By Ling-Mei Wong
Most 74-year-olds don’t train kung fu masters for three hours.
But Pui Chan is not your average senior citizen. He stars in “Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer,” a documentary directed by his daughter Mimi, and is the founder of the Wah Lum Kung Fu Academy and Athletic Association.
The film’s New England premiere was sold out in Boston Oct. 27, hosted by the Boston Asian American Film Festival. Attendees included Chan’s students, along with family members and Malden Mayor Gary Christenson. “Boston is when he came here and embraced the U.S.,” said Mimi Chan. “There was a great support network, with a great Chinatown.”
Born in 1938 in Sha Cheng, China, Chan was a hyperactive child who started his kung fu training at six. His master Lee Kwan Shan brought the Wah Lum style from Shandong province and found Chan a promising pupil.
Lee passed away, but his memory continued. Chan escaped from communist China to Hong Kong and trained with Lee’s advanced students. He found work as a sailor and traveled the world, all the while practicing kung fu at sea.
Chan’s uncle and brother emigrated for America, where he decided to join them. When he was turned back by New York immigration officers for not having a visa, he made the fateful decision to climb down a rope and swim an hour to shore.
From New York City, he settled in Boston with his brother. “This is where the Wah Lum tree was planted,” said Mimi Chan. “Obviously it started in China, but it was beyond what anyone thought Wah Lum would have been.”
Boston’s Chinatown in the ’70s was a different place, with the dangerous “combat zone” and seedy establishments. Chan strove to overcome discrimination by performing lion dances on Chinese New Year for the community. His performances were so impressive that he founded the first Wah Lum kung fu school in 1968 and rented the John Hancock Hall in 1972 for a full-scale martial arts show.
Chan and his family moved to Orlando, Fla., in 1980, where he built the first kung fu temple in America. He made a conscious decision to accept non-Chinese students, creating an international martial arts program.
Chan’s ethnicity and small build made him the target of racial discrimination. He was pelted with fruit at his Boston school and held at gunpoint in Orlando. No matter what, he never resorted to violence and resolved conflict peacefully.
Chan is not one to rest on his laurels. “I come up to Boston every year to certify the advanced students,” he said. “It’s no trouble for me, as long as kung fu flourishes.”
His whole family teaches kung fu, including Chan’s wife Suzy and younger daughter Tina. His eldest daughter Mimi runs the association’s operations, along with media relations and martial arts performance. Mimi has appeared in several feature films, thanks to her live-action performance for fight scenes in Disney’s “Mulan.”
Chan’s family gives him “peace of mind,” but he refuses to stay still. “My advice to new immigrants is to work hard,” he said. “That’s how I got my success. You need to put in more time — I go to my temple at 6:30 a.m. every day.”
Along with teaching martial arts, Chan gave back to the Shaolin Temple in China by leading the first U.S. tour group there in the ’80s. His efforts helped rebuild the temple and brought Shaolin masters to train pupils in America.
A tough work ethic and willingness to think big epitomize Chan’s legacy. “I wanted to share his life and all the lessons he taught through martial arts,” said Mimi Chan. “Even if you don’t do martial arts, you can achieve your dreams.
This post is also available in: Chinese