My regulars will be aware that, since the Mixed Martial Arts program we were in folded up, my wife Cathy and I have been having an interesting learning adventure checking out various schools in our area as possibilities for our next style. We’ve had some more adventures since.
We did indeed visit the Northern Shaolin school I alluded to in my last installment. But we were not impressed. The forms we saw were pretty, but the movements seemed less practical for combat than what they were doing at the first Shaolin studio we visited, in Berwyn. And I saw no evidence of contact sparring there, either.
We’ve reluctantly given up on the Systema guy. We’d love to train with him – we liked both his technique and his teaching style – but he only teaches one night a week and that night would conflict with Cathy’s Borough Council meetings half the time.
However, one of the people at the Northern Shaolin school mentioned the existence of a school of Philippine martial arts in Phoenixville, which is just within reasonable driving distance of us. This caught our interest, because (a) we’ve done a little training in Philippine stick-fighting and enjoyed it, and (b) the Philippine arts have a well-earned reputation for brutal practicality. The Phillipines was and still is an extremely violent place, between criminals and pirates and several simmering insurgencies.
What we found, in a drab concrete building in Phoenixville, was most interesting. It’s a style called kuntao (Hokkien Chinese for “way of the fist”) that blends Southern Chinese kung fu with native Filipino blade and stick techniques. Developed by emigre Chinese in the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos, it’s a rare art in the U.S. – I’d never heard of it before this – with only a handful of schools here.
Five minutes into the weapons drills I whispered to Cathy “These people are serious!” and she nodded definite agreement. Most (though not all) of the students actually moved like fighters, with real intention behind their strikes. I noticed one in particular because the quality of his movement was both forceful and amazingly fluid, almost dancelike in a way I’ve seen before from really advanced Filipino players. Analyzing his movement, I had a sudden realization.
I’ve read a fair amount of theory about Philippine arts, and one of the core concepts is most of them is what’s called “live hand”. The “live hand” is the one without the weapon, and the idea is that it’s actually supposed to be the more dangerous – trapping, blocking, and setting up kills for the weapon hand.
My realization was “This is what ‘live hand’ looks like!” Regardless of which hand he was striking with, both sides of this student’s body were fully involved in every move. The live hand was constantly searching for openings, presenting a threat, or at least moving in opposition to put more power into the “dead” hand’s strikes. When I quietly pointed this out to Cathy, she grinned and informed me that she believed I was looking at the principal instructor’s son. So indeed it proved.
The inventory of techniques we saw wasn’t too surprising given their blend of influences. The empty-hand moves are mainly from wing chun, which we’re somewhat familiar with from previous study. We saw, as expected, kali with both single and double sticks. We also saw quite a bit of knife work. Weapons handy but not lifted on this particular evening included six-foot staff and machete.
I’m by no means a bad hand with a knife, but the kuntao technique I saw made me feel like mine is crude – not ineffective, necessarily, but certainly not at their level of precision and artistry either. Perhaps not surprising since what I was trained in was based on what the military can teach in a 12-week training cycle at U.S. Marine boot camp. It would be good to learn what the kuntao people know if only so we can take it back to our sword school.
The quality of teaching looked high; I saw a lot of initiative and mutual help among the students. My only reservation was about doing stretches on that cold concrete floor…Cathy and I walked out of there with an excellent impression of the place. We’ve been invited to actually do a sample class next week, and we will.
It’s down to either Mr. Stuart’s for Israeli military kickass or this for exotic Oriental deadliness straight out of a Sax Rohmer novel. We’re leaning towards kuntao, if only because we both think stick-fighting is really cool. The final decision will probably be next week.