Many people were very kind to regard me as a kungfu genius. Only a few people knew that I was called a child prodigy long before that. I knew how to read Chinese even at the age of three due to my father’s and mother’s informal coaching.
One day, soon after my recovery from my long illness after falling into a huge monsoon drain, my parents took me to see my father’s friend who was a restaurant stall owner at the New Life Plaza at Cintra Street in Penang. The New Life Plaza has now given way to residential flats, but in the 1940s and 1950s, it was busy with hawker stalls.
My father was talking with his friend who was chopping barbequed meat for his customers. I couldn’t recollect what their conversation was, but I could remember my father saying I could read Chinese, which is a formidable feat even for adult learners as the Chinese written language does not have an alphabet and readers have to recognise each one by itself of at least a few hundred characters.
“What, a small boy of three can read Chinese!” The restaurant owner found it hard to believe.
“Yes, that’s true,” my father replied.
“I can’t believe it!”
“You can test my son.”
“Well, boy,” my father’s friend looked at me kindly. “Can you tell me these characters?” He pointed to a row of big Chinese characters on his signboard.
“Yeit ting ho fan tim (一定好饭店).” I read each Chinese character loudly and slowly. They meant “Certainly-Good Restaurant”.
The man was astounded.
“Just three years old, and you can read Chinese characters! A real child prodigy!”
He promptly cut a large piece of “char siew”, which literally means “fork-barbeque”, i.e. a piece of meat that was being forked to be barbequed, hanging in a showcase in front of his restaurant, and passed it to me.
“Child prodigy, please enjoy this piece of char siew,” he graciously said.
Years later, when I told my wife this old story, she went to town and on her return, she gave me a nice piece of barbequed meat.
“Child prodigy,” my wife said, “Please enjoy this piece of char siew.”
My father and mother, myself and my wife, my sister and her husband, and my three eldest children in the 1980s
One night, at Sifu Choe Hoong Choy’s house where he taught Wing Choon Kungfu in the garden at the back of his house, Uncle Cheong, a senior disciple of Sifu Choe Hoong Choy and well-respected kungfu master in his own right, visited the school. Some senior students were practising a staff set called Thirteen-Techniques Spear. Despite its name, it was a staff set, and a long tapering staff was used.
The students asked Uncle Cheong, who was an expert of the staff, about the combat application of a pattern called “High Mountain Flows Water”, where a staff was held slantingly away from the practitioner’s body with the head of the staff above the practitioner’s head, and the tapering tail of the staff slanting away almost touching the floor.
Uncle Cheong said, “It can be used to block a low sweeping attack.”
He then asked the student to sweep his legs and he blocked the attack using this pattern, “High Mountain Flows Water”.
Uncle Cheong then turned to me. “Kit Chye,” he said, “How would you use this pattern to block a low sweeping attack?”
“Kit Chye” (杰仔) was the name they called me. Other students would call me “Kit Kor” (杰哥), which means Elder Brother Kit. “Kit Chye” is an endearing term, often used by parents to call their children or elders to call their loved ones. It means “Kit, my lovely boy”.
“Uncle Cheong is an expert of the staff,” I replied indirectly.
“I know you are also an expert of the staff. Tell us one or two secrets.”
“I’m not sure whether I can tell one or two secrets.”
“Let’s ask our sifu.”
Uncle Cheong then turned to Sifu Choe Hoong Choy. “Sifu, would you let Kit Chye to reveal one or two secrets?”
“They are senior students. There’s no harm telling them one or two secrets,” Sifu Choe Hoong Choy said.
I took over the staff from Uncle Cheong, and asked the senior student to attack me with a low sweep.
As he did so, I blocked the attack as Uncle Cheong did earlier, but with the end of the staff gently hitting the attacker’s lower leg.
I asked him to attack again. I performed the same pattern blocking his attack, but this time with the tip of the staff pointing just an inch above a vital point between his lower leg and his foot.
Sifu Choe Hoong Choy and Uncle Cheong smiled noddingly.
“In a real fight,” Uncle Cheong told the student, “Your lower leg would be fractured as soon as you make the attack, or you would not be able to walk as your vital point at the foot would be dotted.”
Kungfu practitioners do not have internal force and cannot apply their kungfu for combat not because they do not know the technique but because they do not have the skill
When I first learned the Horse-Riding Stance, it was at the form level. This is the normal introduction to kungfu for almost all kungfu practitioners. In other words, when people first start to learn kungfu, almost all of them would start with kungfu form. Only a few, because of various reasons, may start with skill, application or philosophy.
For example, after being amazed by a master’s vitality despite his age, a person may ask, “Sifu, you are so full of vitality. Can you please teach me how to have half your vitality, or even a quarter?”
If the master is generous, he may teach him the Three-Circle Stance, and then say, “Practise this every day for a year.”
If this person, unlike 90% of other people who may ask a similar question, practises the Three-Circle Stance every day for a year, he may have a quarter of the master’s vitality. In this case, this student starts his introduction to kungfu through skill, though he still needs form to develop his skill, and he may not realise that he is taught kungfu.
Our Shaolin Wahnam students are an exception. When they start to learn kungfu or chi kung from us, they are introduced to all the four dimensions of form, skill, application and philosophy. When our students learn kungfu, they do not just learn the form, but also the skill of right spacing and right timing, applying the kungfu patterns for attack and defence, and how their kungfu training can enrich their daily life. When our students learn chi kung, they do not just learn the form, they also generate an energy flow, feel fresh and energetic, and know why chi flow contributes to their good health, vitality and longevity.
Not only kungfu and chi kung, but all arts, ranging from the simple art of asking your secretary to write a letter to sending a ship into space, may be classified into the four dimensions of form, skill, application and philosophy. Understanding these four dimensions and putting them into practice will enhance any art we practise, and more significantly our daily life.
Most kungfu practitioners focus only on form, neglecting the other three dimensions. If these four dimensions are of equal importance, they can at best have only 25% of the potential benefits. But in reality, these dimensions are not of equal importance. Form constitutes technique, and is generally less important than skill and application. Philosophy provides a map showing the routes and destinations.
A salesperson earning $2000 a month and another earning $20,000 a month use the same form, or technique, but their skill level is vastly different. More important in making their life meaningful is how they apply their earning. Whether they use the $2000 or $20,000 for liquor and gambling, or for making their family happy depends much on their philosophy.
Failing to differentiate between skill and technique is a main reason why most kungfu practitioners today cannot apply their kungfu for combat, and why many chi kung practitioners are not healthy and full of vitality. It is also a main reason why in my book, “The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan”, I mention that more than 90% of Tai Chi Chuan practitioners today are getting less than 10% of its potential benefits.
While Shaolin Wahnam students have all the dimensions introduced to them when they first learn kungfu or chi kung, it took me more than 20 years since first learning kungfu to realise these dimensions. Considering that most kungfu and chi kung practitioners do not realise this useful classification at all, 20 years is a short time.
This useful classification did not happen all at once. It was evolved, and it is rewarding to trace its evolution historically.
A section of my library of kungfu, chi kung and other books which provided me with a sound understanding of their philosophy
Wei Foong, Peter, Attilio, my wife and Siew Foong at the Italian Riviera with the Mediterranean Sea behind
Back in Italy in Attilio’s hotel after some chi kung courses, Pio, an elderly aristocrat who has attended all my chi kung courses in Finale Ligure every year, invited me and Attilio to his huge mansion in the countryside near Siena.
“Sifu,” Pio said, “We shall also go to San Gimignano to have the best ice-cream in the world.”
Every Italian would say Italian ice-cream was the best, I thought to myself.
Attilio and I went to San Gimignano to wait for Pio to take us to his mansion. San Gimignano was a pretty ancient town with two famous ice-cream parlours reputed to sell the best ice-cream in the world. We sat waiting for Pio at an old village well at the centre of the village square.
Attilio was pacing up and down, deep in thoughts. Then he turned to me.
“Sifu, while waiting we may have some ice-cream.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” I told Attilio.
Attilio got me and himself a cone each with three gigantic scoops of ice-cream. I had eaten a lot of ice-cream all over the world coming in different containers, from sticks and cones to cups and boxes. But this was really the best ice-cream I had taken, without any doubt it was more delicious than any other by a big margin. I really enjoyed every lick of it.
After finishing the delicious ice-cream, we waited and waited, but Pio did not turn up. Attilio was again pacing about at the village well, deep in thoughts.
Eventually he said to me, “Sifu, what about another helping?”
Although I love ice-cream, the three scoops were so big that normally they would be enough. But they were so mouth-watering that I did not hesitate to say, “Yes! We must have another helping.”
Again, Attilio got me and himself each another three gigantic scoops of ice-cream, and we slowly enjoyed every lick of them.
But Pio still had not arrived. Again, Attilio was pacing up and down near the well, deep in thoughts. He could not hold himself any longer. At last he said to me, “Sifu, I think we should have a third helping.”
“Yes, you’re perfectly right! We should have a third helping,” I quickly added.
My wife in the ancient town of Finale Ligure in Italy
Tim Franklin jumping high for a flying kick in Xingyiquan
Barry is dedicated to developing internal force. Once during a course in 2008, I asked some students to punch him really hard, and he just stood there and smiled.
Barry remarked that the most surprising Golden Bell moment for him was at the Healing Course in Malaysia when I asked someone to punch Barry, and he didn’t feel anything. Then I asked someone to hit Barry with a stick of sugar cane. Mark Appleford did the hitting. Again, Barry didn’t feel anything and Mark said the stick exploded in his hand with bits of it flying off around the room.
The intriguing part was that Barry had not undergone any formal training of Golden Bell, but had derived the ability to take punches without sustaining injury from our regular internal force training. Many of our instructors have this ability, some without their own knowing. They don’t have to practise stance training for eight hours daily with saliva flowing from their mouth.
It is like breaking bricks. Our instructors and senior students did not specifically train to break bricks. But when they were asked to, they could do so effectively, often to their initial surprise. Breaking bricks and being able to take punches without sustaining injury are an incidental result of, not the initial reason for, our normal training.
It is important to note that our ability to withstand punches and to break bricks is an incidental result of our internal force derived from our training. In other words, we do not purposely train to withstand punches and to break bricks. We train to have good health, vitality, longevity, mental freshness and spiritual joy.
Barry performing a majestic pattern of White Crane Flaps Wings
An unforgettable incident, which had much effect in my healing of other people years later, happened one night when I was alone, as my usual friends for some reasons or others were not around to play. I went out of the New World Park and looked around at a hawker selling a variety of fruits. I had twenty cents in my pocket, given to me by my father. Twenty cents was quite a lot of money at that time, especially for a small boy of eight. One could buy a bowl of noodles, which could fill up one’s stomach as lunch or dinner, with twenty cents.
Although my mother did not know much about science, she was to my young boy’s mind quite a dietician. Like most Chinese, she conveniently classified food into two types – hot food and cold food. Hot food was her favourite, and cold food was strictly forbidden.
“Mama,” sometimes I would beseech, “Can I have a slice of orange, just a slice?”
“Oh no, my dear,” my mother would sweetly persuaded, “Oranges are too cold for you.”
“How about a banana, mama?”
“Bananas are cold too. Fruits are cold food. They will make you sick.”
It is enthralling that now, sixty years later, I can eat bananas like a monkey and drink fresh orange juice like a horse, and become healthier.
So that night I was just curious, besides being tempted to have a taste of the forbidden fruit to find out whether bananas could make me sick. I saw a long, big banana known locally as an elephant’s tusk in a transparent ice box. It was quite expensive, costing 10 cents per banana, compared to a bowl of noodles costing only 20 cents.
Well, ten cents for a taste of a forbidden fruit, I thought, was quite a bargain. So I paid ten cents and had the banana.
It was exquisite and delicious, sweet and fragrant in every bite. It was not only the first time I ate such a sweet and fragrant elephant tusk, it was the first time I ate any fruit. I was discreet enough not to mention this to my parents.
But my secret did not last long. Soon after midnight, I started to have stomach ache. At first, the pain was mild but it quickly became terrible, causing me to roll wildly in bed. I had no choice but to tell my parents about me eating a forbidden fruit. My parents were very caring and loving. Instead of scolding me, they were decisive and acted immediately to ease my pain.
There was no time to take me to see a doctor or to the hospital. Even if they had time, it might not be a right choice. Their method was extraordinary – at least to Westerners, though it was a folk practice amongst the traditional Chinese. My parents had me lie comfortably in bed. Then my mother placed a 20 cents coin on my naval, dropped some wax of a burning candle on the coin, and stood the candle on the flat coin. Then they inverted a small glass over the candle.
My sister, my mother, my father and me in the 1960s