Taiwan, Foreigners Preserve and Update the Martial Arts
by Antonio Graceffo
September 9, 2006
In a country with no NASCAR racing and tight gun control laws, how do men bond? The answer is simple. They get together every Wednesday night and pound the daylights out of each other.
While training in Taiwan, I attended the inauguration of Fight Club Kaohsiung, which is sponsored by Mindful Phoenix Arts Group. The group teaches classes in drama, kung fu, arts, and language. They have a comedy troupe and perform both comedy sports and traditional theater. Now, they are expanding their teaching to include classes for Taiwanese children, as well as adventure outings for Taiwanese young people.
I got in the ring with a very large, and scary looking man named Mike, who weighed 110 kilos. I held my own, boxing him, for a bit, but then he ran into me, like a steamroller, knocking me to the ground, and jumped on top of me. When the ref managed to coax the big man off of my prostrate form, he explained. "We allow grappling in fight club."
"Of course." I gasped.
Taiwan, possessing a predominantly ethnic Chinese culture, has historically been very strong in kung fu, particularly in Tai Chi. In recent years, hard-style kung fu, kicking, forms, and Wu Su, have lost in popularity, while Tae Kwan Do and Twe So (pushing hands) have gained. As a result, the quality of fighters among ethnic Chinese, has dropped off dramatically. Taiwan has earned recognition in international Tae Kwan Do competitions, with Taiwanese athletes displaying amazing agility, with high kicks and leaps. But real fighting, Chinese San Da (kick boxing) has all but disappeared. As the Island made the climb, from developing nation, to the ninth largest economy in the world, parents pushed their children to learn computers and business, rather than fighting.
Foreigners, meaning westerners, who live and work in Taiwan seem to be the people most focused on reviving and developing the martial arts. Thousands of English teachers are imported each year, given lucrative contracts, many of which include housing, and most work only 25 hours per week. In their off time, many have a desire to practice martial arts.
Sebastian Thomas, the founder of Mindful Phoenix, said, "I have practiced and taught Kung fu my whole life. I left my school in Australia, and came to Taiwan, hoping to study kung Fu. I pictured training on the beach with some old guy, who would tell me stories about his daring escape from the Shaolin Temple. After I had proven myself, he would ask me to marry his daughter, and I would carry on teaching his art after he died."
"Did you find an old guy like that?" I asked.
"I found an old guy, but he just wanted to sell me knock-off electronics at bargain basement prices." Said Thomas, sadly.
"So, what did you do?"
"I bought a DVD player from him, and saved fifty bucks. Then I opened my Kung fu school."
The foreign teachers in Taiwan come from a variety of martial arts backgrounds. A group which shares Thomas’ space is practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. As none of them is a certified instructor, they work from books and videos, meeting nearly everyday to figure out and practice the techniques. In Taipei another, more organized BJJ group pooled their cash and hired Andy Wang, a high ranking BJJ practitioner. Andy, along with his brother who is also a professional fighter, assembled an impressive MMA record, even fighting in the UFC.
Godfrey Zweigert, a martial arts instructor from France who owns a Japanese martial arts school in Taipei, has now expanded the curriculum to include kickboxing and grappling. Between the various clubs, all lead by foreigners, they have managed to organize both a BJJ circuit and an MMA circuit in Taiwan. Real fighting is still in its infancy in Taiwan, but the influx of foreigners has breathed new life into a sport that would otherwise have disappeared.
In each class, among the huge foreigners, some of whom weigh in at 100 KG, you will always find a few Chinese students, both men and women. Many Taiwanese women say they only feel welcomed in the foreign-owned martial arts schools, as the Chinese ones were historically for men.
The martial arts began in Asia, spread to the west, and now are being brought back to Taiwan, but transformed and flavored by the many countries where they were temporarily stored.
Cable TV from Japan brings the island all sorts of fighting sports, new and old, like UFC, KOTC, Pride, Bushido, K-1, Pancrase, and Rings. The Japanese, as much as they are mired in tradition, seem to have embraced the new developments in martial arts, and these shows have become big money makers in Japan. Taiwan usually follows Japan’s lead. Hopefully, Taiwan will make it onto the radar screens of international competition.
One of the interesting twists in the development of the martial arts in Taiwan, is that foreigners have found new uses for old techniques. The BJJ guys were combing their submissions with the Tae Kwan Do kicks widely taught on the island. Many of the foreign martial artists have studies in Thailand, so they were teaching Thai head clinch throws, which were being taught alongside Chinese San Da waist throws. Muay Thai elbows were being practiced on the ground. And Tai Chi (Twe So) pushes were being used in dirty boxing.
"Through Twe So, you develop such a sensitivity to your opponent’s balance," explained one New Yorker, "You just wait till his weight is right, and instead of punching, you push. Or when they reach for you, you go limp, and let them pull themselves to the floor."
In my own bout, I was having a tough time. Since I am primarily a boxer, when I am fighting in Asia, I try and close distance, to neutralize their kicks. Once inside, I punch. But fighting a grappler was problematic, because every time I got close enough to punch, he grabbed me and took me down. Once again, being a boxer, I am not used to hitting the canvass more than once per fight. Those body slams took a lot out of me. For the first time in my fighting history, my strategy was to stay as far away as possible from the bigger man, and low kick him.
In between bouts I got a chance to talk to Sebastian Thomas, the group’s founder and leader. "What does fighting have to do with arts?" I asked.
"Mindful Phoenix is about teaching people, and helping them to grow." Said Thomas, with his Australian accent, ala Paul Hogan. "That includes teaching them acting, languages, creativity, and martial arts."
‘Fighting is part of martial arts. Besides, with no kangaroos to chase, what are men going to do in their off time?" he said.
The Fight Club attendees were primarily men from Thomas’ kung fu school and from the Kaohsiung Jiu-Jitsu team. Several women came as well, but only to watch. Thomas said that the event is open to women, and they would be welcome to come and fight. He also said that the door was open to non-martial artists.
"We are all here for different reasons." Said Thomas. He explained that the jiu-jitsu team guys were looking for a chance to improve their striking skills, so that they could be more competitive in Mixed Martial Arts fighting events. The kung fu guys were looking for an opportunity to challenge themselves, and to use the techniques they had practiced in class. "If someone who has no training wants to come in and try it out, he is more than welcome. But I would prefer he starts out by hitting the pads and moving around a bit first, before getting in he ring." Thomas went on to say. "What I would hope is that he might not be interested in martial arts when he gets here, but he would be interested in martial arts when he leaves."
The atmosphere of Fight Club was definitely positive. Friendships are made very easily among athletes, but even more so among fighters. There is something about getting a fat lip or swollen nose that binds you to your opponent for life.
"We’re not about hurting each other here." Said Thomas. "It’s about practicing and helping. If your opponent is a little better than you, then it will force you to work harder and to improve. If he isn’t as good as you, then you become a teacher, and help him to learn." Thomas makes all of his students, even beginners, teach lessons. It is a way of teaching self-confidence and helping them to feel knowledgeable.
The opponents decide, at the start of the bout, what rules they want to have. Some of the fights were only boxing. Others were kicking and boxing. Still others included grappling and floor work. The opponents wear gloves and mouth guards. For boxing-only bouts, they wore ten-ounce boxing gloves. For mixed martial arts, which included grappling, they wore fingerless fighting gloves. No matter what the rules, Thomas stressed control, consideration, and care.
"It doesn’t help anyone to get in there and get hurt." Said Thomas. He and I have fought a number of bouts, and I can attest to his control, as I know that he could easily cave in a man’s skull with a single kick. And yet, I watched him get in the ring with a total beginner and not injure him. "If you get in there and have a nice controlled fight, you can fight again next week, and improve."
The center offers a number of services, besides fighting. They have a theater, a studio, yoga classes, internet, a lending library for books and films, and much more.
The group wishes to be a cross-cultural bridge. Their stated goal is to "Combine the Eastern discipline and tradition with Western freedom of expression."
If you have some stress you need to work out, or if you just feel like pounding on someone, you can check out the fight club. They meet every Wednesday evening, at eight o’clock. You could contact Thomas at his website at mindfulphoenix.com If you want to train or fight in taipei contact Godfrey Zweigert firstname.lastname@example.org
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