Many people were surprised that a relatively young and petite female, with an advanced degree in Education and an established career, instead had chosen to open a kung fu and tai chi school to teach Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi in America. In fact, they were further intrigued when they learned that her Sifu, although a non-Asian man, is one who has committed much of his life to the traditions of Chinese martial art.
When I was very young, my parents were originally opposed to the idea of a girl learning any kind of martial art. But my intrinsic love for kung fu was too strong for me to succumb to the belief that only boys should learn something like kung fu or Aikido. It was not long after my family came to the United States as Chinese refugees from Vietnam, that I started my Wah Lum Kung Fu journey at the age of 12 under the instruction of Sifu Bob Rosen in Boston Chinatown. The journey continues to be enjoyable and rich as each year goes by.
Throughout the many years of learning, practicing, and helping to teach my kung fu siblings, I never had the thought of teaching my own students and I was quite content with these experiences. However, in 2000, friends of the family began suggesting to other friends that I could teach kung fu privately to their children, but when they asked me, I declined. A year later, the couple inquired again and I again recommended that they could go to my Sifu’s school, but the family admitted they didn’t want to drive to Chinatown. Then, in 2003, the couple asked once more. This time, I was open to the idea of taking on my own kung fu students, but I was also 8-months pregnant with my son and asked them to check in again after I had my child. A few months later, I accepted my own students and there in the driveway of my house was the birthplace of the Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy.
If anyone has ever tried to establish a traditional kung fu school in a semi-urban U.S. city before, then he or she may experience the common challenge of not only finding an affordable property but one with large open space and high ceilings that can actually allow for the practice of long weapons. But that was only the beginning of the challenges and adventures of starting my kung fu school and ‘sifuship.’ By now, I am sure that many great masters and grandmasters can relate to how they started their schools and what obstacles and successes they have had. I can only be thankful to these inspiring masters and grandmasters for their great examples. Particularly, I have my SiGung, Chan Pui and my Sifu, Bob Rosen to emulate and follow their honorable footsteps. However, it is my personal experience of being a female martial artist who has made the teaching of kung fu and tai chi her life’s passion that I would like to take the opportunity to share.
In martial art history there have been countless ‘herstories’, like the stories of Fa Mulan, Fong Sai Yuk’s mother–Mui Chui Fa, the O Mei Monks, and Yang Gar Nui Cheung (Yang Family Women Warriors). Yet in today’s modern martial art world, female martial artists have few traditional female masters and grandmasters with whom we may make connections. Fortunately, the trend in the U.S. for increased female martial arts participation is growing. We can now claim the successes of many more female martial artists, such, Chinese National Champion Grandmaster Chen Dao Yuan, Grandmaster Chen Ai Ping, Eagle Claw Grandmaster Lily Lau, Tai Chi Grandmaster Bow Sim Mak, and Wah Lum Sifu Mimi Chan, as well as the presence of other Wah Lum Pai female certified instructors, like myself. In the Wah Lum Kung Fu System, grandmaster Chan Pui and other older Sifus like Bob Rosen continue to foster more and more female martial artists and certified instructors. I believe the following factors have helped to create such a wonderful phenomenon.
Firstly, the 21st century worldview is more acceptable of females engaging and embracing martial arts as a life-style as well as profession. Secondly, within the Wah Lum System, Grandmaster Pui Chan has made it his utmost practice to respect diversity in every way, particularly, in racial backgrounds and gender. Thirdly, as I can personally attest to this, the practice of kung fu and tai chi not only enhance physical and spiritual health, but for females in particular, kung fu practices help build high confidence in multiple human dimensions—such as physical, mental, psychological, emotional, and cultural. And lastly, I can only speak loudly for myself, though I believe that many other practitioners and sifus, male or female, would also share this same motivation, which is that the building of a kung fu school provides a means for the building of a kung fu family consisting of members with similar passion and respect for traditions, hard work, self-motivation, discipline, and fellowship. When an instructor is teaching with the official blessings from the previous generation, it is a humble honor to stand as a part of a lineage of committed practitioners and masters to pass down and promote your martial art style. It is a traditional responsibility to spread and promote, called Fa Yang Guang Da. These last two factors are truly the most important reasons why I have decided to devote my life to the practicing and teaching of kung fu and tai chi. Nothing can fill my heart with more joy than to see young and old people alike, through the learning of Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi, gain and exemplify the values of self-motivation, fundamentals and hard work, respect for self, others, and for traditions, fellowship, high spirit, and the ‘mo tak’- the ‘martial way’.
In the relatively short time that I have been teaching in my own martial art school I have had a handful of potential students walked through my door and immediately walk out as soon as they discovered that the sifu was a female. As in any art that requires “kung fu” or “hard work” to master, when one seeks to learn a martial art with a prejudiced mind and heart regarding who or what shape the instruction should come in, then one has already lost a valuable opportunity to gain vast ground in the quest for good skills and knowledge, not to even mention mastery. Teaching and learning should always include humility as a prerequisite. During one’s life, we all learn to teach and teach to learn. With a school of my own, I am even more blessed to have my sifuship to drive and guide me in the deeper development and practice of Chinese martial art.
Martial artists, when the timing is right and the appropriate blessings are given from your master, consider teaching. Not every martial artist may want to walk this path. But as a sifu, one is expected to at least maintain good physical, mental, and emotional standards. Specific to females, physical characteristics as well as the process of aging are different from males. And family-building will physically interrupt practice for almost a year for each child you will bear. But don’t let these factors deter when the calling for sifuship is loud and clear. Spread and promote—Fa Yang Guang Da!