New kick in town
IT'S 6.30AM AT the defunct Tai O Public School in the tranquil fishing village on Lantau, and Australian teenager James Sheridan is preparing for another day of disciplined training under Shaolin kung fu master Wang Meng. It starts with a 30-minute jog in the hills behind the school, a series of stretching exercises and basic practice - and all that before breakfast.
'Usually, I won't get up this early. But now there's something I really want to do,' says the 13-year-old. 'I love [Shaolin kung fu] more than when I first came.'
The school was converted into a training site of the Hong Kong Shaolin Wushu Culture Centre about six months ago, but its hostel service was launched in November. A joint project with the Hong Kong Culture Association Charitable Foundation, which promotes appreciation of Shaolin martial arts and culture, the 5,000-square metre site includes a field, training rooms and lodgings for students.
James, who arrived in Hong Kong six weeks ago, is the first foreign student to stay at the hostel. He's been fascinated by Chinese martial arts since hearing tales about it from a family friend when he was young.
Frustrated by the lack of dedicated kung fu classes in his native Melbourne, he made do with taekwondo lessons. But when his uncle and grandmother in Hong Kong alerted him to the Shaolin wushu centre in Tai O, James signed up for a stint after checking out the premises on his school holidays.
'I wanted to come to Hong Kong first, then make my way to the mainland [to Songshan in Henan where Shaolin monks created their form of kung fu],' he says. 'But I don't know anyone there, so it would be difficult for me to go all that way and stay there alone.'
His parents feel more reassured with him at Tai O, since his grandmother can visit at the weekends. And far from missing television or computer games that many teenagers are obsessed by, James says he's been enjoying classes at the Shaolin centre. Besides, after a full workout, all he wants to do at the end of the day is turn in.
It's a demanding regimen. Every day he's put through his paces practising fundamental moves from maintaining the correct horse or straddle stance to different kinds of kicks, foot work and strikes, as well as various forms such as the Lianhuan and Wubuquan.
The training is much like how his instructor Wang - one of four Shaolin masters at the centre - started learning Shaolin kung fu at the age of 12 in Henan. 'On the mainland, we practise the basic skills by repeating the same movements every day for at least three years,' Wang says. 'There's an old saying in kung fu: 'Nothing can be achieved if you only practise the forms but don't work on the fundamentals'.'
James has now become so passionate about Shaolin martial arts that he's thinking of asking permission to take a year off school to train at the centre.
Although a number of local youngsters are also Shaolin enthusiasts, most aren't prepared to devote so much time and effort to the martial art. Leo Quan Chiu-yeung, the seven-year-old grandson of the late kung fu master Kwan Tak-hing, is one of the few avid apprentices. Leo, who has been learning the white crane style since he was two, spent 11 days at the centre during the Christmas break.
His father David Quan Hon-chuen says he sent Leo to the centre because Shaolin is viewed as the root of all kung fu. 'This is a very serene place, like the Shaolin temple in Henan. It's the place to practise kung fu,' he says. '[The training] is very tough, but Leo likes it a lot.'
Leo now trains at the centre every weekend. Like James, he attends morning, afternoon and evening sessions. 'It's very concentrated, disciplined and professional, and [instructors] insist on the fundamentals,' says Quan.
Jessie Cheung Fung-shan, the Shaolin centre's operations manager, says although instructors at Tai O are more than qualified to train serious martial arts students, their aim is primarily to help participants develop a healthy mind and body, and to promote the Shaolin spirit.
Besides customised training such as that for James and Leo, the Tai O centre runs weekly martial arts lessons for schools and groups as well as two- to three-day training camps. Participants must rise at dawn and join the three daily practice sessions, where they're taught basic movements such as revolving, Siu Hung fists, and crescent kicks.
Students are also given local tours and taught the history and philosophy of Shaolin martial arts. A two-day stint costs HK$225 per person for school and charity groups, and HK$365 for individuals. Tailor-made courses are about HK$395 per day.
To enable more people to join in, the centre also runs weekly classes at premises in Sheung Wan, North Point and Prince Edward. 'The culture here is very different from that on the mainland,' says Cheung. 'Hong Kong people have very busy lifestyles and love convenience. Few are willing to spend hours commuting to Tai O to learn kung fu.'
Yongxin, a secular disciple of the Songshan Shaolin Temple who's head instructor at Tai O, says he's had to adjust the content and difficulty of their courses for Hong Kong participants. 'On the mainland, training is longer and more rigorous. Since most courses here only last for two to three days, we can only teach something simple and easy to pick up,' he says. 'It's more for health and an introduction to what martial arts is about.'
Quan, chairman of the White Crane Athletic Association in Hong Kong, hopes the Shaolin centre can help change how kung fu is taught in Hong Kong. The city provides a poor environment for learning martial arts. 'Hong Kong is a hectic society,' he says. 'When people send their children to master kung fu, they hope the youngsters learn it as quickly as they can. Now, many just learn the form and forget about the fundamentals.'