Finding Sifu

I had joined the Taoist Tai Chi society at Age 16 after a few years of experimenting with meditation and yoga. I had read that Tai Chi was the supreme ultimate martial art. I wanted to be able to defend myself, and I figured that if I learned Tai Chi I would be able to defend myself against bullies, even if they knew another martial art — like Tae Kwon Do, or Karate. In fact I had initially gone to the local Tae Kwon Do school. However, it just did not sit right with me. My heart was set on learning Tai Chi so after the first month I went and joined.

As a matter of fact, some of my father’s co-workers were senior members of the club. This helped me get on the good side of the teachers in the club and I dedicated myself to it. I went to every class.

After the first year I moved to Winnipeg and spent the next two years volunteering in the Winnipeg Taoist Tai Chi Society. I would just go there after school and stay until 8 or 9pm when they closed. I would work at the front desk and when no one was around I would practice Taoist Tai Chi. Although I had avoided weapons forms and workshops until that point (as I was just a poor high school student,) I did try to learn some push hands from the senior members of the club. They were reluctant and showed me something, but with no one to practice and with no real interest from the club that idea died down quickly. I investigated the “Lok Hup” and “Hsing I” and sword forms that the club taught to advanced students, but found them wanting. Frankly, they weren’t very good. I began to feel something missing. I had been told by senior club members by that point that Tai Chi wasn’t really a martial art. I had heard tales of other styles of Tai Chi that had been corrupted, and that only the Taoist Tai Chi society had the real art. I didn’t really understand or accept these statements, being young, but I went with them, being young. But it was when Moy Lin-Shin himself sent a memo to all clubs which was posted to the wall that Taoist Tai Chi was definately not a martial art, and had no martial art in it — that I realized I did not belong in that club. You see what happened was, some schools in Toronto broke away from the Taoist Tai Chi society and Mr. Moy became very angry that his deception had been exposed. He sent out the notice that anyone who practiced any other style of tai chi was to be placed upder suspicion and maybe kicked out of the club. And he was very explicit that it was not a martial art.

Master Steve Higgins wrote an article explaining some of this as the events surrounding all this led to the reformation of the Canadian Taijiquan Federation (link 1) (link 2).

The growth of the CTF in those days was stimulated by the lack of alternatives to the TTCS. Happily, those alternatives exist today. The entire martial arts and Tai Chi landscape has changed. The continuing challenge for the CTF is to adapt to these changes and to continue to serve the needs of the Tai Chi community at large.

Things were a little different in Winnipeg. At least at that time, there was really only the one school of Tai Chi.

Sifu Patrick Kelly

I decided to look up Chinese Kungfu schools in the Yellow Pages. There were two; Temple Knights and the Ching Wu Athletic Association. There was also a Muay Thai club that a friend of mine was interested in, and a Tae Kwon Do school. In those days, Winnipeg only had 600,000 people living in it, so there were not many options. So the choice I made was easy, I went to the Ching Wu Athletic association. The first time I walked in, I saw Sifu David Cliffe practising a form in what you might consider a shuai jiao outfit — kind of like a karate gi on top but with kungfu pants. He told me to come back at a different time because as it turned out it was a holiday (or something) and the school was closed.

When I came back at the appointed time, I was the first one there. And up the stairs came Sifu Patrick Kelly, although I did not know it at the time. He was in a way unassuming and I didn’t realize he was a teacher there. He took me into the front room where there was a desk and I sat opposite him. He asked me why I wanted to learn Kung Fu. I told him I liked Jacky Chan and I wanted to learn how to defend myself. He had a binder with information on different styles. One of them was praying mantis, another was five elders. There may have been a few others. I told him I wanted to learn Tai Chi. He had also asked me if I learned martial arts before, so I told him about my time at the Taoist Tai Chi society. Well by this time other people had started to come in so he asked me to start along with the class. What followed was a pretty standard karate school warmup but then we did wushu line exercises. Kicks, punches, and so forth.

The two forms I was taught were Lohan Shiba Shou — the 18 hands of Lohan, and the Ba Bu Lian Quan — eight step linked fist. I was told these were the two foundation styles of both Eagle Claw and Praying Mantis — and were, overall, excellent beginner kungfu forms. I found the forms challenging but also exhilirating. The requirements of these forms — deep stances, strong endurance and leg strength, power and precision, were at once the same as and also completely unlike the Taoist Tai Chi I had been learning. Over the next several months Sifu Patrick Kelly explained many things to me such as, you must first learn to be hard before you can learn to be soft, lessons about “mothering”, and so on. Many guidance. But the one thing that struck me the greatest is that he expressed the fire of kung fu. There was something about him — something about the way he did his forms — which was special. Apart from others.

Sadly, after only perhaps five months I had to move away for my university. It was a very sad day for me. I won’t forget what he said to me when I left — that it was a pity I had to go because he was just starting to like me. It’s things like this that defined Sifu Patrick Kelly — an uncompromosing, almost Killik flair, a precision and a lively energy that shone off of him. I have to this day never met anyone else with the same visible skill as his — except…

In any case, I had made friends at that school and I will always remember those times fondly, even though they are in the past.

The magic begins to fade

After I had left University I went back to visit Ching Wu for a while, but things had changed. They didn’t really teach Kung Fu any more the way they did previously. In fact the people there seemed to have changed their tune and were of the opinion that Kung Fu couldn’t really be used to fight. In stead I was asked to spar with boxing gloves. I did it, but it wasn’t my style, not really. I wanted to go back and continue my education there. But I could not. Also, as I had fallen upon some hard times, I had to give up my practice almost a year earlier. I was not in the best of shape, and when Patrick Kelly came to visit the club, despite my enthusiasm about meeting him and learning again, he was at best lukewarm. It was understandable, as I did not live up to his expectations. I was deflated but not crushed over that. It was more of a push to resolve myself to resume my practice.

Over the next three years I had found myself living in Toronto, struggling to survive as a 19 to 21 year old (or so). I had many adventures in Toronto in those days. I lived in many different places, made many different friends. I had resumed the practice of the two forms Patrick Kelly taught me, and to this day I retain a passing familiarity with them, and will not forget them — but as it turned out I would never meet him again. I do not know what happened to him. And now that I live in Taiwan I have finally given up on contacting him. But, someday, it would be nice to just be able to say thank you. It is important because he was my first real Sifu, if even only for a short time. I recognized his value, somehow, and that had an effect on me which lasted. And for that he does deserve many thanks.

It takes three years to find a master.

I had spent many years touring the Tai Chi clubs of Toronto. Rising Sun, Eddie Wu’s, Ji Hong, you name it — if it was taught I visited it. I realized early on that Eddie Wu’s and Ji Hong were both excellent schools. In those days I did not know about Practical Method or I would have visited them. I visited the TTCS on D’arcy — in fact at one point I lived in an apartment just a few houses down from them. I spent many long hours in the parks of Chinatown learning from the older generation.

I had gotten involved in Taoism and Buddhism as a way to escape my depressing living conditions. I remember attending sunday lunch at the Chinese Buddhist temple near the park, because I did not have any money for food. They gave me some free books. Sutras, I think. I didn’t have a place to live at the time so I couldn’t really keep many things but I held on to those little books for a while. Some of the sutras really appealed to me and were very pretty to read.

I would spend hours in the Toronto Public Library AV section, watching Chinese operas and old martial arts performances. One of my favourites was the 1991 Canadian Taiji and Push Hands tournament which featured a performance by none other than Sifu Patrick Kelly. He was visibly above everyone else on the tape. It was astounding. I would often shed a tear of regret and wonder to myself, “What have I done?” as if all of it was my fault. It probably was, somehow. I could have practiced harder. I could have tried to stay. My life was a failure and I wondered aloud if I had only become a kungfu master instead my life would have been better. My education was a waste. I threw myself into practice even more and would often spend 3 or 4 hours in the park every morning with the seniors. I made progress but it was slow, and there was no one there to really guide me. I fell deeper into depression and almost lost everything.

Life was not working out very well for me. I had managed to graduate Humber College with honors but due to the 1999 tech bubble most people who were applying for the same jobs as I was had many years of experience and I did not. I stuck to my guns about it, and kept a stiff upper lip, but I never did find a job in the computer industry.

Woodgreen Community Center

One day I had heard tale of a Tai Chi instructor in Woodgreen Community Center. Whispers, really. I went to visit and I was utterly astounded.

I met two instructors there who had the same if not more energy and liveliness as Sifu Patrick Kelly. They even knew who he was and helped me solve the mystery. Apparently he had moved to China and was learning from a master there. Well, that explained why I couldn’t find him.

I recognized the value of what I was being taught but I had a very hard life and I was poor. The fact is I simply could not afford to go to lessons all the time. Nevertheless I practiced hard and within six months I had achieved visible results. Sifu made me demonstrate yilu in front of the class but I was mortified with embarrassment so I don’t think I did a good job. But was experiences like that (and a similar one with Patrick Kelly, a story for another day,) that I look back at with a certain natsukashiikute — I had spent a long time in the martial arts community of Toronto, visiting various schools — Andy James’ school, Li Lairen’s school, Hong Luck, Augusta Hung Gar, and many others. It was all such a wonderful experience. Today then is now 30 years later.

The Diary of a Failure

In the early years I had tried to learn from Sifu many times and I failed many times because of my karma. Because I was not ready, but mainly because my life was not ready and needed to be fixed. For a long time I struggled to fix my life. After a long time I was able to return to my Sifus, variously over the years. Finally in 2017 and 2022 I was able to return and finally grasp the most important lessons and to achieve lineage in our family system.

I used to think the most important lesson I was taught was by Patrick Kelly, which is to have the fire to push yourself. Yet now I realize that fixing your life first and taking your time with personal development as well as kungfu development is the greatest lesson. Sometimes, pushing yourself too hard will cause you to hurt yourself. I had never really believed this or understood similar phrases like “reach for the cart before the horse,” but one day I decided that I would accept it even if I did not believe it. It was only then that I realized the truly most important lesson was that I had to fix my life before I would be able to learn kungfu.

“You do not choose a style, you choose a teacher…”

And so I did what I could to just accept the way in which I was taught by my teachers. After so many years, they had made changes to their form. The 20 postures became 24. Moves in Yilu were changed. In fact in the end, I had to learn many things I didn’t want to learn — only to realize later that I actually liked them and to see how helpful they were! It was only when I was able to accept this that I was able to understand everything and make real progress. Not just in Kungfu but in my life. And, I will carry on these important lessons to future generations.

The New Wave

I am now the 4th generation.

This is both a blessing and a curse.

I never forgot anything my Sifus ever taught me. Even Sifu Patrick. I still remember what he said to me.. “The secret of Tai Chi is…” oh, but I can’t reveal the secrets of course. 🙂

I still remember what he said when I left. I still remember those two forms he taught me. Learning from him and Sifu David was a valuable preparation to my later studies; I remember what he said; ‘When you do the form in front of him, do it his way, and when you do the form in front of me, do it my way.’ This didn’t explain what would happen if both of them were there at the same time, but I didn’t ask. Years later I had the same experience with my sifus. But the different approaches taught me quite a lot about what the form is and how it should be done.

When I think about how famous and important my teachers are, and their teachers before them, and Da Shi Wang, I am somewhat stunned. So instead I just look at it as if through a dream; the magnitude of it does not really affect me. What changed is that I came to understand that Sifu is a real person and not a movie star. This changed my perspective and made me understand that I could do it — I could succeed — that anyone could do it and all they needed was a dream.

I am the 4th generation now. There are others but they are not like me. This is a blessing and a curse. Many of them are more successful than me. Many of them trained with sifus longer than me. Many of them are better than me. But there is something about being last that I am very happy with. When I look at the others and see what they have done, and what they are doing, I wonder. We are all a family, but when is the family reunion? I feel like I want to stand up and say, everyone, let’s have a barbecue at my place! But, I live in China now, so no one would come.

The weight and the responsibility is numbing, but with hard work the load feels lighter and lighter.

It is now my responsibility to pass on and preserve these important traditions. It can be both a blessing and a curse; but one of the most important things my sifus taught me is that I get to choose which one it will become.

The new wave is coming! I am so excited!