I Know Kung Fu.

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac

Ever since I can remember I have loved kung fu. It is hard to pinpoint where the love came from, but there are a couple of possibilities. I am a child of hippies, and grew up in a house filled with music, ethnic food and martial arts. My parents are martial artists – Aikidoists – and they tried, in vain, to get me into Aikido.

I remember going to class with them and watching the graceful interactions. Students running at each other and, being gracefully flung about and landing, silently rolling out to standing awaiting their next chance to politely attack. It was beautiful to watch, and it looked effortless. The thing that especially impressed me was that strength and size didn’t seem to matter. This became even more impressive when I saw my mother, who is five foot four, throw my father who is more than six foot three over her head like he was made of cotton balls. This filled me with delight, and, I suspect, deeply frustrated my father.

Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba. It is translated as “the way of unifying with life energy” or “the way of the harmonious spirit”. One of the interesting things about Aikido is that it is purely defensive. There is no way to “attack” someone using Aikido in its true form. It is purely used and was developed as a way to defend oneself, but also to do so while protecting your attacker from harm. What a lovely philosophy. Because there is no way to attack someone using Aikido, what began to happen around our house was that my father, desperate to show me his new moves and joint locks (which hurt like hell) would ask me, in desperation, to grab his wrist. Only then could he throw me around and bend my joints into pretzels. If I was feeling generous I would oblige, but if I was feeling sassy I would refuse and taunt him. Grab my wrist became the most uttered phrase in our house for years.

Morihei Ueshiba

The other wonderful thing about Aikido is that you are using your attackers energy and inertia to either direct them out of the way, or, throw them into the next room depending on how much of their energy you want to use. For this reason, the Aikidoist is using very little of their own energy. It is also incredibly graceful, and does not have any of the hard edged movements of many of the Korean and Chinese martial arts. It is one of the most beautiful martial arts to watch. Here is a video so you can see what I mean.

I have an enormous respect for all the martial arts, and Aikido in particular is so elegant, refined, efficient and beautiful, but it wasn’t the one that resonated with me. What I wanted to learn was kung fu. Perhaps it was all those years of kung fu movies, but I decided that this was what I was going to learn. It was my dream to be a doctor of Chinese medicine and a master of kung fu – 2 very complimentary pursuits, I thought.

For years I had been obsessed with kung fu movies and every Friday had gone to Kung Fu Friday’s at the Royal cinema where a group of enthusiasts would sit and bask in each others euphoria at watching these ancient movies with elaborate fight scenes and terrible dubbing. The nerd level was through the roof, but it was the best hour and a half of my week. Once I finished college, I was excited to seek out a kung fu school and start my training. I went all over, looking for the right school that was teaching a style that felt right for me. It was a long search, but I knew the right place as soon as I walked in the door. It was a very traditional Chinese kung fu school in Chinatown. On the outside it looked like a small storefront painted red and black with the windows covered. The writing was in Chinese but in English it said Kung Fu. I walked in and it was dark and smelled of sweat. There was a Chinese guy sitting at an old counter reading a Chinese newspaper. He looked up at me surprised.

*Perhaps now is the time to explain something. I, at least on the outside, am not Chinese, but am a tall blonde girl. I do not blend in most places, least of all a kung fu school in the heart of Chinatown. If I thought I had been an outsider before, I was about to receive a rude awakening…

The man looked up and thought I was lost. I said no, I was there to inquire about kung fu. His surprised look remained as he slowly explained what styles the school taught, when their classes were and how much a year membership cost. I nodded and asked if I could return to watch a class. He said sure, the surprised look never leaving his face. I had a good feeling I had found the place. This was the real thing. Old school. I returned to watch a class and fell in love. I bought my uniform and showed up for my first class and managed to hold my own. It was tense, as I was one of a few girls and the only white girl. I could see the smirks on the faces of some of the guys. I found out later that the guys had a running bet on my first day to see how long I would last. Most said I wouldn’t last longer than one class. A few said I might make it a week. I stayed 8 years. They all lost that bet.

kung fu

The school taught two styles – Choi Lee Fut  – created by Chan Heung, a disciple of the famed Shaolin Temple, and Do Pi – a Southern style . There are many styles of kung fu, and I think finding the one you like is just like anything else, you have to find the one that resonates with you. These styles really spoke to me because they had large sweeping movements which suited by tall body and long limbs. I later tried Wing Chun – a style that focuses on close range combat. I found it cramped and awkward, like watching a spider monkey fight another spider monkey nose to nose. You have to find the style that is right for you. Classes were 2 nights a week and one Sunday afternoon and were about 4 hours each. They consisted of stances, punches, kicks, stretching, callisthenics and finally, forms – a series of movements that you move through beginning to end. They were the most hard core workouts I had ever had and I had been an athlete all my life. I pushed through. Thankfully, in this case, my stubborn nature probably exceeded my physical abilities, at least at first. No one spoke to me for about 6 months. I think they were all waiting for me to drop out and were confused as to why that hadn’t yet happened.

After the six month mark I got the occasional smile. I couldn’t believe it. Finally, they were accepting me as part of the group. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I was determined to follow my dream of learning kung fu, and I loved it. I am happy to say that after the guys decided I wasn’t leaving they accepted my presence and we all became friends. We went to class together and the ritual became to go out to eat Vietnamese afterwards. It became like a family and we had dinners for Chinese New Years and participated in parades through Chinatown in our uniforms, holding banners and doing Lion Dance. It seemed every time a new restaurant opened, our kung fu school would be called upon to do a Lion Dance (a good luck omen for any new business) and I felt like I was always at the school for class or some function. Hanging out with my classmates socially became a window into this culture which had always fascinated me and I felt so comfortable in. We would have big dinners together and spent way too many evenings doing karaoke. I don’t think I will ever be able to listen to Hotel California without fondly remembering my tone deaf classmates.

Studying kung fu was an amazing experience. It was not just learning a martial art, but becoming part of a living breathing organism. The school was an integral part of the Chinese community and it was fascinating and wonderful to feel like a part of something that perhaps few people had been able to experience before. I learned so many things. I learned that a martial art is not about just training your body, but training your mind, understanding the mind of your opponent and honing internal skills like Qi Gong to develop your internal power. I was privileged to become immersed in a culture that I have so much respect for, and I think it made me a better person and a better acupuncturist. I learned discipline, and that usually things that are worth learning, take a lifetime to master. I also learned that I love Vietnamese food. I later dabbled in a few more martial arts – Wing Chun, Jeet Kun Do, Muay Thai, Escrima, Kali and Savate (French kick boxing), and although I loved them for what they had to offer, my heart will always belong to kung fu. <3

 

Here are some clips you can watch which demonstrate the awesomeness of kung fu. Many of my favourite movies are too old to find now (I have them all on VHS!!) but these are some of the masters. Enjoy.

Shaolin Kung Fu

Here is a National Geographic Episode on Shaolin Kung Fu which gives some history and shows some of the monks incredible skills.

Bruce Lee – The Chinese Connection

Bruce is, and will always be, my hero. <3

Ip Man – Donny Yuen – Kung Fu Fight Scene

Jet Li – Fist of Legend

Jackie Chan – Drunken Style Kung Fu – Drunken Master

Master Killer / The 36 Chambers of Shaolin – Trailer

My favourite kung fu movie of all time. :)

A clip from Master Killer detailing Kung Fu training at Shaolin.