July 12. 2016 would have been Chan Tai-San’s 96th birthday, and in response someone asked me a very interesting question. In essence, they asked how exactly Chan Tai-San effected me personally when he was alive, and how effected I was once he passed. I generally think that people have misperceived how Chan Tai-San conducted himself, thinking that martial arts “masters” must act in a certain way, based more on bad movies than real life.
I not only learned awesome martial arts from Chan Tai-San, my relationship with him really did establish me in the Wu Lin. I already had training, and I had already had a certain reputation in New York City’s Chinatown prior to meeting him; but that reputation was not positive and I was definitely an “outsider”. Chan Tai San put me in charge of his public classes and introduced me to the world as his disciple. He opened a lot of doors for me.
In running Chan Tai San’s public classes, I was training almost everyone in the system’s basics and I was given a rather free hand. I’d even say that if I wanted input, I had to ask for it! I vividly remember learning methods and drills only because I had asked a question and received them in response. There are still people around who were there in those days, and they can confirm that training included a lot of conditioning, a lot of two person drilling and sparring. I was also the person who made the decision to attend our first NACMAF tournament; where we placed equally in empty hand forms, weapons forms and sparring.
Like many traditional teachers, Chan Tai San only directly trained a small circle of his most advanced students. He full expected and accepted that from that circle, his own students would teach the larger group in his name. Not only was I leaving New York to attend graduate school, Michael Parrella was already planning to open a location in Long Island. At the same time Steve Ventura returned from living in Florida and opened a location in Manhattan with the help of Stephen Innocenzi. So there were several locations you could learn Chan Tai San’s methods, but not directly from him. He supervised and was there to offer advice, but he definitely ran a “loose ship”.
My personal interests have always seemed to lean toward application and fighting. Experiences while I was away in graduate school, and the major changes in the martial arts world in general, resulted in my trying my hand at training fighters for full contact venues. A lot of people seem to think that was some sort of a “break” with Chan Tai San? But Chan Tai San had himself fought in organized fighting competitions. He fought in the Guangdong provincial sparring championships, in several military sparring contests and even in several western boxing bouts. Not only did I have the “freedom” to train fighters, it was something Chan Tai San actually found personally interesting.
Chan Tai-San officially retired more than 16 years ago. The few years proceeding that retirement, he was not that active either as his health had deteriorated as a result of diabetes. Which is to say, some people with “opinions” were infants or yet to be born when most of this happened. Chan Tai San actually attended many of the events I brought my fighters to; if anyone really thinks that Chan Tai-San did not enjoy watching people associated with his name win full contact matches then they did not know him very well.
Of course, once he retired and after he passed away I was “free” to do anything I wanted. I did a lot of cross training, but I always remind people that Chan Tai San did TONS of cross training, had studied many methods, had many teachers and even done the “Baai Si” ceremony with more than one! In addition to Choy Lay Fut, Lama Pai and Pak Mei, he was extremely fond of western boxing and Japanese Judo.
Furthermore, I had already trained in other martial arts PRIOR to meeting Chan Tai San, he was fully aware of that and never had a problem with that. In fact, he told me that it figured into his decision to have me teach his public classes. Go figure….