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GOING THE DISTANCE
"MEMOIR PART 9"
Photo by Genghis
ON THE DOJO FLOOR: Dog style kung fu.
Mike Willner and I entered the Asian Martial Arts Studio on Wooster Street in the Soho section of lower Manhattan, where we were disciples of Sifu Richard Chin's. It was our duty to open up the dojo ("dojo" in Japanese, also known as the kwoon, in Chinese. Since we taught both karate and kung fu at the Asian Martial Arts Studio, we called our school the "dojo" as a matter of convenience) for the night. This entailed sweeping the training floor, and mopping it if needed. The dojo or "kwoon" is considered a sacred place, where the utmost respect was to be paid. Of particular importance was the floor of the school, for this was where we plied our sacred trade: The practice and teaching of martial arts.
Ahead of the edge of the floor, was a seating area, with an altar situated on the right side. This altar consisted of a table with a silver bowl for holding sticks of incense. On the wall above the altar, was a photograph of our teacher's teacher, whose name was Chan Man Cheung. This man, we called "Sigung," an honorific title connoting that he was our teacher's teacher. Our teacher Richard Chin, we called "Sifu" if you were his kung fu student. His karate students called him "Sensei." In this picture, Sigung Chan Man Cheung was a young man with an impressive physique, who was shirtless. He stood next to an elderly man, who was his teacher. This elderly man was in fact, one of the five founders (who were all brothers) of our style of kung fu called Jow Ga kung fu. This founder in the photograph, was Jow Biu.
As you can see, the sacredness of the dojo or kwoon, required a strict protocol of etiquette, that was handed down from generation to generation from time immemorial. Mike and I each went to the altar, one at a time, and lit a stick of incense. Only disciples were required and allowed to light incense at the altar. General students were not given this honor. Then with the lit incense stick between clasped hands (as if in prayer), we each bowed three times to the altar to show respect. The origins of this ritual are obscure, but it is thought to have been rooted in Buddhist tradition. In any case, the number 3 is thought to have special significance in the Chinese culture, almost as if it were a magical number. Chinese culture is not alone in finding great significance and symbolism in the number 3. The number 3 also plays a great role in Norse mythology. After bowing three times with the sticks of incense, Mike and I inserted the incense sticks into the silver bowl, where the incense sticks would burn down until finished.
It was only after bowing in with incense, and only then, that we prepared to step onto the sacred floor. We removed shoes and socks, and went onto the floor barefoot, as was custom dictated by proper etiquette. Etiquette did not require us to wear our uniforms when stepping onto the floor, but we had to be barefoot. Just as a matter of interest, the tradition of practicing the martial arts while barefooted, was rooted in a completely pragmatic reason. Most people in China were poor, and therefore took their shoes off while training, to minimize the wear on their shoes. People simply couldn't afford to wear out scores of shoes while training. That's why I have to laugh when I see some kung fu schools that include the Chinese shoes that you'd find in tourist shops in Chinatowns, as a part of the uniform. There was no deep-rooted etiquette for that. Proper etiquette also called for bowing to the floor before setting foot on it, as well as bowing to the floor after stepping off of it. This applied to the teacher, and disciples and general students alike. After bowing to the sacred floor on some days, Mike and I found.....
Dog urine and feces on the floor.
One of our fellow disciples was Laura Gaines, who was not only Sifu Chin's girlfriend, but also the leaseholder of the property that our dojo was in. This gave Laura a complicated and special status with regard to the school. Laura had a German Shepherd named Tookie. Tookie had an unfortunate habit of pissing and defecating on the dojo floor, which angered Mike and me to no end. From a pragmatic point of view, this meant not only a perfunctory sweeping of the floor, but also a thorough mopping of it, and an extended airing out of the dojo. This canine latrine duty was not appreciated. Located at the back of the spacious dojo, were tall metal shutter windows, which we swung open to get rid of the stench.
This was a chronic problem because as the leaseholder of the dojo, Laura lived on the premises, as did her dog, Tookie. They lived privately in a series of Quonset huts that stood between the floor, and the entrance of the dojo. The property was also equipped with showers and a kitchen. I'm a dog lover, and have been all my life. In time though, I came to hate Tookie as much as Mike did, which was considerably. In our private conversations, we entertained elaborate fantasies of practicing our reverse punches on Tookie. Think of Tookie as a mobile heavy bag.
Of course, none of this was Tookie's fault. It was Laura's fault for not training her dog to do his business on the street, and for not following through with the walks that Tookie deserved. However, this experience with Tookie gave Mike and me some experience in Gow Kuen (dog fist style) kung fu, a first for the western hemisphere.
Sometimes in life, you have to laugh at the infuriating, just to stay sane. I'll give you another memory I have, which I find extremely funny, when I think of it decades later. The dojo had a guest Tai Chi Instructor named Mr. Chan. Mr. Chan was a compact but solidly built man in his 50s or 60s, who presented a kind and grandfatherly vibe. Mr. Chan though, had a passive-aggressive need to play domination games, but gently, gently, if you please, because he was a Tai Chi instructor. Chi and all that hocus-pocus, which I do not believe in. Mr. Chan sort of implied that he had secret knowledge of "Dim Mak" (delayed death touch), and he exercised the implication of secret knowledge, by unexpectedly placing his hands on people in vulnerable places. He did this while smiling at you and asking how you were. For example, he'd be facing you at arm's length away. Then he would suddenly place a hand on your ribcage, while making small talk with you. Before you knew it, his hand would snake in toward the target ribs (just inches away from your heart!) like a stealthy batwing bomber, under the radar and undetected, until after it was too late. By that time, the assumed damage-to-be was planted like an IED with a slow fuse. Then with a sly smile, Mr. Chan would check you for your reaction, and if the reaction consisted of sudden sweating and a nervous demeanor, that made him happy. For the gullible, this was truly frightening. These people would think, "Oh my God, did he just touch me with the delayed death touch? Will I die 24 hours from now, while watching 'Dallas' at home?"
The funny incident which still makes me laugh, happened some years after we lost our lease on the Wooster Street space, and after I broke away from Sifu Chin. At the time, the Asian Martial Arts Studio and my school, were both using the Third Street Music School for training space, before I moved my dojo further downtown, so Mr. Chan (who was still guest teaching for Sifu Chin) and I would run into each other, from time to time. On this day I'm thinking of, Mr. Chan as usual, came up to me and greeted me in his sneakily passive-aggressive way. Only this time, I stealthily attacked first. As we voiced niceties to each other, I suddenly placed both of my hands on the sides of his ribcage. Mr. Chan looked stricken! I could picture Mr. Chan the next day, wondering over his large bowl of egg drop soup, whether he would inexplicably keel over with a splash and a sigh. Mr. Chan's face went ashen, and he let out an audible gasp. I enjoyed that. Mr. Chan finally got a taste of his own medicine. That incident was funny to me to begin with, unlike the "Tookie situation."
This was the situation that Mike and I found ourselves in, with respect to Tookie-the-German-Shepherd-who-never-bowed-to-the-floor-before-pissing-on-it. In spite of this rank breach of eitiquette, the disciples always paid the proper respect by lighting incense, and after bowing at the altar with incense, we stuck the lit incense into the silver bowl, to burn down as we trained on the floor. After we lost our lease to the Wooster Street space, I was given the silver bowl full of years' worth of incense ashes to hold in my apartment. I was keenly aware of the significance of this bowl full of ashes, as it represented years of the expressed devotion of the disciples. After I broke away from Sifu Chin, I gave this silver bowl full of ashes to Jeff Pascal, another disciple, to hold. Later.