The profound sadness I felt after the defeat of my teacher at the hands of the French boxing champion, François Lyautey, turned to dismay when two days later the death of Master Ngoc Long was announced due to complications of the head injuries he had sustained during the fight.
It was a period of mourning that was shared by all the students of the Frères Puginier Elementary; Master Ngoc Long was our physical education teacher. His funeral procession, that spread beyond count, made its way slowly in the cold autumn morning air. Grey fog hung heavily on the road that led to the cemetary. My first burial was quite memorable – as it was for most students present on that day in 1952. Rain fell suddenly, in perfect orchestration to express the sadness of mother Nature, and to hide the tears of the young who were experiencing their first real suffering of Life and Death. (According to the teachings of Buddha, human life is made of 8 fundamental sufferings)
At the age of 16 I had become a fierce combattant in the art of free boxing, a style that I thought was far superior to English Boxing that limited itself to hand techniques. I was proud of having K.O.'d several practitionners during sparring sessions, or even street fights, using powerful scissor kicks, savage and oppressing attacks using the entire weight of the body.
In 1967, I began working with the American Army in a Radar & Comms. unit, based on the VC Hill in Vung-Tau. Being an interpret for the commander in chief of this base, I had at my disposal a personnal chauffeur of chinese descent. A tiny man, meek and seemingly fragile. Every day I saw him pratice Tai-Chi early in the morning – a sort of slow dance that is executed to promote good health and mobility. He assures me that this oriental ballet is in fact made of highly efficient, deadly techniques that could be used in ultimate combat. Having known Tai-Chi for a decade, I stared at him looking for any sign of deception. The truth would astound me, for after a few minutes of precise and calculated attacks, the chauffeur always found a way to neutralize or escape my aggression. At first I was frustrated, then in the end, surprised by my own helplessness.
A month later I became the disciple of the Head Grand Master of this Wu Dang style; a whole new dimension was mine to discover. Because of this karmic meeting I was able to learn a new aspect of life, a new vision of combat and the subtle, but colossal difference between being invincible and undefeated.
My work under the burning sun on this barren hill could be compared to vacations – far away from the tumultuous activity of society I was able to plunge head first into the practice of Kung Fu. One morning, three belligerent looking, burly gentlemen erupted uninvited into my training space. They made a bad impression, especially the most arrogant of the three who bore tattoos on his brawny arms and a number of scars on his face.
Speaking between themselves in a language I didn't understand, they start shadowboxing in front of me, laughing at my practice of Hing Kung (one of the 72 feats of the Shaolin Temple that consists of running on walls, jumping great heights and speed of movement). I approach these intruder with the firm intention of making them stop their antics. Before I can say anything, the tattooed man thrusts his chin at me and says:
"That's the monkey style of Kung Fu that you're doing?"
After hearing my answer, they start arguing between themselves even more ardently, ignoring my presence. I begin to recognize them; they're Filipino firefighters stationned not far from the base and boxing practitionners. The man finally turns back to me and says:
"I am Carlos Alvarez, and this is Frank Alcantara, boxing champion of the Philippines." Without hesitation he adds, "My friend Frank would like to have a match with you, and he wagers you can't last a single round."
At that time in 1968, karmic law is still a vague notion within me, but something strange stirs in my soul; this meeting was not just a simple coincidence and, slowly, a memory of 1952 comes back and leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Without any hesitation, I accept the challenge with the loud silence of thunder.
D-Day has finally come. It is a warm sunday afternoon and the entire camp is celebrating with an outdoor BBQ. We chose the small ciment square that usually served as a parking space for Col. Wemberleys' Jeep as our ring. Joe Dazuta, a 5th dan karateka and the base hand-to-hand combat trainer, agreed to officiate our match. After the strident whistle marked the beginning of our combat, Frank started the dance most boxers are known for, hopping slightly from side to side throwing quick and provocative jabs. Each aggression is met with a raised knee, which stops him dead in his tracks, unsure of how he should proceed with his attack. The screaming and whooping of the GIs surrounding us quickly becomes an ocean of noise that intoxicates and makes our blood rush to our heads. Despite all this, I cannot ignore the weight of my opponent – a hundred kilos of muscles and tendons and bloodshot eyes standing before me. The first round ends in an unbelievable storm of shouting and shoving, and also much deception. Indeed, Frank attempted but four attacks outside the mortal zone to test the water and I answered with a side kick and one round kick – strong enough to keep him at bay while I evaluate his strength, agility and solidity. The second round is much the same, each side not willing to take too many risks. Near the end of the round Frank, excited and jostled by the crowd heckling us, attacks with a violent bullrush maneuver, chaining a myriad of strong, quick and precise attacks. One catches me on the shoulder and I am pushed back against the Jeep parked next to the ring. Using the Jeep as a lever, I am able to push back Franks' attacks with a powerful side kick to his lower abdomen, followed immediately by a crescent kick to his head. Visibly shaken, Frank manages to stay on his feet in horse stance, body leaning forward. I take the momentum to climb on his knees and bring my foot in a downward arc over his head to the back of his neck. He takes a few steps back before falling to the ground. After a few shakes of his head to clear his mind he immediately gets back up, raising his arms to calm the crowd that was rushing to the ring and to show that he was able to continue the duel. This mans' strength and ability to endure brick-breaking kicks to potentially mortal areas of the body was simply unebelievable.
Frank was a wild, superhuman monster.
It was at this exact moment that his friends appeared to declare that the two fighting styles were incompatible for a match and unfair for Frank; a tie is announced for both sides.
In 1949 in the aftermath of their defeat against the red army of Mao Tse Toung, a large amount of Kung Fu masters seek refuge in Vietnam, and amongst them could be found legendary personas of the different styles of traditionnal chinese martial arts. By 1969, Cholon, the largest Chinatown in the world with its 3 million inhabitants, is a known place for "Crouching Tigers and Hidden Dragons".
It is in this sociopolitical context that I met master Ho Hai Long. The efficiency of his short techniques and close combat intrigues me and his ability to absorb powerful blows is quite surprising despite his small frame, measuring no more than 1,52m. He teaches Wing Chun, a completely unknown style at the time. It is only after the death of Bruce Lee in 1973 that the world would see Wing Chun schools making their appearance on the international scene. Now, everyone is an adept of Wing Chun and the style is talked about everywhere. Even more amusing, the style became a "national" icon of Hong Kong!
After three years of diligent practice of the "Little Idea", "Sticky Hands" and the "Chikung of the five animals", I started to feel a great flow of energy through my body; a constant tingling sensation and itching in my powerful hands. Wing Chun added a new layer to my acquired techniques and they became truly formidable.
They would save my life two years later!
To be continued...
Grand Master Nam Anh, Montreal, June 29th 2016