Friday, October 7, 2011

10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

I like this recent post from Brian Clarke on his Copyblogger site:

10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

2.Write more.
3.Write even more.
4.Write even more than that.
5.Write when you don’t want to.
6.Write when you do.
7.Write when you have something to say.
8.Write when you don’t.
9.Write every day.
10.Keep writing.

And I thought there was some pill I could take for that...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Whip Staff

The last few mornings at tai chi training i've been watching the regulars practising the bian gun or whip staff. The bian gun is a 4-foot staff similar to the jo in Japanese Kobudo or weapons system. It essentially is a short staff designed to strike, block, deflect, parry or poke an assailant or to defend against another weapon. These weapons tradionally were originally based upon farming tools in rural China or Japan - say you'd be out in the field hoe-ing and a group of bandits came to steal your harvest (or wife) and the handiest thing to use would guessed it, your hoe! Bandits stealing your harvest may be a thing of the past but tradition is still sacred in some parts of the world so things like the bian gun and other weapon skills are still practised.

The bian gun they practise in the mornings here in Macau is not the same form as above but the music is almost spot on. Enjoy, and think back to your ancestors hoe-ing that field and beating off those bandits...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Standing Steak Method

I've been down to the square in front of the Sintra Hotel twice now to train with Sifu Leung accompanied by the little dynamo Jo, one of the trapeze flyers from ZAiA. His group meet every morning in front of the Sintra at around 7.30am. He began our study by introducing us to standing practise. Sifu Leung explained it is the most basic but most important basic training of tai chi. If you cannot hold your root while standing still how can you hold it when moving? When we're practising zhan zhuang or the standing 'stake' method, we stand directly in front of the Macau Restaurant, staring at its' facade. On the front of the restaurant there are numerous pictures of Macanese style meals the restaurant serves; Portuguese fried rice, baked seafood rice and osso bucco steaks. I've found it difficult standing staring at all that food first thing in the morning. The patrons in the restaurant must have an equally interesting sight looking out the window seeing both Jo and I standing and staring at them in the restaurant.

Yesterday there was a very funny occurrence. A man was watching Jo and I practise for a while and then came over, placed his carry bag down and began doing tai chi right in front of us. Weird. He completed his elaborate from (which happened to be also the Chen style but the competition form) and saluted us. He then loudly proclaimed that 'song' or relaxation is the key, that he has been practising every morning for five years for two hours at a go. His form was punctuated with the trademark Chen family fa jing or bursts of energy. I looked over at Sifu Leung while the man was performing and could see he was getting annoyed. He came over to us and whispered "He's doing it differently. You can see he's not very relaxed. Oh well, too late now, you'll just have to watch him finish". Once completed Leung Sifu came back over with an annoyed tone "They've only been practising for two days. Leave them alone". The tai chi man was rambling on about something, I can't quite remember now. I think it was about him being from Zhejiang province. Sifu Leung didn't back down, something about the tai chi man not being relaxed. Jo and I thought they were going to have a throwdown. The tai chi man grumbled and walked off. We were left to stare back at our steaks on the facade of the Macau Restaurant, wondering if things had tended towards the physical what would have been.

Chen Xiaowang demonstrating proper relaxed Chen style fajing

Friday, August 5, 2011

Taxi Driver

'Alian' may not be Travis Bickle from the movie 'Taxi Driver', but he does drive one of the ubiquitous black taxi's here in Macau - unlike the real 'Taxi Driver' he lets his hands do the talking, or in this case, pushing. I first met Alian soon after I started practising at the park in the mornings. We didn't cross paths often as he started his training late in the mornings, probably because he was out ferrying one of the many casino gamblers to/from their gambling ventures till the wee hours the previous evening. Today was only the second time I got to practise with him but hopefully it is not the last. His skills are different to all the other push hands players in the park but he is also very effective at what he does. Alian uses chin na - 'grasping and seizing' - tied into his push hands seamlessly. But his tenants remain the same - relax and it will come. His hands touch with a feathers' weight when pushing and he uses this method so your opponent 'cannot sense what you are doing'. He also stresses light stepping in pushing hands, much more so than the other adepts in the park. Again his explanation for this is 'if your opponent does not know where your weight is, he cannot detect what you are about to do'.

Chin na - Chinese wrestling

Starting practise with Alian today I was feeling pretty good about myself; we pushed for about 2 minutes with no-one getting the upper hand, or so I thought. Alian then decided to get a bit more serious and proceeded to push me sideways and lock my wrist and elbow without breaking a sweat. The uncanny thing about his method is that he moves ultra slowly and you can actually feel his technique coming but cannot change course - it's like moving in a dream. The other thing I noticed about his push hands is his shoulders, or more specifically, shoulder position. His shoulders feel like immovable boulders and he wields them both effectively aimed in at your midline. Alian is actually shorter than I am (probably only 1.65m) but with his rounded shoulders he feels like a man much bigger in stature.

The weapons rack at Lo Leong

Someone drummed a bit too hard

Tonight I was lucky enough to visit Lo Leong Kung Fu and Lion Dance school in Northern Macau; Macau's biggest and best school. I was introduced by James, one of my old Yaolin kung fu buddies, who is learning the Dragon dance drum while visiting from Singapore. While translating for James I was struck by the parallels between drumming and tai chi - sinking and relaxation are key elements in good drum playing. Like the writer Murakami writes in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running of the similarities in solitude a fiction writer faces as does a marathon runner (Murakami is an avid marathon runner), I was drawn to the same between kung fu drumming and tai chi. The guy teaching James at Lo Leong was strict and would not compromise on style; James has learnt quite a different style of drumming; faster and lighter whereas the teacher was of the older school; strong stances and slower beats.

James playing the drum while carefully being watched

The Lo Leong guys preparing for a competition later this month in Macau

On leaving Lo Leong we grabbed a bite to eat at a restaurant nearby. As I bit into the pepper beef and bitter gourd I thought of the Chinese saying 'chi ku' which directly translates as 'eat bitter'. In English the meaning would be 'hardship' or to 'put up with hardship'. Drumming, tai chi, kung fu, writing or acrobatics - whatever it may be - we all have to eat a little bitter sometimes.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The man who wasn't there

Mr Zhang is a regular down at the park most mornings. Looking at him you wouldn't give him a second glance; skinny, almost gangly to a degree. About 65kgs soaking wet. But he is probably the most skilled push-hands exponent that i've crossed hands with. "Ethereal" comes to mind. He is most skilful at controlling your root so you literally don't have a leg to stand on - he has pushed me off my feet a number of times. Another sensation you get when playing with him is that he's there one minute, and in an instant his hands or arms are gone and you're pushing into thin air. He is also very open with his teaching and is quite unconventional. For one, he doesn't advocate long, extensive practise of forms. One of his mantra is "qing, qing de" which translates as 'lightly'. When asked how he developed this amazing skill he smiles and says "Just relax". I asked him about forms and the style of tai chi he practices and his response was "I don't have much time to practise forms. I just relax". One other noticeable thing about his push hands is that he doesn't use any fancy hand methods or techniques - it's all just push or pull and it's devastatingly effective.

Famous xingyi master Guo Yunsheng and students

This morning I had the opportunity to speak to him at some length about his opinions on relaxation, on fighting and his opinion on internal vs external martial arts. When asked about using his push hands for fighting he replied "You can use the same principles. When you're relaxed you can respond quickly and effectively without any tension in the body". He continued "We practise slowly. See how when I push with you I don't move fast or use many hand techniques, but you can't balance. It's simple. Relax your kua and the rest will follow". In English the translation for kua is most closely the hips or hip crease. It seems my kua are way too tense and tight and is the reason I cannot 'root' to the ground effectively. I could blame genetics but they tell me it isn't so. On forms I asked how many years he has practised and with whom did he learn this from - surely there must have been someone with a white beard who taught him this?? His reply "I haven't been training this for as long as you think. You might think I've had to practise this for many years but not so. Once you have the correct alignments and softness it will come". On teachers: "I've practised under many sifu (master) but not a disciple of anyone. Many teachers would not pass on all their knowledge to their students. But I don't agree with this. I teach everything and anyone".

Wang Xiang Zhai, founder of Yiquan in standing posture

On external vs internal: "In external arts there tends to be a 'one, two' punch (he demonstrates a reverse punch with pullback) but with what we do you can strike or move from any position" (he then demonstrated a palm strike from above his head, from underneath and from the side). I asked if he thought that in both external and internal martial arts if we are trying to reach the same end point, his reply "Yes, I think so. But I think the internal way is faster. You see old kung fu/karate masters and they seem to be more relaxed later in their years - they are using internal power". On health: "By pushing hands it's like receiving a massage; you find your tight points in your body and work on relaxing them. You can cure many things by pushing hands". This was obviously of interest to me considering my line of work. Various bodyworks like yoga and other taoist qigong systems must work in similar ways. He left me with this gem "Look at me. I don't look very strong do I? But can you push me?" I concurred. He then asked me to try to push him while he stood on one leg. I tried but the same thing happened; his soft, springy arms easily countered my pushing. I just scratched my head. He pointed over at a small fern on the ground. "Be like this plant" He pushed the frond and it moved but sprung back to position as he let it go. "Be springy, responsive - be like the fern".

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Humble as Pie - Part II

Yang Cheng Fu, creator of Yang style tai chi

I kept a mini-journal of sorts of my training over the last few weeks. Here are some snippets...

Sat 9 July 2011
8am - I tried to get down earlier today to see what the lay of the land was like.
It was certainly cooler earlier in the morning although the humidity is still ever-present; it was also quieter in the park at that time of the morning. Mr Tang - a locquacious gentleman with silver hair said "Jintian ni lai zenme zao" - today you're here so early! A reference to previous days me coming at 8.30am or later. There were a few men practising I hadn't seen before; some younger men - well, around my age - middle-aged I guess!! Ben suk was there hovering around the guys practising and correcting form as needed. Mr Tang invited me to push hands with him using his broken English. He said to push him as hard as I liked - he evaded me simply as all the others had. Try to relax. Again the tenants were the same "Our tai chi is soft, try not to use force". He said "Ben suk taught us this - you should learn from him" and led me over to him. Uncle Ben again laughed dismissively, with a "Who me?" gesture. He asked me to assume the tai chi posture "Strum the lute" seeing if I remembered his teachings from the day before. I tried to get my root together from the ground, relax into the hips as he pressed into my forearms. He slapped my shoulders "fang song" - Relax!! And I thought I was so relaxed!! I tried to let myself go even more. He said "Look at me, i'm over 70 years old and look at you, you're so young. But still you can't push me". It's not strength - you're stronger than me - it's the qi. It's all about the circle - rounded shoulders from the dantian and hips". He corrected my pelvic tilt to slightly anteriorly tilted; like a small "shime" in Japanese Karate or a very mild hip forward thrust.

Famous Bagua master Fu Chen Sung

Tues 12 July
Today I went again to the park at around 8am. Ben suk, Mr Tang and some other regulars were practising when I arrived. Uncle Ben pointed over at a man seated in one of the chairs and said "Ahh, he is a sifu as well. He is my sifu! I'm a sifu and he is a sifu also. He can speak Mandarin - Go speak to him". I went over to the seated man and introduced myself - he said hello. Mr Tang later explained that Sifu Leung is a famous tai chi sifu in Macau and has many students. He teaches at the Xin li hua jiu dian - Sintra Hotel courtyard every morning. Uncle Ben came over and said for me to demo something for Sifu Leung. I started the Yang 85 form. Sifu Leung and Uncle Ben watched and interspersed in Canto at various things, pointing at my legs and feet. I finished the first section, not a very good demonstration I might add. Sifu Leung said "Ni da de hen bu cuo" which was very flattering - your tai chi is not too bad. He then got up and said "But your legs and feet are not very relaxed". He asked me to demonstrate the pose 'ward off' - I got into stance. He said "See - here - he applied some pressure to my forearm and pushed. I tried to root but was pushed off balance. "You see" he said "Your feet, knees and legs are not relaxed so you have no-where to go". You need to relax each of your joints - straighten the spine and extend from the top of your head. He demonstrated. I tried to push him again but he wasn't there and I pushed myself off balance.

Physical Culture Society, Taiwan circa 1957

Friday 15 July
Pushing today I was eager to show what I had learnt but this only ended up with myself thinking too much and getting too tense. Thus I was pushed around a lot more easily. One of the pointers from today I remember distictly was "Feel as though you are rooting 1-metre below the ground". This visualisation in itself I found gives you a more rooted and stable sensation. Another one was "Feel your qi coming out of your fingertips" This I found harder to visualise. "When pushing with your forward arm in peng (wardoff)use your other arm (while holding your structure) and you will push the person away". Ben suk also today taught "Yi lian - using your "intention" -use your eyes to push past or behind the person". Today they also saw my Taizu long fist form; they asked if I had been training it a long while and that I should try to use more 'soft force' when I do the form to help develop my qi. Another older man invited me to push with him. I found out he was 78-years old but didn't look a day over 60. Age didn't matter in the contest though, as he easily had the better of me over the next five minutes.

Tuesday 19 July 2011
The eureka moment I had today while pushing hands was Ben suk saying "Yong nide dantien he kua an wo, bu yong nide shou" - use your hips and centre to push me, not your hands. Using this method I managed to root slightly better. Another gem he shared was 'Use your middle leg' - less salubrius types might take this meaning somewhat jokingly but his meaning was to feel as you have an extra leg creating stability. He continued "This cannot be learnt over 2 or 3 months - it takes a long time". Probably reference to me seeming overly eager in my training. Finally one of the others came up and said "Mei you mimi" - translating to "There are no secrets". I looked around at the people training, laughing and joking and then down
at my sweaty t-shirt. Considering that only a few weeks ago I was an 'outsider' looking in, and given how open they were in accepting me to their 'group' I tend to believe him.

Fu Chen Sung with bagua broadsword

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Humble as pie

Moving over to Macau has been good to us for many reasons; cheap markets, myself getting fitter by climbing 4 flights of stairs at least twice a day (we now live on the fourth floor, no elevator) and the fact that I've started training martial arts again. There is a park across the road from where we've moved to and in the mornings a number of people gather to practice tai chi, chi kung and other forms of exercise. Over the last few weeks I've been heading there in the mornings to practice on my own. This is something I love about China - you can practice whatever you like anywhere in a park (or elsewhere for that matter) and no-one will bat an eyelid. Back in Australia I would have the police there in a matter of minutes due to public disturbance.

San Franciso gardens - you can actually see someone practising in the bottom right corner

San Francisco gardens are reportedly Macau's oldest garden and centrally located right behind the Grand Lisboa casino. The garden has grand old trees - Jacaranda, Mango (!) - which provide ample shade in the stinking Macau summer. Yesterday another man I had met and was training with told me to come earlier the next day and now I know why. I was going at about 8.45am the last few mornings but today I went at about 8am. A few people were there I didn't recognize and they were all doing push hands. Push hands are a kind of stand-up wrestling exercise central to the practise of the Chinese internal martial arts of Tai chi, Bagua and Xingyi.

I warmed up by myself, went over towards them and hovered - the eldest gentlemen looked over at me and then turned to his group and said something along the lines of "he wants to join, invite him over!". I said hello to one of the gentlemen from a few days previous that had invited me over. I pushed hands with a younger guy there who was very patient with me, push hands not being something i'm very familiar with. I said in mandarin "I don't really know how to do this" and he replied "no problem, just try". He pushed me around pretty easily and they kept commenting about my lack of centre and embarrassing.

I then pushed with an older man who was a bit more aggressive and pushed me around like a rag doll, commenting once again how I had "no centre, no root". An older man approached saying "Our tai chi, we don't use force. Our master taught us this way - he pointed to the older, frail looking man who had initially called me out. They called him "Ben suk" - kind of like "Uncle Ben" - he introduced me saying I wanted to learn their "zhongding" which translates as 'central equilibrium'. The older man joked that he couldn't speak Mandarin, only Cantonese - I replied "it's ok, I will try to understand". Over the next ten minutes he proceded to profoundly show me what his training is all about; learning this 'equilibrium' - he asked me to pick a posture from bagua (I had come to be known as the bagua guy with no centre...sorry my bagua brothers!!). The first morning I had been invited over one of them said to me "hen hao kan, buhao yong; buhao kan, hen hao yong" - "your gong fu looks really good but is of no use; our gong fu looks really bad but has use".

Famous Internal arts master, Wang Shu Jin, practising his root

I assumed the front-on guard position from bagua; he pressed into my hands and I felt resistance and myself tighten up - he said just 'relax'. He asked me to try on him...he held his hands up and I pushed into them. They initially felt very soft, relaxed. "An wo" - "push me" he said in Mandarin; his Mandarin turned out to be very good. As I exerted more force there was this hardness in his arms that felt like it was coming from the centre of his body and I couldn't push him, as hard as I tried. He then gave me a little push and I was pushed off balance. He gave me a smile as I laughed - this old guy was the real deal! (I later found out that Uncle Ben is 76 years old). He said "The power doesn't come from your arms - all your strength is coming from your arms - it comes from here (pointing to the dantien - a point just below the navel) and this transmits to the ground and then returns into your arm". He continued "But you should also focus with your eyes, and extend through the top of the crown of your head, pushing straight down your spine into the floor through the soles of both feet. Also your other hand - even though it is not in contact with anything - you should be focusing your energy through the other hand, out the finger tips. Your eyes should look past where you want to push - and relax your arms". This was going to be hard to remember I thought to myself...

Hung I Hsiang, of Taiwan, practising with a student

I tried again - he pushed into my forearms while I held the 'tree hugging' position. He said "Don't use force - fang song - relax". I concentrated, focused on my dantien and rooting into the ground - and he tried to push my arms - this time he said 'Ah, yes, a bit better..". In my 10 years plus of martial arts training this really felt like a 'eureka' type moment. By the time we finished 30 minutes later I was dripping in sweat; when it's 32 degrees and 94% humidity at 9am it doesn't take very long. "Man man lai" he told me as we were leaving, roughly translating to "It takes time". And with any great endeavour, to get to the end point (whatever that may be) we will learn along the way. To be continued...

Friday, May 20, 2011

Video-mapping the Ruins of St Paul's

Geez it's been a long time since i've done this. I've started various blog posts over the last few months but just haven't been happy with what i've written. Think of the last few months as a sabbatical of sorts. I'm hoping to get back on the blog-wagon in a big way and we've got a lot of exciting things coming up over the next few months - moving apartments, going to Singapore for my brother's wedding in July and relaunch of the show. So to start with, here's some video of an excellent show we saw a few nights ago for the Macau Arts Festival - video-mapping the iconic Ruins of St Paul's in central Macau.