought about learning how to act quite a lot over the last few years but never got around to it. Deciding to move back to Singapore next year has kind of focused my mind on how I’ll spend my remaining time in Beijing, though. I want to take advantage of the opportunity while I still can because, for all its advantages from my point of view, Singapore is very strait-laced and doesn’t always look favourably on such bohemian and unorthodox things as improvisation…

However, that’s getting off-topic. I’m curious about improv for several reasons. It strikes me as a form of meditation, in a way:

  • the actor has to be completely aware of him/herself as he/she is right at that moment – emotions, physical sensations, and so on – so that all of that can inform what he or she does next;
  • the actor also has to be completely aware of the other actors on stage, and what they are saying, doing, so that that also informs what happens next;
  • Improv can require the expression of any emotion at any moment. To do this well, the actor has to look inside, draw upon memory of that emotion, turn it on, turn it off… That seems to be a useful insight and tool – learning that even once we’ve left the stage, emotion is often more… artificial? more under our control? than we tend to think… which is a good way of developing equanimity, I think…

Strangely, I also think that improv is going to be good martial arts practice, from an internal martial arts point of view. As mentioned above, the actor must be aware of self, and of other actors… as well as the audience, and what they are feeling, what they are expecting… Do you go with it? Try to surprise them and take the drama in a different direction? All of this comes from developing an awareness of subtle clues and hints – body language, breathing, the direction of glances… and qi, I think… Yes indeed, I rather think that improv acting could be a rather useful form of energy work, one which is very necessary if taijiquan, for example, is to be a useful martial art….

I’ve been reflecting more on that last encounter with an opponent. I hesitate to say that I “won”; on the other hand, at the end of the day it was me who rode away untouched, and him who was beating himself over the head with a stick… That conflict wasn’t resolved by physical techniques; it was resolved with energy techniques.

Here I’m really speculating, but it seems to me that this is a big part of the infamous ling kong jin. I hesitate to even talk about it… but I get the impression that many of the sceptics are expecting it to be like Darth Vader using the Force to throttle someone from across the room. Um, no. But, sensing the nature of the energy flow between yourself and the people around you, knowing how to read all the small and involuntary messages that are being transmitted, to fake them, to respond to them, to control them… that’s a pretty useful skill to have, especially if the other guy can’t do it….

So: improv. Something to work on over the next few months. Doesn’t hurt that it seems to be a pretty interesting bunch of people attending the workshops. The downside is that it clashes with the Parkour classes I was talking about. Forced to choose between them, I think the improv is more relevant and useful to me, even if the days when foreigners were in demand for acting roles in Beijing have gone!

The martial arts capital of the world

2

(Adapted from some ideas I was playing around with for something else, and never really finished. Maybe it’ll spark some debate, hehehe).

For a long time, Singapore meant only ‘Cyberpunk’ to me. I first heard the name of this tiny city-state in William Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy, where it was simply a far-off Asian Tiger, the base for the impersonal agents of freelance mercenaries who sent contracts by fax, never engaging in human contact. Later, it cropped up as a location in Bruce Sterling’s “Islands in the Net”. It was a good novel, but Bruce can’t write Singlish dialogue for toffee… Much later, Gibson wrote about Singapore in his famous “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” essay for Wired. Although it lost much of its mystery after I first visited on a business trip I was, after all, there for internet-connected work. Singapore remained, to me, a technology and MNC place.

If I told you that I now think it should be named the martial arts capital of the world, what would you think? Perhaps it’s not the first place that you would think of..? Then where? Tokyo? Beijing? The Shaolin Temple? You may instead have associated Singapore with caning miscreants, a ban on chewing gum, and a fanatical devotion to shopping for brand-name products… Yet, hidden behind the air-conditioned malls and reflective-glass office towers, is a martial arts culture that’s second to none.

When Sir Stamford Raffles first declared Singapore a free port, the immigrants came flooding in from all over Asia – and their martial arts came with them. Singapore was a pretty wild place for most of its history, and the colonial authorities’ police force simply didn’t have the resources to control crime. Instead, the powers-that-be (I suppose that should be powers-that-were) segregated the incomers along ethnic lines, and told the leaders of each community that they had responsibility for maintaining order…

The summer monsoon brought workers and traders from India and Arabia – and with them the Indian fighting arts such as Kalarippayattu, and the Sikh Shin-Kin. A few months later, the wind would shift direction, and the winter monsoon brought the junks from China. On board was a seemingly endless stream of merchants and desperate peasants – fierce Hokkien people from Fujian province, and the Cantonese from Guangdong. They brought Hung Gar, Wing Chun, and White Crane – all of which are widely practised in Singapore to this day.

Nor was that all! Year-round, the surrounding archipelagos and peninsulas sent their warriors pouring into the new port city. Ferocious Bugis pirates fleeing the Dutch fleet; solemn Malays from the kingdoms to the north and the massive rock of Sumatra; Moros from the Philippines, battle-hardened after centuries of resistance against the Spanish, and more lately the US Marines… all familiar with keris, golok, staff, and the multitude styles of silat…

All these were in Singapore from the beginning, and surely lacked no practice, with gangs, triads, secret societies, and revolutionaries of every stripe – active, strong, and less than civic-minded.

The first half of the 20th century saw many new martial influences introduced. The fall of the Qing dynasty led to a swell of national pride in the new Chinese Republic. After so long of being scoffed at as the “sick man of Asia”, the new China promoted a sea-change in official attitudes to the martial arts – and the ripples swiftly reached Singapore. The Chin Woo Association soon established a branch, while the northern art of taijiquan became popular with the bouncers in the red-light districts of Geylang (where sailors of the world’s merchant fleets and navies engaged in “friendly debate”).

The rising prestige of Japan at this time, following its 1905 defeat of Imperial Russia, led to a welcome in Singapore to judo, karate, and kendo. Although enthusiasm for things Japanese dipped substantially mid-century, it has endured and grown since then.

Overlaying all of this, of course, was the long presence of the British armed forces, whose practice of boxing survived their departure.

Postwar, independence for Singapore and its neighbours has seen an infusion of talented fighters from the north. Muay Thai has a strong following in Singapore! Like everywhere else, Korean Tae Kwon Do has a massive following. Globalization, and the arrival of a large and disparate expatriate population has attracted martial arts experts from further afield – Singapore has two capoeira schools, for example, while styles as diverse as Russian Systema and South Africa’s Piper knife-fighting have their devotees.

What truly makes Singapore outstanding is the density of martial experts who have had to use their skills to survive in a variety of perilous situations – and what’s more, in circumstances that are almost inconceivable to the average Western reader of martial-arts magazines. From a policeman who has had to use his wing chun up against drug dealers who know they’ll get a certain death sentence if they’re caught, to an ex-Red Guard who fought for his life during the Cultural Revolution, Singapore’s kungfu community harbours a huge fund of knowledge and experience, unparalleled anywhere else that I know of. And then there are the really amazing stories of wandering Shaolin monks….

Sadly, as the generations that grew up before and immediately after independence get older, there is a real risk that this trove of martial knowledge will evaporate, and become lost. This would be a tragedy – not just for Singaporeans, who would lose a rich seam of their precious national identity and history, but also for the global martial arts community, where there are few other places so rich in diverse traditions. Hopefully, someone will rise to the challenge of documenting this accumulated wisdom while it is still possible.

Category: Martial Arts, Singapore

Beaten to the punch

5

I’m sitting at my desk – mouth and stomach still tingling from the delicious Sichuan mala green beans I had for lunch with my dumplings – and pondering Tabbycat’s latest, No Taiji No Strike.

It probably goes without saying that I agree with his view of what taijiquan is and what it is not. I wasn’t aware that there is a wave of schools teaching “soft taiji striking”, but then I don’t live in the States, and don’t read any of the magazines that propagate these fads and cults (except from time to time, for good reasons, such as the one I’ll come to in a few paragraphs).

Two years ago I mentioned a clip I’d found on YouTube, showing Wu Tu Nan’s student, Professor Huang Zhen Huan, demonstrating some interesting techniques. I think – though it’s only an educated guess – that a lot of what is happening here is softness. The ‘attacker’ exerts force, expecting resistance – but encounters none whatsoever. With his force going into a void, the attacker is unbalanced and must compensate, with a jump, or a step. The taiji master senses this, redirects it, forcing the attacker to compensate again, and establishing a feedback loop that makes the attacker act more and more energetically until he is helpless, or all that energy is used to throw him – the “grab and ricochet” element (as Tabbycat puts it)… And all the time, he feels no energy, no strength coming back at him from the taiji master. He’s learned that the more strength, the more power or violence he introduces into the situation, the more decisive is his own defeat – yet the taiji master seems to have done nothing at all. I suppose that this is what I was trying to communicate when I was saying that taiji seemed to be the only martial art that enlightens the vanquished. This is the combat application of the way in which Yang Lu Chan prevented the bird from leaving his palm…

Incidentally, this is just one example of Tabbycat writing about something that was on my mind. I’m starting to lose count now of the number of blog posts I’ve been musing, but not written – because before I could, Tabby has written something on the same topic, and done so better than I would have… I begin to suspect that he’s the taiji Tyler Durden to my Narrator, sneaking out to publish a blog post while I’m sleeping…

Anyhow, I was going through one of the boxes of stuff that follow me on my peripatetic ways, and discovered an interview with Sim Pooh Ho that was spread across three issues of Tai Chi Magazine a couple of years ago (see, told you). It reminded me that his school of taiji says that if you’re able to reach the point where you can use taji in combat, then you’ve mastered the first 30% – beyond that, the remaining 70% of taiji is spiritual cultivation and development, moving towards enlightenment. Sounds like just what I’m looking for…

In a way, it’s ironic that I should spend years investigating styles, schools and teachers, only to decide to go back to almost the first school I trained with after arriving in Singapore! I need to remind myself of where I started, though – that in 2002, I had only heard rumours that taiji could actually be used to fight, and had never met anyone who knew anything about that… I’d barely heard of bagua and xingyi, and had no idea what they looked like…. You’ve come a long way, baby…

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

1

Sorry, I’m going to bore you with my holiday snaps. Feel free to skip this one.

Wales

Holly and apple trees

This is not my house

A rare evening without rain

A nice view

Singapore

No comment

From Boat Quay

Singapore River

Bussorah Street

Odd bedfellows

1

Last night I picked up a copy of Nury Vittachi’s The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics. I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s a good read so far. The series concerns the adventures of Singaporean Feng Shui master C. F. Wong, and takes a lighthearted look at Singapore’s more traditional side.

In this book, Wong is expanding his operations into Shanghai. His Australian assistant, Joyce, has become a vegetarian, and it’s mentioned several times that in Shanghai vegetarianism is associated with gangsters. I hadn’t heard this before, and I wonder if anyone out there can add some background?

Here’s the quote:

When she told her Shanghainese associates that she’d stopped eating meat, they replied suspiciously that vegetarianism was a cult traditionally associated with violence, gangsterism, and the underworld.

I could certainly make a guess at this connection, and I suspect that it’s because of the same forces that Scott Phillips (no relation) has been looking at with regard to martial cults in Taiwan, not to mention the Boxer Rebellion. In other words, a religious movement is suppressed (for whatever reason) and is faced with the choice of accepting defeat, or continuing in the underworld and surviving by any means possible – which can mean turning to crime. Something similar occurred in the British Isles, where the IRA – which was by its own reasoning a legitimate political force – was robbing banks, smuggling, etc in order to raise funds. The same would have happened in China, where pro-Ming forces gradually became gangs.

Anyhow, any pointers to more information gratefully received.

And yes, by the way, I am a vegetarian 😀

The manner of victory is important

10

I had another street encounter some weeks ago, shortly before I went back to Wales. I was in the area of the Drum Tower, cycling home about midnight, when I heard a woman shouting. The source was a slim young woman facing a tall, strongly-built, man with short-cropped hair. It turned out that it was a lovers’ tiff, the sort I would ordinarily never get close to. At first, though, I thought it might be a robbery, as she was shouting “Give it back to me!”, repeatedly, and it was quite a dark, narrow hutong.

Still unsure what was happening, I drew up a few metres away to check the scene out. The young man came storming over to me. “Get lost! What are you looking at? This is none of your business!”. He was clearly in a rage, and equally clearly really wanted me to do or say something that he could use to justify starting a fight.

I was at a big disadvantage, as I was still standing across my bike, and couldn’t move. When I discussed this with a friend later, he was of the opinion that I shouldn’t have let myself be so vulnerable. I can see his point, but I feel that dismounting and stepping away from the bike would have sent the message of actively intending to get involved, and so would actually have made violence even more likely.

So there I was, face to face with this young boxer (in point of fact, actually, looking up at him, him being much taller than me). I know he was a boxer because he was holding his boxing gloves, banging them together in an attempt to intimidate me. It seemed to me that saying anything, or any movement, would give him the spark he needed, so I gave nothing up. I didn’t move, and made sure I stayed totally relaxed. I made my face vacant, and gave no indication that understood a word he said. As the face-off continued, I looked away and sang a small nonsense song to myself.

Eventually, with a few comments that I’m sure were intended to cast aspersions on my sanity, manhood, or both, he turned on his heel and stalked off. I went on my way. Looking back, I saw that he had picked up a big stick, and was hitting himself over the head with it.

So, what can I learn from this?

First, let me make it clear – since this is the second time I’ve had this kind of encounter – I am not trying to be some kind of vigilante or Guardian Angel. I’m not training to be Batman, and I don’t look for trouble. On the other hand, I believe in society. I believe that a citizen does have a duty of some kind to step in when and if we can. I understand that this isn’t the Chinese tradition, but I’m alarmed by what I read of developments back in the UK, where fear seems to be leading people to hurry on by, “don’t get involved”’. If everyone does this, then where does that lead us? We abandon public areas to the unprincipled and we weaken social bonds. I don’t think this is the way it should be.

Secondly, I clearly wasn’t the source of this young man’s rage. Who knows why he was so fizzing with anger? However, lost of its focus, it turned inwards on himself. What if I hadn’t been able to evade it, and we’d fought? Probably I would have lost, and been hurt; that’s why I train, of course, to hopefully avoid that outcome. Who knows, perhaps even at my level, I might have some tricks up my sleeve that would have worked against him. Let’s say that I was a better martial artist, and had beaten him in a fight. Would that have solved anything, other than letting me get away? I doubt it. Yiquan – based as it is on xingyi – would have me uproot him, turn him round, and beat him down mercilessly until he couldn’t fight any more. Bagua? It still would have required eye gouges and worse, as well as strikes and throws, to incapacitate him. Once I’d won, and left the scene, would that have lessened his rage in any way? Not a bit; in all likelihood it would have festered and grown worse, leaving him more dangerous to those around him – and particularly his girlfriend.

Is there a way to defeat someone that would also provide some kind of enlightenment? Even yiquan and bagua, neijia though they are, defeat strength with strength of a kind, there’s no lesson there for the defeated, other than that violence works if you’re good enough. Taijiquan, though…. Yang Lu Chan won renown not just because he was never defeated – many masters of other styles can make the same claim – but because he was famous for winning whilst never harming his opponent. Perhaps that’s the kind of victory that benefits the loser as much as the victor…

One other outcome: while the boxer and I were facing each other, everything went quiet, and all I could hear was the pounding of my heart, and the swishing of my blood as it moved around my body. Only a few days later came my encounter with the bullock. I am suddenly aware that I need to improve my fitness levels considerably, with the aim of increasing both speed and endurance. I once lost a lot of weight by bagua circle-walking intensively, but that isn’t what I’m looking for. Here, I may as well out myself as a ‘Peaknik‘: I’m one of those who believes that ‘peak oil‘ and ‘peak water’ mean that our current way of life cannot continue. Of course, I would rather see ‘managed retreat’ than ‘catastrophic collapse’, but even in the best scenario there’s likely to be massive dislocation and civil unrest. That’s why I was talking about riots not so long ago; when cities run out of water, power, or food it’s not going to be peaceful, unless we’re very, very lucky.

On that basis, I plan to get fit by training in parkour and capoeira, and will have to drop other things in order to do so. There’s also another context here: if I begin training in the Wu Tu Nan taiji line with the intention of becoming a teacher, I’ll need to become a disciple, and stop training in other neijia styles in order to avoid mixing energy techniques. Capoeira, however, doesn’t use qi, so there’s no problem there.

A little red dot ahead

8

Here’s a quick review of my recent thought processes.

Not so long ago, I decided that I would work one more year and then switch to spending most of my time on training in martial arts while working part-time. Key point: I decided to put my passion above job/financial security. Hmm. Well, these are uncertain times to be doing that but while I was in Wales, I talked to a number of people whom I’ve known for many, many years. I was surprised by how many people wished that they had followed my kind of life. They’d got the houses, and the pension schemes, and the money in the bank – but also the dread of paying the mortgage, hating their job, missed dreams, and infidelities… One conversation I had fell into the realm of tragedy, someone who had ‘done what was expected’ all their life and now felt that it was all for nothing. That person made me realise that following my dreams is the only way to go.

Another insight: while I was in Wales, I realised that (perhaps because I’m getting older), I treasure the sense of being ‘home’. Wales is home: it’s where I’m from. All the more so because of the effort I put into making it my home – I’m not a native speaker of Welsh, so the effort I put into learning it, and becoming a part of the Welsh-language community was real gong fu and ‘eating bitter’, believe me! Singapore is also home, as I realized over the past week. I love the smell of incense in the streets, the ethnic and cultural diversity, the greenery and birdsong. I felt at home from the moment my plane touched down. It was also a chance to re-connect with what I now see is a pretty diverse set of social networks – I know a lot of people in Singapore, particularly now that a large number of my oldest friends from Beijing have moved there! Beijing… I love Beijing, I really do, but it’s not home and never will be. There are great people here, but it’s like a university town on a vast scale; almost no-one is going to put down roots here. In addition, as I commented a short while back, I have this sense that China is starting to close down a little – political control is being stepped up, censorship is increasing, and for someone like me whose professional area is e-commerce and (especially) social media, that’s not good professional news.

One other thing about Beijing – there’s almost no spirituality here, and that lack is becoming more significant for me. In Singapore, I helped out as a volunteer in the kitchens of a Buddhist temple, and loved it. I was told last week that the Abbess and others still ask after me, and you know what – I’d really like to go back. In Singapore I was mixing with Buddhist monks and Daoist spirit mediums. Most people don’t realize just how much is going on behind the scenes in Singapore! In Beijing, there are no Dharma talks, whereas in Singapore I could go to Bright Hill for that.

The big mental breakthrough I had while I was on the flight from Beijing to Singapore was to accept that I’m not going to learn Mandarin. Like I said above, I’ve already gone from nothing to fluency in one language, so I know the time and effort involved in that – and I can’t do it again under current circumstances. I like my job, but it takes a huge amount of my energy; after the last semester ended, I was essentially a zombie for three weeks, and I know that the coming semester is going to be even tougher. Without Mandarin, there are very few alternative jobs, though. In Singapore, even though the economy’s suffering now, there are many more opportunities (including part-time).

As for the topic that most readers here will want to know about… martial arts… what then? Well, as I mentioned before, I would like to master at least one martial art to the level that I can teach. As I’ve frequently written, I’ve been willing to take my time in order to find out what’s right for me. I’ve studied some great styles, and I’m had the great fortune to learn from world-class teachers, including some legends. In the end… I keep coming back to taijiquan. I love bagua. Yiquan absolutely rocks. And yet… when I’ve had some kind of success in an encounter, it’s been because I’ve used a taiji technique. Language is also critical here – I don’t feel that I’ll ever truly master yiquan or bagua, because I can’t understand the fine points that my teachers make in class.

In Singapore, I could study taiji in English. I’ve trained in two schools there, in some depth: Master Rennie Chong teaches the Chen Man Ching style, while Sim Pern Yiau teaches the Wu Tu Nan line of Taijigong. Of the two, the Wu Tu Nan form is actually more what I’m looking for. Probably that’s for a future blog post.

That’s the basis for my decision to move back to Singapore next year. Like everyone else, of course, there are other factors in my life that affect my decisions, and some of these are not for this blog!

David Belle tells it to us straight


Yes…

Tropical warmth

3

I’m in Starbucks, just next to City Hall MRT station in Singapore. I’m reading Tabbycat’s latest post, about running, the running shoe industry, etc; as it happens, I’m wearing a pair of the Vibram Five Finger Shoes that I mentioned a short while ago. I bought them yesterday, and so far I’m finding them to be really, really comfortable. I may even buy a second pair.

I’m having a great time in Singapore. I feel really relaxed 🙂 It’s been great to hang out and chat with good friends. I’ve had long conversations recently with Carlos, and Pern Yiau, and tonight I’m meeting a group of my old fellow-students from Madam Ge Chun Yan’s bagua class. Oh, I think I forgot to mention – Madam Ge was on the same flight as me, from Beijing to Singapore! We had a chat for a while, but we still don’t have a language in common!

There’s a lot of background here which I haven’t shared on the blog, but for a number of pretty compelling reasons I think I’ve decided for certain to move back to Singapore in early 2010. In a way, this is a sudden decision, in that even as late as last week, I was still thinking in terms of a couple more years in Beijing. I couldn’t sleep, though, on the overnight flight from Beijing, and as the hours passed and I thought things over, I realized that moving back is the right thing to do. That was a few days ago, and nothing has occurred to me to change my mind. The main difficulty will be finding a job, but… well, fortune favours the brave, right?

If I make the move, I’ll probably commit to studying the Wu Tu Nan line of taijigong with Pern Yiau until I get up to a level where I can become a teacher myself.

This isn’t set in stone; there are people I still need to talk to and whose advice I want, but it’s looking likely….