Wushu Retrospective (Part 3) – 1995-1996: Competitions and Demonstrations
This is part 3 of my Wushu Retrospective, a look back at my personal history with the sport of wushu. Please note that there are syncing issues with the sound on the following videos that I didn’t have time to fix before posting them up.
It was round-about the time I was 3/4 of the way through learning the 1970’s compulsory form that I found out I would be competing in August. Part of the reason I agreed to compete was because I had gone to watch the Berkeley tournament in April and had seen what constituted a “beginner”.
Just before the Berkeley tournament, a few folks told me I should go ahead and compete in the beginner division, but having only had 3 weeks of wushu, that wasn’t so much an option. I wanted to see what was involved in a typical wushu competition.
It turned out that, based on the other people who were in the “beginner” division, I would have done okay. Maybe I should have competed afterall? Well, here was my chance. August was coming and I would have to start preparing.
Patti dumbed down my form a bit, since the original one was so long (8 sections!). I even got to include a butterfly kick in it, which the original didn’t have.
I also found out that my sister would be in town during the time I was competing so I would have a bit of moral support. Truth be told, I was pretty nervous, but I didn’t have much time to think about that. Before I knew it the competition had arrived.
It’s a bit of a blur, but I do remember having some pretty major butterflies in my stomach as I got ready for my turn on the floor. I tried to size up my competition, but I honestly had no idea how to do that. I was on my own. Patti was one of the judges, as were a few other former Chinese athletes (which back in 1995 was much rarer to find at a wushu competition than it is today), and the head judge was Debbie Chen from the National Wushu Training Center in L.A.
My form went pretty well. I guess my basics were solid enough and .. well. You can take a look and tell me what you think:
I ended up getting first place. In hind sight, I realize that the reason was because I was competing in a beginning division with a more complicated form than the other competitors. Most people have a very linear form as their “beginning” form (such as the one I first learned at Wushu West), but the form I did, as you can see, moves around a bit more, and as a result I placed higher.
After I went I felt a big relief and just enjoyed the rest of the competition.
In the fall I started learning staff basics as well as the 1990’s compulsory long fist form. My staff basics eventually became a staff form and after a few months we had a demonstration coming up for Chinese New Years. It was being held at the Holiday Inn’s Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco Chinatown and this time around my mom would be in town to watch me do my thing.
For this performance we joined up with the newly arrived Wang Zhen Tian, former member of the Jiangsu Wushu Team and a contemporary of Patti’s. He had just opened the “Achieve Gong Fu Wushu Training Center” in Santa Clara with his student from China, Liu Bo. (This was several years before “Wushu Link” down in Los Angeles.)
Those who know Liu Bo now, will not realize that he was once a svelt, lean former competitor from China. Years of living in the U.S. and being subjected to sub-standard experience has taken a lot of the drive out of him and he got a bit lazy over time. But back then he was at the top of his game.
That’s why I felt a little intimidated when I found out I would be performing after him. The two of them joined us for a few practices before the demonstration itself. It was the closest I had been to a top-level male wushu athlete. His jumps were mind-blowing.
For the demonstration I would be performing in three different parts:
First, I would come out with my staff for the opening introductions. You can also see a few other Wushu West students (who have mostly long since gone away) as well as Wang Zhen Tian, Liu Bo and Patti doing a bit of double broadsword.
Second, I was performing the beginning hand form with two of the Wushu West kids and a guy named Peter who disappeared a long time ago. This was the form I originally learned in 2 days, but of course that didn’t mean I hadn’t kept practicing it since then. William and Max went on to leave wushu for ballet and now are professional ballet dancers in New York. Don’t I feel old now?
And finally, I was going to perform 2 seconds of a staff set I had been learning. But, like I mentioned before, I would have to go after Liu Bo. He performaned a small nanquan set based on the compulsory form. Looking back I can say he did a so-so job of it, but I’ve since been spoiled to death in China and my perspective is all whacked out. But back then, it was the most amazing thing ever, and was probably one of the things that got me interested in nanquan to start with.
After that my performance went well, except that my staff was a little long for the narrow stage and I ended up giving a small plant a bit of a hair cut. I actualy forgot my form half-way through too, and started to make things up, but I just kept going regardless, knowing that stopping was akin to suicide.
I was actually pretty happy with myself. I knew I had messed up, but I was mostly pleased that I instinctively kept going. Patti said that it was good that I did that too, which of course made me feel even prouder of having messed up.
Oh .. and just for James C, here is Patti’s Eagle Claw from that demo. She hadn’t worked out in a while so actually, she’s in better shape today than she was back then, oddly enough.
Shortly after the demonstration the Berkeley tournament came around again. I chose not to compete, but I did attend to see how things went with my school-mates. This was a pretty big event for me because it introduced me to who a lot of the big players in the wushu world (at that time) were.
Amy Chow and her crazy drop stance. Eric Yeh and his nanquan. Nathan Tong and his horrible knee injury that I was sitting 5 feet away from when it happened. Anne Hsu, who came out of no where and totally amazed the room. SCWA and their amazing athletes who seemed like some sort of silent ninja army of death. It was all new and interesting. I wish I had the time to cut up and post up all the videos from that competition, but unfortunately I don’t. Perhaps some day I’ll do a video retrospective on previous CMATs.
Anyway, there was a funny thing that happened during the competition that I still find rather odd.
Liu Bo was competing for the Grand Champion prize (I think to help his visa application) but was also judging on the side as needed. At one point, he was tired of judging and, as I was sitting next to him and one of the volunteers asked him to judge, he told them that he couldn’t since he was going to be competing soon.
Then he pointed at me “He can judge” he said.
The volunteer looked at me with hopeful eyes. “Can you???” she asked, and I could tell that they were in dire need.
“Sure, I guess so” I said, shrugging, realizing at the same time that I really had absolutely no idea what judging entailed.
Soon enough I was whisked off to a ring of intermediate long fist students (all of whom had been studying for longer than myself) and told to sit in the corner with a flip book full of numbers from 1.1 to 10.0.
I managed to do okay. I was a later judge in the line-up so by the time I was supposed to put my numbers up I just took an average of what I had seen so far and gave that score I figured that I would at least be consistent and not hurt anyone’s chances with my ignorance.
The really amazing thing was that, towards the end of the competition, they were so short on judges that I was asked to judge for the advanced divisions. Advanced nanquan, and the Grand Championship.
I was in way over my head.
In those competitions, after the 3rd competitor went, the judges would meet together to discuss the general scoring method for the ring. I went up, not sure what to expect. Truth be told, I had been curious all day what the judges said in those circles, so it was nice to have my curiosity satiated.
“The guy in the gold silks is my student” the head judge said “so be sure to give him a good score.”
Say what?? I couldn’t believe my ears. But it was exactly what it sounded like; one of the judges was telling the other judges to bump up the score of their own student. I would come to learn that this was suprisingly common. But to be honest it kind of disgusted me and my opinion of some of the coaches and judges dropped a few notches. (Not the students, mind you, since most of them were never aware that the coaches were doing this on their behalf.)
From that point on I always made it a point to be completely and totally objective whenever I judged a competition. I NEVER wanted to feel that I had given any sort of advantage to any competitor, regardless of if I knew them or not.
I focused, in years to come, to only see the wushu, and not the person performing it. To view the technique, and not the personality. It wasn’t easy to do at first, but over the years I’ve trained myself to divorce the two aspects of a competitor in my head.
But, at this competition, I still had no idea what I was doing. Who was I to judge the Grand Championship with only a year of wushu under my belt? Lisa, a friend who trained both at Cal Wushu and Wushu West came up to me and said “Are you judging??” to which I answered with a confused “So it would seem”.
In the end Liu Bo got the grand championship. But after several years of looking back at the tapes of that competition, I think his scores were a bit inflated due to the fact that he was a China athlete. The truth is, he was a bit out of shape, and one of the other athletes held up much better than him.
Yes, he had that China power and crisp-ness to his form — but did that make up for his lack-luster performance and lower energy? Who’s to say? At that stage of the game, I had no idea what I was doing anyway.
Here is the video of his performance so you can see how he looked. Keep in mind this was 12 years ago, before the huge number of Chinese athletes had come over from China. Heck .. Wu Di was only 8 years old back then and hadn’t even started wushu yet.
And .. again. I feel old now.
(You can see me in the far left corner with my legs crossed, sitting there judging as if I know what I’m doing… )
One of the things that I was beginning to realize during that first year of wushu, was that the wushu community as a whole had a lot of unresolved issues that weren’t being dealt with. Lots of politics and personalities were in conflict and I was slowly being made aware that the world inside a wushu school is pretty idyllic compared to the challenges that persisted in the wushu community at large.
My next blog will deal with this new-found state of wushu politics and the wushu community.
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