Guest Column

by Sifu Sydney Gibson

I recently sat down with Sifu Robin Young to discuss his thoughts on the changes he has seen in the martial arts over the years.

SG: When did you start your training and what were your classes like?

RY: I started training in 1968 in Chinatown, Toronto. Classes were taught in the basement of a house. Sifu Jack Chin was the original instructor. He was fairly authoritarian. If you couldn’t do something, or didn’t want to, you got off the floor. Classes began with one hour of horse practice, different stances and moving between stances. We then stopped for tea, and started up again practicing punches, kicks and forms.

SG: What are your thoughts on the traditions in Kung Fu?

RY: Traditional tends to mean doesn’t change, which can be good and can be bad. Everything has to evolve if you want it to survive. But you can hold onto the old stuff too, because it is really important. It gives us a sense of grounding, history and culture.

SG: Were you friends with the other clubs?

RY: The Kung Fu clubs stayed to themselves. That was partially due to old style thinking, “if I show you my stuff then you will know what I do, and you might try it on us”. There was always that aspect of holding back. There was also an aspect of political affiliation. The old Toronto Jing Mo club was supported by the Nationalist Chinese government. Hung Luk was supported by the Communist government. So, never the twain shall meet, sort of thing. The Sifu’s all respected each other, and would toast each other at banquets. But publicly they kept their distance.

There were a few incidents with senior students, or during a lion dance when different clubs crossed paths. There is an etiquette to follow. If we had the contract to collect the money, the other club would have to stop and give us passage. Or, if they wanted to cross, they would have to ask permission, which usually involved an exchange of business cards. You also had to keep the lion heads down low. If you were to raise the lion head, that was a challenge to the other club, and there would be a fight. That hasn’t changed. In some cases, maybe it has changed as lion dance has become more of a competitive event. That is a loss of some of that tradition and old etiquette.

SG: What are some of the more recent changes you have seen in martial arts?

RY: As it has become more Western in nature, we have lost some of the martial intent, and it has become more of a workout.  However, we also no longer need to buy into the old history, and can bring together different schools to train together, such as the Toi San group, with Sifu’s Ian Chow and Dave Ellsmere.  Years ago, I would never have been able to sit down for lunch with Ian, it just wouldn’t happen.