On entering the Chinese Martial Arts Association gym in East Hollywood, I couldn’t ignore the slippery waxed floors. One could always tell newcomers because they would walk as if on ice. Heavily waxed floors ensured that all maintained their balance at all times.
Sifu James Wing Woo told me that when the Japanese invaded China he was about twelve years old. Everyone was studying with the local masters then. He studied with about five of them. “They would cover the floor with motor oil. You didn’t want to fall.”
Traditional martial arts didn’t serve to resist the brand of warfare waged by the Japanese. His family returned to the United States.
I studied tai chi with Sifu (Master) Woo too briefly in the eighties and learned much. He was a direct and practical teacher who observed everything and missed nothing. He dismissed attempts to label him a ‘master’ by saying a master is someone who has stopped learning.
Students would ask him about Chinese mysticism or the ‘secret touch’ that killed Bruce Lee. He smiled and said Bruce Lee wasn’t murdered by any secret touch. He killed himself believing his own press. There is no secret killing touch, there is self-discipline, he said.
Sifu Woo dismissed the I Ching and other oracles but he was known to enjoy a trip to the race track.
He didn’t put any stock in colored belts or marks of status either. “Those things won’t help you in a fight”, he said.
He wasn’t one for long theoretical explanations. Someone asked him the best move if you are attacked with a knife. “Run.” That said it all.
Sifu always taught us to ‘root yourself to the center of the earth’. That advice came in handy one night at a party when three people decided it would be amusing to throw me into the pool. I didn’t struggle or resist them. I told them not to waste their time and rooted myself to the center of the earth. Don’t ask me how I accomplished that but they could not move me, lift me, knock me over, or throw me into the pool.
I witnessed something one session that sounds like the stuff of legend. There were about fifteen of us practicing in the gym when an exchange between Sifu and a new student drew our attention.
Sifu and a new guy were standing in the middle of the gym. Apparently the newbie challenged Sifu in some attitudinal manner. Rather than throw the bum out Sifu used it as teachable moment. Sifu produced a pair of chop sticks and placed the pointed ends up to his throat. He told the newbie to hold them firmly with the palm of his hand and not to let them fall for any reason.
Suddenly Sifu walked forcefully toward the newbie. The guy could hardly back pedal fast enough. Between the slippery floor and keeping the chop sticks in place it was all he could do to stay upright. Sifu backed him to the wall and stopped.
Sifu grabbed the chop sticks and turned with a chuckle. “See? I pushed you across the room without touching you.”
“No you didn’t. I had to back up. I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“You don’t get it. You couldn’t hurt me. I wouldn’t let you.” There was nothing more to say.
No one knew what brought on this confrontation. But the results were evident. The guy left and everyone returned to their practice. I never saw the guy again.