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Master Choi

A Teacher of Ancient Ways

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It has never occurred to the student that the goldfish might be happy in its bowl. If anything, she's pitied the creature. But now the master is telling her that when she advances to the next level of tai chi, she will be approaching the happy mindlessness of the goldfish swimming in his bowl. Here the master does a creditable imitation of a goldfish hanging motionless in the water, giving just an occasional flick of his tail. Then someone taps on the bowl, and the master, as goldfish, becomes, with no visible transition, a study in motion. He is swimming in the air, sparring with shadows; he is a wave in the sea. The master has no compunction about mixing metaphors.

He stops and laughs his easy, full-throated laugh and says, "Then, then, you will be happy. Happy as a person who has just won the lottery." The student has never thought that winning the lottery would bring her true happiness, but the master's laugh is infectious, and when he talks one tends to become agreeable, even submissive. But perhaps she has allowed herself too much hope, because he is quick to remind her that, despite the many years she has been studying, the level of the happy goldfish is still a distant goal.

As the tai chi lesson continues, the master stops the student over and over, explaining the flaws in her technique, repeating for the thousandth time the deceptively simple principles of tai chi chuan--move first from the waist, always move in circles, elbows down, shoulders down, balance the hands, make sure the whole body begins and ends each movement together. His English is broken, but buoyant.

He encourages the student to do "experiments" to prove to herself the correctness of the principles. He demonstrates, showing how inhalation naturally accompanies upward movement of the body, and how an awkward, incorrect movement makes the breath rise chokingly in the chest.

She repeats a small movement over and over until he says yes, perfect, now you will never do it wrong again. This, unfortunately, she knows from long experience not to be true. She will go home, bowing to the room as she leaves. She will practice. And when she returns, bowing respectfully again as she enters, whether it is tomorrow or three weeks from tomorrow, the master will stop her before she is 30 seconds into the form, smiling and shaking his head. But when he shows her how it's done, moving with his easy natural grace, she will swallow her disappointment and again fall under the spell of this beautiful, impossible thing.

The master, Wai Lun Choi, who's in his 50s, drives every day from the home in Skokie where he lives with his wife and two teenage children to his rented storefront on Irving Park Road just east of Damen, a single carpeted room measuring about 1,300 square feet, where he teaches five different styles of Chinese Internal Martial Arts to anyone who has the time, the ability to pay the modest fees, and a lot of patience.

Two punching bags hang in one corner of the studio. Some shelves hold brightly colored pads and helmets and other paraphernalia. A row of long, elegant, sinister swords leans in a rack. Other memorabilia of a lifetime in the world of martial arts include a row of trophies and plaques and a wall of photographs. Most of these show the master demonstrating moves and receiving awards at tournaments and competitions, but there is also a signed photograph of Linda Yu and a photo of the master as a young man, posed formally with his own teacher and some others, everyone smiling politely. There are neatly typed lists of what one must accomplish to pass from one level to the next of each style, and a series of certificates with blurry xeroxed photos of the students who have done so, as well as the odd Christmas card or letter from a devoted student, two colored kung fu banners, anatomical charts, and a photograph of a tiger.

This studio is the most recent in a long series of schools where Master Choi has labored to teach many generations of students, Chinese and American, with the same care, laughter, and discouraging candor. He left his first school in Hong Kong in 1972 to come to Chicago. At that time, it was his intention to "try to go to working hard, make some money, and coming back." He still has the tape that the students he left behind sent him, a tape of their voices pleading with him to return, offering to send him an airplane ticket. He says that when he first heard it it made him cry, for the first time in his life.

But one thing led to another and he never did return. Discouraged by low wages in Chicago, he moved to Sheboygan to take a job as a cook in a Chinese restaurant. Wherever he went, word would spread about his great skill as a martial artist, and when pressed he would demonstrate. Once the persistent boyfriend of a waitress challenged him until Choi gave in reluctantly. On Choi's invitation, the young tough chopped him in the back as hard as he could, and then, amazed, held up his blue and bruised hand.

Many of the onlookers were ready to sign up for classes on the spot, but without a translator teaching was impossible, Choi's English still being very meager. Choi eventually returned to Chicago, to Chinatown, where he was recognized on the street by people who had seen his picture in Chinese martial arts magazines. Before leaving Hong Kong Choi had won the All-Southeast Asia Hand-to-Hand Martial Arts Tournament, as well as other competitions, and he had received a lot of attention in the press. After settling in Chinatown, he taught Chinese students at the University of Illinois, then a class was arranged for him at a community center. When he arrived he found a roomful of young men staring at him defiantly, daring him to prove himself. He says he felt angry, but nonetheless he offered to take them on, one at a time. After a bit he took them on two at a time, then three and four at a time. When ten was suggested he demurred, explaining that in such a situation he would no longer be able to control his responses and might really hurt someone. After this demonstration, students clamored to sign up, writing their names on the back of a brown paper bag, the only piece of paper in the room. Choi left with 100 names on the scrap.

Language was no problem in Chinatown but the community center was too busy to accommodate his classes: "I don't like to take the people the money, then I have no room to teach them." Rents had begun to go up anyway as Chinatown was flooded with new immigrants, so Choi moved north.

On the north side, Choi taught in a succession of schools before opening his current studio on Irving Park. His English improved and his operation became more organized. Now, in the rented space on Damen his schedule includes classes in Lama, Hsing I, Pa Kua, Liu Ho Pa Fa, and Chi Kung, as well as self-defense and some other kinds of physical training. A small group of students, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, has formed a kind of inner circle around the master, answering the phone, doing paperwork, teaching classes. Though Choi's abilities are widely recognized in the international martial arts community and serious students and teachers sometimes travel thousands of miles for a few hours of private instruction, Choi must work to maintain his student base. Most students tend to come and go, wildly enthusiastic at first, then losing interest and moving on.

An only child, Choi was brought up by his mother after his father, a Western doctor, died of an illness during World War II, when Choi was two. His mother had no picture of his father and never spoke of him. Choi explains that in Chinese culture people do not dwell on their grief, rarely displaying the photographs of lost loved ones because memory only brings pain. "Very funny, yes?" he says.

At 13 he left the mainland to join a cousin in Hong Kong, because it was clear that for those who stayed "inside" there would be "no future." Some years later his mother joined him; she eventually came with him to the States. In Hong Kong he studied martial arts for eight years, becoming adept and winning frequent informal street competitions. No broken bones, he says, but lots of damage. He laughs.

But even as he vanquished his opponents, Choi became aware that something was missing. He experienced a certain disturbing shortness of breath during exertion, and it seemed to him that too often his opponent was not where he expected him to be. He knew there were other, more "internal" styles, and he suspected that these were the most powerful of all. When a friend mentioned the name of a teacher to him, Choi set out to persuade the man to come out of his retirement and teach again.

The master, Yik Yen Chan, had wearied of teaching and given it up, but he agreed to let Choi take him out to dinner or dim sum every week, so long as martial arts was not a topic of conversation. For the better part of a year, Choi and a friend took the older man out almost every week until finally, having been accepted as friends of a sort, they were able to broach the forbidden subject.

Eventually Choi was allowed to gather together a group of students and classes began. Soon, as is customary, Choi himself was teaching, while his teacher sat back and watched. Choi came early and stayed late for personal corrections. In the beginning he had to struggle to unlearn old habits. It was difficult to accept that practicing exruciatingly slow movement would increase speed, and that relaxation was the key to power. He was often discouraged and uncertain, but he persevered.

The other students were not so serious, Choi explains. They were businessmen and lawyers who took the teacher out to nightclubs and restaurants. Choi didn't join in the nightlife. He was struggling to make ends meet, driving one of the three trucks he owned as part of a small building-supply delivery operation.

In 1982, ten years after he himself had emigrated, Choi began preparations to bring his master to the States for a visit and to give some workshops and seminars. When arrangements were almost complete, Choi got a call from Hong Kong. The teacher had been killed, struck down by a speeding motorcycle as he stepped out onto the sidewalk. "Hong Kong all the time like that," says Choi.

Choi spent every spare minute practicing, trying to work out for himself the ancient ways of fighting developed by men who had created the techniques in a desperate struggle for survival. Choi frequently explains that whether the student is interested in the practice of martial arts as a fighting technique or simply as a healthful exercise, it is necessary to understand the meaning of each movement, i.e., its use in combat. Successful self-defense requires the ability to use the kinesthetic possibilities of the body with absolute efficiency, involving the mobilization of the chi, or inner power, through a special technique of deep breathing. In a master like Choi, the result is a breathtaking fluidity of motion, subtle explosions of terrific power, and an uncanny ability to turn every move of his opponent to his own advantage. Like pornography, it's difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it.

There is a curious incongruity between the martial and the more spiritual aspects of the practice of these disciplines. Our hapless student might in daydreams see herself fending off the blows of numerous opponents at a tournament, or neatly flipping a mugger over her shoulder in a dark alley, but what really keeps her coming back is the promise of a more spiritual power, an integration of body, spirit, and mind. A man like Choi presents a barely acknowledged contradiction between spirituality and the vainglorious world of tournaments and awards. He writes detailed, thoughtful articles on the fine points of the ancient art for magazines that feature cover photos of grimacing muscle-bound men locked in murderous embraces.

Choi's expertise is generally acknowledged at national tournaments and by other teachers around the country. But it is his style of teaching as much as the brilliance of his technique that distinguishes him from others in his field. It is rare, almost unheard of, for a master at Choi's level gives any but his very best students the kind of scrupulous attention Choi can't seem to help but pay to all as a matter of course. Sometimes his passion almost overwhelms him--he will begin to demonstrate the use of some particular defensive technique and get carried away by the myriad possibilities. Using a student as a stand-in for his opponent, he demonstrates with glee how he can hurl the fellow up, down, or across the room. At the same time, his control is exquisite--he breaks his opponent's fall even as he throws him.

In the more traditional course of martial arts instruction the teacher was advised to choose his students with the greatest care. One must not teach a selfish student or an irresponsible student or a student who did not have a good heart. And only after years of observation could the teacher know a student well enough to make these judgments. "Then one day he will teach you everything."

There is perhaps a certain wistfulness in Choi's description of the old ways, although he rails vigorously against the masters who really do not understand the principles of their art, or who understand but cannot be bothered to teach, or who understand but guard their knowledge selfishly. Choi gives of himself without stinting. Surely someday the world will notice and beat a path to his door.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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