July 12 is Chan Tai-San’s birthday. Today he would have been 96. It is a chapter of my life that is hard to explain to people if they were not there. Yes, in some ways it was “cool” like some sort of kung-fu movie. In other ways, it was quite a wake up call about what Chinese martial arts were most definitely NOT. I was a very lucky person to get to study with Chan Tai-San, I think about him every day and despite our complicated relationship, I still think about him every day.
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 things about him around Chinatown, particularly during the brief period I was lion dancing with the Dragon style. Some of the people there had tried to get Chan Tai San to teach them Pak Mei (white eyebrow). Later I would figure out that a friend had actually been telling me about Chan Tai San, but he had told me that there was a teacher from “Taiwan” when really Chan Tai San was from “Toi San”.
At that time in my life, I wasn’t interested in finding a teacher. I had studied Hung Ga and Shuai Jiao, and had bits and pieces of material from floating around Chinatown for years. I was actually making some money lion dancing, though the politics of the place meant I wasn’t really learning any martial arts there. I already had my own group of students, and I never really imagined how meeting Chan Tai San would change my life so much.
So one day I was sitting in Tin Yik, a restaurant that no longer exists but in which 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 always managed to order and it was the sort of place that if you sat and BS’ed they didn’t care. A lot of the people who studied in Chinatown knew about the place and ate there.
Old Chinese men arguing was nothing strange here, but one 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 Pak Mei, but at the time I just knew it was some sort of Kung Fu. 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, when it came to martial arts, Chan Tai San was ALWAYS right, and he wasn’t shy about telling you, showing you and pointing it out afterwards.
At this point, Steve ventura, 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 foreigners 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 coure, I was wrong