This summer my main focus has been my preparation for the 2016 International South Shaolin Wu Chu Chuan and Traditional Martial Arts Competition in China.
I attended the same competition three years ago in Quanzhou, and I won a Gold Medal for my Horse-Cutting Knife form, plus two Silver Medals, for my Tiger Leaves its Den, and Broadsword forms. So I have been absolutely determined to go back and win Gold again. No pressure!
Want to know how it all went? Here it is, in diary form.
Tuesday 15th and Wednesday 16th November
Having been to China something like six times before, it’s all very much business as normal. We depart Heathrow at 8.30 on Tuesday evening, the flight is around eleven hours, in theory overnight, so I should be able to sleep well, but, of course the economy seats aren’t that comfortable, even on Cathay Pacific. So I have my eyes closed for around six hours. I definitely sleep for at least four. I watch two and a half movies. I have two meals.
The interesting bits are before the flight – Kerry’s car breaks down on the way to work on Tuesday morning, and in the end she has to take a day’s annual leave as she is stranded, and I am (unusually, honest!) unable to really help as I’m packing, and I need to go shopping for some emergency supplies. I keep getting calls and texts from her – but I’m mostly useless, apart from being able to find phone and policy numbers for her. In the end, all sorted, and Kerry and the car are reunited in working order by about 6pm. Phew!
And, for the first time, my Horse-Cutting Knife is returning to its country of birth, as I will be competing with it this time, and then I don’t have to rely on borrowing one from our hosts. I do get some strange looks, though, as I carry it in its bag through the airport. Just look confident.
In the end, it’s all wrapped up in packing film by a man who needs to be persuaded that he really can wrap up our bundle of Classical Chinese weapons. Perhaps it’s the unusual shape. In the end I have to point at a sign he has on display which states that he can wrap any kind of luggage – this seems to do the trick. He manages to not even look that worried when the point of Danil’s spear comes right through the end of the bag as we are wrapping. All in a day’s work.
Then we’re in Hong Kong. Our connecting flight is delayed, so what should have been quite a tight transfer is now quite relaxed, and we have plenty of time for the traditional beef noodles (even if you’re not having beef noodles). The first taste of proper Chinese food is fantastic.
The internal flight is from Hong Kong to Xiamen. Whereas the passengers on the international flight are quite racially diverse, this flight is almost completely ethnic Chinese. There is a definite feeling of heading deeper into mainland China. The adventure begins!
After we are reunited with our bags and bundle of weapons, there is a ninety-minute bus ride to Quanzhou. I fall asleep on the bus despite my intention not to – I was hoping to stay awake so that I sleep well tonight. We finally arrive at the Quanzhou Overseas Chinese Hotel at around 10.30pm on Wednesday. We quickly drop bags off in rooms, then head off to a local street food stall where we have noodle soup with blood and tentacles (spelt correctly).
When we get back to our rooms there is a message on WhatsApp from Sharon reminding us to drink Bai Jiu (the local spirit, which can be drunk medicinally to kill the local bugs in our stomachs). Having none to hand we settle instead for some whisky, which we brought with us for just such an occasion. Off to bed at about 1.30 local time. If I can sleep properly I should still be able to get in six hours…!
Thursday 17th November
Breakfast in the hotel is good. My favourite is the noodle soup with dumplings and choi (green leaves). Yum! There is also, much to my relief, strong black coffee. Systems start coming back online… There’s even what could almost be called bacon, plus fried eggs too. A good start.
After breakfast we head out to the square near the hotel to train, getting our bodies moving again after the long journey. Muscles and joints are stiff and swollen and it will take time for things to start to return to normal. Lots of interested locals walk past, taking photos. One particular little toddler stands and stares for ages with her grandfather. She seems particularly taken by a certain tall Russian in our group.
At lunch Dennis decides that he will give us some last-minute tips to help ensure good performance at the competition. So patterns are dissected for precision, rhythm and expression. A very useful session! After a short nap, therefore, it’s out to the square again to start polishing our patterns.
Supper today is the opening event of the competition. Seeing that things have started to get formal, we do a quick turn around and head back to rooms to get changed into uniforms.
After dinner, whisky, and thankfully a much earlier night. To bed around 10.30.
PREPARING TO PEAK
It’s important to understand that I am a professional athlete, and I need to hit peak performance level on Saturday.
Preparation for the competition has been a juggling act. Of course it has meant an increased training schedule, with the extra travelling that entails. And normal life can’t stop just because I want to go to China and win some medals! My business still needs to be run, and Kerry and the kids need some of my time too!
I have managed not to fall asleep on the M25, but only just! Burning the candle at both ends caused my immune system to dip to the point of being useless, and a nasty cold in July eventually turned into pneumonia, and made proper training almost impossible for around six weeks.
The weekend before we left for China I came down with another cold, and my voice is still not back to normal. (Kerry is worried that this one will become pneumonia as well). I’m very focused on recovery – I will have to shout when performing, so my voice needs to hold up. My body needs to be at its best, and I’m working against the odds. The local food is not what my body’s used to, and I also have jet lag.
I might seem a little obsessed with sleep, and this is because I am. It’s a race against time – EVERYTHING has to come together for Saturday! Sleep is VERY important!
Friday 18th November
Jet lag cuts in, and I’m awake from 2ish to 4ish, but I do get back to sleep once I manage to stop going over my patterns in my head.
Notably this morning there is a huge meeting, all competitors are invited, with many speeches etc. The event has been organised by the Five Ancestor Fist (Wu Chu Chuan) fraternity, so most of the speaking is done by them. The abbot of the Quanzhou Shaolin Temple is present, as well as Mr. Su Ying Han of the Yong Chun Yi Yun White Crane Fist Association and his son (Mr. Su Jun Yi) and daughter (Mrs. Su Jun Yu) – all three are notable masters.
When the national representatives are called up to be presented with two books that have been published this year, it is my job to go up. I am photographed receiving the books, and meet some other National heads in the queue. It’s a very friendly group, although there are martial artists from many parts of the world. There’s a real atmosphere of brotherhood and shared vision.
Next it’s the obligatory group photo in the hotel car park where the sun shines so brightly into our eyes that it’s almost impossible to keep them open. Yi, Er, San, squint!
After lunch we head off to the local Kung Fu weapons shop – apparently my first form of the next sixteen patterns will be the hook spear – so that’s what I want to see. They have two, one of which is very nice, suitably expensive, and there may also be an issue with taking it home, but we can worry about that in a few days…! They have lots of good quality stuff, Danil wanted a yang straight sword, and Dennis wants some wicker shields (to replace the ones which never made it to the UK last time around). They have some very large, very manly-looking two-handed executioner’s broadswords, which are also quite tempting. My like for big swords is obvious when you see my Horse-Cutting Knife.
Then it’s time for a quick nap.
In the morning meeting we are encouraged to participate in a cultural exchange of training methods during the afternoon. With a fifteen minute slot in which to demonstrate and discuss as needed. It’s voluntary, so I decide with most of our group to opt for some light training instead. Danil takes up the challenge though, and armed with business cards, off he goes. The rest of us head back to the square for some more polishing.
Training is not too heavy – I don’t want to deplete my energy, or to get injured for Saturday, so it’s running through patterns, working on expression. Once again we are surrounded by onlookers bemused (impressed?) by the Westerners who are training Kung Fu. The rest of the afternoon is spent relaxing before a supper which includes beef tendon and frogs legs (both great for helping those aching joints).
In the evening we accidentally miss the rehearsal for tomorrow’s events. Hopefully not too great a loss. We relax, and I try not to watch any more of Chris’s videos. Some of them can’t be unseen…!
The evening whisky ritual continues, then someone mentions that they’re feeling peckish, so off we head to another street vendor for beef noodles. It’s quite a risk the night before the competition, but Dennis makes sure that the food is steaming hot before choosing it. Fingers crossed…!
So today is the main event – the competition. We have to wake up an hour earlier, but I had my first full night’s sleep. I feel like I have recovered from the jet lag fully, just in time for the competition. I don’t feel tired, I’ve recovered from my cold, and I’ve managed not to get food poisoning! It’s all come together, and I’m actually feeling good!
The bus leaves at 7.45am, and we arrive at the stadium. We form up behind the Great Britain sign, and listen to more announcements in Chinese. Then we find out what the rehearsal was for last night. We are doing a short demonstration in the opening show.
One of the key skills honed over the decades of Kung Fu training is staying calm and performing well under pressure, so we quickly plan to demonstrate San Zhan as a group. In a way, missing the rehearsal was a good thing – one less thing to worry about. It goes off ok. From where I am it looks fine, but I can only see Danil out of the corner of my left eye. Our timing was together for most of it. Hopefully everyone else was with us.
Some of the other team demos are really quite good, which is worrying. The standard of the competition has gone up in the three years since I last came. Those medals will be harder to win.
Then the competition starts. I’m up as one of the first in the morning, and one of the first in the afternoon.
HOW IT WORKS
The floor space is divided into two matted areas, each overseen by a panel of eight judges, all Chinese masters. When you go up to perform, there are normally two people competing on each matted area at a time.
In the minutes before going up for your category, the competitors are lined up in the corridor outside, and then you are called forward to queue just off the mats, awaiting your turn to be called onto the mats to compete.
When you’re called forward, salute the judges from the edge of the mats, walk on and salute again. Then find the best place to start and off you go.
Most patterns last somewhere between one and two minutes, so that’s how long you have to showcase your ability.
When you have finished, salute the judges again and leave the mats, then wait for the judges to show your scores on little white paddles. This bit is quite confusing, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whose score is whose.
Then, after an hour or so, the results are published on a board outside the arena.
THE TIGER LEAVES ITS DEN
According to my iPhone the outside temperature is 29 degrees, and it’s really humid. Inside the stadium I’m sure it’s hotter, but I’m so focused on competing that I’m not really aware of feeling uncomfortable. I just need to stay hydrated and keep my energy up.
I’m still in the 40-60s category, the same as 3 years ago, and I have the memories and analysis from my last competition under my belt, plus the experience of teaching several of my students to gold-medal-winning-standard in the proceeding years.
I know that when I go onto the mat I won’t be able to think about what I’m doing. It’s a case of not letting my mind interfere with my performance, and just letting my body memory take over. If I let myself think about what movement’s coming next, I may well hesitate or even forget my pattern.
Otherwise it’s time to try and blow the roof off, to output as much energy as I can possibly manage, and try to keep all of the changes that Dennis suggested.
This is when the adrenaline really cuts in, in the last moments before you go on. It’s truly fight or flight time. I’ve found that the fear can be ramped up to become excitement, so that the positive emotional energy works for me, rather than adrenaline making my movements stiff and heavy.
Off we go! I’m on the mats, and bowing to the judges. My pattern is Tiger leaves it’s Den, and I give it everything I’ve got, trying to outperform the other guy who’s on the mats at the same time as me, as well as everyone who’s coming afterwards. It goes well. No hesitations or mistakes, so hopefully the judges liked what they saw, and will score me well.
I come off the mat, trying to get my breath under control because I have been entered for a second freehand form, White Crane Flaps it’s Wings, and I should be going back onto the mats in a couple of minutes, but I suddenly discover that the organisers will not allow me to do a second form in this category. It’s difficult to argue about this. They don’t speak English, and my Chinese lessons haven’t covered arguing with officials yet. I think I get my message across, but the answer is still no.
This is a major setback because this reduces the number of medals I can win. However luck was on my side because the form that I have already done was my stronger of the two.
This also leaves a tactical decision to be made.
Which pattern will I perform if I can only choose one of the three I have been entered for this afternoon? I have brought my Horse-Cutting Knife all the way from the UK with me especially for this competition, as it is a more dramatic weapon than the ones I could borrow locally. (It’s significantly bigger and heavier). But after some thought I opt for my Luohan Golden Staff, which is my strongest pattern, especially as I’m being compared to other men in their 40’s and 50’s. I have really worked my jumps and low stances over the last couple of years, and this should set me apart from my competitors.
I run my decision and reasoning past Dennis on the coach on the way to lunch, and he is happy with my reasoning and that my intention is to show off my strengths, but doesn’t say if he agrees or not with my decision. So the choice is mine, and it is made.
LUOHAN GOLDEN STAFF
In the end it turns out that I can only do one weapons form. Although Chris argues with the organisers in Chinese about it, their decision is final, so I have only one last shot at a gold medal.
It all goes ok except for a couple of modifications I have to make because I’m not sure if I’ll have marks deducted for leaving the mat. I should have started the pattern further towards the centre of the space, and my modifications mean that I don’t finish in the same place as I started. When I finish, the competitor on the other mat is still going. As it is good manners, I wait in my finishing position for him to finish, and see he is doing a straight sword form. And he is good. The judges display their scores, and with some I’m higher, and some he’s higher. Fingers crossed!
I head back up to where the rest of the team is watching from the stands. They tell me that the morning’s results have been posted and I got a Gold Medal. Fantastic! Then I sit and watch, and generally enjoy the feeling of winning Gold. My events are over, so I can relax now. I look after everyone’s bags while they queue for their performances. Kerry had packed some emergency snacks for me, so I dig in and have a celebratory Twix.
Agnieszka returns from doing her freehand form, so I leave her to watch the bags for a moment while I go down to take photos of score sheets. As I start snapping I see that the results have already been published for my second event, and I have won a second Gold Medal. Yay! I’m on top of the World, and this definitely calls for a second celebratory Twix!
It’s a very long afternoon. Some of the guys have to wait until after a group of 150 young Chinese all compete doing the same pattern. Score sheets go up as we go along, and we eventually find out that the team has clocked up 7 gold, 8 silver and 4 bronze medals between us. We are at, or near, the top of every category we have entered!
Back to the hotel, dinner, whisky, sleep. I don’t sleep as well. Not sure if it’s jet lag or just my mind, but I lie awake analysing the day for an hour or two in the middle of the night.
HOW DO I FEEL?
Well, when I competed last time at this event, three years ago, I won a gold and two silver medals. Then, winning gold at an international level competition, in the masters age category, left me feeling completely elated for a long while afterwards. This time, though, the feeling is a little different.
When I won the title of AMA British Heavyweight Kung Fu Champion in 1993 for the second time, I felt that I had proved to myself that the first time wasn’t a fluke, and so it was more of a reinforcement of my belief in my own ability. This time it is quite similar.
It’s difficult to come back, because of the fear that you might not do as well as the previous time, so it’s tempting to stop there, with that gold medal under your belt. But doing it again forces you to get better to make sure that you don’t let yourself down.
Of course I’m thoroughly delighted, but I also feel relieved. I’ve proved to myself that it wasn’t just luck the first time around, and that I have understood the winning formula to be able to repeat it.
Today is the second day of the competition, but we have finished our categories, so head quickly to the stadium to collect our medals and pose for some photos before taking the one hour drive down to Yong Chun, the birthplace of White Crane Kung Fu, and home of Mr. Su Ying Han, with whom Dennis has had a twenty year friendship.
We visit his family home and his new training hall, which I haven’t been to before, although I am delighted to find myself in several of the photos up on the walls. I’m also quite touched to be taken aside at his home and shown a large (A4) photo of him teaching me in a local temple from around 12 years ago which is on his desk. It’s nice to be remembered!
We settle in, have a quick lunch, and then spend the afternoon training Yong Chun White Crane Kung Fu under the watchful eyes of Dennis and Mr. Su. In the relatively short time we have I manage to gain a new understanding of how to use my stance, from the perspectives of both Masters, and it’s something I can really work into my Kung Fu to improve it.
The food in Yong Chun is significantly better than the hotel food we had in Quanzhou. Quite delicious! At each meal, though, we consume several shots of Bai Jiu, which literally means white wine, but if you’ve ever tried it you’ll know that, at around 53% proof, it is like no white wine we have in Europe. It’s extremely strong; drunk from tiny glasses, and is an excellent prevention for the Chinese stomach bugs.
Interestingly, at the Wu Chu Chuan event there has been no alcohol whatsoever served with the meals. From my experience, this is very unusual in China. I can only imagine that it’s absent in order to avoid illness (trust me, in the early days of coming to China I have been very ill, drinking Bai Jiu) or other forms of alcohol-related trouble!
The evening meal is on our own as Mr. Su is spending the evening with his family. His grandson has won three gold medals on the Sunday of the competition, beating tough competition, including the Shaolin monks. He is trained really hard – his grandfather, mother and uncle are all Yong Chun White Crane Masters, and they are really tough on him. Outside of school he lives, eats and breathes White Crane. Really this is the only way to be the best!
After supper we visit a local tea shop where we sit and the owner serves us tea, following which the budding tea enthusiasts in our group buy tea sets and a selection of teas to take home.
It would be nice to go early to bed this evening, as I’m shattered after the competition, but we have an important tradition to uphold. The presentation of the medals, accompanied by shots of Mao Tai (A local perfumed spirit. Very strong, and not very pleasant!) The rules are quite simple. One shot for a gold medal, two for a silver, and so on. Our shot measure is a full teacup (they are provided in the rooms). I’m one of the luckiest, with only two shots to drink, but some in the team have to consume considerably more. The festivities go on until around 1am, when I send everyone to bed and collapse gratefully into my own.
Despite it being one of the hardest mattresses I’ve ever slept on, I quickly drift off, and sleep soundly right through.
Breakfast in the hotel restaurant brings back memories from previous years, particularly one hilarious Christmas lunch, where the hotel had obviously heard that in Europe we have goose for Christmas, so decided to serve us the same. But we had roasted goose, head, beak, and all, and so over-cooked that it had the same texture as plastic. It was almost impossible to cut, especially given that we were eating with chopsticks, and all served with boiled potatoes and plum sauce. A Christmas lunch I’ll never forget!
After breakfast we return to Mr. Su’s training hall to continue training for the morning, then it’s lunch with Mr. Su and his family, as well as a Japanese 8th Dan Karate master who has travelled from his country to learn Yong Chun White Crane from Mr. Su. At this meal there are lots of toasts, and by the end of the meal I’m definitely feeling the effects of the Bai Jiu.
Another thing that Yong Chun is famous for is its vinegar, so in the afternoon we visit the Yong Chun Vinegar factory, where those who don’t already have some at home buy another souvenir or two.
Then, after bidding Mr. Su farewell, we are driven back to Quanzhou where we have a date with the weapons shop again. I decide to opt for having a hook spear tip shipped to me in the UK once they have come back into stock in the shop. Danil buys his sword, Rob a tiger fork, and we pick up the shields for Dennis.
The last formal event is the closing banquet. During most of the event we have been in club uniform, this evening we dress up in shirts and trousers, and head down to the hotel’s banquet hall. There are a few short speeches, and then I’m club representative again. I go up on stage a few times to be photographed formally exchanging club flags with representatives from some of the other clubs there.
Then, lastly, representatives from each club are encouraged to go up on stage to demonstrate a form from their style. Now those who know me well will know that I am not a possessor of extrovert traits, and while I am prepared to come out of my comfort zone (with alarming regularity) in order to force myself to keep improving, I would genuinely much rather not go up to perform. Happily Danil is normally up for this sort of thing, and he agrees to go up. Looks like I’ve escaped!
The demonstrations go on for quite some time, and interestingly we see two forms which are very similar to our own Tian Di Lian Zhan, although with quite different emphasis, so when Dennis suddenly gets up and starts walking towards us from the seniors table, I think, “Oh no! He’s going to get me to perform Tian Di Lian Zhan!” But I should know by now that Dennis is not so easily predicted. Instead he wants me to perform the Suang Yang form. So off I go.
It’s another valuable experience for me. In hindsight I would change the way I finished, and I don’t think that my expression of the movements was as good as it could have been, so I know what to change for next time.
After the dinner it’s back up to our room. We thank Chris for all his help with organising everything plus his translation skills, and present him with a bottle of whisky. He is always brilliant when organising any trip we have to China. Thanks Chris!
Today starts at 3.40am because our flight leaves Xiamen at 07.30. It’s the same journey home as on the way out, with the same food stop in Hong Kong. The flight is longer, as the wind doesn’t favour us in the return direction, so I get to sit and write this blog, and watch a few movies. I’m trying not to sleep too much so that I can sleep when I get back. Fingers crossed!
And this pretty much brings the tale to an end.
As the plane lands I receive a WhatsApp from Kerry – my daughter, Eva, has been throwing up all morning, and I’ll need to spend the day looking after her tomorrow.
So it’s back to reality – and my proud family – we go! Lets see if these Gold Medals help me deal with cleaning up sick any better…