Click here for news, upcoming events, workshops & special announcements.
Click here for various original articles pertaining to kung-fu, Tai Chi Chuan, the Northern Shaolin/Praying Mantis Kung-Fu System, the Association and related items.
A Brief History Of Kung-Fu In America
Kung-fu, a.k.a. gung-fu (pronounced KONG-FOO or GONG-FOO), literally means "mastery of a skill achieved through hard work and practice" or "achievement of man". Kung-fu is a popular word often used to describe the majority of Chinese martial arts, particularly in the West.
While kung-fu is conceivably 2,000 years-old, its migration to the West was comparatively slower than other younger martial arts such as Judo, Jujutsu, or karate. It is believed that kung-fu first came to the United States in 1848, with the first Chinese people who were imported as laborers during the Gold Rush period. Kung-fu was an integral part of the lifestyle of Chinese labor camps and mining towns, although it was only taught and practiced among privileged Chinese. Activity increased dramatically in 1863 with the importation of Chinese laborers to work on the Central Pacific Railroad. The center of Chinese migration was San Francisco, which still boasts well over 100,000 Chinese-Americans within the city.
While it cannot be confirmed as to which styles first migrated to California, the majority of them were likely Southern styles that were prevalent in the Shanghai and Kwangchow regions of China during this period. Along with these Chinese immigrants came the Chinese Benevolent Associations, first appearing in the form of "traveler's aid societies" - then in the form of tong brotherhoods, which were overseas extensions of the old country criminal secret societies. Scholars - along with many of the older generation of kung-fu masters - have theorized that kung-fu came to North America with the tongs. Within the tong factions, bitter conflict over who would control the territory, opium trade, gambling, prostitution, and the like was commonplace. The results were the notorious Tong Wars between the rival societies, which did not completely end until 1921, though the fires and destruction caused by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 quelled much of the tong violence. These internecine wars were fought by the hatchet men (or highbinders), paid soldiers and assassins, some of whom were former professional military men. They used hatchets and meat cleavers to slay their targets. Some were also allegedly skilled at kung-fu, as well as the art of "pin-blowing" and throwing lethal razor sharp coins, which were makeshift versions of Sau-Lei-Gim.
Later, these hatchet men remained in the U.S. and made their livelihood as a secretive group. It is difficult to accurately trace the early practice of kung-fu in the United States outside of these Chinese Benevolent Associations and societies that sponsored kung-fu instruction.
While there is evidence of Tai Chi being practiced in Honolulu, Hawaii in the 1930s, non-Chinese were excluded from any instruction. Early kung-fu schools in America perpetuated the secret society mystique. Few people, even Chinese, were allowed to study the art. As time passed, however, the strict tenets eased and kung-fu gradually emerged.
Grandmaster Ark Yuey-Wong was likely the first to teach kung-fu to non-Chinese in the United States. Ark Wong opened a Chinese herb shop and kung-fu school in 1934 in Los Angeles' Chinatown. At that time, however, he only taught to Chinese students. It wasn't until 1959 when he began to teach non-Chinese at a different location in Chinatown. Tai Chi was first taught to non-Chinese in 1957 by Wu stylist Tinn Chan Lee in Honolulu, Hawaii.
In 1961, James Wing Woo began teaching Tai Chi and Southern-style kung-fu in Hollywood, California. San Soo instructor Jimmy H. Woo reportedly began teaching in 1962 at his first school in El Monte, California. Choy Li Fut master Lau Bun was teaching his art as early as the late-'30s in Los Angeles, but he didn't begin teaching non-Chinese students until the mid-1960s.
Our Great-Grandmaster Wong Jack Man opened his doors to non-Chinese students in 1964. That same year, Bruce Lee opened his gym in Oakland, CA and taught classes to all races and genders. Doo Wai began teaching White Eyebrow and White Tiger kung-fu in Los Angeles around this time as well. Grandmaster Paul Eng began teaching Fu-Jow Pai and various Southern styles to non-Chinese in San Jose, CA, while back in New York, his brother Wai Hong began teaching Fu-Jow Pai to non-Chinese around 1965.
At the same time, our Grandmaster Liang Kam Yuen introduced non-Chinese students in California to the Seven-Star and Tai Chi Praying Mantis styles. He also taught them Northern Shaolin, 18 Law Horn and various Internal styles. San Francisco Hung Gar exponent Y.C. Wong started teaching non-Chinese in 1966, while San Francisco Seven-Star Praying Mantis instructor Brendan Lai began taking non-Chinese students in 1967. New York's Alan Lee began teaching Northern and Southern styles of kung-fu in 1967 as well. Other styles that soon followed include Tibetan White Crane and Wing Chun.
In 1969, with the support of grandmasters Paul Eng and Kwok Jone Wong, our Grandmaster Liang Kam Yuen founded the Tai Mantis Kung-Fu Association in Southern California.
So...what exactly is "traditional kung-fu"?
Traditional kung-fu is a term that generally refers to Chinese martial arts developed before the advent of the modern age in China. Traditional or "classical" kung-fu should not to be confused with modern, post-1949, wu shu or competitive sport fighting such as Sanshou; nor should it be confused with Chinese martial arts styles developed after the 1920s.
The Association instructs the Northern Shaolin/Praying Mantis Kung-Fu System, which is comprised of several traditional, complete styles of Chinese martial arts.
A Basic Guide To Choosing A Traditional Martial Arts School
It should be noted that a great deal of this guide is either inspired by - or directly extracted from - the words and advice of Sigung Liang Kam Yuen (Michael Dawson's primary teacher). While this guide applies to traditional martial arts, much of it may also be applied to non-traditional, eclectic martial art schools or training facilities. Before setting out in search of martial schools/instructors, ask yourself what your needs are, with regards to taking martial art classes. What aspect(s) of the martial arts are you interested in the most? Are you interested in the health and fitness aspects? Improving the inner self? Increasing confidence? Building discipline? Enhancing mind-body communications? Learning self-defense? Becoming the next Hollywood action star? Perhaps it's a little bit of everything. The right martial arts school for you must yield the benefits that YOU are looking for. Never allow any instructor to tell you what sort of benefits that YOU require. Only you can determine that for yourself. Choose the school/teacher that most appeals to your needs.
1) Once you've located all of the available schools in your area, see if you can observe or even participate in a few classes. Many schools offer at least one free trial lesson before you have to commit to signing up. Observe the quality of instruction. Compare the teaching methods of each instructor. Observe how the classes are taught and structured. Observe the class discipline and the respect each student gives the instructor. Examine what it costs, including your traveling time and distance to and from the school, but don't allow these factors to become the bottom line in determining your choice of instructor or school. It's what happens in class that really counts.
2) If possible, try to participate in or observe classes more than once. You'll be better able to evaluate the effectiveness and emphasis of instruction and the characteristics of the style being taught. Does the instructor engage the class to discuss or ask questions about their training? Does the instructor effectively answer questions from students? Does the class emphasize total development of the participant? Are speed, flexibility, strength, coordination, alertness and flowing movements placed into a pattern of training that suits your individual needs? Do they assure your progress? Is there a balance of body conditioning and form work as well as instruction on techniques/self-defense applications? Is step-sparring and/or free-sparring a part of the school's curriculum? For at least intermediate-advanced students, form work and sparring should be equally emphasized in a traditional school.
3) Instruction should also stress flexibility and fluidity of movement. Instruction should not be a study of street fighting techniques, nor should it be an exercise of techniques executed from a stationary position, with little movement or footwork.
4) Avoid committing to schools professing to teach "all styles". One or two forms, or a group of stand-alone techniques do not constitute a style. Numerous hand and weapons forms do. Examine the instructor's background, the legitimacy of his style, and the affiliation of his organization. Does he have any sort of lineage? Who were his teachers? How long has he been studying/training? Does he appear knowledgeable in his martial art style? These are all valid questions, and should not insult the instructor, if they are asked with genuine respect. Seek a dedicated, qualified, master-level instructor. Avoid individuals who quickly attained their "mastery", or those with piecemeal experience from a laundry list of styles. Avoid outright accepting any vague claims of high ranks with such grand titles as "professor", "doctor", "grandmaster", "founder", or sole instructor of a new system or obscure style from mysterious origins. It should be pointed out that true grandmasters of traditional martial arts are not as common or easy to find, especially in this day and age. They aren't typically under 60 years-old either, although the age or venerability of a teacher should never be a factor when determining the validity of their title, rank, experience, or skill. Race and gender should certainly never be a factor either.
Beware the master who claims to be from an underground secret society or the graduate of an untraceable monastery. Steer clear of the teacher whose only claim is having learned exclusively from ancestors who are unknown in the martial arts. Regard as hearsay accounts you may have heard or read about an instructor's spectacular feats or abilities. Check these things out. Keep in mind that things like multiple black belts/sashes, world championship titles (you'd be surprised at just how many "world championships" and "world champions" there are out there), trophies, ribbons, plaques, certificates, awards and the like may be legitimate, but all of these things matter little compared to what the instructor can personally do for you as a teacher. Is the instructor still active in the martial arts? Does he appear healthy for his age? Is he able to physically demonstrate form and technique for students? Be skeptical of overweight and out-of-shape instructors whose obesity indicates lack of discipline, laziness, and general disregard for the art. These may be the ones that teach Internal development, shortcuts and quick results, and "scientific improvements", yet neglect body conditioning. Again, while all of this scrutiny may appear harsh or even disrespectful, these are important observations to make for you - the potential student - who is about to invest a great deal of time, energy, money and trust in someone for what could become a relatively long period of time. Finding a good teacher can be a daunting task. However, when you've found the right teacher, it can be a very rewarding and often life-changing experience. You can't afford not to be picky.
5) Be mindful of the school or teacher that promises black belts or instructor's certifications in short periods of time. Any good martial arts school will require hard work for any real progress to be made by its students. Progress and advancement varies with each individual's natural abilities, as well as their determination and dedication to proficiency. Consistent, quality training makes the difference between success and poor development. "Quality training" is also known as "smart training". As vague as it may sound, smart training is not about how much time you train or workout, but what you actually do when you train. Furthermore, fast learners do not always attain the furthest. A slow starter often accepts the challenge of study (and patient attention to detail), and by persevering becomes proficient.
6) While those looking for a martial art school should be basing much of their decision on the quality of the teacher, some styles will personally appeal to your individual needs more than others and you may be seeking a specific style. With regards to kung-fu and karate, there are some schools and teachers out there who claim to teach them both together, or claim to teach one when in reality, they're teaching the other. Kung-fu is a Chinese martial art and karate is originally an Okinawan and Japanese martial art. Kung-fu and karate share some fundamental movements, but the two are very distinct forms of martial arts. While it is true that karate and many other martial arts developed from kung-fu, no respectable karate instructor would claim to teach kung-fu and no kung-fu instructor would claim to teach karate. Do your homework. Make sure that if you're in search of a specific style or system, you're in the right school for it.
7) What about the school, itself? Is it adequately equipped for the needs of the class? Some traditional martial arts styles may require different equipment than others. Is there any equipment or supplies that students may be required to purchase or otherwise provide themselves? Is the training floor large enough for a group cIass? Is the school a safe environment? Are the school's hours accommodating? Does the instructor grant enough (or any) open floor time for students when classes aren't in session?
8) If you're looking for classes to enroll your children in, the questions and points raised in this guide are all still applicable. You would not want your children learning from someone you could not authenticate or trust. Obviously, the instructor would need to have a good rapport with children. Additional questions to ask for the benefit of your child: Does the instructor have a structured program designed for children and what does it involve? What is the age range for the children's classes? Are the children's classes divided into age groups?
9) And finally, there is the cost of such classes. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the cost should not be the cornerstone in determining your choice of instructor or school. Even so, the price should be considered. Martial art school rates should be reasonable, but they tend to vary from state-to-state, and even neighborhood-to-neighborhood. Compare rates between your most preferred schools and all that each provides for their prices. Examine the entire cost of joining for your first month. Does the school charge a one-time "initiation" or "membership" fee, and if so, what does that actually pay for? Many schools offer monthly membership fees, as well as 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year plans. Is there a limit to how many classes you may attend per week? If so, it often depends on what "tier" or "plan" you're paying for. You can calculate each group class to be no less than $10. 3-4 classes a week would be about $30.-$40. for the week. Therefore, your average martial art school may actually charge $100.-$150. per month. Some schools may charge more if there are additional available classes to attend per week. Many schools will allow students to pay per class, otherwise known as a "drop-in" fee. Drop-in fees typically range from $10.-$15. per class. There are also some schools that employ annual or bi-annual contracts, where you're billed a set fee every month, regardless of your attendance - or lack thereof. It is wiser to establish either a monthly or 3-month plan, especially in the beginning. Be sure to inquire if there are any special promotions, family discounts, or referral discounts happening at the time. It never hurts to ask, and you may save yourself some money in the bargain.
Good luck and happy hunting!
(excerpted from a 2004 interview with Michael)
"My main teacher (Grandmaster Liang Kam Yuen) used to say that it's about 'maximizing your life while minimizing your stress and effort'. Sounds like a catch-phrase one would hear at a New Age self-improvement seminar, but it's true nonetheless. It's been one of my personal and teaching mantras for years. For me, it's the bottom line as ...to what kung-fu and Tai Chi are all about."
"I've been teaching for a while now, and the more I do it, the better teacher and practitioner I become. I learn a lot from my own students...from the questions they ask and listening to their points of view. From this input, one discovers which methods and examples work and which ones don't. I'm also the type of teacher that prefers to show students by example. I'm not a coach or a trainer; there's a difference. I must always be ready to demonstrate or explain a move or a point - and often, using more than just one perspective. I have to make sure that the student actually absorbs what is being taught, as opposed to only getting a good workout in. Training and conditioning...getting that good workout in...is definitely important, but then there's the learning part that must be part of the class as well."
"There are some great schools and instructors out there, but there are also many martial art instructors who are lazy teachers. I've seen some teachers who'll have an advanced student teach for them in their stead. While I think that's fine for that to happen occasionally - and it's good training for that advanced student as well - I've seen schools where the head teacher or Chief Instructor are rarely seen actually teaching. They may make the odd appearance on the training floor here or there, or just watch a class from the sidelines while their subordinate runs the students through their paces. I could never do that. As a teacher, it is your responsibility to match or exceed your student's energy and desire to learn. You have to be mentally and physically there for your students. Anything less would be short-changing your students and ultimately, yourself."
"It's also important to promote a positive, healthy learning atmosphere that's free of negativity and aggression. The class should really be a sanctuary for the student. It should be a time and place where individuals can feel safe, supported, and good about themselves and what they're doing…undistracted from any day-to-day woes they may have."
The Pracitice Of Practicing
Portions of this were extracted from an article originally titled, "Kung-Fu Training", from the Handbook and Curriculum Outline for the Northern Shaolin/Praying Mantis Kung-Fu System (available to all students).
You cannot expect overnight results with kung-fu training. But with practice, one CAN expect results to happen. Practice is the only way to improve and experience the benefits of kung-fu. There are no shortcuts for practicing. There are no herbal supplements available that will make you practice. There are no YouTube videos or smart phone apps that will actually practice for you. Quite frankly, if you do not put the time and effort in, progress (along with being taught new things) will simply not happen.
Serious students must learn to cultivate what we like to call "the practice of practicing", which is really another way of saying "discipline". This is what gets you up and on your feet to train. It gets you to show up for class. It is the thing that moves you further into your training; it is what separates the practitioner from the intermittent enthusiast.
When you're actually physically practicing, there are a few levels - or stages - to plan for. These stages help us train correctly. In the beginning stages, students try to memorize the various moves and exercises, so it is crucial to schedule as much practice time (outside of class) as possible.
For each new form and exercise, you want first work on getting the mechanics of each movement correct. Then, mentally communicate with your body, feet, legs, hips, spine, shoulders, arms, hands, neck, etc. as you perfect your balance, center of gravity, and body positioning. This is how one acquires a "feel" for each movement.
When you feel comfortable with the movements, begin to focus your mental and physical energies in the direction the form or exercise takes you. Extend yourself.
Avoid strain! Physical pain or tightness is a result of too much tension and effort exerted during practice. You have to know your own limitations and set reasonable exercise goals for yourself. As the body conditions itself, your limitations will gradually decrease. Movements should appear effortless and flowing. It is detrimental to place stress on the body in order to increase strength, flexibility, or develop a desirable physique. Do not substitute brute strength for speed or power. Remember: rigidity and stiffness hinders speed and proper execution of technique. Speed and precision will manifest with familiarization of the movements. Power will increase as your body conditions itself to move with more grace and efficiency. Balance, coordination, and focus will also be attained through relaxed repetition. Train hard, but be mindful about your workouts. Be careful not to mistake quantity with quality; the amount of time you train is not as important as what you actually do when you are training. Fatigue/exhaustion are not necessarily signs that you've had an efficient or healthy cardio workout.
Know the meaning of each technique and how to apply them. You and your teacher should break them down and dissect each movement together. Realize the significance of every move and action. A whole form can be compared to that of a dictionary, and every individual technique is like a word in a dictionary.
Again, you want your movements to appear effortless and flowing. You want each movement to link with the next. Some forms contain natural, brief "pauses", but generally speaking, there should be no "stoppage" between techniques.
Good luck and practice well!
A Gallery Of Masters In Our Lineage
Grandmasters of kung-fu and various Internal styles who are essentially responsible for what the Association teaches today.
Not shown in this image: Grandmasters Chan Gin Yee, Yep Ye Ting, Kwong Kwon Wai, Li Sung Ping, Li Hon Chia and Si Lien.
The Founder Of Kung-Fu
A statue of Bodhidharma (c. 440A.D. - c. 534A.D.), a.k.a. Daruma and Bodai Daruma. He is known as "Da-Mo" or "Ta-Mo" in Chinese. Born in India, he was the Buddhist monk who brought Ch'an Buddhism to the Shaolin Monastery in the Hunan Province of China and helped to cultivate a set of special exercises that would serve as the foundation for kung-fu. These exercises were patterned after several anim...als that Bodhidharma was said to have observed during his trek from India to China. They would later become known as the "Eighteen Hand Movements Of The Enlightened One" or the "18 Buddha Exercises". Our system refers to them as "Shaolin Lohan", "Northern Shaolin Lohan" or the "18 Law Horn".
Often considered to be the founder of kung-fu, Bodhidharma is the first Patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism in China. Statuary, pictures, and small shrines of Bodhidharma are common in many traditional kung-fu schools.
General Kwan Kung
"The patron saint of kung-fu", General Kwan Kung (a.k.a Guan Gung, Kwan Yu and Guan Yu). A Chinese general of the later Han Dynasty, Kwan Kung rose from poverty to become one of the most hallowed figures in China's history. Together with his two comrades, Liu Bei and Chang Fe - known as the "Three Brothers of the Peach Orchard" - he played a key role in the civil war that led to the end of the Han Dynasty and the establishment of the State of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period, of which Liu Bei was the first Emperor. Much of Kwan Kung's true life stories have largely given way to fictionalized ones, mostly found in the historical novel Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, or passed down through the generations, in which his deeds and moral qualities have been venerated. The Kwan-Do (a large halberd-like weapon) was named after him due to his legendary skill with that particular weapon.
Kwan Kung was deified as early as the Sui Dynasty and is still revered by many Chinese people today, especially in southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and among their descendants overseas. He is a popular figure in Chinese folk religion, Confucianism, Taoism and Chinese Buddhism. Kwan is respected as an epitome of loyalty and righteousness. Statuary, pictures, and small shrines of Kwan Kung are commonplace in many traditional kung-fu schools, Chinese shops and restaurants.