Blog Archives

Recommended book: Sugong

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Reader Tom got in touch, commenting on the lack of posts. True, true. I started writing as a product of my excitement at living in Asia, both Singapore and China. Even during the bad times, the environment provided small joys every day, and the amazing people I mixed with through the martial arts gave me lots of material. Moving back to small-town Wales has been a huge challenge, and I have to say that it’s been difficult, both in the personal and professional spheres. A new environment means a new perspective, one that I am still in the process of developing; I might write a bit more about that later.

Anyway, I want to recommend a book to you all: Sugong. Englishman Nick Hurst has written a fantastic biography of his kungfu grandmaster, an inheritor of the true Shaolin tradition. You won’t learn any martial secrets from this book, but its real value to me lies in its portrayal of Singapore and Malaya throughout the twentieth century. The aspect of Singapore that I loved the most was its complex network of martial societies, temples, food stalls and coffee shops, inhabited by witty, gregarious, traditionalist working-class people of many races and languages. Sadly, social and economic changes are wiping out this link to the old-fashioned Straits way of life. If you’ve never experienced it, this book is a great insight; to those who’ve known it and loved it, this book is going to become a classic account of martial arts society in South-East Asia.

WSJ: Is Daoism Losing Its Way?

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The Wall Street Journal has a very interesting article about Daoism – take a look before it vanishes behind the WSJ paywall.

The gist of the article is that Daoism is finding it hard to compete against other religions, and against widespread ignorance amongst Chinese (both mainlanders and the diaspora, including Singapore) about what it actually stands for.

(Via @UCAA on Twitter)

Back to brown

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I’m back…

I had a great holiday, thanks for asking 😉

I started with a nice 10 days in Singapore, where I happily had the chance to catch up with Pern Yiau, Jono, Carlos, and Kim, amongst others, and had some great conversations. I bought a lot of books, of which you may hear more.

Then, off to Thailand for two weeks: a few days in Bangkok, which were wonderful, and then a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat: 10 days of absolute silence, rising at 4am, and 9 hours of meditation every day… This is the third time I’ve done one of these retreats, and it was by far the toughest; very gruelling, physically and emotionally. I’m really glad I did it (though I nearly quit on day 3!), and I’ve been told I look five years younger… Sweet 🙂

I landed yesterday in Beijing, which is cold and smoggy, and everything looks grey or brown 🙁 Sigh… I want to go back to Thailand right now, it was so colourful and invigorating…..

OK, back to reading all the email that’s accumulated over the past month…

Tropical sunshine

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Just in case anyone’s wondering why it’s gone quiet here, I’m enjoying the warmth in Singapore. I’ll be here for another week before moving on to Bangkok for a few days. After that, I’m going on a 10-day vipassana retreat. Can’t wait…

Perceptions

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In conversation last night, a visiting American mentioned a book he’d bought Amazon.com – and then stopped, and asked “Have you heard of Amazon? I know you’ve been living in Singapore…..“.

I think I may have laughed out loud… FWIW, I think I bought my first book from Amazon in 1997.

The martial arts capital of the world

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(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

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

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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

A little red dot ahead

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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!

Tropical warmth

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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….

Li-ttle red dot

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Just noticed in passing that Jet Li is now a Singaporean, though he’s keeping it quiet. He joins actress Gong Li as a new citizen of the city-state.