KUNG FU TAI CHI 20 YEARS: Set-Up
by Gene Ching
It was very auspicious that the 20th Anniversary of Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine fell in 2012. This is the Year of the Dragon and the dragon is our mascot. I wish I could say that was intentional. As the tiger is the mascot of our parent company Tiger Claw (obviously) and dragons and tigers are the yin/yang of martial arts (remember those legendary Shaolin dragon and tiger brands?), there is a harmony about our company mascots. Looking forward, our 30th anniversary will be 2022, the Year of the Tiger. I wish I could say that was intentional too. Perhaps it was fated to be.
KUNG FU TAI CHI 20 YEARS was an extraordinary undertaking, and now that it's over I can't but pause and reflect, as it was another climactic point in my personal warrior journey. Twenty years ago, I was working as a swordmaker and a Kung Fu instructor. Those two occupations were my sole sources of income, arguably no stranger than what I do for a living now. That was also the year when I published my very first martial arts article. Perhaps that too was fate. In '91, I had gone to China for the first time as a member of the AAU Chinese Martial Arts “A” Team to compete at a traditional international tournament held in Jinan. That journey inspired me to start writing for martial arts magazines, and it took me a year to get my first article published (in another magazine which is now defunct). I kept working as a freelance writer and published articles in several different magazines until 1999, when I was hired as a full-time employee here. As of this year, I've written well over 600 articles just for Kung Fu Tai Chi alone. Kung Fu Tai Chi has been a long, strange trip.
Writing a post-event feature for our website is now “official” tradition with me. I started last year with TCKFMCIII. It's challenging because I've already told this story for the September October issue of Kung Fu Tai Chi, the DVD intro narration and Claw Marks (although the DVD and Claw Marks write-ups were very short this year). This final version is my personal perspective. It's purgative and therapeutic. It's also nice to have the last word. That's Associate Publisher prerogative.
We began planning KFTC 20 YEARS as soon as Tiger Claw's 3rd KungFuMagazine.com Championship was finished, but things didn't get stressful until we were a few months out. Then they got REALLY stressful. There were so many details, so many unforeseen costs and permits, so much trouble, it was overwhelming. Just prior to the event, I needed to get away.
So I did some volunteer work for Rock Med. Longtime readers of my writings know that I work at concerts and music festivals, responding to psychiatric emergencies, mostly drunks and the occasional bad drug trip. But this time, I just went for a break, to stick my face in a subwoofer and let the massive sound clear my head. It's best to meditate in silence, but if you grasp the true essence of Zen, there is no distinction between the quiet Zendo and the front-of-stage decibel onslaught at a concert. At least, that's what I tell myself. I'm in denial of a serious addiction that I have to massive sound; Chinese Lion Dancing was the gateway drug for me, but that's another story entirely.
Now, given my specialty, only select concerts demand my attention. Generally speaking, people don't drop acid for a Justin Bieber show. But as fate would have it, the particular show where I planned to dunk my head in that subwoofer had a fair amount of psychedelic use, so I wound up working a lot harder than I had anticipated. Several patients there required my special attention, but one stood out. He was a buff, young guy emboldened to show off his cut musculature and big guns in a black “wife-beater” T-shirt. And he was tripping hard, so hard that we ended up having to restrain him physically. It was a takedown on asphalt which is never fun. Fortunately, my fellow responder, nicknamed IriEric, was very experienced. We have volunteered together for some two decades doing this kind of work, so by now we know each other's skills and limitations and can work together to take just about anyone down gently, even on asphalt. The takedown was smooth, leaving hardly a scratch on our patient. Unfortunately, as we held our patient down awaiting back-up, he made a sudden move with his arm that cheese-grated my knuckles across the asphalt (all you groundfighters take heed - rolling on asphalt is a totally different ballgame). I saw a streak of blood on the pavement, and then winced at the realization that it was actually MY blood, even though it didn't really hurt too much at the time. The following week, it provided a great "war wound" for a drug presentation I was asked to give at a seventh-grade class.
So what does this have to do with KFTC 20 YEARS? My blood on the asphalt was an omen. Once we got our patient back to our secluded medical area, he calmed down and came down. When looking for his cell phone to reconnect with his friends at the show, he emptied his pockets and produced a KungFuMagazine.com lanyard. My fellow volunteers, those who knew what I do for a living, thought that was hysterical. I had to laugh too. Sometimes you just can't escape your fate, no matter how loud that subwoofer is.
Blood on the Asphalt
Just prior to the event, I was even working at home to prepare, refitting some jian with stiffer traditional blades. Being a traditionalist, I've been a major advocate for enforcing our rules about traditional weapons being able to support their own weight. This has been a problem every year, as I've been stalwartly advocating these rules in a flailing effort to promote the traditional way (meaning real swords for real Kung Fu), but it consistently backfires on me. This year, Tiger Claw had ordered a special shipment of traditional jian just for this; unfortunately, when they arrived, they were too flimsy. An emergency rush shipment was ordered - just blades - which meant I had to swap them out. Like I said, I was a professional swordmaker for a spell. It was one of many unexpected pre-event tasks that I had to handle (pun intended, but only slightly).
Back at the office, the stress continued to build with each passing day. Competitors were constantly fussing about registration. Masters were dropping in early or calling to get the details of their visit sorted. Participants in the street fair were trying to understand what exactly it was and what was going to happen there (truth be told, we didn't quite know ourselves, which left me as a primary organizer doing a lot of song and dance to get people to participate).
What's more, I coordinate a special group of volunteers called the Dragon Crew. Mostly composed of old kung fu brothers and sisters, the Dragon Crew is my own elite squad of problem solvers who serve as security, videographers, photographers, runners, as well as set-up, load-in and break-down crew. The Dragon Crew has been with me since our 10th Anniversary. There, they got to be pulled in a truck by Grandmaster Tu Jin-Sheng's iron crotch and hit Shaolin Monk Shi Guolin in the flank with a log. My Kung Fu brothers loved that. With such incentives, they work their butts off every year, and always come back for more. We all love Kung Fu, as well as each other's company, so every year is a special reunion, and I completely rely upon them to watch my back in this endeavor. For KFTC 20 YEARS, the Dragon Crew was Rich Anderson, Stephen Chew, Jeff Hung, Scott Jeffrey, Chris Lewin, Ti Pence, Hoel Ranier, Ernesto Viniegra, Dieter Wagner, Alex Yu and Yu Yu, along with the Bad Ass Bunny video crew, Greg Lynch Jr. and Mark Maggi, and one dear shimei, photographer Selena Lum. I would be remiss if I didn't send a shout-out to them all now as I could not have survived this endeavor without their support.
Just when things started to get really tense, an anonymous supporter had a gorgeous bouquet of flowers delivered to us with a congratulatory note. Even though the card was unsigned, we all knew it was from Master Grace Wu-Monnat. She's got style that way, always thoughtful and courteous. As the fragrance of those flowers filled our chaotic office space, I kept reviewing my notes, trying not to miss anything.
On the Friday before the KFTC 20 YEARS, our staff split up. I was tasked to go down to South Hall of the San Jose Convention Center to do set-up and load-in while some of the others remained at the office to receive guests. Because of the Gala, there were actually two avante garde teams in San Jose. There was another team dispatched to set up the Gala Banquet hall, but even though we were a short stroll from each other, I never got the chance to go over there until the Gala actually started. On my way to San Jose, I stopped by the office to pack my little hatchback to the brim with the precious commemorative crystal dragons - a custom trophy we designed just for the event to be awarded to our grand champions and VIP guests. Every vehicle was enlisted to transport stuff. When I arrived at South Hall, it was pretty empty. There's nothing like looking at 80,000-square-feet of barren asphalt, knowing that it was our responsibility to fill it up and get it all ready within the next 24 hours.
Like last year, I was met by my double-shidi (O-Mei Kung Fu School and Wing Lam Kung Fu School), Chris Lewin. When it comes to the Dragon Crew, Chris holds the title as the most hardcore. Every year he has gone the distance from the initial set-up to the final breakdown, as well as hitting the after-parties. Naturally, for this overwhelming undertaking, he was all in. Seeing the excitement in his eyes at the prospect of the weekend's adventure was very encouraging, just the bump I needed to get working. There's nothing like charging into the fray with your best Kung Fu brothers at your side.
As the convention center is a union facility, all the heavy lifting is left to the pros. The industrial barriers and chairs are set up by union workers. We just had to direct them. What we had to install were martial arts-specific: signage, a VIP courtesy tent, staging desks, vendor tables, puzzle mats and wushu rugs. As a traditional practitioner, I'm okay with working on asphalt, but as many of our competitors are children, we have to mat and pad everything. While I might consider blood on the asphalt a grim reality, kids' blood on the asphalt is a completely different matter entirely. For their safety, puzzle mats and wushu rugs are mandatory. And there's the rub - those damn wushu rugs. If you've ever had to move a wushu rug, you know what I'm talking about. If not, rejoice in your ignorance. Wushu rugs are thick, heavy and bulky and it usually takes over a dozen big burly workers to move them. I've helped move wushu rugs for the three previous Tiger Claw's KungFuMagazine.com Championships. I've even helped the monks move a wushu rug at Shaolin, and that one was filthy and water-logged due to a minor flood (another story, read my book Shaolin Trips). Moving wushu rugs is a part of the job that really sucks.
However, this year, wushu rug installation went easier than ever. Firstly, Thomas and Jonny Oh, along with Manny Melendez, had worked out an ingenious system that deployed a small, yet powerful, electric winch. Coordinating that with a series of roller boards made the process slow, steady and, most importantly, safe. In years past, someone always threw their back out or sprained a wrist during the wushu rug move. There was also a crack team of workers. Thomas had enlisted several strong Taekwondo practitioners for his Stage Set-Up crew, and they attacked the challenge with militant efficiency. Even though many of the wushu rug movers were first-timers, it went very well. It was a cross-cultural cooperative effort as strategies were discussed in English, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish and even a little Jamaican patois.
Seeing that things were going well, I ducked out to prep Plaza de Cesar Chavez. I was tasked to oversee the porta-potty delivery and post “No Parking” signs for Sunday on all of the parking meters on the north end of the park. It turned out to be the one quiet meditative moment of the weekend, in sharp contrast to subwoofers and bloody asphalt. The weather was perfect. Purple blossoms were swaying from the trees in the breeze. Some guy was playing fiddle on a park bench. I knew that the next time I would be here would be Sunday, and by then the lion's share of the event would have passed. When I got back to South Hall, I was chided for skipping out on the wushu carpets. I told them I could see it went smoother than ever. When they asked how I knew without being there, I just smiled and said, “Because none of you are injured.” Dale Dugas of Coiling Dragon Herbs always generously donates some tiedajiu liniment to our WildAid Tiger Claw Champion division, and invariably a few of our wushu rug movers will get a bottle to mend their strains and sprains, but not this year. So, that being done, I went about helping with the puzzle mats and signage when another issue emerged.
One of the most exciting aspects of KFTC 20 YEARS for me was that my Shaolin master, Shi Decheng , was attending. I had not seen him since 2006. In fact, I was nervous about this, as my Kung Fu skills have ashamedly declined since then. I enlisted my Shaolin shidi Dieter Wagner, aka Xingda, to join my Dragon Crew. He and I became disciples under Decheng together in 1996. Dieter recently moved to southern California and had not been training, so I figured I could hide behind him if Decheng called us to task.
Unfortunately, there were travel issues. A forest fire was blocking traffic from southern California, delaying several people coming up from that direction, including Dieter. Worse still was that Decheng had missed his airport pick-up. Li Xue, head coach at O-Mei where I presently train, was helping to pick up people from the airport, but due to the different arrival times, he had to hire someone to pick up my master, and for some reason, that person couldn't spot a bald Chinese monk at SFO. Decheng is a wandering monk and had spent the previous month in Paris, Zurich and Bologna. He is a seasoned traveler so I didn't worry for his safety, but I was already feeling remiss not being able to pick him up personally from the airport, and the missed connection just exacerbated my inattentiveness guilt (at least there was no cat pee involved - I'm such a bad disciple sometimes. . . ). Trying to patch the pick-up fail over my "dumb" burner phone from South Hall was frustrating and time-consuming. My cell was already blowing up with people updating me about imminent arrival times or just trying to coordinate the event. And my burner cell just couldn't handle the load. I always claim it's an original gangster thing - all the criminals on CSI use burner phones - but really it's because I'm cheap and I need to reduce my web usage. Part of my job requires me to be on the web every working day, either on the KungFuMagazine.com forum, our facebook page or our Twitter page, and it's hard not to get addicted. For me, a smart phone might be like shooting heroin right up the main line. Eventually, Decheng's arrival got sorted. Thankfully, Li Xue wound up swinging back to SFO and picked him up personally, kicking his hired help to the curb.
There's actually video of the load-in on our YouTube channel by Bad Ass Bunny Productions. As mentioned above, Bad Ass Bunny is another faction of the Dragon Crew. Filmmaker Greg Lynch Jr. and I were fencing sale mates back when we were in high school. He's been documenting Tiger Claw events and contributing to Kung Fu Tai Chi for years now. Note that there is an Easter Egg at 2:09 in that video, which this story will come back to in the next installment about Saturday night.
Once South Hall was in decent shape, I rushed to join an informal welcoming banquet that was happening at a Chinese buffet near our office back in Fremont. The big Gala Banquet was Saturday, so this one was more of a courtesy one that Gigi threw. There had been a steady stream of visitors at the office all day. I wished I had time to grab a shower, but with Friday commute traffic that wasn't an option. As fate would have it, I ran into Master Grace Wu-Monnat, who had sent us the flowers, as soon as I stepped out of South Hall. Grace and I are old friends, and after exchanging pleasantries I convinced her that she should accompany me to the banquet. It was auspicious, perhaps the hand of fate again; I drove Grace (along with her students) to the welcoming banquet last year too.
When we arrived, the banquet was in full swing, filled with laughter, reunions, and the clatter of plates and chopsticks. Greeting all of those great masters was just wonderful. Shortly after we arrived, Li Xue brought Shi Decheng, along with Master Jimmy Wong. After six years apart, a long international flight and that embarrassing pick-up fail, my master was as cheerful as ever, and it was such a joy to be reunited. In my mind, my checklist for Friday's tasks was complete, and I could relax a little. Seeing so many old friends and colleagues, it hit me then, right in the heart, what this undertaking was all about. We had worked our butts off for months in preparation, stressed and argued over how it would go, but it was really about getting the Chinese martial arts community together. It was about reuniting the wulin. For 20 years, Kung Fu Tai Chi has been in the business of spotlighting others. It was an honor to be the beacon that drew such an illustrious collection of masters, practitioners and aficionados together. Now that everyone was here, we just hoped that everyone would have a good time.
Two hotels were needed to house all the guests for KUNG FU TAI CHI 20 YEARS, although this was in part due to another overlapping event. The Hilton booked up quickly because the American Association of Woodturners was holding their symposium the same weekend, so overflow was directed to the historic Sainte Claire. After the banquet, I took my shifu Shi Decheng, along with masters Grace Wu-Monnat and Jimmy Wong, back to the Hilton. I was staying at the Sainte Claire, so after dropping them off, I went back to my room to grab a much-needed shower. The wise thing to do would have been to rest, but after seeing everyone, my qi was all fired-up. It was still early, so I spat out a quick post on our KungFuMagazine.com forum from the Sainte Claire lobby, and went back to the Hilton to see who was still hanging about. There were a few old friends milling around, the largest group being where Master Ren Guangyi was holding court. Over the years, Ren has produced a fascinating body of students, many, like Stephan Berwick and Jose Figueroa, with whom I've corresponded with for years. It was an absolute delight to see them all again.
I didn't stay out too late, but it didn't matter. I was too preoccupied with the next two days and didn't sleep a wink, no matter how hard I tried.
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