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 uncompromising, 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. Li Lairen, Rising Sun, Andy James, Eddie Wu’s, Ji Hong — you name it — even some other clubs, like Augusta Hung Gar, Hong Luck, and basically everything. If it was taught I visited it. I even rooted out some special gems, like one of Wan Lai-Sheng’s students in Alexandra, and one of Feng’s disciples that was hiding out in Toronto at the time. I even met a monk that did a strange form of internal arts that was like a combination of Sun Style and Chen Style. Never seen it since. But no one ever really struck me as being a match to Patrick Kelly. This doesn’t mean they were not good. In retrospect I might have been better off just going to Eddie Wu’s school — There’s really nothing wrong with that! But it’s just not how things worked out. During this time I spent many long hours in the parks of Chinatown learning from the older generation, following various groups throughout the morning.

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. Now, how did I find out? I’m not really sure. It may have been, I was looking for community centers to teach the 24 form in, as a volunteer, as a way to try and build up references for work.

When I went to Woodgreen however, 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 were fond of him! 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 the form in front of the class but I was mortified with embarrassment so I don’t think I did a good job. But it was experiences like that which defined my time with them. I look back at those days 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. Finding my sifus was like finally coming home, it was all such a wonderful experience.

Yet, meeting them showed me that in reality I was not yet ready to learn kung fu in the first place.

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, 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 kung fu 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 kung fu.

Even if you feel sick and horrified that you are not yet good enough, it is no matter, you must relax and take things one step at a time. Panic will not help, it takes time. You can take solace in the idea that walking the road is 99.999% of the art, and as long as you are walking the correct road, does it really matter where you are on it?

“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.