Immortal Master, Wan Kean Chew – martial arts exponent extraordinary
By Kim Gooi
The late Grandmaster Wan Kean Chew: 6 May 1939 – 8 Apr 2011
In August 1973, one of the biggest martial arts tournament in the region was held in Kuching, Sarawak to celebrate the state’s 10 year independence from Britain [Sarawak broke off the colonial yoke by joining the federation of Malaysia in 1963].
It was to be an open contest, full contact, any styles, only boxing gloves were worn.
Taiji Master Wan Kean Chew, 34, represented Singapore. “I was known in Singapore for my Taiji, so they asked me to fight for them since Penang did not send a team,” recalled Master Wan 30 years later. Other teams came from all over the region including Taiwan and Hong Kong.
In the seventies Karate, Bruce Lee, Gongfu, breaking bricks and boards with power kicks and punches were the rage. The time also saw Karate and Gongfu exponents taking on Thai kick-boxers albeit with disastrous results.
Taijiquan! – soft and pliable – to challenge the might of Karate and Gongfu was almost unheard off. Thus when master Wan knocked out the top Karate exponent from Hong Kong in the final heavy weight division and won the championship, it caused an unbelievable shock-wave.
The upset was the more sensational as the reputation and prowess of the Hong Kong Karate ‘star’ was hyped to formidable heights prior and during the tournament.
“There were three brothers (taking part in 3 divisions), all famous martial arts exponents from Hong Kong,” added Wan. “Their grandfather was the chief martial arts instructor of the imperial army of China.” And they had also won many tournaments. Such were the reputation and awe they sowed.
“The opponent I knocked out in the final even challenged Mohammad Ali during those days,” said Wan. When he entered the arena, punching and kicking, his muscles rippling through his sleeveless upper torso, it was an intimidating sight sending fears through the opponents, Wan said. So much so that ‘Mr Hong Kong’ received a walkover each time he entered the ring, right up to the semi-final round.
But master Wan knew better. “When two great forces oppose each other, the victory will go to the one that knows how to yield.” – Dao De Jing
“The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world. That which has no substance enters where there is no space.”
Within seconds it was all over. He didn’t know what hit him. It was an explosion of intrinsic force that penetrated his inner space and injured his internal organs. He threw in the towel.
Master Wan explained: “Relaxed, rooted, and rounded; calmed, still and ‘listening’ I waited. The moment he made a move, I was there.”
“He came with a power-packed side-kick at my head, instantaneously I moved in, deflected, punched with my waist swinging and sinking, all at one time in unison – ‘ quan shen yi dong’ (whole body moving as one).”
“This is what we mean by intrinsic energy, the whole body moving with the mind as well, it not only penetrates where there is no space, but the mind can move mountains” explained Master Wan.
Having moved mountains, Master Wan had to make a hasty retreat. He left immediately for the airport and flew back to Penang, leaving the Singapore officials to collect the championship trophy.
The sensational win had upset the rough and tumble world of the martial arts tournament. Millions of dollars in bets were at stake with odds in the opponent’s favour. Prior to the final Master Wan had received threats from shadowy figures as well as officials. “That’s why I didn’t bother to stay back to receive the championship trophy, the threats to my life was real and serious,” Master Wan reminisces with a chuckle, three decades later.
Before his hasty flight Master Wan also won the taiji push hand and nei-gong (where contestants had to withstand blows through breath and body control) championships.