Thursday 12 December 2013

A Brown Belt Affair

In the last four years since the release of Ip Man the movie starring Donnie Yen, there has been a slew of Ip Man biopics. There's even an inane one called I Love Wing Chun produced jointly by HK and Malaysian investors. It was so bad one critic said it made previously bad films look good. The only saving grace, according to him, were the hilarious but bad subtitles.

Nevertheless, all Wing Chun movies remind me of my own kungfu past. I did not take up anything fancy... just karate-do. 

I don't remember exactly why I took up the sport. It was probably my dad's idea so I could beef up a little. As a kid, I was skinny and light as a feather (not bone-heavy at all). Kungfu or any form of martial arts, my parents felt, would give me better 'chi' and a certain gravitas. If not, at least quicker reflexes. 

I was skeptical I would ever become a good fighter as my wrists were skinny and looked weak. But I played badminton well with them.

However, I also often imagined breaking my wrists like chopsticks if I should ever block a blow. Just as I would never be able to spar with my bare hands the way Jackie Chan does in his kungfu films with that wooden sparring dummy with the arm spindles.

Another reason for taking up martial arts could be that it was a new thing then. Community centres back in the '70s encouraged it. I still remember the green forms I took from a CC admin counter to fill up. That CC was at the corner of Blk 18, Marsiling Lane - a simple louvre-windowed hall with a small office inside, unlike the country club setups of today. We neighbourhood boys would hang out at this only CC to play carom, ping pong and watch communal TV, especially during the weekends when school was out.

At the time, martial arts was considered a weapon and all practitioners had to register with some government agency. How efficient (or kiasu) they must be to even want to monitor folks with such deadly skills! I mean a karate chop can break a man's neck, right?

We kids grew up with a lot of kungfu movies in the 60s and 70s and would secretly wish to acquire some if not all those skills. Well, actually one main skill in particular.

It was the "heng-gong" (Cantonese) or lightness skill. 

In Chinese mythology, this skill is about leaping up imposing cliffs or chasing each other over rooftops and tree-tops like in that Lee Ang movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And why that one scene in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle movie is so poignant for me. The one with the small boy wanting to buy a secret kungfu manual from a faux beggar monk. It is so true to our own boyhood dreams that it touched a nostalgic nerve afterwards. 

Further more, there was also that familiar Cantonese orchestra tune that accompanied most celestial-themed kungfu movies in the 60s, movies such as yu loy sun jeong or The Heavenly Palm Technique.

We (in any case, I) had learnt - mostly through movies or stories heard over Rediffusion - that to achieve henggong, one must practice qi or internal strength - the kind of breathing exercises that taichi made popular. In addition, one must lead a pure and virtuous life so as to be clean in both spirit and body. Apparently, being a vegan helps. 

In kungfu movies, you seldom see a fat-ass person leap tall buildings and cliffs. They often ride a horse or donkey. Or be all pedestrian and go about on foot. So, are kungfu and that lightness skill only for the lithe and agile?

Well, I did eat my fair share of veggies to achieve henggong. But my mom's pork-rib-lotus-root-black-bean soup was most times too irresistable. I kind of became a "gao yoke wo seong" or Dog Meat Monk. A less than pious worshipper!

So I tried to be virtuous in spirit as much as possible. The thing which made that difficult was a girl in secondary school who kept pulling my hormones this way and that like a chick magnet. At one time my qi actually went south, telling me it is possible to have a member of my body go hard as bamboo. Well, almost. It went away as quickly as it came - unless the girl in question was still around. Then my "hardness kungfu" lasted a little while longer, much to my embarrassment. Instead of henggong. I had mustered up teenage hormones!

In any case I tried my darnest in the breathing exercises. At one stage, I thought I had succeeded, somewhat able to leap onto a chair. A solid teak table was next. Then a boulder. We had quite a few of those along Marsiling Drive where I had spent my teenage years, and where the first roadside bus terminus was in that new housing estate. The terminus was next to some remainder rubber trees whose seeds we would pick up and rub on concrete floors to make pain on someone's arm! Try it. It works everytime!

It was only when I started my karate-do classes that I realised that qigong was not necessary. In karate or karate-do (a sort of combination of karate and taekwondo), a good stance is more important. You will need that stability to execute a punch, connect a kick and withdraw a limb in quick time. When you throw a kick, it is better to be quick. Getting your foot or leg caught by an opponent is a major no-no. You can get your knee busted or your family jewels pummelled!

So, one has to be solid and not fall over easily. I mean what good is a martial arts exponent if he is an easy pushover literally? Not good, I would imagine.

Karate-do and most other Japanese martial arts were considered 'hard' back then. Only aikido was thought of as 'soft' with its many limb twists and bends. I found it at times ridiculous! Should I ask my opponent to stand still?

I saw most aikido practitioners as sadists. They liked to bend and twist an opponent's fingers and wrists to submission. A female cousin of mine went to learn. She came back soon after with a sprained wrist. After that it was a twisted ankle. My aunty expressed serious concern (i.e. nagged) and my cousin decided to give up after that. What's the point of injuring yourself learning?

But I found aikido to be like judo with a bit of edge.

I remember this one story that circulated as true back then. A story about a aikido master who managed to singlehandedly dispatch 10 gangsters in a backalley. I dunno. Was the story made-up to popularise the martial art?

Come to think of it, moves in aikido are very similar to those in Wing Chun. You know, those quick action punches and blocks made popular by Ip Man. But unlike Wing Chun (which is more defensive) aikido could leave someone very badly hurt. 

During my youth, aikido was new and favoured by the ladies as it was considered a soft martial art. There are simple moves to disable an assailant, moves such as pinching of the thumb, striking the nerve points, backheeling the crotch, high-heeling and backstabbing the top of the foot.

After I picked up karate-do, I started reading up on judo too. 

I liked the way the judo fellas could roll on a concrete floor without getting hurt, so I taught myself that. It took some courage to translate a book paragraph of action into actual practice, i.e. throwing oneself on the floor. You have to tuck in your chin and then roll forward with a somewhat stiffened and arched arm. I remember I got it right the very first time. But it took courage to launch yourself on a hard concrete floor. It's against instinct!

That judo book was a small slim one with a pink-purple outline on its cover. It was part of a self-defense series. I had bought it from a neighbourhood bookstore in the estate where I lived.

In school, I found schoolmate SK (a neighbour and scout) a kindred spirit. We would spar behind the boys' toilet just outside where the scout den was. We stopped after a while as we would really hurt each other. And SK was a year older and more muscular. I was in many ways not suitably matched. But the experience taught me that fighting is really a scary and lethal experience. And I guess why kungfu masters always tell their charges that it is better to 'ren' - tolerate - walk away from a fight than engage in one. It is just too easy to kill someone with a well-aimed punch or kick. There's no undo button like in some video game.

A pal of mine in secondary school was Peter. He had a shocking head of auburn hair and was rather fair/pinkish. In any case, he and Henry from Mandai were the two tallest chaps of our school cohort. (Peter also introduced me to Vitalis, a hairstyling lotion vital to keeping his stubborn hair in place!)

I don't precisely remember how Peter and I ended up learning Karate-do together - we probably had a discussion and signed up. Our lessons started at the old YMCA premises along Stevens Road near the old Equatorial Hotel. Back then, it was just a large Chinese bungalow with an open front courtyard.

Donning our karate gi (training robes), we soon learnt why Karate-do was different from the organic Karate. We used our legs more as in Taekwondo - why I supposed the name has a 'do' in it. How did it come about? Probably someone got kicked in the balls and went "doh!" like Homer Simpson, heheh.

During our first few classes, if we thought we were going to learn killer moves soon, that wistful thinking was soon lasi to rest. We spent the better part of the morning - 8.00am to 9.30am - just doing warm-up exercises.

Those warm-up exercises were not simple at all. In fact they were downright tiring and excruciating. It was like being tortured during NS BMT bayonet lesson time. Peter and I wanted to give up after the very first session.

Imagine this: One particular exercise required us to sit with the soles of our feet touching and then the knees pressed down to touch the floor. It was the Lotus Position without crossing the legs. Sounds reasonable, but wait. I discovered that I couldn't do this exercise at all. 

My knees would hover a few inches above ground like opposing magnets. Our instructor Steven was not amused and thought he could simply press my knees down, which he did. Imagine the pain!

"Ow, ow, ow!" was my instant reply, tears forming involuntarily in the eyes. I felt as if someone was deliberately trying to break my hip and adjoining sinews.

Our instructor Steven was a nice but tough-looking Chinese chap. He was in his early 40s. Like any karate practitioner worth his salt, he had fearsome misshapened kunckles from trying to punch-break one too many wooden board and brick.

But Steven, despite his age, was very nimble. Besides being able to do what I couldn't, he could even do a full leg-split. It left us kids all in awe and wonderment. How could a man his age do what we youngsters could not?

That inspired me to put in more effort into learning Karate-do, which was weird now that I think about it. Being able to do the full-split was not the killer move I had signed up to learn, right? Isn't that for dancers? Folks in girly tights and tutus?

Was I supposed to laugh maniacally at my enemies and go: "Let me kill you with my double split, BWAHAHAHA!" I was certainly no action-man like Van Damm!

In any case, the warm-ups also consisted of much stretching and one-leg kicking. The latter was the worst exercise of the lot. It consisted of standing on one leg and snap-kicking out with the other (like kicking out at someone's groin). We would do many repetitions. As a result cramps set in in either leg. What a crappy way to learn a martial art was what Peter and I thought.

The other tiring warm-up exercise was the double punch. A quick succession with the left and right fists.

At the time, I tired easily as I was very skinny. I had little muscle and no fat at all. But I had good endurance (which is bad). Peter was better built but not by much. He was tall and ungainly and would soon tire out too (at least I had some benefit from my school team badminton training!)

Then there were the more complicated moves like stepping forward and kicking and punching. And then the return to the 'ready' position fists upturned, elbows tucked in.

For a while after we joined the Karate-do class, Peter and I wondered if we would learn real self-defence moves. We got disillusioned with all those punishing warm-up exercises.

Then one day, out of the blue, we were taught a block-grab-and-thrust move. Wow, now we are talking! The move our instructor Steven taught was a block and grab technique to pull an assailant forward so as to destabilise and then punch him again. Wow, a complex kungfu move finally!

From then on, we learnt more, even using our knees to block and side-swipe an attack. That's the essence of karate-do: Start with defence and then attack.


In any martial art, using the legs is very effective. It is only common sense coz legs got better reach. It is something preached and encouraged by the late Bruce Lee himself, why his Jeet Kune Do is quite similar to karate-do but only faster and even deadlier. 

JKD's counter-moves are lightning fast and meant to hurt pressure sensitive points on our bodies and limbs. I now wonder if "jeet" is the Cantonese word for 'merciless'.

Our karate-do instructor Steven actually told us the leg-to-fist action ratio should be 70-30. When we fight, we are supposed to use 70% leg action. I think taekwondo is the same but with less arm action, why I liked karate-do more.

Haha, I think Wing Chun is the opposite: 30-70 ratio. After all, it is a martial art form that evolved from women fighting - all that cat-paw slapping and hair-pulling sort. Alamak, where got kick? (*pun intended, haha).

From single blocks and counter punches, our karate-do lessons progressed on to doing sets or kata. These were movements performed in ordered patterns, just like in Line Dancing actually!

The kata was more performance than actual sparring. There was single-person kata and a four-person kata that started with four practitioners with their backs to each other.

I still remember one such kata set-peice. Four would start in the middle of the mat, kick and punch to the four corners and then return to their original positions. 

Besides grade promotion, katas were used and judged at competitions then and perhaps even now. The most aggressive and synchronised set-piece would win. Because I was skinny and had a smiley face, it was hard to convince the judges that I was serious about my art. At each grading session I would worry if I would ever pass a grade. There was no fun in repeating a class. It felt like being retained in school. Rather dumb.


Like all beginners, Peter and I started off with a White belt. After a few months, we graduated to Yellow. The next color was Red, then Green, Blue and then Purple. We were learning Brown Belt when we eventually stopped. That was the stage before the awe-inspiring Black Belt. In many instances I was double-promoted and would skip some colors. Peter was the same. But we both stopped at Brown. It had taken us four years to earn all those color belts.

For a while, I kept all my karate-do stuff in my mother's carved "loong" (Cantonese for wooden chest). I later gave them all away. No point in keeping white stuff that turned spotty and yellow over time.

Note: In karate and karate-do, practitioners do not stop at Black Belt. They would move on to achieving "dans", i.e. 1st Dan, 2nd Dan, etc. At each level of dan, there would be a weapon to learn. Weapons like the double sword (sai), stool-leg (tonfa), red spear, nunchukas, etc. One time, instructor Steven went for his dan upgrade. He came back to class with a black eye. He was using a nunchuka weapon then. We wondered if he hit himself or got hurt sparring.

Actually, Peter and I would have carried on learning karate-do if we were allowed to exit the Kids' group and join the Adults. But we were deemd too young. The Adult group started at age 18.

At 16, we were physically the biggest kids in the group (Peter was even taller). There was no one else to spar with but ourselves. 

As friends, Peter and I disliked fighting or sparring with one another. The sessions often left a bad feeling afterwards no matter what, why we asked to switch to the Adult section. But it was not meant to be.


From Stevens Road, the YMCA moved premise to Prince Edward Road in the Tanjong Pagar area... to where the old Singapore Polytechnic used to be. For me, this new location was madness to travel to as I was still staying up at Singapore's North, right next to JB! Every Sunday morning I had to wake up super early to make that long bus commute. It was very tiring and extremely hard on the backside. I still remember Trans Island bus service 180 that took me from one end of Singapore to the next, cutting through the North-South divide of the island. That journey was so long that 'chong' (boils) would develop on my backside from sitting down too long on those impermeable vinyl bus seats.

At times I would meet up with Peter along Thomson Road (his home at Lakeview) just to change the routine and give my backside a break!

So, in a way I was glad that Peter and I couldn't continue with those karate-do lessons. I could once again sleep in on a Sunday morning!


You might ask how I benefited from all these karate-do and judo (book) lessons? 

Well, for one thing, I thought I could skip Taekwondo classes during National Service. But no. Like the rest, I had to go through the same darn PT routine.

I know I learned discipline doing the karate-do katas. Ok, it was no diferent from learning drill during secondary school NPCC but martial arts and self-defence in general are just that: It gave me the skills to protect myself in instances of unarmed combat. I especially liked the knife disabling moves that that little Judo book taught me. I learned not to be afraid of close-quarter combat, like what happens in Wing Chun sparring.

There were also other quick disabling moves I learned, stuff that were so simple even a skinny girl could execute them. Life-saving moves such as squeezing of the thumb (bending at the joints to hurt); stamping the foot with shoe heels; a quick chop to the throat, etc. 

The best move for a girl when a guy holds you in a bear hug? Cup your hands and slam them onto his ears. That will cause a minor concussion. Or dig your nails into his eyes. Hey, it could be your life at stake so fight like a caged animal and use whatever necessary means at your disposal!

And unlike in the movies, once your assailant is down, beat the hell out of him until he is unable to get up. Don't give a chance. Go for the groin, nose, throat, knees, etc. Any place that is sensitive to hurt. Side of the head. Look around for a weapon. Don't be passive.

Other things I learned in that Judo book? Use your keys like claws (by sticking them between your fingers). Or swing your trusty handbag. If yours has a metal hinge, the better it will hurt your assailant. And did you know that someone recently launched an Apple iPhone case with a built-in pepper spray? But that kind of chemical defence can work against you, so just clench your fists and throw a punch!


In the end, even though I did not learn "heng gong" (levitation skill), I learned quite a bit about martial arts. And I managed to teach some self-defence moves to my five sisters. So, all in all, the effort was not a total waste even if the travel and journey to that YMCA dojo was tough. My backside did develop minor boils a few times on those long journeys. I had to use "pak york go" (Nixoderm cream) to cure each time. Nix cream was very effective indeed!

And I really liked that trick of rolling on the concrete floor and not hurting myself. It is actually what stuntmen do when they fall out of cars, leap from a high floor to land, etc, etc.

Yup, I cycle a lot. I imagine using that same technique should I get knocked to the floor of the road and rolling away to safety. Well, at least I got something up my sleeve, heheh.

Next story: Mt Kinabalu 1

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