BEFORE the sun is up, a group of early risers gather to practise their Tai Chi routines at a futsal court in Bayan Lepas, Penang.
In slow motion, they go through the basics before splitting into smaller groups to practise with the sword, fan or baton.
As they snap their fans with loud clacks or draw their swords, Tai Chi master Tang Chin Yong looks on, ready to guide them on the correct moves with the help of students turned assistant coaches.
At age 79, Tang who is fondly called Wah Sok (Cantonese for Uncle Wah) can be counted among the few living heritage personalities in Penang who is an expert in Internal Wushu.
Born in Penang 1941, Wah Sok became exposed to Tai Chi, or formally called Taijiquan, while in his 20s.
His master, the late Tan Kim Loong, taught him Tai Chi Form while another renowned master, the late Lu Thong Poh, taught him Tai Chi Push Hands.
Tan was a disciple of Yeh Shu Ting who came from Taiwan to teach Tai Chi in Malaysia.
Through Tan and Yeh, Wah Sok could trace his lineage to China-born Tai Chi grandmaster Cheng Man-ch’ing (1902-1975), who developed the ‘Cheng-style Tai Chi’ which branched off from the ‘Yang-style Tai Chi’.This makes Wah Sok the third generation disciple of the founder.
Before learning from Tan, Wah Sok was already a Chin Woo martial artist. As he possessed the needed faculties, he was able to receive the knowledge of Tai Chi from Tan.
In just two years, Wah Sok began serving as Tan’s assistant instructor and today, Wah Sok is a venerable Tai Chi master in Penang in his own right.
His Tai Chi classes are held at Sariputta Community Centre in Solok Terengganu and a few other centres in Penang.
On Sunday mornings, he teaches students free of charge at the futsal court beside the Than Hsiang Temple in Bayan Lepas.
With the help of assistant instructors, he teaches various forms of Tai Chi starting with the 16 Form, 24 Form, 32-Form Tai Chi Sword, Tai Chi Kung Fu Fan and Duan Gun (baton) as well as Wushu for children.
The youngest student is five years old while the most senior ones are in their 80s.
For advanced students, he teaches Ba Gua Zhang and Xing Yi Quan.
Together with Tai Chi, these are known as Internal Wushu.
Students learn Tai Chi mainly for health purposes while the serious ones may go for competition or performance and combat sport.
He trains large groups, “but the people come and go”.
“The young, especially, can be impatient and want to learn too quickly, ” Wah Sok said.
During an interview at his home in Paya Terubong, Wah Sok demonstrated the starting form of a typical Tai Chi session: legs apart at shoulders’ width, hands with palms open moving up and down with one’s breath.
This movement – done the right way – is said to build a large amount of ‘qi’ in the solar plexus near the navel.
But it can take two years of doing it before the practitioner does it right and feels the qi growing, said Wah Sok.
“At one point, you will even feel your fingers tingling, ” he added.
But what is qi? And why do people move so slowly when they practise Tai Chi?
Is it so that they can develop better muscle control and coordination?
Wah Sok pondered thoughtfully before shaking his head.
“We move slowly to build our qi, ” he said matter-of-factly.
The linear logic embedded into the English language makes it nearly impossible to fully translate this Chinese character.
In dictionaries like the Merriam-Webster Collegiate, ‘qi’ or ‘chi’ is a recognised English loanword that means: “vital energy that is held to animate the body internally and is of central importance in some Eastern systems of medical treatment, exercise and self-defence”.
In one Chinese dictionary, the character ‘qi’ has 23 denotations, from ‘air’ to ‘breath’ to ‘vital energy’, ‘spirit’, ‘atmosphere’ and more.
While the Tai Chi forms that comprise blocks, parries, grips, swipes and strikes are graceful, one does wonder if Tai Chi as a martial art can be used for self-defence.
It can, said Wah Sok, using the Cantonese idiom: “Four taels sweep 1,000 catties.”
By capturing the assaulting force of an opponent, he said one could harmlessly deflect the attack without using an equal or higher amount of opposing force.
But the world of Tai Chi was shaken in 2017 when a mixed martial arts fighter, Xu Xiaodong, taunted Tai Chi master Wei Lei into a one-on-one unarmed battle in China. Xu knocked out Wei within seconds.
“Many self-acclaimed Tai Chi masters do not train in sparring and so are not ready for actual combat, ” said Wah Sok.
“And even if these masters have a lot of qi, it doesn’t mean they can use the qi to attack their opponents.
“Tai Chi fighters must use ‘jing’ to attack. ‘Jing’ (keng in Cantonese) means the concentration of your strength, ” Wah Sok said.
He advised Tai Chi practitioners to patiently flow through the forms and “let the energy arise when all is ready.”
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