My world has changed very much since our last visit to China in 2018 when I took my son, Alexander, with me to train with Master Su in Yongchun. Of course we have been through Brexit and the Pandemic, but I also took the decision to establish my own Kung Fu Club, Tiger Crane Kung Fu just prior to these events taking place, all of which have added to the last few years being an exciting roller-coaster of a ride!
One major outcome for me has been my involvement in coaching the BCCMA National Traditional Wushu Team, having been asked at the end of 2022 by Head Coach, Master Liu, to join the coaching team as a specialist in Southern Kung Fu styles.
Switching from competing myself to focusing on coaching team members for competition, and spending time with Team GB’s Elite Athletes during training, has been a very valuable experience. The culmination of this so far has been Team GB’s journey to the 9th IWUF World Championships in China in August 2023. Two of my students, Daniel Shaw-Abulafia & Maki Nakasone, both of whom are part of the Instructor Team in Tiger Crane Kung Fu, were also on this journey, representing our country as members of Team GB.
Although the journey began many months ago, with our monthly trips up to Liverpool to train with the National Squad, along with the countless hours of training that Daniel and Maki have put in over the preceding months, let’s begin this story on our China Eastern plane coming into land in Shanghai.
PART 1 – CHENGDU
Shanghai is actually just a complex transfer – we are joining most of the rest of Team GB in Chengdu, but a few weeks before our departure, China Eastern cancelled one of our flights, and when we rebooked, the new flight plan required us to go through immigration at Shanghai Pudong International, and then travel across Shanghai to Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport. We have five hours between flights, but if anything goes wrong, we will be in trouble.
It is possible to make the journey by a combination of tube and train, but I’ve opted for booking a car, as this way there are fewer stages to the journey, so fewer opportunities for disaster. We run through the new covid customs declaration stage, then passport control, collect our bags all ok, and are met in arrivals by a man holding my name on a board. We quickly descend to find the car, and are whisked away towards the other airport.
Sadly we don’t get to see much of Shanghai – all roads and cars, with glimpses of high-rise buildings and sprawling docks.
There’s lots of traffic on the “normal” route, so we opt for a longer route, via the tolls, which will cost us a little more, but get us to the other airport in time to catch our flight. We check in, arrive at our gate, and board the flight to Chengdu.
This stage had been causing me some considerable stress leading up to our date of departure, so I’m very pleased that it all works out ok!
So after our 3 hour internal flight, we finally arrive in Chengdu, and following some confusion regarding the location of our Hampton by Hilton Hotel, we are in our taxi heading through Chengdu.
Now, I had been quite excited about this particular part of our trip. Chengdu is the Capital City of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, and if you have known me for any length of time, you will know of my love for spicy food – and you don’t get more spicy in China than Sichuan food!
Chengdu is a very historical city, dating back to at least the fourth century BC, when it was the Capital of the Shu Kingdom. I’m informed by my daughters that it is now one of the world’s mega-cities, with a population of over 16 million people. These days it is clearly a very modern city, with huge vine-covered concrete flyovers for the longer-distance drivers running parallel and above most of the major roads, great modern skyscrapers, and beautiful modern hotels, shops and restaurants. The city is also the home of the famous Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. But more about that later!
For those of you who don’t have the experience of competing at International level in different countries, one of the main challenges is getting the athletes to peak on the day(s) of their competition. There are a large number of factors which can work against this, such as jet-lag, altitude differences, dietary differences, climate changes, mental health issues, dehydration from the flights, etc, etc. As coaches we are attempting to minimise the effect of these and other factors on the athletes’ ability to perform, and so our few days in Chengdu are part of the strategy of acclimatising the team in preparation to compete.
The advantage of the city being so modern (our hotel even has its own robot, which can take the lift and deliver items to the correct room without any kind of supervision!) is the prevalence of familiar food outlets, including KFC, Pizza Hut and, of course, Starbucks, for the younger team members. So while I am very happy to go out to eat and try pretty much anything, most of the team head out in the evenings to have food of a more familiar nature.
I do, however, go out one afternoon for pizza with some of the team, and it was quite an enjoyable experience. It’s also now clear that Pizza Hut (UK) needs to make a lot more effort with its pizza box decorations (see right hand picture, above)!
The Team GB athletes train in Chengdu at two different locations – one next to our hotel, and one a short drive away. We are joined in Chengdu by Master Heng Wei, founder of the Tang Long school in London, who introduces us to the owners of the latter centre, which is huge, and very impressive in comparison to any centre I have seen outside of China.
There is still a bit of polishing of individual forms, although there is little that can still be achieved at this late stage, but there is a lot of focus on getting the Group Form up to the highest possible standard, as it’s been difficult to get the team together regularly enough to practice this as much as needed.
For me it’s great to visit the training halls, meet the masters, and learn, learn, learn as much as I can from what is going on around me.
There’s something about dinner in the Wushu World in China, when we are meeting new friends, that can result in drinking dangerously large quantities of the local alcohol, Bai Jiu (literally “white wine”, but at around 55% alcohol, nothing like it!) It is part of the culture of China, that drinking with new friends shows trust, and is a good way of breaking down inhibitions and getting to know each other well, and this trip is certainly no exception! Thankfully the jiu we are served is high quality, tastes good and, with only one exception is not too much…!
We are taken out for several dinners during our stay in Chengdu (including one at one of Chengdu’s Michelin Star Restaurants), and eat some truly remarkable food – definitely some of the best I have had in China. I have made some good new friends, and I hope that we’ll be able to return to visit again sometime soon!
Was there a memo circulated to the inhabitants of Chengdu asking them to act with restraint when using Panda themes around the city? We think not. There are pandas everywhere. From the imaginatively named Panda Hotel, to the little shops selling panda-merch and the panda-themed decorations that seem to be literally everywhere you go. But what’s not to like? We love Pandas!
Ophelia, one of the hospitality team at our hotel, whose English is amazing, explains that on hot days (such as today), the Pandas don’t go out. Instead they remain in their air-conditioned enclosures, and the overheating panda-tourists cram together around the large, steamy windows, trying to get good photos of the pandas inside.
And this very eloquently describes my experience of the research centre. Don’t get me wrong – the pandas are lovely, and they seem quite happy, munching away on their bamboo, or sleeping hanging over stuff, but I definitely would rather have seen them wandering around outside. Timing though, was not on our side, and our visit was unfortunately just at the wrong time of the year. Still, an amazing experience, and I’m very glad that I went!
PART 2 – EMEI
Sacred Emei Mountain
Mount Emei is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, and records say that Wushu has been practiced in the mountain temples here for hundreds of years.
My own journey from Chengdu to Emei was unfortunately slightly overshadowed by the mother of all hangovers, resulting from our last dinner in Chengdu – an occasion that I will, loosely speaking, never forget. Luckily I sleep on the bus which takes us from the hotel in Chengdu to our beautiful new hotel in Emei. I can’t possibly describe the beauty of this place – hopefully these photos will begin to do it a little justice!
Practice & Dinner
The day after we arrive we head off to the competition venue (thankfully no longer hungover) and we get the athletes onto the competition mats so that they can get a feel for the space and the floor they will be performing on. It is crowded, so sections of forms are performed, trying not to collide with other athletes from other countries, but it’s a very important part of preparation for the coming days.
Then, in the evening, team officials are invited to attend the Welcoming Banquet – here there is, of course, more bai jiu and more magnificent food!
The World Championships
OK, so on previous trips to China, where my students and I have competed at International level, we had always been put in separate categories to the Chinese, competing only against teams from countries other than mainland China. This time, though, in our categories there was the occasional competitor with the country letters CHN against their name.
There was still some doubt in the back of my mind about whether these were competitors from China, but after checking, it was explained to me that these people were the Chinese National Team – the top Wushu competitors in the world, and we would be competing directly against them. Well, this was it – finally the opportunity for my students to test themselves against the best, without anything to prevent this from happening. These would be the people to beat!
I believe some 7,000 athletes were taking part in the overall event, with hundreds of teams coming from all over China, as well as the representatives of 53 different countries. Team sizes varied significantly ranging from USA’s team of over 100, to Sweden’s team of 1 (a very nice gentleman, who we semi-adopted into the British Team).
The competition itself ran over three days, with athletes being called onto the mats to perform nose-to-tail constantly throughout the three days. An incredible logistical task which began in the registration areas two floors below, with the athletes groups being called, queues being formed, in the correct order of performance, and then being marched upstairs to the performance areas to queue again for their turn to go out in front of the judges to perform.
After breakfast we were loaded onto buses which took us from the hotel to the competition venue, returning again for lunch, and then quickly back to the venue for the afternoon events. So the three days were divided up into six half days, each of which felt like a whole day!
Much of my time was spent downstairs trying to minimise the stress and mental load on the athletes by trying to give them an idea of when they would be called, keeping an eye on the running sequence, and making sure they were in the right queues at the right time to go up and perform, giving them the time and space to prepare mentally and physically for their performances.
Maki & Daniel Compete
Fortunately I was also able to join Daniel and Maki upstairs for their performances. If you hadn’t been with them during the preparation for the World Championships, it will probably be hard to understand the physical and mental pressure they have been under; overcoming health problems and injuries; the hours of additional travelling they have had to undertake to participate in the squad training, and of course the many, many hours of training and refining they have undergone for this event.
Watching all of this coming together for their performances on the mats was incredible for me to see – the standard of their Kung Fu had improved so much over the preceding months, but would it be enough? How many people on this planet can say that they have won a medal at a World Championships in anything, let alone Kung Fu, which must surely be the hardest physical discipline known to the human race, and perhaps most importantly of all, in China, where the judges truly understand what they are looking at, and against the Chinese National Team – the best athletes in the World.
The standard and ability of the athletes was incredible – far higher than I have seen before at any other competition! In the end, Maki & Daniel finished the competition with the following amazing results:
Maki Naksone: 1 Gold Medal (Freehand Form), 1 Silver Medal (Team GB Group Form), 1 Bronze Medal (Weapon Form).
Daniel Shaw-Abulafia: 1 Silver Medal (Team GB Group Form), 1 Bronze Medal (Weapon Form).
I am so incredibly proud of them both! I should mention that, in order to win her Gold Medal, Maki even scored higher than a member of the Chinese National Team – a very impressive feat!
I can’t remember the exact number of medals won by Team GB at these Championships, but I believe that its true to say that every single member of the team returned home with at least one medal – so huge congratulations to Head Coach, Master Liu, Team Captain, Gyongyi, and all the members of the team, as well as all of the other Masters and Coaches from the UK who have worked so hard to build the skills of our athletes!
The Team & The Mums
I should mention that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to get to know any of the other members of the team before this trip – while I had travelled up to Liverpool to attend the monthly squad training sessions, my focus had been primarily on the athletes that I was responsible for: Daniel and Maki, watching their forms and refining them – working with them to shave away errors and make minor adjustments to build improvements at each session.
I have to say that it was truly a pleasure to get to know the team members better during this time, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with them, and am very proud to have been part of the team with them all. It was also a pleasure to get to know the “Team Mums”, the unsung heroes, who played a hugely important role in doing anything which needed doing, for any of the team members – not just their own children. My deepest respect and thanks!
PART 3 – YONGCHUN
The competition ends on Sunday afternoon, and (VERY) early on Monday morning, Daniel, Maki and I are in a car on our way to Chengdu Tianfu International Airport again. Our flight is at 8am, and it commences the last leg of our China trip, down to Xiamen airport, and then by car to Yongchun.
I know that, for Daniel and Maki, the World Championships, will have been the highlight of their trip, and probably one of the high points of their lives, and I am genuinely so delighted for them. The process of coaching them to the level they have achieved has been very rewarding for me too, and a very important stage of my career. For me, though, this next stage is, without doubt, an equally important highlight of my trip.
The last time I saw Master Su, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, was in 2018, and a lot had changed since the last time I had seen him. Now I was the head of my own organisation, and it had been very important to me over the intervening years to keep our relationship going, through covid and the other seismic changes that have been happening in my life and around the world.
Master Su is an 11th Generation Master of Yongchun White Crane Kung Fu. He still teaches in Yongchun, where the founder, Fang Qi Niang, created the Style, and here we are once again, immersing ourselves in the source of White Crane Kung Fu!
There are still several pictures of me up around the training hall from some of my earliest visits to Maaster Su, around 20 years ago. As we train in the mornings and the evenings, learnig more of the White Crane Kung Fu Style, it honestly feels like we never left.
We work on correcting movements and principles in the forms, refining what we already know, before moving onto new forms.
We are joined for this last leg of our trip by Instructor Theo, who has flown over from Mumbai in India, where he has established Tiger Crane’s first club outside of the UK. It’s also really good to see Theo after such a long time!
For Daniel and Theo, both of whom have visited Master Su before, it’s a return to familiar territory. For Maki, though, it is her first time here – and of course, after seeing her gold medal from the World Championships, and with Master Su pointing out the photograph of him on his apartment wall with him proudly wearing the gold medal which he won at the 1st IWUF World Championships, there’s definitely a sense of eagerness to subtly test of the level of her skills!
Breakfast is at the hotel (remarkably, I have been able to get my favourite, the chilli noodle soup, for breakfast, at all three of the hotels we’ve stayed at – 3 different versions along the same theme, but all completely delightful!), but then lunch and dinner we dine out around the town – great to try so many of the local restaurants – the food in Yongchun has always been one of my favourite in the world!
Often in the past we have been hauled up in front of the Chinese TV cameras on the trips, and this one proves to be no exception, as we are filmed doing Yongchun White Crane in the temple of Founder Fang Qi Niang, and I am even filmed teaching the host of the TV show!
Unfortunately we’ve been away from home for too long, so we can only spare a few days here before we head back to the UK. Back to our families and our classes.
For me, the trip has been a gigantic stepping-stone forwards. I have devoted a huge amount of emotional energy in making this happen, and quite honestly, the results of all the hard work couldn’t have been better. My hopes and targets have all been met or exceeded, with lots more that I hope to follow on with.
I think that it’s very important, after a major event like this to consider a few things. Huge achievements can’t be made without help and sacrifice from the people around you, and it’s very important to acknowledge this.
With no funding for our sport, every penny spent has come directly out of my pocket, The build up to this trip has taken some considerable sacrifice, both in terms of time and money, and it is always my family (and, in particular, my amazing wife, Kerry) who are the first to lose out as gains are made elsewhere.
Some incredibly generous donations were made to help with this via my GoFundMe page, and this has genuinely made a huge difference, making a significant dent in the financial burden during the current cost of living crisis.
Master Su Ying Han and his family have opened their door for my students and me. His teaching remains the very best in the world, and in return for his generosity I will do my utmost to continue my part in spreading Yongchun White Crane’s wings around the world.
Master Liu, the Head Coach of the BCCMA Traditional Wushu Team recognised talent and potential last year at the 2022 BCCMA Nationals, and has subsequently created some amazing opportunities for me as well as my students – some of these are more, and some less obvious, but all of them are recognised and understood.
Instructors have had to cover my classes, keeping the club running in my absence, because without the continuation of the Kung Fu club, none of this will continue to happen. They have done this selflessly, alongside crisis and significant personal drama in their own lives.
I want to thank all of you – you have my deepest gratitude, and I am truly proud to have shared the journey with you so far!
Whatever I do, wherever I go, I do my best to learn from what’s going on around me, and bring that back into my ability to understand and teach Kung Fu. This trip and the lead up to it have allowed me to establish much greater clarity regarding the development of athletes to World Class level, and the standard that has to be achieved in order to win a Gold Medal in the World Championships.
My students are already benefitting from this, as how could I not desire to teach them to the very best of my ability? But I also plan to continue to help with the coaching of Traditional Wushu to Britain’s best athletes, with my specialism in Fujian (Southern) Kung Fu styles, with the aim of improving Kung Fu standards in this country, and our ability to perform well on the world stage.
Well, this article has turned out to be much longer than I had originally planned, so I had better finish here. There will be more to tell you about soon, I hope, so watch this space!