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.