June 7, 2009 at 7:13 am #31669
The controversy regarding Kwan Saihung is not new.
As a high-school student in San Francisco, starting in about 1974, I studied with Kwan Saihung. Kwan led group practices on Saturday and Sunday mornings in St. Mary’s square, which has an entrance on the south side of the street across from Old St. Mary’s Church on the California near Grant.
Previously, I studied Taiji, Northern Shaolin, and Xingyi for several years with a two renowned teachers, whose names I will leave out of this, in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
I learned of Kwan from a friend named Derek, who at the time was working on his bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology at Berkeley. Derek described Kwan as a master of Monkey, Drunken Boxing, Mizhong Yi, Bagua, and several other arcane styles. With my youthful enthusiasm and lack of perspective, I imagined that I would learn from Kwan all of the great “secrets” that my other teachers did not possess or were reluctant to impart. Indeed, Kwan’s approach to teaching was very different from the slow, methodical, and highly demanding ones I had previously experienced. My other teachers expected students either to come equipped with or otherwise to develop tremendous patience. They would only teach a few movements of a form at a time. Only after it was evident that a student had absorbed the essence of those movements would they teach the next sequence. Waiting periods could be on the order of weeks or even months. Kwan, on the other hand, would take a new student and expose him (Kwan had only male students at the time!) to entire forms in a single day.
Within less than a year of studying with Kwan, I developed serious doubts about his qualifications. The forms would change from week to week or even sometimes during the course of a single day. As the photo at http://www.thetaobums.com/lofiversion/index.php?t8102.html shows, Kwan is what one would politely call “portly.” He is also somewhat clumsy and possessed very little flexibility compared to what I was used to from my other teachers and had worked diligently to develop myself. For instance, at least during my time with him he could never come close to performing chin to toe.) Kwan displayed nowhere near the mastery that my previous teachers possessed.
Most troublingly, Kwan displayed the characteristics of an inveterate liar. He told us that he was an apprentice in the Beijing opera as a boy, that he studied with various illustrious masters, including Wang Ziping, in China, that he was a Golden Gloves boxing champion. On several occasions, Kwan also mentioned having lived in Germany. The stories often contradicted one another on the most basic leveltimelines for the various events were conflicting.
Together with his then senior student, Jeffrey, Kwan worked tirelessly to create an aura of mystique around himself, the guiding principle being that he was an all-knowing, god-like entity. This resulted in an almost cultish atmosphere where questions or rational discussion were completely stifled.
The watershed event for me occurred when Kwan began to teach us Xingyi. It immediately struck me that he had picked up a book on style and was desperately and not very successfully attempting to synthesize the partial information contained therein. He was unable to remember the forms and continuously stumbled and changed the order of movements. Anyone who has studied Xingyi knows just how spare the forms are in comparison even to Taiji. By analogy, consider the relative economy and simplicity of Tantui when compared with any intermediate or advanced form in Northern Shaolin. Kuan’s teaching of XIngyi was farcical.
After class on Sunday’s the group would sometimes eat at a restaurant named Huibing Lou, which was on the north side of Jackson, west of Kearny. Kwan apparently knew one of the waiters or cooks there. Once, after class, we instead went for a barbeque at Kwan’s apartment in the Mission district. It was a ground floor unit, overlooking the backyard of the building. Kwan was sharing the apartment with Jeffrey. The garden had at least one Wing Chun dummy (Jeffrey had previously studied Wing Chun) and weight lifting equipment , which didn’t square with my preconceptions about the practices of a master of the internal arts. There were shockingly vile and tasteless (at least to my rather sheltered eyes) pornographic magazines strewn throughout the place (we aren’t talking Playboy or Penthouse, or even Hustler), which was a shambles and smelled rank. I was being raised a single, working mother, so I certainly wasn’t accustomed to luxury or pristine living conditions. Nevertheless, I couldn’t have been more surprised by the way Kwan and Jeffrey lived. There was also something odd about the relationship between them. The unit where they lived did not appear to have two beds or, even, room for two beds.
On this occasion, a fellow student ran across Kwan’s passport. I do remember clearly that the first name on the passport was “Frank.” Less clear is my memory of the nation of issue. Singapore and Malaysia are possibilities. So is the US. The passport certainly wasn’t Chinese. This raised a giant red flag.
During this period, Kwan, Jeffrey, and one or two other students began to study Chigung with a herbalist whose business was located on the west side of Powell just north of its intersection with Broadway. They became obsessed and would practice Chigung incessantly during our sessions on Saturdays and Sundays, I found the loud snorting, with streams of mucus flying from nostrils, and the awkward postures that they would assume during these exercises to be completely lacking in the beauty and grace that I had come to associate with Chinese martial arts. It was really quite disenchanting.
The most important upshot of this, however, that Kwan’s knowledge of Chigung was acquired rather late in his career, in San Francisco, from a mainstream practitioner who had a put up a shingle not an ascetic in the Wutang mountains or some other such mysterious part of China. By the way, I remember hearing Kwan and Jeffrey commiserating about how much it was costing them to learn Chigung. I also recall that Kwan primary goal was to lose weight as a consequence of the exercises. Well, from the group photo that I have seen of him online, he hasn’t lost any weightdespite many years of practice. To be fair, however, it doesn’t appear that he has gained much weight either.
I continued to study with Kwan until finishing high school and going on to Berkeley. This gave me the opportunity to extricate myself, without controversy, from what had become an very uncomfortable and unproductive setting.
To this day I regret that I did not stay with my previous teachers, teachers. These teachers who were true masters of what they taught. Only much later in life did I realize the immense value of the patience that they tried to instill. They succeeded in doing so. Unfortunately, my response was delayed.June 7, 2009 at 9:42 am #31670
I’m sorry to hear about your experience
with your previous teacher. At the very
least, you were able to gain the perspective
that you now have, so it wasn’t a total loss.
It’s all a journey, and maybe it was what you
needed at the time–and now your experience
has made you wiser and better able to appreciate
others that you may not have otherwise.
My best to your continued development,
StevenJune 15, 2009 at 5:12 pm #31672
Thanks, Steven, for the encouraging words.
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