I met Chan Tai San the first semester I was in college, it was the mid 80’s, Chinatown was mostly Cantonese, with the Vietnamese thing happening. We later in time had some trouble with the Vietnamese gangs and that’s one reason we left Chinatown, to be done with the BS….
I spent 16 years actually training with him, then the last few years he was semi-retired and I was running my own school. Sifu Chan never learned to speak English. I guess in retrospect he never needed to, his students all started learning Cantonese to study with him! More than a few teachers over they years asked him (and us) how the heck that happened as they often couldn’t even get their students to learn the technique names even. The reason was sifu Chan, what he offered.
The same month I had seen Chan Tai San in Tin Yik, Stephen Laurette came to me and asked me if Ie wanted to meet this old teacher he had studied with the year before. Laurette said that he’d lost track of the guy, but he had bumped into him the other day on the street and gotten his new address.
I met Stephen Laurette when I was doing Shuai Jiao with Jeng Hsin Ping. Laurette was an extremely skilled 7 Star Praying Mantis person, and also quite a scholar. He had studied with Sifu Chiu Leun in Chinatown for many years. Like a lot of guys in TCMA, he wanted to learn more of the applications. For that reason, he decided to study Shuai Jiao to compliment his Mantis.
I had read the Shuai Jiao articles over the years and liked the idea of wrestling the “kung fu way”. I had done western wrestling and Hapkido, in addition to the Hung ga Kahm Na (Qin Na or Chin-Na). When I saw a flyer for Shuai Jiao lessons in NYC, I jumped at the opportunity and also found my way to the lower eastside, where I met Laurette.
Honestly, I grabbed Laurette the first day because he was the biggest guy there. I figured if I could learn to throw him, I could learn to throw anyone! But we ended up getting along for more than that. Laurette was always up to learn something new, and we ended up exchanging Mantis and Hung Ga over the years as well as doing Shuai Jiao together…
Laurette had met Chan tai San because Sifu Chan’s wife was Chiu Leun’s cousin. That’s just the way stuff worked in Chinatown those days. Laurette found Sifu Chan strange, to say the least, but could appreciate that he had stuff that apparently NO ONE else had… Sifu Chiu had told Laurette that Sifu Chan was a unique guy… that was true on many levels.
Laurette had studied Lama with Sifu Chan for about 8 months and then Sifu Chan left NY. He had gone back to Toronto, Canada for a while. I won’t tell you why now, some other time maybe…
When I met Laurette, he’d mentioned Sifu Chan to me, but since he wasn’t in NYC, it never was much of an issue. Then he came up to me and said that he’d just bumbed into Sifu Chan on the street and that if we wanted to meet him, he’d set up a meeting…
We arranged to bring Sifu Chan to the space I was using for my own classes. Laurette translated. Sfu Chan asked if we would pay him $80 per month for lessons. He’d come a few times a week and teach us what we wanted.
Sifu Chan was a complicated person, in some respects the power of his kung fu knowledge was the counterweight to his difficult personality. A few months into my learning with Sifu Chan, I closed my school and said I wanted to follow Sifu Chan and become part of his lineage. Since my Chinese was still basicly non-existant at the time, Sifu Chan asked a friend of his, a student of Hung ga teacher Wan Chi Min, to translate. We met at Mandarin Court on Mott Street for tea and the student of Wan Chi Min’s translated, as well as warned us.
He asked us if we were really ready for what this was going to take. At the time, it seemed a stupid question, in retrospect, I now know what he meant. He said many people had wanted to learn from Sifu Chan, but following him was not an easy path. I had my share of horror stories training with sifu over the years, and they PALED compared to what he did with other students. He beat a few students in Canada with a stick once. He casually mentioned that he’d KILLED a few of his students in China. The one time he slammed me against the wall and choked me seemed mild in comparison.
When sifu passed, we sat with his family. Even they had very little to do with him in his life. For the most part, they found him a bad tempered man who only knew his way, who had not been much of a husband, much of a father, much of a grandfather. His students spent more time with him than his own family. In some respects, we put on blinders, because what we wanted was his kung fu, and his kung fu was ultimately worth whatever it took, really, it was like the X Files. Every year I got that sense more and more.
Sifu chan had both Chinese and American students. The Americans were the majority in the regular school, which originally was just the group class that Sifu ran out of the Gee How Oak Tin Association on Bayard. that was really because Chinese students would often come, were confronted with Sifu’s personality head on, and would opt for another arrangement.
I think sifu was even harder on his Chinese students, he expected they know every aspect of the “proper” things to do in the kung fu world, even if they were “juk sing” (ABC)… Considering the grief he gave me, an American with no previous Chinese cultural training, over stuff like the right place to put a tea cup or the
correct time to pour tea, I can only imagine the sort of stuff he expected of
Other times, Sifu Chan would be contacted by all Chinese groups to teach on a contract basis. Sifu Chan, as was his nature, would of course take the money, then often mess with the heads of those groups. It was like “I am Chan Tai San, and I thumb my nose at you and your thinking you are anyone”
Sifu Chan’s favorite “trick” was to take the money and then have a monkey, usually me, a lowly gwai loh, do the actual teaching. I got used to the drill. He’d tell me to show up some place at a certain time. By the time I’d shown up, Sifu had taken the money and closed the deal, he’d usually start something with the group. Then, as soon as I arrived, he’d hand them all over to me and LEAVE…. I taught in the White Crane school, and in 4 or 5 different “associaitons” over the years because of this “trick”…
I remember two times when this created an actual argument. The head of one of the associations was absolutely not going to accept a dumb monkey teaching his members, especially when he thought he had paid for famous Chan Tai san. Sifu Chan simply told the guy, “anyone here that can beat him?” The answer was no. So Chan told him basicly “stuff it”
More on Chan Tai San to come