His journey has taken him from his native England all the way to China and now to Malaysia, where he resides, taking in martial knowledge from every source he can find.
I met him almost a decade ago in my capacity as a journalist at SENI BELADIRI magazine and found that over the years, even as his wisdom grows, his even-tempered nature has not. His humility belies the fact that he has been a martial arts teacher for most of his life, and has more martial accolades under his belt than many of us have thought achievable.
Studying various Chinese and Melayu arts should have made him the perfect ambassador between the Chinese and the Melayu in Malaysia. Unfortunately, no one has realised his importance thus far. I still hope that can change.
In the meantime, he has put to shame true-blue Melayu by studying and writing a book on silat titled Silat Tua: The Malay Dance of Life. During a time when many Melayu are ashamed to call silat their own, an Englishman arrives and tells what we're missing.
My only regret is that I wasn't the first to interview him for Silat Melayu: The Blog. However, I promise our readers that this will happen soon. Until then, I present to you the following interview with him, sourced from The Combat Journal, an online martial arts magazine.
Please tell us of your martial arts background.
I started training in martial arts in 1973 when I was thirteen years old. It was the year that Bruce Lee passed away and the year the Enter the Dragon was released. It was also the year that David Carradine’s Kung Fu was first shown on British TV.
The first art I studied was karate and I continued to practice various different styles of karate until 1979 when I first started taijiquan. In the years since I have practiced a number of different Chinese arts as well as several systems of Silat Melayu and most recently Eskrima De Campo JDC-IO.
I have been fortunate over the last thirty years of my martial arts journey to have lived and trained in China, Malaysia and Singapore as well as having trained in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
When were you introduced to Silat and Chen Man Chings Tai chi?
My first exposure to Zhengzi (Cheng style) taijiquan came after I had returned from living and working in China in 1985. My teacher Mr. Huang Jifu regarded Zhengzi taijiquan as being a kind of martial arts postgraduate study. It was at his recommendation that I went to Singapore and met Tan Ching Ngee Shifu. I was fortunate enough to become an initiated disciple of Tan Shifu and that started me on my study of Zheng Manqing’s art.
I must point out, however, that the Zheng style that I study is that practiced in the Nanyang region (Southeast Asia) which seems to me quite different from other manifestations of the style. The main difference being that in southeast Asia the art is regarded as being primarily a fighting art and not the kind of old people’s therapy which it is often regarded as in other parts of the world.
In 1992 I moved to Malaysia to further my practice of Malaysian Zhengzi taijiquan and it was here that I met my first Silat teacher, Guru Azlan Ghanie. It is safe to say that without Guru Azlan the world of Malaysian Silat would have remained closed to me.
Who were your primary instructors of Silat and Tai chi?
As far as Zhengzi taijiquan is concerned I am a disciple of Masters Tan Ching Ngee, Lee Bian Lei, Lau Kim Hong and Ho Ah San. I am also a disciple in baguazhang and xingyiquan of Master Gao Jiwu of Beijing.
In Silat I trained first with guru Azlan Ghanie and then with guru Mohammed Hasyim and finally with Guru Zainal Abidin.
The styles of Silat I have trained in are Silat Melayu Keris Lok Sembilan, Silat Lian Padukan, Silat Embo, Silat Harimau Jawa, Silat Sendeng Tok Nayan and Silat Tua Yawi.
Lok Sembilan is a traditional system having its origins in the courts of the Melayu sultans. It is initially, primarily based on the use of the keris but also covers empty hand fighting and the use of a wide variety of weapons.
Lian Padukan is what might be termed a kuntau system in that its usage is direct and efficient without any flowery movements. Its history is traced back to Arabic origins, passed through Yunan Province in China and finally to Johor in Malaysia.
Silat Embo is an art that reflects its place of origin. Founded in Pulau Pinang it has Thai, Burmese, Chinese, Indian and Melayu influences.
Silat Tua Yawi has its roots in the Melayu area of South Thailand and is a tari or dance-based system. All of the essential combat concepts and theories are expressed and practiced in free-form solo dance and the two-person fighting exercise known as pulut.
Is there a fundemental difference between the Silat practised in Malaysia compared to Indonesia?
I cannot comment on this as I have never practiced Indonesian silat; however I do not believe that there can be any major differences as the cultural context in which the arts have grown is similar.
Have you been exposed to Kuntao and Wing Chun in Malaysia?
Both Lian Padukan and Silat Embo are systems which might be termed kuntau. Kuntau is the Hokkien Chinese term for martial arts and as such I have direct experience of one form namely wuzuquan (Five Ancestors Boxing) which is a Hokkien style that I studied under Master Tan Swoh Theng.
In its theory and practice Lian Padukan is very similar to Wing Chun even sharing one of its most important oral teachings: datang disambut, balik diturut which loosely translated means when he comes invite him in and when he goes send him on his way. This is the same as the Wing Chun teaching of “Lai liu, qu song”.
Although there are some Wing Chun schools in Malaysia have never been fortunate enough to have had any contact with them.
Is there a spiritual dimension in the silat that you practice?
There is indeed. Whilst modern day silat is firmly rooted in the spiritual values of Islam, in the Silat Tua Yawi tradition the influence of the previous animist, Hindu and Buddhist phases of the art’s evolution is recognized and encapsulated in the system’s training and practices.
Guru Zainal Abidin’s system does not allow him to pass his art on to anyone who does not have a belief in a Supreme Being. The focus in Silat Tua Yawi is on the essence of belief and spirituality rather than adherence to a spiritual “brand name”.
Indeed all of my teachers in all of the arts I have studied have been men with a strong spiritual foundation and their morality and humanity has underpinned the arts they have taught me.
In Silat Tua Yawi there are specific spiritual practices, without which the art is incomplete.
Who are the leading Tai Chi masters in Malaysia?
In Malaysia there are many excellent Tai Chi masters. In our style leading Masters include Masters Lau Kim Hong, Lee Bian Lei and Xu Shu Song (Koh Ah Tee).
Is there a combative aspect to Chen Man Ching's Tai Chi and if so, which teacher stresses this aspect?
Zhengzi taijiquan as it is taught in Malaysia is all about fighting. The Masters such as Yue Shu Ting and Lu Tong Bao who established the art here fought and won many challenge matches against all styles. Thus you will find that all teachers who come from the lineages of these two masters stress the practical martial aspects of the art.
How was your training under Master Mohammed Hasyim?
Haji Hasyim is a charismatic teacher and the time I spent training with him was very special for me. The atmosphere in his gelanggang (training area) is supercharged and the students really like to fight.
I was honoured to be the first non-Melayu to be allowed to undergo the khatam test. In fact I was only the ninth person to do this under Guru Hasyim. It was a tremendous challenge mentally, physically and spiritually.
What was your training like with professor Olavidas in the De campo system in the Phillipines?
Manong Eric Olavides is an extremely skilled martial artist and a true gentleman. He is truly a master of his art and his accuracy, speed and power have to be seen (and felt) to be believed.
Training with Manong Eric is often one on one and he allows no deviation from his extremely high standards. Although such training can be exhausting it is also very rewarding as Manong Eric pours out information.
I particularly like the De Campo JDC-IO system because it is based on the same principles that I have learnt in Zhengzi taijiquan and Manong Eric epitomizes the kind of martial artist I would like to become.
What are some of the similarities and differences of escrima to silat?
Of course I cannot speak for all systems of silat or eskrima but the one thing that I have noticed in all the styles that I practice is that they share the same principles and use of the body to develop maximum speed and power. The fact that they might appear very different belies the underlying similarities. Indeed this is why I continue to practice the different styles that I do because to me they are, despite superficial difference, in essence the same.
Has your personal martial art changed over the years?
In some ways yes because as I get older I have to look at what the arts I practice have to offer for the “more mature” exponent. This is one of the things I like about silat, the fact that the art encompasses practices which allow the older practitioner to maintain their edge.
I feel that I have been blessed to have enjoyed a martial arts career where the Chinese saying “When the time is right the teacher will appear” has proved to be true. Where I am now on the martial path is exactly where I want to be.
What is the philosophical basis for your training?
At this point on the path I want to explore what exactly is natural movement for me. By this I mean that as human beings we are all gifted by the Creator, Nature, the Dao, whatever you want to call it, with certain innate abilities and skills. I want to try to explore and realize these as best I can. To that end the system or style is not so important; to use a cliché it’s the journey not the destination.
What are the most important points in tai chi?
One of my teachers says that tai chi is simple; one yin, one yang and turn the waist! This together with “song” the state of alert relaxation of body, mind and spirit that we strive for, these are the most important.
I have been taught that some of the important parts of the body to concentrate on when practicing tai chi is yung chuan, tan tien, bai hui, han ch'uan ba bei, gua, lao gong and tai yuan. please explain to us the importance of these parts.
All of these are important. The yongquan points are where we connect to the energy of the earth, the source of our root if you like. The Dantian corresponds to the body’s centre of balance and it is the point from where all our movement in tai chi originates. It is also at the centre of our “core” muscles which provide us with a great source of power.
The bai hui is our connection with Heaven and provides the upward tendency which balances and complements the downward pull of gravity. By emphasizing this point you enhance the body’s agility and speed.
Han xiong babei is a teaching designed to enable the rib cage to best protect the internal organs and also to ensure that the power of the back may be used to the best effect.
The kua, which correspond roughly to the hips are vital in both maintaining the root and facilitating the use of full body power.
Lao gong and taiyuan are both points which an awareness of and focus on enable the exponent to make the best use of the body’s sensitivity and ability to react to any external stimulus.
In truth there are many other points on the body and teachings related to their efficient use which are also important but we can synthesise their importance into the development of ting jing (tactile sensitivity), dong jing (the effective use of ting jing) hua jing (neutralizing energy) and fa jing (expelling energy).
With the development of these skills, energies or powers, then you can realize teachings such as “One part moves, all moves”, “Give up yourself and follow others”, as well as acquiring the ability to “stick, connect, adhere and follow”. While of this might sound somewhat esoteric these teachings are all firmly based in concrete physical skills.
That is the wonder of arts such as tai chi, that all of the most marvelous skills are truly normal and human and thus attainable by all who receive proper teaching and train diligently and intelligently.
It is true to say that there are no secrets in any martial art, the only secret is hard work!
What is your teaching methodology?
I believe based on my experience with the amazing teachers I have met and trained with that the martial arts are powerful transformational tools. They enable exponents to enhance their lives, to formulate and achieve goals and to be a positive influence on those around them.
As a teacher it is my responsibility to find the best method for giving the student not what they want but what they need. In order to do this I have to be able to identify to the best of my ability what it is and how best to go about meeting their requirements. This is something that I cannot do alone and I rely heavily on the experience of my teachers and the lineages that they are a part of.
What are your future goals and aspirations?
The answer to this is simple and yet terribly difficult like the essence of the martial arts themselves. I want to preserve, protect and continue the systems that I study and teach, so as to live up to the responsibility passed to me by my teachers.
In life we are truly blessed if we can find our path and that I have been able to do so is something for which I am eternally grateful.