I get this a lot. People keep asking me about kung fu and MMA. I have traditional martial arts background, not only kung fu, but also karate. However, kung fu does define me and creates a big part of who I am. I got many messages from kung fu practitioners and also coaches, being very positive about both my wins and losses in MMA, and I am very grateful for them. I also got several comments, mainly from people here in Asia, about how MMA full-contact fighting is opposite of kung fu, too violent, etc. This makes me usually quite angry, not only because kung fu is fighting, but also because MMA is a rules-based sport, as opposite to often mentioned and promoted self-defense by kung fu practitioners, which is in fact much more violent than MMA. But that is a different topic. Transitioning to MMA with kung fu background is specific. I do not hesitate to start from scratch and get lots of beating, because I understand that forms and fighting are not connected naturally, the bridge needs to be built. And that is what I am doing. Kung fu definitely gives me many positive aspects for my MMA training, but today I would like to talk about one single thing, that I believe we do not talk about it enough.
Let me start with giving you some context. I am in traditional martial arts since 1999. Here, I talked about how I define traditional wushu (kung fu). Not only I am a practitioner and athlete, but also a coach of a traditional southern style called hung kuen, and I fight full-contact, too. This year at the World Championships in Emeishan I took the 4th and 6th place, competing with hung kuen forms in “gun” and “other nanquan” events.
This spring I also competed at the European Championships and I was very delighted to see what EWUF is doing for traditional wushu. It is a huge step forward, really employing people who are experts in the field, to build the standards based on actual traditional styles. In IWUF, on the other hand, you can often see at the traditional events very awkward performances, because athletes simply take out nandu from their forms, or create something highly creative but closer to dancing than traditional wushu, often seen for example in the “imitation styles event”.
This time it will be a bit rough. I have been living in different parts of Hong Kong. At first I was trying to avoid English speaking community as much as I could, which brought me some deep (deep ≠ good) experiences. I realized that how I live here is a topic worth writing about.
I first moved to Hong Kong for a longer period of time as an exchange student. That was great, I used to live at a dormitory in the middle of hills, inside of a university campus. You could say in terms of living, it was easy. Then I came back to work here (and mainly train martial arts) and everything suddenly became complicated. When I look back now, it was crazy, and I don’t know how I survived that. If somebody would tell me how much I will need to sacrifice, I don’t know whether I would walk this path, but luckily, you never know how much you will need to pay, as it always comes in little bits and you are thinking, I still got this, I still can get through this…
With the World Kung Fu (previously called Traditional Wushu) Championships just behind the corner, I would like to reflect just a little bit on what is this traditional in traditional wushu. I say a little bit, because it is an enormous topic, and there are whole academic papers talking about traditional martial arts (search for example for articles of Paul Bowman and Benjamin Judkins), and I don’t want to spend so much space on it here. But I come from a traditional martial arts background, I train and teach kung fu, a style called hung kuen, and previously I had been practicing traditional karate for some 8 years (which is absolutely not contradicting my MMA training, though I am asked about this a lot).
Bai Si ceremony, or Bai Shi ceremony (depends if you are a fan of Cantonese Chinese or Putonghua) is usually translated as a bow to teacher or a disciple acceptance ceremony.
It is a huge step, and I decided to take it in Autumn 2017.
It was actually my idea. I came to Hong Kong to live in 2015, after studying hung kuen kung fu for some 8 years in Czech. I have already tasted the difference of the knowledge here in Asia and in Europe, and I wanted more. I wanted to learn deeper and I wanted all the details I could get. So I made this crazy life change and relocated here - but that is a different story. That time, I already had had few private classes with Wong sifu, so I knew exactly to who I am coming to. I asked to be his students after few months of training with him, and he said: “It is not important if you call me sifu or not. Important is, if it is from hear to hear.” Yep, I made a good choice. Few short years after, I wanted to make it official. Not only studying under Wong sifu, but also it was a statement of my whole journey.
So I asked my sifu, Wong Chung Man, if I could bai si to him. So far, no one did in our lineage. So it was a bit tricky. Because, actually, does anyone remember how to do this stuff?
There were moments when I thought: Hey! I want to write a blog post about this! And… nope. I was postponing until the topic was no longer hot, so I decided I will do a long one for spring 2019. Looking back now, I am proud that I really sit down and wrote it, and it’s not even Christmas yet!
Fight in Thailand
I was desperately seeking for a fight in Hong Kong, but I just could not get any. After few months of frustration, I liked all the MMA facebook circles in Asia that I could find, and through that I heard about this competition called K Warrior in Thailand. This amateur MMA event at the end was absolutely great. They did everything so that we, amateurs, could feel like pros. There was music, lights, walk in, public weight ins, stare downs, live stream, commentators… 20 out of 10 would go again!
The problem was, not only it was 4 hours by car north from Bangkok, but I had no team willing to go with me. I found out that Tiger is going, so I was waiting to see who exactly and if they could corner me, too. The time was coming close and I still didn’t know, so I decided I will go anyway. Even if I have to grab a random Thai person on the street and drag him to the cage, “You will be my corner now! Here is my water bottle!”, simply, I was going to have that fight!
In spring 2017 I, for the first time stepped in an MMA gym. For all reasons one can have for starting MMA, I actually just liked the open gloves, thinking that may be great for my kung fu. I didn’t give grappling even a single thought. Well, I guess I should have done more research on YouTube, but that’s a different story.
So, I started, and while the coach shouted at me being on top of a lying person: “Hit him in the head! You will get more points!”, I was thinking: Wait hell no, I am never gonna compete in this, I have really zero interest. Then, during a second class, I sprained my ankle badly, which put me away from training for 2 months and then my kung fu World Championships came, so I again started in another gym in January 2018. (And actually competed for the first time in June 2018.) I kind of have an anniversary of one year behind me, training at Shooto Gym and also having 3 camps at Tiger Muay Thai. I got absolutely hooked. So as much as I perceive myself green, there are some changes that I noticed already. I guess they are worth telling, especially for people who consider starting too.
What did I learn from MMA?
In the last months, I have realized that a simple decision is often all that is needed. I would look at a fight card, no matter how pro or amateur level, and think: Oh, these people! They are special. They are strong, and they are not scared, and they are conditioned. They are not me. I am not them.
I would draw a line between they and I myself. It was my unconscious decision.
Now this: I spent 10 years not fighting. Because I felt I am fragile, and I was afraid, and simply I thought that those people must have done something special that made them superhumans, so they could fight; and I didn’t.
In 2018 and 2019 I finally got some fights, even though very green and very amateur, but there is a huge step between amateur fight and no fight at all. And I was shocked, when I realized that nothing changed about me at all. It is still me, with my fears and it is still my own body.
In my PhD thesis call Psychological Collectivism and Mental Toughness in Traditional Wushu (kung fu), I asked among others what makes people mentally tough. You know, being able to face stress and still push forward. And to my surprise and against all the theories so far, my sample size was not getting mentally tougher because of the number of competitions they joined. Not even because of how long they have trained. The difference was in a single variable, which was “what do you think your level is”. I could not measure their level, because there are no belts in wushu, etc. So, I simply based it on the subjective opinion of “what is your level”. And this subjectivity came out to be very important. Because the key was, if you believe you are of a higher level, no matter the real numbers of years spent training or the number of competitions joined, the higher will be your mental toughness.
I remembered that when I was thinking about this magical line that I drew in between me and them, the real fighters on the fight cards, so distant from me. I need to do something first, so I am not afraid, I thought. Or so I am OK to be hit. Last week I had my second fight, still very amateur, but it was a big deal for me because I was for the first time in a cage and without helmet. Some of my friends told me: “You are so brave! You were not scared at all! I could not do this.” And it hit me, that they saw me not as me, but as one of them. And I thought it is very funny, because I was very scared and definitely felt more like me than like them. But it was my decision to erase that line I drew in my head. It was just a single decision. Once, while training at Tiger in Thailand, I sit on the mat, totally happy after training, and I thought: Hey, maybe I too could do this?
Meanwhile it is still me, with my fears. Hopefully, the magical transformation will appear somewhen on the way?
An article I originally wrote in Czech language for the Martial Arts magazine published in Czech Republic (Bojová umění, 9, 74-75), with a bit of exaggeration about the way you may travel Hong Kong if you are a visiting kung fu lover.
For the southern China martial arts lovers Hong Kong is fatal: we all want to get there, and as soon as we arrive, our soul is lost. It all start with stepping out of the airport arrival hall, where the humid air with a mixture of scents from meals and incense sticks attacks the tourists, and kung fu being present almost everywhere – that is why Hong Kong gets under your skin so quickly. Hong Kong is one of the places of something we could call “kung fu tourism”. We could count in for example Shaolin temple, Wudang mountains or Foshan. Besides the foreigner coaches and students, who come to Hong Kong almost every year to visit their teachers, there are always numerous groups of people who lust after a bit less intense training, but the more colourful view for their eyes, the kung fu tourists.
In Hong Kong, kung fu can be seen wherever you walk. Even thought the youngsters nowadays prefer tae-kwon-do, still you can often catch a sight of some kung fu legacy in the TV advertisements (for example telling you to check the the condition of your building) or on the posters (if you are at a construction site, wear a helmet! – said the kung fu construction worker). If you turn on a TV, there will be someone fighting in almost every single TV series. In a poetic way, of course. We are no brutes!
First steps of many will lead to the legendary, but still not enough well-known performance at the Kung fu Corner. In the Kowloon Park, every Sunday afternoon, one local kung fu schools will organize two hours program, and ask their friends-masters to also join. They all will create a performance containing kung fu and lion or dragon dance. Just follow the sound of the drum or rushing people with a weapon over the shoulder. It is unknown beforehand who will perform, so the quality may vary, but if you come for the beginning (2.30 pm), you will see the lion dance and also taste today’s kung fu practice for the next two hours. The biggest masters usually sit in the audience. Yes, those old gentlemen, who record the show, use their fans and brag, that is the generation that still used to fight on the streets.
On Sunday it is closed, but after a whole day spent eating dim sum dumplings, drinking pu-erh tea and cursing the icy air-conditioning, you can head to this kung fu shop on Monday. It is called Ka Fok Sports Supplies Limited on the Kwun Tong MTR station. It is the biggest kung fu shop in Hong Kong and you will regret your visit bitterly. Clothing, shoes, weapons, drums, lions, back scratchers, punching bags… you can find anything here. Just, you won’t have enough money for all of that. The shop owners are of course practitioners themselves, too, and will probably like to take a picture with you. Later, you can find yourself on Facebook. And because they know well the misery of shopping tourists in their shop, they are able to send you a package directly to your home.
It is really difficult for anyone to get through the Tin Sum village during the festival. The streets nearby are full of lions and drums. Earplugs, good idea. Earth God, or Lord of the Soil and Ground Festival is celebrated once a year. It seems that all lions from Hong Kong arrived.
I can actually really count around 20 minimum.
This event is very very loud, it takes several hours to be able to hear again. Lion dances together with their schools march through the street to a football field, just big enough to take in all the people. It is very easy to get lost here. Well, unless you are a foreigner. You are probably the only foreigner there, to be honest.
After lions bow to each other and welcome each other, schools light the insence sticks, pay respect and find their table. It is a plastic table with plastic stools, like a garden furniture. The only food here is a big bowl on each table filled in with meat, heated by a heater underneath. There is also some rice. But the food is not the purpose of this event.
The main part is the meeting, gathering of friends, masters, lion dance and kung fu schools. Going around the tables and toasting with a beer is a custom, that even I, a foreigner is more than welcome to do so. This time I took two of my friends with me.
"You know these people?" they asked after we lifted on their feet the whole bunch of people sitting at one table, shouting cheers in Cantonese. Some groups I know, some I never saw before. But it does not make any difference.
Here everyone is connected. And this is such a special celebration in Hong Kong, far away from the city and even including crackers (otherwise not allowed in Hong Kong), that you indeed sure have some connection with these people, so you are able to know about it and be here.
I have been practicing martial arts since 1999. It became the reason for moving to Hong Kong and it guided many of my life decisions. I am addicted to hung kuen kung fu and MMA. Further blog posts are sharing of an enthusiast.
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