KUNG FU TAI CHI 20 YEARS: Tiger Claw's KungFuMagazine.com Championships and 20th Anniversary Gala Banquet
by Gene Ching
For Chapter 1, see KUNG FU TAI CHI 20 YEARS: Set-Up
I was up at daybreak on Saturday morning. I spent the night tossing and turning, reviewing all of the plans for the weekend in my head, wishing I could've turned off my brain and got a little down time. But no. At the crack of dawn I got up, recited my baduanjin qigong, donned my Calvin Klein 3-piece suit, replete with Jerry Garcia tie, and strolled over to South Hall. The place was supposed to be locked as it was way too early for any reasonable person to be there, but Greg of Bad Ass Bunny Productions had already snuck in a side door and almost finished loading in his video equipment. So we sat and chatted for a bit in the calm before the storm.
Every tournament has a deadline. For the 4th Tiger Claw's KungFuMagazine.com Championships, that deadline was much earlier than usual. Because of the Gala Banquet, we had a serious time constraint. We had to start on time to finish on time, as a large portion of our crew would have to shift to the Gala. We had capped the number of competitors at 450 weeks before and organized all of those who were up first so that it could start on time. As any competitor knows, starting on time is a major hurdle for Chinese martial arts tournaments. There are many reasons for this: confused competitors, paperwork snags, late arrivals (remember the staff is mostly volunteers), all sorts of things can delay the start.
My Dragon Crew arrived right on time, all except for Dieter, who was delayed by the freeway closure, but eventually he made it and fell right in. I stationed the Crew with military precision. Four were new to the Crew but quickly found their roles. Jeff was competing, as was his kid, which surely garners extra points. While Jeff didn't place himself, his kid wound up winning one of the Grand Champion awards. Stephen's kids had both won Grands two years ago. This gives the Dragon Crew extra bragging rights as we're the only crew that actually fields competitors. What's more, they win, or at least their kids do. I gave a quick Judges' meeting (I had already given one a few weeks earlier) and we were ready to start on time.
Tiger Claw's KungFuMagazine.com Championships
Our Championship began with a major miscalculation. Now, there were several production meetings for the competition. They had mostly been in Mandarin, but my miniscule Mandarin skills have withered terribly as I haven't been back to China in six years. So at a certain point I had bowed out of those meetings and focused my attention on other issues. However, even if I had continued to participate in part of that process, I probably would have missed this one. It came from the First-Timer division, the one which should have had the least impact of all.
The First-Timer division is something we poached from the Karate competitions, where it is a popular common practice. The purpose of it is to introduce beginners to competition in a low-stress non-threatening way. First-Timers pay a special fee. They demonstrate their form before judges just like regular competitors, but there's no ranking of first, second or third. They just get an evaluation and a participation trophy. It's sort of a "first one's free" deal.
I've always had to temper my personal issues with First-Timers for the benefit of the tournament scene. When I started competing back in the Pleistocene era, there was no such thing. We beginners were just tossed in with the rest of the competitors. Heck, we were lucky to get trophies. Usually, it was just medals and not even the nice ones like we have today. Sometimes, all we got was some lame certificate knocked out by a dot-matrix printer. There was no softening of the blow. There were no puzzle mats, and definitely no wushu rugs. We had to walk miles through the snow just to get to the tournaments.
Okay, I'm exaggerating about the snow. After all, except for competing in China, my competition years were spent in the San Francisco Bay Area. But martial arts competitions were very different a few decades ago. There was a lot more at stake when a Kung Fu school entered a competition. The traditional schools saw it as a matter of face, and when it comes to Chinese culture, that's something to be taken very seriously. A traditional school would never allow a rank beginner to compete. We only sent our best.
Since then, a flood of Mainland Chinese masters have inundated the Bay Area. Now, in Mainland China, tournaments are government run. They are very organized, staffed by paid professionals, and overseen by municipal, provincial or national governing bodies. There's really no comparison to what we have here in America. Accordingly, many of the Mainland Chinese coaches have no idea how to approach an American-run tournament. They expect something quite different.
What's more, many of those same emigrant Mainland masters have instigated ranking belt systems in their schools. It's mostly for the kids, a necessary cultural compromise in order to stay competitive (keep in mind that the San Francisco Bay Area has more martial arts schools than anywhere else in America, not just Chinese, but all styles). Now, traditionally, belts don't exist in the Chinese martial arts, so these masters really have no idea how to run belt exams. This year, many of the masters were sending their kids to our First-Timer division as part of their belt examination. It's completely backwards from what the traditional schools used to do, but that was then and this is now. Given the climate of the Bay Area Chinese martial arts scene now, the First-Timer division has become a great way for students to get outside input, sometimes from some very noted masters, so it's all good.
Our First-Timer division has been on a steady climb due to these factors. This year, there were over a hundred and fifty entries, enough that we have toyed with the idea of doing a First-Timer only tournament someday. We figured it would be best to run the First-Timers first. That way we could get the regular divisions lined up and the First-Timers wouldn't have to wait around all day. What we didn't count on was that, despite all our efforts to soften the blow, to pad the asphalt, the First-Timers would freak out. Actually, it wasn't the First-Timers so much as the parents of the First-Timers. Being first-timers, they came completely unprepared and didn't realize some basic constraints of competition, such as not being allowed on the competitive floor. In a panic, the parents stormed the gates.
This stampede was complicated by another problem. Due to a last-minute issue, we didn't have a sound system. As a quick and unsatisfactory fix, I was given a bullhorn to make announcements. At the time, I confess I was excited at the idea of having a bullhorn. In retrospect, I have no idea why that appealed to me at that time. Perhaps it was something about the obnoxiousness of a bullhorn. More likely, it was a symptom of my addiction to massive sound (although a bullhorn isn't really massive; it's just loud). Of course, a bullhorn is completely ineffective in South Hall. South Hall is basically a huge, permanent tent over an asphalt lot, an acoustical nightmare, even with a proper sound system. With just a bullhorn, it was nearly futile to try to make any sort of universally audible announcement.
Now, there is nothing worse than an irate parent. I'm a dad, so I know. I've been one. Imagine a mob of irate panicking parents creating a huge crush at the staging area. And panic is contagious. It goes back to when the herd was attacked by wild animals. Fight or flight kicks in hard, on an instinctive level. This is how people get trampled to death. During my work in event medicine, I've been in plenty of mob scenes before. I've been in full-out riots. I've been at shows where gang wars broke out. I've been in auditoriums when some lunatic fired a gun. I've helped clean up a lot of the resulting bloody-asphalt aftermath. As the panic spread, I remember yelling commands repeatedly into that bullhorn, trying to direct traffic and assuage fears, to very little effect. Mostly, it was panicked parents yelling back, "We can't hear you!" so loudly that they drowned out my bullhorn.
Here, I must give mad props to our volunteers. They held the line. They were the real heroes of this calamity. Like true warriors, they rose to the occasion where most would have fled in frustration. Those working at staging desks tackled the parents' demands with as much courtesy and attentiveness as humanly possible. And my valiant Dragon Crew did their best to control the gates. Eventually, after what seemed liked days (it was only an hour or so), everything got sorted and people calmed down. I checked in with my Dragon Crew, and they all had that bug-eyed glare, like they just escaped a bar fight and nicked a free beer on the way out the door. One of the Dragon Crew, my shidi Ti (short for Tiger), confided with a shake of his head, "I've never had to say 'no' so many times in my life."
I didn't have time to really process that mob scene until two weeks later when I was working the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival for JAH Med. That was mostly reggae, which is incredibly bass-driven and loud – massive sound at its best. At one point, I heard some guy with a bullhorn that had an automatic siren function. My bullhorn for TCKFMC had only one siren; at a touch of a button, it blared out a totally unbearable "whoop" sound. The bullhorn at the festival played a siren version of "Für Elise." Who does that? Who programs a bullhorn to play one of Beethoven's most beloved and sweet pieces of music? It was so absurd that I started laughing uncontrollably, a sure sign that I was suffering some post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Once things subsided, the tournament ran as smoothly as could be expected and we miraculously got back on schedule. I'm still not exactly sure how that happened. Many of our guest VIPs jumped in and helped out, which was wonderful. I spent the day doing what I always do at TCKFMC: putting out fires, gathering judges, resolving complaints, directing competitors and getting things sorted, all the responsibilities shouldered by the guy in the suit and tie at a tournament. I even yelled into my bullhorn again every once in a while, just for fun.
As the transition moment from TCKFMC to Gala loomed, another challenge arose – my two special divisions. Like with the traditional rules, I've been a major advocate of special divisions for TCKFMC. One of the greatest assets of the Chinese martial arts is its tremendous diversity and I've always been eager to showcase those. Last year, we had several unique divisions, even an Iron Crotch competition under the direction of Grandmaster Tu Jinsheng. This year, we hadn't emphasized the special divisions that much because of all of the other things happening, but there were two that fell directly under my responsibility. The WildAid Tiger Claw Champion and the Songshan Shaolin Champion divisions were my babies. Because they were special showcase divisions, they lay outside the regular schedule, which meant that they kept getting pushed back to the very end. And of course, they wound up being run at the same time, so I found myself dashing back and forth between the two, making sure all went well.
For the Songshan Shaolin Champion, I was delighted to have my master Shi Decheng as a judge. Alongside him was Wang Lu (Shi Yantuo), who I trained under for a spell, and Xu Dezhen (Shi Xingsheng), who I've collaborated with for some articles in the past. Also, Grandmaster Bai Wenxiang sat in. He wasn't officially judging, as this division requires all the judges to be of the Songshan Shaolin order, but he had struck up a friendship with my shifu, so he was hanging out for support. One of Decheng's strongest Kung Fu powers is that he makes friends easily. It's one of his many skills that I hope one day to master. The division ran smoothly and Yang Chengjun won it for a second time, and I confess that perturbed me a little as I hoped someone else would win and share the wealth a little more. But Yang won fair and square. There's no contesting that his Shaolin Kung Fu is excellent. You can see his taizuquan entry on our YouTube channel .
The WildAid Tiger Claw Championship is more high profile. In fact, it's our most high profile division as it is a benefit for WildAid. I was scrambling to get it rolling when Master Jimmy Wong kindly offered to help. He was my savior. Master Wong runs Legends of Kung Fu, one of the biggest Chinese martial arts tournaments in America. I have had the honor of covering that tournament since 2000 and have enjoyed every one. In fact, this year is the first time I have had to skip it because one of my shidi is getting married. That shidi has been a stalwart Dragon Crew member for years, but he had to skip this year because of his nuptial obligations. Anyway, when Master Wong volunteered his services, I knew it was in great hands. As a tournament promoter, he had been offering encouraging words to me throughout the day. He kept saying with a chuckle, "Your voice still hasn't gone out all the way. You're okay." In a flash, Master Wong pulled in a fantastic panel of judges, all cover masters, including Master Dennis Brown, Master Mimi Chan, Master Hoy Lee, Master Liu Siu Hung and Master Tat Mau Wong. The entire division is up on our YouTube. See WildAid Highlights, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Sun Qibo won with a bajiquan performance. You can see his entry in Part 4 as well as in a video dedicated just to his demos.
Once those two events were done, I rallied the Dragon Crew to transport gear to the Gala.
KUNG FU TAI CHI 20 YEARS Gala Banquet
When I arrived at the Gala with the Dragon Crew, we didn't even get a chance to catch our breath, let alone eat. The Dragon Crew was instantly stationed at the doors to thwart gate crashers. The Gala had sold out weeks beforehand, and many were shut out. We barely had a chance to admire it all as the dining hall looked fabulous. Jennifer Oh's décor team had done a stunning job, and the balloon dragon and centerpieces by Lea Beck were a smash hit.
Once security was in place, I was tasked to be one of the speakers alongside Tiger Claw Founder Thomas Oh and President Jonny Oh. I had composed my speech in my head beforehand, even run through it a few times during my sleepless Friday night, and was fairly confident about it. My plan was to say a few words of gratitude, but mostly give props to Tiger Claw, as I knew Thomas and Jonny were too humble to toot their own horn, and Tiger Claw had invested so much money and resources into this event that they needed someone to give credit where credit was due. Plus it never hurts to kiss up to the parent company.
My speech didn't go as planned. I don't consider myself that skilled at public speaking, but I'm not intimidated by it. But when I got up and started into it, I looked into the crowd and started to freeze. All of those masters and grandmasters staring back at me started to freak me out. Any master of merit has jingqishen, that unique expression of power, vital energy and spirit, and that is expressed through the eyes. Looking out at that gathering of masters, with all their jingqishen beaming through their peepers directly at me in the spotlight, was overwhelming. It was thrilling, in the original sense of the word. Thrill comes from the Middle English term thrillen, which means to perforate or penetrate. It was usually used in reference to archery, as in to be "thrilled by arrows." It's also where we get the term "nostril," from "nose thrill." I felt myself standing on the stage like a target, being thrilled by the qi of all those masters. While I got through my speech relatively smoothly, I was clinging to my microphone with both hands like some tiny shield against those arrows of qi. I wished I still had my bullhorn.
Once that was done, all I had to do was back up the show, which was a minor task by comparison. I didn't have to think anymore, just respond to those who needed help, which was mostly queuing up the masters to perform in order. But as the event was so formal, the masters were on top of it and brought their best game to the stage. I snuck a quick shot of whiskey, paid for at the bar along with a heavy tip for the bartender, and finally started to relax a little.
The show was phenomenal. We kept the exclusive rights to the footage, which meant the Dragon Crew did their best to crack down on any cell phone filming. Even after numerous requests not to film, a few students just couldn't resist. The DVD will be given away for free to subscribers only. If you want one, be sure to subscribe by September 13, 2012. I wish I could have enjoyed it all in person, but I still had responsibilities that took my attention away from the stage, plus the Dragon Crew had to rotate out to eat as we were all starving. Again, Ti put it succinctly. When some Shaolin monks came to the gate with a sledgehammer for Shi Yanran's qigong demo, Ti turned to me and said, "Well, you know it's a party when someone brings a sledgehammer."
After the Gala finished, there was an after-party at a suite in the Hilton. The original plan was to have Téance, one of the sponsors, do some sort of tea service. That never happened. Instead, everyone gathered and chatted loudly, basking in the post-Championship/Gala glow. The room was packed, standing room only, and there just might have been some alcohol brought in by some of the attendees, which wasn't permitted in the Hotel agreement. It didn't last, as Hotel Security came up and shut us down for being too loud. They were as polite as could be, and while there were some jokes circulating about telling security that if they could move the oldest guy in the room out, we'd all leave peacefully, but in the end, the masters and guests dispersed calmly. There might even have been some alcoholic shots done in the hallway as security cleared the room, however I categorically deny any knowledge of any of that.
My two shidi Chris and Dieter accompanied me to the hotel bar, where we started drinking Guinness. Honestly, I don't know how many beers we had. The bartender kept saying "last call" and then we'd buy another round, tip her generously, and then a little while later, she'd say it again. It was like "wash, rinse, repeat" but with Guinness. Chris and Dieter are from different martial lineages, so it was the first time they had met, but they quickly got to know each other and bonded over beers. Meanwhile, I found myself sitting next to that Easter Egg from the load-in video, mentioned in chapter one of this report. Anna Marie was the personal assistant of Joe Ellis, who served on our Organizing Committee. Some drunk observers that evening asked me the next day about how that went, but despite the bar and the booze, it was far from prurient. Although this sounds cliché, we had a great conversation about horoscopes. Seriously. At least that was until a certain Tai Chi master, who will remain unnamed here, spilled a drink all over my Calvin Klein 3-piece suit. "I don't know what this is," he told me apologetically about his drink. "Someone bought for me. I drink. I like. I get more." Both of my shidi, along with the student of the unnamed Tai Chi master, thought that was so funny they nearly fell off their barstools.
That night, I slept like a stone for a whole three hours, maybe more.
KUNG FU TAI CHI 20 YEARS Gala Banquet Masters' Demonstration
In order of appearance
- ACT ONE
- Masters of Ceremonies: Christopher Pei and Wang Yin
- Master Mimi Chan
- Grandmaster Chan Pui
- Master Jin Le
- Grandmaster Bai Wenxiang
- Master Grace Wu-Monnat
- Master Helen Liang
- Master Dennis Brown
- Grandmaster Chiu Chi-Ling
- Grandmaster Li Siu Hung
- Grandmaster Kenneth Lin Xiang-Fuk
- Master Benny Meng
- Master Jack Xueli Fu
- Grandmaster Tu Jin-Sheng, Jack Tu and family
- Master Zou Yunjian
- Grandmaster Wang Zhihai
- Master Daniel Tomizaki
- Master Jonathan Miller
- Grandmaster Dino Salvatera
- Grandmaster David Chin
- Master Chris Heintzman
- Master Chen Bing
- Shaolin Monk Shi Decheng
- Master Mimi Chan
- Masters of Ceremonies: Jack Tu and Jenna Davi
- Phillip Wong and Zhang Hongmei
- Grandmaster Alex Tao
- Grandmaster Chen Tongshan
- Grandmaster Ren Guangyi
- Master Chenhan Yang
- Master He Tao
- Grandmaster Jimmy Wong
- Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming
- Master Wayne Peng Wen
- Grandmaster Shou-Yu Liang
- Dr. Chi-hsiu D. Weng
- Grandmaster Lily Lau
- Grandmaster Hoy Lee
- Grandmaster John Leong
- Grandmaster Tat Mau Wong
- Grandmaster Shi Yongyao
- Monk Shi Yanran
- Phillip Wong and Zhang Hongmei
To be continued next week.
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