Mat of Asphalt

The pandemic shifted everything, even our martial arts practice. Here at the Academy of Martial and Internal Arts in Santa Cruz, the most prominent change has been that we now train outside in parking lot. I know we’re not the only school to do this because I’ve passed others doing the same thing. Some schools lay out mats, but we don’t bother because the bulk of the curriculum at the Academy doesn’t require it.

I love training on asphalt. For me personally, it’s a throwback to when I first began training Kung Fu at Lam Kwoon way back in the 70s. We trained in the parking lot there too.

But before I go on, I’ll take a ‘teaching’ moment to explain the term ‘Lam Kwoon’ for any newbie readers. Lam (林) literally means ‘forest’ but it is also the surname of the Northern Shaolin master that Sifu Ted, Sifu Linda, and I all studied under, the late Lam Kwong Wing (林广荣). He became known in America as Wing Lam, which was an unconventional shortening of his Chinese name but in retrospect, it helped non-Cantonese speakers avoid his more alien Kwong. Lam Sifu was from Hong Kong, so he spoke Cantonese; In Mandarin, his name would be pronounced Lin Guangrong.

Kwoon (館) is an arbitrary romanization. The proper Yale romanization of the Cantonese is gun but nobody uses that because the inclination is to pronounce it like the firearm and not more like ‘goon’. In Mandarin, it’s romanized as guan and can refer to a building, a shop, a service establishment, a schoolroom (although this is a dated usage), even an embassy. Libraries and large restaurants use the suffix guan (tushuguan and canguan respectively).

Guan is quite different than the more ubiquitous term used for martial arts schools in the USA – dojo (道場). Dojo is a Japanese term that means ‘way space’ – the ‘way’ as in the dao and ‘space’ like an open field or market. In Mandarin, this would be daochang (remember that Chinese and Japanese share some of the same characters). While daochang could be used for a martial arts school, that’s rare; It’s more commonly used for a meditation space, and recently, for a place where software is developed. The difference between guan and dojo exemplifies an important distinction between Chinese and Japanese martial arts. A guan is more commonplace where a dojo implies spirituality. While a guan can be spiritual place, it’s not always so lofty. It implies that the Chinese martial arts aren’t necessarily a place of ‘the way.’ Rather it’s more pedestrian like a tea café or an auto shop.

In honor of Lam Sifu, I’ll use the Cantonese term romanized as kwoon as it was bandied about our school for the remainder of this essay.

Back in the Day…

When I first started training under Lam Sifu in the late seventies, his kwoon was modest. It was a converted garage in a small strip of industrial spaces, on Willow Street in Sunnyvale, California. This was before the area earned the name ‘Silicon Valley’ – Sunnyvale borders Cupertino, the cradle of Apple and where Mac’s global headquarters stands today. But back in the seventies, it was mostly stone fruit orchards and personal computers were still in the realm of science fiction.

This is where I first met Sifu Ted and Sifu Linda.  Sifu Ted and I only crossed paths occasionally because he mostly took private lessons. I knew him mostly because he wrote the first book with Lam Sifu, Northern Sil Lum #7 Moi Fah: The Plum Flower Fist. I trained alongside Sifu Linda more than Sifu Ted. More on this to come.

Lam Kwoon was a narrow space with a cement floor. It had a regular front door with a small door altar, adjacent to a large roll up bay door akin to what we have at the Academy, only much smaller. Sifu had built a little counter behind that roll up door which cordoned off his personal space where he stored a few things like his ledger and a beaten old couch. It was just a counter he built, not a walled off office, and it couldn’t have been much more than ten by ten feet across.

On one side of the Kwoon, some mirrors were hung on the wall. Above those was a dragon and tiger mural, which I’m proud to say I painted along with my Kung Fu brothers Tom Englert and Ed Karl. For the first few years when I trained there, it was just a rough pencil sketch that some other student had started and never finished. The three of us got Sifu’s permission to finish it, which we did over the course of a month or so. That must have been sometime around the early eighties although my memory fails me on the exact dates. I was just a teenager back then.

On the other side of the Kwoon was one tiny closet of a bathroom (which also served as our changing room), a small staircase-like stretching barre that Sifu built, some sword racks and staff bins, and two heavy punching bags. There were some lion heads stored above those bag racks, on top of the roof of the bathroom, and in the opposite corner on a high shelf. And on the rear wall facing the door was the school’s ancestral altar, handmade by Lam Sifu. It stood beneath our heavy carved traditional wooden Lam Kwoon sign, flanked by racks of Chinese polearms.

Because it was such a small space, only a few students could practice inside at a time. It was too tight for two people to practice with any long weapons like staffs or spears simultaneously, although we did try. That required tight synchronized formation – ‘like the Blue Angels flying wingtip to wingtip’ as my dear elder Kung Fu brother Don Wong used to say. The inside was usually reserved for group warm-ups and drills during the evening classes, and our individual lessons with Sifu. When practicing inside, Sifu’s scrutiny was unavoidable, so we all practiced outside until we were confident enough to show him what we had. We practiced in the asphalt parking lot, just like we’ve doing at the Academy since the pandemic struck.

We all knew that Lam Kwoon parking lot well. Like the Academy parking lot, it had flatter preferred area close to the building and a gentle slope towards the driveway entrance. There were little divots and dips in odd places that we had to mind. At one point, one of the other building tenets was a scrap metal shop, so there would often be metal slivers in front of there. You had to be careful putting your hands on the ground for sweeps or you’d be plucking out metal splinters later.

The parking lot was in plain view of Lawrence Expressway, from an overpass that crossed over the nearby railroad tracks. Swinging swords and pole arms about in our silk uniforms (handmade by our Simu, Sifu’s first wife), we drew a lot of attention. Back then, Kung Fu was still rather foreign. Drivers would harass us, yelling out Bruce Lee ‘wataaahs’ mockingly. That didn’t bother us much because they never dared to come close. In fact, we’d mark the year’s first ‘wataaah’ call as an annual sign of the arrival of spring.

Most of the classes were held in the evenings so the other shops were closed by then. However, the Kwoon was also open a few days a week in the morning. For a few years, Sifu Linda and I took mornings classes together because our schedules coincided. Now neither of us can remember exactly when that was but I’m guessing it was between 1982 and 1986 when I was in college because that’s when my schedule might have allowed for morning practice. However, I’m not sure.

Hong Kong Style…

Those morning classes were very special because the class size was extremely small, just Linda, me, and a handful of others, never more than a half dozen at most. Despite having to work around the other industrial businesses in that complex, which were open during the mornings, we had incredible access to Lam Sifu. I have fond memories of training on that asphalt parking lot at alongside Linda and our Kung Fu siblings, pausing for another truck loaded with scrape metal to pass by, and listening to another heckler yelling ‘Wataaah!’ from the Expressway.

Sifu taught those classes ‘Hong Kong style’ as he used to say. There was no formal group class to begin the sessions. We arrived, warmed up on our own, then set about reciting our forms and practicing. Sifu usual sat on his couch, reading some martial arts book or the Chinese newspaper, as students trickled in and out. At some point, if he felt we had put in an adequate amount of work on whatever the previous lesson was, he’d show us a little more. We’d always get some attention, but the amount was determined by how well we had grasped the last lesson. Sometimes it was just a quick correction on the previous and that was it. Then we knew we had missed the point. Other times, it was an intense one-on-one lesson. But overall, it was very informal and intimate. In retrospect, it was incredibly special, especially in context of how big Lam Kwoon became.

In the late eighties, Lam Kwoon expanded to a huge space, a former ice rink just around the street corner. There it grew to a two-story facility with a large cement-floored training hall with a huge ancestral altar, a smaller carpeted secondary hall (which was two to three times the size of the old school), a lobby, a reception desk in front of a spacious back office, a pro-shop, a locker room with multiple changing closets, men and women’s bathrooms with handicap access, and a heavy bag room. It was truly magnificent, and I regret not taking more photos of it, but you can see in the background of many of my pre-millennium magazine articles and the video series we made.

That building was surrounded by a parking lot too, and despite having so much room indoors, we still trained a lot outdoors. It was partly out of habit, and partly because the student body had grown so large that we had to spread out.

The Great Outdoors…

I’ve always preferred to train outdoors. In Kung Fu, we don’t train barefoot in a dojo on a floor covered with puzzle mats. We wear shoes…so we can practice in the parking lot if need be. The American stereotype of martial arts has been that we all train barefoot because many other styles like Karate, Judo, Taekwondo, and MMA train that way. It’s been such a prevalent notion that when the groundbreaking 1971 martial arts movie Billy Jack came out, Tom Laughlin takes off his boots off before the first big fight in the park. That’s ridiculous. Given the option to kick someone with my barefoot or with boots on, give me the boots. The following year, the TV show Kung Fu premiered, and it perpetuated the barefoot fighter stereotype with Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine), who also fought barefooted despite being a Shaolin monk. I’ve been to Shaolin Temple many times, and everyone wears shoes there.

Training with shoes seems more practical to me because during every single conflict I’ve been in, I was wearing shoes. This isn’t to denigrate all those styles that practice barefooted at all. When MMA when first arose, there was this backlash critique of that foisted the absurd notion that cage fighting techniques ‘wouldn’t work on the street.’ That’s a ridiculous reaction, defensive and neurotic. If you can’t see how tough MMA fighters are, you should reassess your martial arts competence. Nevertheless, if you’ve never rolled on asphalt, it does change things.

And we did roll on asphalt, although not in the same sense of how the term ‘rolling’ is used in grappling arts nowadays. There are ground rolls within our forms, somersaults with weapons and such, which we how learned to do on asphalt. It was a tough way to learn, and I confess that I had an advantage because my first martial art was Judo, so I already had some somersaulting skills. Sifu Linda will relate of how Lam Sifu just told her to roll on the kwoon’s cement floor when she had never done it before. No mats. That’s learning the hard way… Hong Kong style.

However, it’s not these street fighting hypotheticals that makes me enjoy training outdoors. I’ve never been a stickler for street practicality. I train with Tiger Head hooks. In my wildest fight fantasies, I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d get to use Tiger Head hooks on the street for self defense. I practice Tiger Head hooks because it makes me happy. The same goes for training outdoors, even on asphalt.

Not to be too woo-wooey but being outdoors allows me to connect with the heavens and earth. I always prefer to practice my Qigong outside. Same goes for my Kung Fu. Training outside puts me in touch with the nature. The purity of Santa Cruz air is one of many reasons why we put up with the outrageous cost of living here. Where those ocean breezes blow, the air is sweet and fresh, perfect for healthy practice.

Winter is coming…

While we don’t get the spring ‘wataaah’ hecklers at the Academy, the seaside fog is now rolling in more thickly to warn us of the colder months ahead. As the days grow shorter, the parking lot gets darker earlier, so moving back inside might be an option this winter. In the first winter of the pandemic, still leery of moving indoors, we discussed possible outdoor places where we might relocate. However, it never got too bad. Class size is intimate enough that we managed under the streetlights.

The only seasonal hazard for the Academy is rain. And as California is in a drought, we’d welcome that. Back at the old Lam Kwoon, we did train outside in the rain sometimes. It’s not the safest way to practice, and it’s bad for the weapons, but there was a refreshing quality to it as long as it wasn’t some torrential downpour. Like rolling on asphalt, there’s a practical lesson to be learned training in rain. As it is said ‘of that day and hour no one knows,’ so it’s best to be prepared for any scenario.

Perhaps we’ll start moving back indoors when the weather turns. Don’t get me wrong. I love training indoors too. The Academy of Martial and Internal Arts, with its racks of weapons, classic paintings from notable martial artists, and stacks of books, has a cement floor just like Lam Kwoon always had. And there are mats too, folding up under the staircase. I only remember bringing those out once when some senior students were learning Shaolin Double Dagger and we had to work on some rolling techniques. Mats have their place in every martial arts school. But so does asphalt, at least metaphorically speaking, because I’m not planning on rolling on asphalt anymore.

Moving on…

I went past the old Lam Kwoon buildings during the pandemic. They are all auto shops now. The old murals are painted over. You’d never know that those spaces were once filled with hundreds of aspiring Kung Fu novices for decades. There’s hardly a trace of the empire Lam Kwoon became at its peak. It made me nostalgic remembering the countless hours Linda and I spent alongside our Kung Fu brothers and sisters, reciting so many time-honored forms on that parking lot.

At least, the asphalt remains.

This entry was posted in Articles and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mat of Asphalt

  1. Pingback: Mat of Asphalt ~ My Latest Feature for The Academy of Martial and Internal Arts – Gene Ching ~ musings & publications

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *