From Taiji To Singing The Blues

I Found My Taiji Master in Penang

The Master’s power is like this.           

Master Wan Kean Chew

 He let all things come and go
 Effortlessly, without desire.
 He never expects result;
 Thus he is never disappointed.
 He is never disappointed;
 Thus his spirit never grows old.
 – Lao Zi
 (Dao De Jing)

Twelve years ago I left Bangkok, after working there for more than two decades as a freelance journalist, to move back to my hometown of Penang. The downside of my decision to relocate was mainly professional; I would lose the lucrative strings and perks I enjoyed working for international media organizations, mainly Western and Japanese TV stations. Compared to Bangkok, Penang is a media backwater.

The decision was entirely mine, the reasons mainly monetary and environmental/health. Despite earning a comfortable income there, I spent a fortune sending my kid to the international school and coping with Bangkok’s horrendous traffic.

It’s common for Bangkok school kids to wake up at 4 am to make it to class on time. Sometimes they don’t make it home until 10 pm. To avoid that, parents either rent a condo near the school or get a luxurious van so that the kid can do his homework and nap while stuck in traffic.

The schools in Penang are free, and on top of that its conversant in Chinese, English and Malay. What I lost in earnings would be softened by having no school fees to pay. And and we could live in the family house.

But there was another reason that helped convince me to move back to Penang. I was looking for a Taiji (Tai Chee) Master. I had been an ardent Taijiquan student – up at the break-of-dawn and over to Bangkok’s Lumpini Park for a morning workout while most of the metropolis was still asleep.

In the early eighties, Lumpini Park at dawn was like old China at its best. Groups doing Taijiquan and Qigong exercise, sipping tea amidst bamboo groves and lily ponds, folk and ballroom dancing, wushu and Thai Boxing for the youngsters, ardent practioners occupied all the best nooks and corners of the park.

For close to two decades, I was a regular at the park. In tandem with learning Taijiquan I read the I-Ching (or Yi Jing) and Dao De Jing. It began to dawn more and more on me that Taijiquan is the living manifestation of these two ancient classics (explaining creation and the lot of mankind).

The name Taiji and its yin and yang symbol with the eight trigrams is derived from the Yi Jing; meaning the supreme ultimate [power], the primary principle and creation of all things.

It is said that those who practice Taiji, correctly and regularly, twice a day over a period of time will gain the pliability of a child, the health of a lumberjack, and the peace of mind of a sage. There is also the claim that Taiji can actually cure neurasthenia, high blood pressure, anemia, tuberculosis, and many other maladies. It rejuvenates life.

There were many teachers who could teach the forms and movements of Taiji in Lumpini Park but to find a master who could explain its finer points and demonstrate its ability to harness the Qi (the intrinsic power or life force), seemed futile.

The ancients also claimed Taijiquan is the ultimate martial art. Mas Oyama (the late Karate guru famous for disposing bulls with his punch) said in his biography that he could handle opponents of all other martial arts except Taiji.

I began to discover that foreigners had been trickling into Penang to learn Taiji. I heard about one farang Taiji master who lived on Koh Phanggan, who would trek down to Penang every three months to see HIS master for additional training.

It wasn’t long before I found Wan Kean Chew, Taiji master par excellence, the embodiment of all that is said in the classics –  a sage of humility, vigor and power.

His reputation was formidable: In August 1973, at age 34, he knocked out the Karate champion of Hong Kong at the Kuching (Sarawak) 10th Independence Anniversary, open and full-contact martial arts tournament and won the championship. He also won the Taiji Push Hand and Qigong (ability to take and deflect blows to the body) crowns.

Master Wan won his last tournament when he was 47, at the National Heavy Weight Taijiquan Push Hand Championship held in Penang. “I beat the opponent much younger,” said Master Wan. “I wanted to find out for myself whether, when you are old, Taiji could protect you. Do you still have the Qi and intrinsic power?”

“Has Taiji made you a better person?” Master Wan asked when I told him my intention. “Do you feel happier, wiser and younger?”
We were taught to be forgiving, to let go and give in. He reminded me, “when two forces clash, victory comes to the one who yields,” quoting Lao Zi.

“Trim your ego and submerge your ‘self’ and be totally relaxed in mind and body. Then your Qi can be harnessed, your spirit soar and your mind attain a higher plain,” he exhorted.

Learning the mental and spiritual aspects proves to be tougher than the physical moves. It takes a while to learn, for the mind, body and spirit to move as one.

“Taiji is about integration with the universal law, to be one with the world,” was his refrain during lessons. “Then you can listen and feel the movements of  the opponent and react appropriately. It is not about winning and loosing!” he reminded.

I had been with Master Wan five years. Had I gained the explosive power to deflect Mike Tyson blows, and throw the heavy boxer off balance?
Hmm. I can say it’s a life-long process.

Melaka, Aug 2012: Blues Jam at ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ – front left to right,  Joseph Goh;  Kim Gooi;  Eddie sta Maria in the middle; and pub owner, Ah Hock, in the background; hidden from view on the far-left, drummer, Peter Goh   –    Photo by: Lim Heng Tin

But mystery of mysteries,  amid my martial arts training I was able to play music.  A friend left his guitar at my house and I started fiddling with it. And hey presto! I could play. I mean really play – ad-libbing, play a few licks and along with the songs from the CDs.

I began to understand that if I master the musical scales and the tempo or rhythm is right, the melody of my improvisation would harmonize with the song. Yes, like Taiji, music is all about harmony and balance and visualization: it’s all in the head.

For ten long years my Bangkok buddy, John Hail (UPI bureau chief, dpa editor), who is a Blues fanatic, had been giving me loads of CDs to listen to. He burned copies of his favorite Blues masters’ recordings and passed them on to me along with his enthusiasm for the music. I had the feeling that subconsciously, the music was already in my head. And then I started to play.

So, yes, there is life after journalism. What could be rejuvenating than a Rock n’ Roll guitar? And what could be more enlightening than following in the footsteps of Blues Masters like Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry?

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