I was struggling with an idea of what to blog about, because sometimes you’re uninspired. But then I stumbled upon someone posting a video from a tournament in the early 90’s that my teacher participated in as one of the masters demonstrating in that evening’s show. I showed him the clips and said, “Do you remember when you were there and doing the demonstration?” It just so happened that one of the screenshots that I was able to take from the video closely resembled a posture that I had taken a picture of in my recent trip to Hoy Hong Temple in China. From his own words, he said, “It looks the same.” When I took a look at the clip and the picture, it dawned on me that it was exactly the same, but now, almost 30 years later, practicing the same movements and techniques, they don’t feel as they did back then. They feel different somehow. It’s kind of hard to explain to someone who hasn’t done one particular thing for decades. It’s a very uncanny feeling being able to watch that video and see the movement and understand the individual at that point in time and the same individual at this point in time and see the immense amount of growth in depth and understanding and ability, even though at that time he was at the top of his game. Now, in my opinion, he’s beyond the game. He’s still doing the same techniques, the same movements, but it’s not the same. It’s so much more.
Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng is one of those rare individuals and will mostly likely not be recognized until much later. He’s very much an underrated and undiscovered individual. I think there’s many people like that, and it’s because the powers that be will not let you into the game. It’s a closed game. In his own time, Yip Man was not recognized. He became recognized later when Bruce Lee came to fame, and he was able to become famous because of media. Wong Fei Hung became famous because of Lum Sai Wing and then the movies from the 40s and 50s. My Sifu is an immigrant that came here with no language skills whatsoever. He was thrust into American society in the tumultuous 60’s, bombarded with 60’s music and art, immersed into Chinatown, basically locked up culturally, screaming to get out, not knowing how to fit in, fighting for his way to find himself. How did he find himself? Through these two mediums that didn’t require to him to have a physical voice. He speaks through his art and through his Kung Fu. If you can’t see that then you can’t see him. When you hear him talk, that’s not his medium of expression. He’ll do a move or paint a stroke and he’s there. He holds the integrity of tradition but is able to bring you closer to it than you would have been if he didn’t open it up a little bit.
My Sifu has one foot firmly planted in the traditional moral and ethical ideals of an old Chinese master, but at the same time he’s a breakthrough artist in his artwork and his martial arts. He’s able to maintain the traditional values, precepts and integrity of Kung Fu. At the same time, he grasps an almost iconoclastic attitude and is able to mix and match and make everything work. He’s not constrained by, but rather freed within this framework of what he’s learned. He’s actually found a way to become more free and bring out a fresh, new interpretation that hasn’t been seen in the martial arts in a long time. Many athletes (because that’s what a martial artist basically is at the core) follow a certain line of dogma and a way of playing whatever they’re playing, be it baseball or martial arts. Few ever reach the point where they can actually go beyond the confines of the game that they play.
At any time someone introduces something that goes against the mindset of the norm, they are often not hailed as someone with an innovative concept or way of viewing things. It’s not so much that Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng has created a new way, but his way of viewing things is so profound. He is a real master’s master in the sense that not only can he do the traditional old stuff, but he’s so in tune with himself and the medium that he works in that he can repurpose and recreate and elevate something that’s already been shown or taught. He can breathe new life into it, even to somebody like myself that’s been practicing for decades. The reason why I think I can see this is not only because I follow him, he is my one primary teacher, and I’ve seen his growth over the decades. Unlike many martial artists that learn up unto a certain point and then stop, he’s never stopped learning. Therefor he’s never stopped growing, and he’s always seeking a deeper understanding and meaning to what he’s doing. He thinks outside the box without destroying the box but instead multiplying it, making it into a mansion. It’s no longer a one room cold water tenement flat on the lower eastside (that by the way costs $5000 month). His teachings and philosophy are actually deeply rooted in the classical understanding of Zen Buddhism and Daoism, but expressed in his modern sensibility. This is what people don’t understand. You may see his face, his artwork, his students and his grand-students, but if you don’t know what makes him tick, you don’t know the person. You may have an image, but it’s an image blurred by snow and white noise. You don’t know the true individual. I like this show they have on cable called Drunk History. There was some guy talking about JFK getting methamphetamine shots. Every time he had to have a meeting with Kruschev, he asked this guy who they called Dr. Feelgood to give him a shot. This goes to show you don’t know until later what the person was really like.
So I’d like to set the record straight. He may not be famous until we’re all gone, but as far as my humble opinion is concerned, I think he’s one the top masters of the last century. He’s able to strike and maintain a balance which is uncanny because most people are incapable of doing this. They get lost on one side or the other. They either go all the way to the extreme modern sense and do away with all traditional concepts, or run to the other end of the spectrum which is total fanaticism and adherence to dogma. I’ve been taught by him to see beyond the norms that are set. In this way, you can understand why guidelines were set up by the ancient masters and actually make sense out of them. At the same time, you can not only express the power, energy and spirit of the technique, but also be able to free yourself up to find yourself and express your own interpretation while still remaining true to the art. My teacher is able to take what he has learned and distill something from it. He can distill the essence of what he was taught and then inject that into everything else that he does, be it martial arts or artwork.
If you see his artwork, you see the grandeur and the energy and the flow of the movement. His artwork is very much about movement as opposed to being “still.” It’s not still. It’s alive in a sense that you can see the motion, the stroke, the splatter, the edginess, the contrast of the colors. It invokes motion. Everything that he does comes out to be poetry in motion. You won’t see it unless you know the heart of the individual and see the way he sees. This is the hard thing and this is the thing that you have to learn about art, Kung Fu, music and philosophy. If you just read the philosophical text or just look at a picture or listen to the music or eat the morsel of food or copy the motion of the technique, you’re only getting that purely physical sensory perception. You’re not seeing through the eyes of the artist. You’re not feeling it. You say, well, how am I going to feel it if I don’t know the guy and I don’t have the luxury of being with him all the time? It will be hard, but I tell you it can be done. The thing is you have to eradicate all your personal preconceived perceptions of what you think that said thing is supposed to be like in order for you to actually grasp it. It’s no different than having a cup of coffee. You’ve had coffee before so you envision in your mind what coffee’s going to smell and taste like, but then you drink it and you realize it’s something else. It’s a total shock to your system, because you’re not open to it. It’s not the coffee you’re used to or it’s something else entirely. Because you’re not open to the difference, it rocks your world, but not in a good way. It SHOULD rock your world, but in a way that takes you to a heightened level of understanding that you never had before. This is how I feel when I study under my teacher, and I’m able to perceive the deeper understanding that he’s imbuing into the art that we are practicing together.
How do you learn from any one individual? You can read the writings of Aristotle and Plato, but you may not get it because you have to know how to read it. That’s the cool thing about my Sifu. The way he’s taught me is not just what to read but rather how to read it, and that’s what I’ve been striving for for the last 20 years. My Sifu teaches me how to go beyond the limitations of what I thought I could do. He’s not reinventing the wheel, but he’s using it in marvelous and mysterious ways that are much cooler than I ever perceived. You want to be a disciple of the teacher and the art? You have to live it. Snow, rain, sun, you will come. Class or no class, whether someone is in the room or not, you will still come, because it’s not about the class; it’s about the art. When you learn the art from your teacher, you learn about yourself. What better gift can you give yourself than that?
My teacher is evolved as a person. What is the evolution of a person? It’s not about the physical and material trappings that they have, but rather the spirit. The soul of that person has gone through a metamorphosis, a change that has brought them to a higher level of understanding. Under the direction and tutelage of a person like that, you, too, should be able to evolve and know a higher level of yourself. That’s your duty here on this earth, to evolve. Through learning the art of Kung Fu from my Sifu, I see that life is a process of evolution and growth, and that is your main concern. It’s not a concern in the sense of feeling pressure to grow every day. You grow from the work and the introspective platform that you place yourself upon, and turn inward and look upon yourself to be able to move forward again.
This is what I could come up with on the Snowpocalypse 2019.
-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅