Sifu Chan Tai San passed away on Sept 1, 2004. He had spent the last 3 or 4 years of his life in a hospital, in bad health and secluded from the world. Once he got sick, he never went out. He never wanted anyone to see him as anything other than the tough guy he had always been. All of his students basicly lied when asked about him, “oh, he’s doing good, he’s fine”
The last few years of my teacher’s life was a difficult time for me. After completing the system with him, and after he was semi-retired, it was no longer about showing up to “work out” or to learn. It was all about personal relationships, and about confronting both the positive AND the negative things he’d done over the years. It was like having a father you never really agreed with. You loved him, you were comitted to him, but you were conflicted over how you felt about things that he had done.
My teacher, like a lot of Chinese teachers, felt that those who mattered always knew the real deal and those who didn’t know the “real deal” never mattered. A sifu in the martial arts community (Mo Lum) knows exactly how a real Baai Si (adoption) ceremony takes place. If you say you were adopted and don’t have the right things, a real person in the Mo Lum is going to laugh his azz off at you and take you for a clown. Of course, most Americans don’t know thing #1 about this sort of stuff
A real Baai Si is a public event. It is usually announced, often in newspapers. Mine was. A fortune teller is consulted to find the right date, you must submit to your sifu your date and time of birth. A real Baai Si must have witnesses, at least one a MAJOR figure in the Mo Lum. My #1 Baai Si witness was Sifu Frank Yee (Yee Chi Wai) of the Dang Fong Hung Ga lineage. My other two witneses were a Choy Lay Fut teacher and a member of one of the associations. A real Baai Si involves you receiving a reb paper books which has important Kuen Po and which is signed by you, your sifu and the witnesses. To my knowledge, my sifu did four Baai Si in China before coming here. He did three official Baai Si in the US, all done in the Mineola school myself and Michael Parrella opened.
I bring this up because my sifu, like many sifu I know, was also capable of turning to someone and telling them “hey, you got $500? I’ll adopt you. Come to my house on a Thursday night with teh cash and BOOM you’re adopted!” The senior students had a huge issue with Sifu Chan over this sort of stuff. My sifu always scoffed and laughed. He said that anyone who mattered, ie real people in the Mo Lum, would never take someone claiming to be adopted from one of these “late night cash sessions” seriously. And if another ignorant American believed someone was an adopted disciple because of this? WHO CARED. They didn’t matter anyway…
Sifu Chan ran things like a lot of the old school people did. First, he had his students and he had the “outsiders”. If you were a regular student, you had a regular monthly rate, you learned what he thought you should learn, you put your faith in him. He did spend more attention with the regular students.
The outsiders were those who showed up, wanted to learn something and were charged based upon what they asked for. If you did this, you got no more, and frequently, if you turned out to be clueless, you got less….
Among the regular students, there were the seniors and there was the group class. the seniors ran the group classes basicly while Chan tai San watched and would tweek things. He expected his seniors to be resposible and do stuff themselves. We’d show up, he’d ignore us. It was our job to warm up, do basics and then start reviewing whatever we were working on with him. If we apparead to have a grasp on what we were working on, then he’d work with you. The seniors were the only people Chan Tai San worked directly with on a long term basis. The price for that, he expected that you already knew what you were doing. There were holes you had to fill in for yourself, or, if you were smart enough to ask specific questions, he’d fill them in if you asked the right questions…
The group classes were for Chan Tai San a way to maybe find some people worthy of being seniors and actually learning from him. Again, it was a survival of the fitest thing, you were thrown in the pool, if you swam, you’d stand out and get more. Many drowned.
Regarding Sifu Chan’s regular students, the training was very much about FIGHTING. Those who came and just paid for something, who asked for something and did a straight, I ask, I pay you give, got what they asked for, never more. And usually Sifu Chan looked down on these people, thinking their attitudes sucked…
If you put your faith and your trust in Sifu Chan, he’d actually put effort into what you should be doing. That is why most of his students were trained differently, they weren’t all the same guy, cookie cutter produced on an assembly line, so why treat them that way?
From Sifu Chan’s point of view, forms were just a way to get the techniques across and make you do them over and over again. There was NOT a particular reverance for the sets, even for the exact sequences!
A very common thing that would happen; “Sifu, is the movement this? or This?” A technique could be done several ways, several different angles, maybe even the sequence was open to some variations….
“Sifu, is it this, this or that?”
Sifu Chan would inevitably say “yes”… as in, it is all those, and MORE
The first set I did with Chan tai San was Siu Lo Han (lesser Boddhisattva set). it is one of the core sets (there are 5 core sets), in reality, you could well study this one form and make an entire fighting style out of it. I won’t say it has “everything” but it has certainly enough to make a strong cross section. The basic shooting star fists are in this set, the basic concepts are in this set. There are four basic kicks, plenty of throws and joint locks. A few really nasty advanced “Neih Lahk Sau” tactics…
I learned 5 versions of the same set.
The sets became “conversation pieces”, ie they stimulated talk about application and theory. A good part of the practice was taking apart and re-assembling the sets to find the applications. But the way my sifu did it was probably “unique”
Certain applications he took the initiative to teach you, ie he’d stop you, show it to you and make sure you grasped what it was about…
But that was HALF the process. He expected you to hold up your end, to ask him about other applications. If you had no initiative, you’d been shown very little. The best stuff by far you got by asking, by askig again, by having follow questions. Once you got Sifu Chan going, it poured out, but if you didn’t make the effort, he let you go on your merry way ….
But the other half of the equation was, you FELT the applications, there was no “show” it was all “tell”! If it was a punch, Sifu Chan PUNCHED YOU! If it was a kick, he kicked you, if it was a throw, he threw you, joint lock, you get the idea. I regularly got kicked, tripped, thrown, poked in the eye, kicked in the groin !
When it came to sparring, it was up to us to get gear. By the time I had met Sifu Chan, I’d been around martial arts a long time already. With the group classes, we had everyone get a mouth piece and a cup, we then had a number of boxing gloves we handed out to spar with. Sifu Chan was fully supportive of sparring and sparring with gloves. He noted that there were too many injuries bare knuckle (which we had already discovered) and noted that the best part of being in the army had been that they had gear. When he was just an orphan in a monastery in the middle of no where, the kung fu was good, but they had NOTHINGLater, we added in shin guards. Less injuries meant we could spar more often. The irony, after we did it, that’s exactly what Chan tai San said “good, now you guys can spar more, less injuries.” A lot of Sifu Chan’s training was based upon self initiative, he spoon fed no one….
Like most traditional Chinese systems, the sparring was what most would call “stand up”. Sifu taught three different ground fighting sets as part of the Lama, and the Choy Lay Fut had ground fighting sets, and Sifu also had a two man set that was like Fukien dog fighting, but the primary emphasis was hitting and wrestling standing up.
In sparring, if you were thrown, swept or fell, we didn’t jump right on top of you, but you were expected to get right back up. In one of the first sparring sessions we ever did with Sifu chan around, a guy just stayed on the ground, he didn’t curl up, he didn’t try to get back up, he just stayed there…. Sifu Chan SCREAMED “if he stays there, HIT HIM”… I actually think that’s how the ground set got started, because he actually walked over to the guy and started showing us ways to attack a guy who was on the floor….
Ove they years, that’s often how material would get started, a deficiency that popped up would prompt Sifu Chan to address it. The week one of the students got attacked with a knife on Mott street resulted in two weeks of knife disarms for example.
Chan Tai San was a fighter, in every sense of the word. I was in the association hall on Bayard late one night. At the beginning especially, we’d often be there until 11 or later at night. We fell in love with practice, so much so I dropped out of school for a semester.
This was early on, I didn’t speak Cantonese really yet, so what transpired remains a mystery to me. Chan Tai San was cooking dinner, a common thing around that hour for him. Two guys came into the association hall, one middle aged (50’s) and another rather young (he was my age, early 20’s).Whatever was going on, the middle aged guy did the talking, Chan Tai San was obviously annoyed and waved his hand at the guy. Chan Tai San walked around and the middle aged guy followed him around. The volume of the “discussion” went up and it was clearly an argument after a minute or so….
Sifu Chan was walking across the floor again, when suddenly the young guy took a fighting stance, looked like a Muay Thai stance, and started dancing around Sifu Chan.
I was young and stupid, at first I thought “wow, Sifu is old so I’d better fight this guy.” I was about to learn my lesson. Sifu Chan didn’t take a stance, he said something to the guy, who made a funny face (knowing Sifu later on over the years, I can guess the sort of thing he might have said). The guy was still in his stance, sort of dancing about, Sifu Chan made his “chyuhn choih” noise, hit the guy ONCE. He went all stiff like a board, fell back on his heels, fell flat on the ground.
Sifu Chan said something to the middle aged guy, I can be pretty sure it must have been to teh effect of “now, get the F out of here.” The middle age guy helped the young guy get up, the left, and I never saw them again.
Sifu continued to make dinner and I was numb….