“You can compete if you want… but be sure you’re up for it. I’ll expect you to do well. It’s not going to be easy.”
So said my Shifu, James Yeh (葉晉彰), a master of Hung Gar (洪拳). It was an easy decision. I agreed to enter my first tournament after living in Asia for more than eight years. As an American living in a foreign land, it was nerve-wracking to consider going up against some of the best my adopted home had to offer. But at the same time, it was a serious challenge and if there’s anything a kung fu nerd like me loves, it’s a challenge.
I took the plunge and put my name into three categories of competition: Empty Hand Two-person sets, Southern Fist, and Long Weapons. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I immediately stopped learning new material and started dedicating all of my class time to improving my competition forms. We’d chosen three sets: the I-Pattern Taming the Tiger Sparring Form (工字伏虎拳對拆拳), the Taiwanese Tiger-Crane form (虎鶴拳), and the Hong Gate Staff (洪門棍).
I had worked hard on kung fu forms in the past, but this was an all new level. I realized that what I’d considered hard work in the past was nothing compared to the traditional kung fu teaching style. It seemed like no matter how many times I did the form, the best I could hope for from my teacher was, “That was… okay.” More often than not, I got a quizzical look accompanied by, “No. Do it again.”
Months passed and as I spent hours just repeating the sets over and over again I went through every conceivable emotion toward my forms. I loved them, I hated them, I was excited by them and bored by them. I discovered new subtleties and, just when I thought I’d perfected a move, I’d find a new challenge and realize I wasn’t even close to mastering it.
But that is kung fu. That is what it means to put in the time and effort. We had started to prepare in January. The martial arts competition was in May. The seasons changed, the damp cold of winter turned into the sweltering heat of summer and what had seemed like an eternity to prepare for the competition transformed from months to weeks to days. And then it was the morning of. On that hot Saturday morning at the crack of dawn, I stepped into the Taipei Sports Center in Taiwan to compete. Time was up.
The first competition was the Two-person Sets. And it was first thing in the morning. My partner, Cheng Xuan Zhang (張晨鉉), and I had arrived and started to warm up and stretch only to hear the announcement go out over the loudspeaker. The teams were being called to the mat to get ready. Flustered, we headed into the giant gymnasium and handed in our identification tags. Then we stood awkwardly to the side, waiting for something to happen. We had two surprises coming.
First, we discovered that there were only three teams registered for this competition and one of them had not even shown up yet. Weapon-based two-person sets were more popular by far and the empty-hand forms competitions were largely ignored. I grinned at my teammate. It looked like at the very worst we would be taking a set of silver medals home.
Then the second surprise came. Because there were only three teams, there would be only one medal. Gold would go to the winners and nothing to the runners-ups. The grin faded from my face. It was all or nothing.
The first team stepped up and I could feel my heart pounding when I saw them bow. The reality of standing in front of the judges was just hitting me and I was suddenly worried. As it turned out, I needn’t have been. As they made their first few attacks and blocks, I saw that the other team was tentative in their movements, afraid of missing a block or making a wrong move. They weren’t bad, but they clearly had not put as much time into preparing as we had. I felt my shoulders drop as I relaxed a little.
While we were watching the first team and shaking out our arms and legs, two little boys approached the mat. They couldn’t have been out of forth grade by the look of them. They were the missing team. In that moment, I was sure we had that gold in the bag!
The first team finished and we were up. My partner called out the command to begin and we stepped forward and bowed. We moved with power and intent, ready to show off how hard we’d worked on the form.
What happened next, neither of us are quite sure. All I know is that we turned to face each other and something was not quite right. He had the wrong foot forward. Then I realized he was staring at me, too. I looked down and realized that I had the wrong hand out. But we were already in motion and we could feel the eyes of the judges on us. We weren’t about to stop the form just because we had a rough start. We were determined to do our best!
At least that’s what I told myself as we went on to do wrong move after wrong move. Our nerves were immediately frayed. We were all over the place!
Still, we had spent months throwing punches and kicks at each other. We knew each other’s attacks and defenses almost as well as we knew our own. Much to my surprise, I found myself blocking automatically when he threw an unexpected attack and he stopped every one of my moves that had wandered out of place in the form.The two-person set had worked! We had learned how to use the form’s moves in any order! Unfortunately, we were learning this in front of a panel of seven judges. We finished and stepped off of the mats, waiting at attention for the judges to tally all of the scores.
I looked up at the stands to find my Shifu. He looked as shocked as we did. He seemed to be saying, “What was that?!”
Finally the judges read out the scores. We’d beat the previous team. Relief flooded over me. We bowed to the panel and stepped off to the side and high-fived. As long as the kids weren’t totally awesome, we had that gold in the bag. Well, the kids were totally awesome.
These two tiny little boys stepped out and proceeded to do one of the cleanest, sharpest, most meticulous mantis sets I’ve ever seen. My jaw hit the floor. I looked back up into the stands at my Shifu. He was shaking his head. Those kids were awesome. We’d later find out they were the grand-students of the legendary mantis master Gao Dao Sheng (高道生). No wonder they were so great!
We waited with bated breath for the results. The scores were in and… the kids slid in just below us. We’d won, but barely. Elation and confusion overwhelmed me. We’d won! But how?
Later, watching the video of our competition with my Shifu, we realized two things. First, while the kids were amazing, their form was very basic. Our Hung Gar form was a very difficult and complicated one. They’d given us credit for that.
The second and more surprising thing was that we actually looked good doing the form. We saw on the video that we moved with intent and power. Strikes and blocks came with full force. If you didn’t know the form, you would have no idea how much we messed up. And it turned out none of the judges knew that particular form. We’d slid by on power and spirit alone.
And we’d gotten our first gold! But there was no time to celebrate. The Southern Fist individual form competition was starting immediately. My teammate of moments before had just turned into my biggest martial arts competition. We eyed each other and stepped back on to the mat. There was still a lot of action left in that day.
Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon.