The Real Tai Chi Deal

Sifu Nathan Fisher
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Over lunch one day, after training, I asked my teacher, Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong if he ever had to use his martial arts to protect himself. After reminding me that martial arts should only be used as a last resort he proceeded to tell me a story from early teaching days.

The incident occurred one morning, during the spring semester of 1978, when Grandmaster Wong was teaching tai chi for San Francisco Community College. He was informed that his usual classroom at the Cumberland Church, on Jackson and Powell Street, was not available for his class. So, he decided to bring his 60 students to a nearby courtyard at the North Ping Yuan Housing Project, in Chinatown. On entering the courtyard, Grandmaster noticed a well-known Chinatown martial artist, by the name of Chan Keung, practicing tai chi at the other end of the square. He was known as Guong Tau Keung, or Baldheaded Keung. He was fond of talking about the fact that he witnessed one of Bruce Lee’s fights in Oakland, in 1966.

After Mr. Chan finished his workout, he came over to talk to Grandmaster during a break. He complimented my teacher’s tai chi form and invited him to play push hands. Grandmaster was 30 years old at the time. And, despite the fact that Mr. Chan was in his 50’s, he had over 30 years of training, and was known for being one of the top push hands players in Chinatown. Naturally, Grandmaster accepted the friendly invitation to do push hands with such a well-known opponent. As the match began, many of the students and a few residents of the center gathered around to watch the match. After ten minutes of considerable effort, Mr. Chan could not unbalance my teacher. Since my teacher respected his opponent as he would a senior classmate, he did not even try to push Mr. Chan. Instead, out of humility, he chose to redirect and neutralize every attack.

During a break in the action, one of the bystanders stepped forward to express interest in this strange balance game. He asked if he could give it a try. Intending to continue to his strategy of being unmovable, he agreed to play a little longer. Since the man didn’t know tai chi push hands, Grandmaster invited the stranger to push him whatever way he liked. For at least ten minutes the man tried to push my teacher, and for at least ten minutes the man fell to the right, and to the left, and forward to the ground, and yes, you guessed it, straight backward. And, after all that effort he could not budge Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong.

Unsurprisingly, the man soon became frustrated with his lack of progress, and began to wrestle with my teacher. After that approach failed, the man pulled away and began bouncing around, jabbing and kicking like a kick boxer. As the man closed in, he faked a right jab and tried to connect with a roundhouse kick to the ribs. Grandmaster instantly responded with a chin-ji to block the kick, while his left arm hooked under the man’s leg to setup for a joint lock. One quick twist of the foot later, and the opponent was laid out flat on the ground. By this time, the students were all clapping and cheering, thinking perhaps somehow this was part of the lesson plan for the day. The man got up slowly, more embarrassed than hurt, and wandered out of the courtyard apparently unwilling to push his luck any further. Grandmaster continued his class as if nothing had happened.

Knowing that he was a local, Mr. Chan spoke to the man later and found out that he was a black belt in Taekwando. Mr. Chan was so impressed with this fact, and with the outcome of the confrontation, that he told the story throughout Chinatown for years to come.

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