Interview with Sifu Mai Du, Founder and Chief Instructor of the Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy

The Wah Lum Athletic School celebrates its 40th anniversary this April. The Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy, located in Malden, was founded by Sifu Mai Du in 2004 in her driveway.  Today, the Academy is the stomping ground for over 100 students, the majority of whom are youth.  The Sampan catches up with Du about her life experiences – everything from growing up in Boston to running a kung fu school in Malden.

Sampan: Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up?
Du:  I am ethnically Chinese, but am from Vietnam. My extended family members were refugees who escaped Vietnam after the Vietnam War in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I came to Boston, MA on Halloween of 1984, a night full of goblins, witches, and vampires, at Logan Airport to begin our American Dream. Our family settled in Chelsea, MA for more than 5 years before we moved to Malden. Unfortunately, two months after we got to the U.S., my family was robbed in our first apartment in Chelsea, where my sister was held at knife-point.  As you can probably tell, we had a rough start at the beginning of our American life.

I moved to Malden and started my high school education at Malden High. I obtained both a B.S. in American Studies and a M.A. E.D. from Tufts University for concentrations on Community Service Learning and Schools and Community Collaborations. I worked at Harvard School of Education with the Urban Superintendents Program for a wonderful year and then settled at the American Red Cross of Mass Bay for 8 years, having served as the Director of Youth Programs and Volunteer Resources.  My work with young people at the Red Cross was most rewarding.

Through a rich and rewarding journey of Asian American and youth activism with the Coalition for Asian Pacific American Youth (CAPAY), I eventually claimed my stable racial identity as Chinese Vietnamese American. Through my life-changing experiences with CAPAY and other valuable civic organizations, such as the YWCA and AACA [Asian American Civic Association], I hold a deep passion for youth leadership and empowerment work. I believe that we should be relentless in the work of instilling hope and inspiration in our younger generations so that they have self-motivation, life skills, and a vision to take their futures heads on. I have tremendous respect for young people, particularly for those who have good values and persevere.

Now, as a kung fu and tai chi instructor, I continue to thoroughly enjoy having young people in my life and helping to guide them to develop strong values, life skills, and good health— mental, physical, emotional, and psychological—so they will lead a meaningful and productive life for themselves and others.  I do teach students of all ages and greatly appreciate the daily opportunities to teach and learn from them.  My Wah Lum kung fu and tai chi school was a vision for me to build a strong and diverse community and I think it has these qualities.

Sampan:  How did you get involved with martial arts?
Du:  When I was much younger in Vietnam, my entire family was involved with different martial arts. My parents and sisters did tai chi for health in the very early mornings with a group of people. My brothers did Judo and Aikido at the recreational center. I was the youngest in the family. They didn’t even consider involving me in any of these activities.  But I had a love for martial arts. I just knew it.

When I came to America, movies from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, provided hours and hours of entertainment and connections to our ethnic roots. I was particularly obsessed with the kung fu movies. When I watched them, I always felt my blood rushing with excitement. I always loved the moral values and strong sense of social responsibility in many of these movies.
So one day, I asked my father if I could learn kung fu in Chinatown. He had declined before and said that because I am a girl, I should not learn kung fu. But this time, he just said, “Go ask your mom.” So I did. My mother said, “Go ask your dad.” I took it as a “yes” and that was the beginning of my martial arts life at age 12 in Chelsea/Boston, MA. I soon persuaded my two cousins and my sister to learn too.  Without any research, the first kung fu school we saw, Wah Lum Kung Fu Athletic Association on Edinboro St. in Chinatown, became my second home for the next twenty plus years. My sifu (teacher) Bob Rosen, a man deeply devoted to martial arts and kung fu, became my second father.

Sampan:   How long have you been active in Malden?
Du:   I have been active in Malden since high school. I got really active through the YWCA Malden throughout my college years serving on the board. Soon enough, I got connected and involved with various Malden Asian American initiatives.

Sampan:   Can you give us a brief history of Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy?
Du:  I had a family with three children who asked me three times over several years to teach their children kung fu privately. They didn’t want to take them to Chinatown.  After I gave birth to my son, I told them I would teach them but we would have to do it in my driveway. My driveway was the birthplace of the Academy.  In September 2004, I began teaching with 9 students and soon loved having students of my own. I was encouraged to open my own school and I pursued the idea and found the perfect location on Ferry St. in Malden. The Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy was officially established in August 2006.

The school was always like a hobby. My work at the Red Cross and other community work were my main mental and physical engagements.  The Academy grew and grew without my serious marketing and outreach. My own kung fu and tai chi family in Malden became more and more important to me. Due to many changes at Red Cross, I finally resigned after 8 very rewarding and successful years to devote more mental and physical time at the Academy.  I thoroughly enjoy teaching and learning kung fu and tai chi. Through the Academy, I have found many ways to serve the communities in non-martial art activities. I have been very content.

Sampan:   What is your current role?
Du:  I am the Founder and Chief Instructor of the Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy—the school’s sifu.

Sampan:  Why was Malden chosen to be the home for the school?
Du:  My hometown has been Malden and my vision was to serve my home community.  Sifu Bob Rosen was kind enough to give me permission to establish a school so close to Boston.  Wah Lum Boston and Malden work very closely together to practice and promote kung fu and tai chi as an important part of Chinese and Chinese American cultures.

Sampan:   Size and demographics of the student body?
Du:  The Academy has a membership of more than 100 students, of which a handful is my nephews and nieces. About 65% of the student body is youth. The students’ ages range from 3 to 80 plus. We are quite racially diverse as the Malden community is one of the most diverse cities in the state.  The majority of the student body comes from Malden but many are also from Everett, Chelsea, Winthrop, Boston, Arlington, Salem, Medford, Melrose, Pittsburg, Lynn, Revere, Quincy, and Braintree.

Sampan: How are the youths drawn to the school?
Du:  Firstly, the school is located at a very visible intersection near the center of town so many parents drove by and saw us. But for many young people, it’s really by word of mouth where their friends or relatives are a member of the school and they invited them to try out. For many, the parents enrolled them so they can exercise more and maintain healthy body weight.  It’s great to see these students tone up and gain nice muscles, flexibility, and ‘appealing’ body structures.
The culture of the Academy is very traditional and family-oriented.  The main feel of the school is basically fun and respectful hard work where individuals of all ages either bring or gain self-motivation to do their best and to challenge themselves physically and mentally. In the process, lots of sweat, laughter, community involvement, and great potentially lifelong friendships emerge. It’s really a family. We care about, and take care of, one another.

Sampan:  How has Malden changed over the years?
Du:  Malden has become more and more diverse over the years.  The school system is the most diverse public school district in the state, with a high population of Asian Americans.  Just yesterday, I saw a McDonald’s ad in Malden in Chinese!  I was pleasantly surprised.  The city has a great feel and the civic organizations are very receptive and outreaching to the diverse communities within Malden. I feel that young working professionals actually stay in Malden and others move into the city for its convenient location of being close to Boston and for the MBTA Orange Line. Unfortunately, city governance still remains predominantly white, males.  Malden still has its many areas for growth and positive change.  On a whole, it’s a city that has great people, neighborhoods, organizations, and caring citizens.

Sampan:  What resources are available for new Chinese immigrants who reside in Malden?
Du:  I say there are some resources but not enough.  There are: Asian Spectrum that produces the bilingual/Chinese local cable programs to inform the Chinese community about what’s going on and promote and address certain social and health issues; Chinese Culture Connections that has cultural and social services to involve kids in culture and languages; Immigrant Learning Center for ESL classes, opened to all groups; City’s Parent Information Center that has Chinese language representation; Malden’s Great Wall providing mental health service for Asian American males among other programs; MAPAC, Malden High School has several Asian American/Chinese teachers and staff who can help new immigrant students to adjust into school life, and Cambridge Health Alliance that has been conducting various health initiatives to help address Asian American health issues.

Despite the above, of course, it’s still not enough. I feel that social services that many organizations in Boston Chinatown have been providing for decades can extend their work into Malden, such as those of AACA, CPA, AARW, and ACDC to just name a few. I truly hope we will find creative ways to make resources and services even more accessible to the Asian American residents of Malden.

Sifu Mai Du’s driveway was the birthplace of the Academy. (Photo courtesy of Mai Du)

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