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The first time I saw Chan Tai San, I didn’t even know who he was, much less that I’d spend a good part of my life with him. I had heard some rumblings about him around Chinatown, particularly during the brief period I was lion dancing with the Dragon style people since Chan Tai San was teaching some Bak Mei and some of the Lung Ying people had sought him out to learn it. The rumblings were mixed, and at the time I wasn’t really that interested in finding a teacher. I was pretty much teaching my mixture of Hung Ga and Shuai Jiao, with some boxing and assorted other stuff I had picked up. I never really imagined how meeting him would shape my life so much.
I was sitting in a restaurant that no longer exists (and sadly so, it was a real landmark, at the turn of the century Sun Yat Sen had tea there while collecting money for his cause in NY). It was a little place, and mostly Chinese. But I managed to order my shrimp in rice noodle and my coffee and it was the sort of place that if you sat and BS’ed they didn’t care.
Old Chinese men arguing was nothing strange here, but one old guy was louder than the rest. He then suddenly stood up and proceeded to run through a line of movement. Now, I know it was bak Mei, at the time I just knew it was some sort of Kung Fu. Sifu Chan was already in his 60’s by the time this happened, yet he moved as if he was an active student in his 20’s!
After demonstrating the movement, he apparently must have felt he proved his point. The guy he was arguing with sort of put his head down, and Sifu Chan actually slapped his forehead. As I would later learn, Sifu Chan when it came to martial arts was ALWAYS right, and he wasn’t shy about telling you, showing you and pointing it out afterwards.
At this point, Steve Vventura, who was eating with me, had pulled our friend the waiter over. He was a man I’d get to know over the years and call “uncle”. I didn’t know either at the time, but he was a relative of Sifu Chan’s. He did Taiji and Tan Teui (spring legs) in the part every morning. His Taiji was his own synthetic form, he’d studied with like 20 different guys including version of yang, chen, wu, hao and li…
Anyway, my “uncle” as I would learn to call him, told us he was a famous teacher who had just arrived from China recently. He told us the name, which only sort of stuck, we were dumb lo faan who didn’t speak Chinese at the time. But he also told us he spoke no English and wasn’t exactly interviewing for students. A little crest fallen, I figured it wasn’t mean to be…. of course, I was wrong.
The same month I saw Chan Tai San in Tin Yik, Stephen Laurette came to me and Steve Ventura and asked us if we 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. Laurette had picked up quite a lot of Cantonese, and also could read and write pretty well. 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 exchainging 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 Steve Ventura and I 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…
Here is the real kicker to this. At the time, I was teaching Hung Ga and Shuai Jiao. I’d done some Mantis, some dragon, a bunch of stuff, but I was pretty happy with what I was doing. I had no real desire to learn a new method. But I had one problem, the version of Hung Ga we did only had the 4 core forms. There were all long, and none were really fancy or pretty….
When I first asked to meet Sifu Chan, my initial desire was just to learn some pretty forms! That’s pretty f-in ironic in the long term…
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. I forget the hows and whys, but Steve Ventura originally asked to learn Choy Lay Fut. Laurette and I decided to do Lama. Actually, I think Laurette had asked for a particular set already, Siu Lo Han.