I started Tai Chi classes with Steve and Fleur at their Thursday afternoon session in Sutton Coldfield, in October 2014. But that isn’t really where my story begins.
It really began back in 1981 when I came across an advert for a local Tai Chi demonstration, in Sutton. I had long had a fascination with martial arts, but had never got as far as physically partaking. I guess I didn’t fancy the idea of getting hurt but when I saw the demonstration I became really interested and decided to ‘give it a go’.
I found myself practising, in Sutton Coldfield, ‘The Original Yang Style’ under the tutelage of a senior student of Master Chu King Hung who ran The International Tai Chi Chuan Association, based in London. Chu was born in China and moved to Hong Kong by the time he was 12 years of age. It was there that he met and became the student of Master Yang Shou-chung, the son of the famous master, Yang Chengfu. A student-master relationship that would last for over 25 years right up to Shou-chung’s death in 1985.
Twice a year Master Chu would come up from London to run two-day workshops, and, on one occasion, we all went down there. He was a short but very powerful guy who would delight in showing us his ‘special powers’. The one I most remember was when he had eight of the biggest men from our class line up behind, and pushing on, each other. Chu stood at the front of the line and asked the lead man to press with both hands on his forearm which was in a Ward-Off position. Then, with hardly any movement at all he sent the whole line of men sliding backwards along a carpeted floor, most falling over from the force. I have found a video on YouTube of a now elderly Chu demonstrating, in 2007, the very things I have described above, with 11 men https://youtu.be/qIy9_VeUcpc (from about three minutes 40 seconds in). In this video notice how he applies the Yang Chengfu principle of coordinating the body to be Rooted in the Feet, Powered by the Legs, Controlled by the Waist and Expressed in the Hands.
Chu told us a story of his younger days when he was one of a group of students with Yang and the master was lying down for a rest, eyes closed. The students decided to play a trick on the old man by showering him with grains of rice. According to Chu the rice never landed but went pinging off in all directions, powered by the chi forces emanating from the recumbent subject! Chu also had a principle of self-defence that he always taught us in that the space between your hands, arms and body is your ‘private garden’ and you should never let anybody into it.
My current teacher at Central Tai Chi is Steve Jones whose late mentor, Erle Montaigue, had also studied under Master Chu. On looking back, I tend to agree with Erle’s opinion that Chu was a tad aggressive. For example, in his classes he would pick on certain individuals to try to hit him, and hard. You knew what was going to happen as he would block your attack in a most excruciatingly painful way. This lead to people all trying to get behind someone else when you sensed he was coming your way!
Back in the 80’s in Sutton Coldfield, at our weekly classes, we all wore smart black and white Chinese uniforms with Yin Yang cloth badges sewn on them. Being, obviously, a good deal younger than now it took me about six months to learn the basic moves and sequence of the complete form. Apart from the form we also used to start each session with static, chi kung, postures, whereby we would adopt a slightly bent-knees posture with arms held out in front at various angles, for at least 10 minutes and sometimes much longer. Initially this was not my favourite part of the lesson but it gradually became easier and strangely invigorating.
Such was my keenness in those days that I went on a number of day courses in London with other teachers, namely Bruce Frantzis and Dan Docherty .They were two quite different characters, like the Yin and Yang of Tai Chi. Bruce was by far the more gentle and, to quote from his website, “the heart of his tradition is the cultivation of chi, the internal energy that connects the mind, body and spirit to the underlying consciousness of the universe”.
Dan was more the martial artist and had won prestigious full-contact fighting competitions in Hong Kong where he had been in the police force when it was under British rule. In his class he had one of his regular students climb up to stand on the shoulders of two other students. Another, well trained, student lay face up on the floor and then the one who had climbed up jumped down on to his stomach. As Dan explained, this could potentially kill the untrained person but he offered to teach us how to survive such a blow. I was interested until I learned how much it would cost!
The path that led me to Dan Docherty’s school in London is worth telling here. I was going to Hong Kong for a week in 1985 to attend a conference connected to my profession. I was struck by the thought that it might be enlightening to attend a Tai Chi school whilst over there. But how to find one? (this was in the days before websites). All I could find was the telephone number for the Hong Kong Chinese Martial Arts Association. Well, I wrote a letter to that phone number in Hong Kong, posted it and got a reply!! In it I was instructed to go to a particular station so many stops along the underground railway then make my way to street address number 7. I emerged from the station to find myself in a completely alien place with no sign of any recognisable lettering, and not even sure of which of three streets to go along. I took a gamble and chose one to find the number 7 displayed above a narrow passageway between two shops. Along there I came to a small cubicle from which a local man popped up. With neither speaking each other’s language I showed him the letterhead I had, in Chinese, and he beckoned me to follow him. By now I was becoming a little apprehensive with visions of Triads or the like chasing through my imagination.
I was led into a lift which was barely big enough for one, let alone the two of us, and up we went – to who knows where. But I lived to tell the tale. He took me onto the flat roof of the twelve story building I had entered and lo and behold, there was a tai chi class taking place. Once I had got over the shock I introduced myself to the only English speaking chap there who turned out to be the one who had written the letter. He told me he was Chi Kin the number one student of Master Cheng Tin-hung, who lived on the floor below and who would pop up later to see how the class was performing. I spent an hour or so pushing hands with another guy, which was a bit disconcerting as the wall around the roof was only about two feet high. I also learned that this was the road where Bruce Lee was brought up (worth going just to find that out).
Then Master Cheng made his appearance and in a rather nonchalant manner surveyed his charges. Then, as the class disbanded, through Chi Kin’s interpreting I was surprised to be invited down into the master’s flat. This was one of life’s unforgettable episodes. Cheng related to me no end of folklore tales of martial arts history, plied me with numerous beers and then suggested I buy his book which he would sign, an offer I was in no position to refuse! A wonderful experience though. Before I left I was informed that Cheng and Chi Kin were coming to London not long after to hold a course at his other number one student’s premises. He happened to be Dan Docherty.
Back in Sutton Coldfield it became apparent that our local teacher was experiencing an epiphany. He had rented a large hall where we were expecting to meet with Master Chu again. But there was no sign of the great man. Our teacher then told us that he had split with Chu and would now be teaching a style that had its origins in English pugilism and that he was calling ‘Olde English Fisticuffs’. I must confess that I had no idea what he was on about and, along with most of the others there decided that our time under his leadership had come to an end. One of the students more senior to me tried to make a go of keeping some of us from the Sutton Coldfield area together under his wing but that, too, fizzled out in 1986 when he started throwing temper tantrums when we didn’t do exactly as he wanted!
And so to 2014 and how I wish I had tried to keep going with Tai Chi instead of letting all those years of practice go to waste. It only took another 28 years to find Steve Jones on the internet. I went along thinking that re-learning the Form would be a doddle. it was, after all, the same Yang style, and all those moves would be still there ingrained in my subconscious. How wrong could I be. After a year (October 2015) I had made it to half way into the second part of the three-part Form. Whilst I had some memory of most of the moves I had no idea of the order they came in. It had to be the effects of the ageing brain that had stunted my expected progress.
What I can say is that I learned more about the theory and finer points of Tai Chi and chi kung from Steve and Fleur than I ever did from my previous participation. If you are reading this and thinking that you’ll never make it to the end of the form, all I can say is don’t give up. I DID get there. It took me a lot longer than it did 30-odd years ago but aren’t we supposed to take life a little slower and be more patient as we grow older? Gracefully.