by Debbie Shayne
“Ba–Gua–Jiang,” my finger reads, pausing at each character. “Wu–Dang–Nei–Kung–something-something-something.” I pull a third book off the shelf and open it, hoping the pictures will offer a clue to the style. “Wu style?” I ask Ted, holding it open for him to see. “But that character’s not ‘Wu’.”
“Let me see.” He takes it and his finger moves much faster than mine. “The other ‘Wuu’–”
“Oh.” I stare at the word, looking for something to help me remember it.
“This is the best book I’ve ever seen on Tui Shou.” Ted hands me a medium-sized book and I look at a page of illustrations. “Look how clear they are. That’s pretty rare.” I flip it over and look at the price. “This would be a good one,” I agree. “People will really like it.”
“If more than four people like it we’re in trouble,” he says. “That’s all they’ve got.”
“Four’s not bad,” I shrug. “Better than that one copy on Mizong. Put it on the pile.”
The store owner approaches with three books in English, recently published, new, shiny. “You like Kung Fu?” she asks, fanning out the books.
“Yes, but these here are good.”
“Those are in Chinese,” she says, and I wonder if she thinks we haven’t noticed. We’ve been looking through them for ten minutes.
“That’s OK,” I smile. “These are the ones we want.”
For more than 35 years, Ted has been collecting Chinese Books on Kung Fu. Although I spent a good part of my youth in the dusty stacks of used book stores, I’m a relative newcomer to this particular hunt–only about 20 years. When Ted and I first met, a day spent combing through Chinatown bookstores was a real Date. Although I knew nothing about Martial Arts, I was caught by Ted’s enthusiasm for the hidden treasures in the back of the store on the lowest shelves.
“I haven’t seen this in years,” he says, handing me a thin book with bold black characters on the cover and scratchy old photos on newsprint-type paper inside.
“It’s the old guy in shorts!” I say, as though he’s just shown me a picture of a favorite uncle. “Mei Hua Poles,” he explains. See the grass character?” He points to the double-crossed top of the second character. “That’s a flower radical.”
This year I decided I needed to learn a little Chinese, at least enough to identify basic VCD and book titles. Ted graciously agreed to teach me. This is my first book outing since I started, and I am annoyingly enthusiastic with my very small vocabulary.
“Look! You just taught me that one! Yong!”
In fact, every step of Plum’s development has come from enthusiasm. Our first product was a two-tape set of an Ed Parker seminar that Ted had helped produce. There were few tapes of Parker teaching, and it was exciting to offer them to the public. Then we met Professor Kang GeWu in Beijing and had the extraordinary opportunity to publish a major English-language history of Chinese Martial Arts. This was all pre-internet and paper-catalogue days. We produced a few more videos, a selection of booklets and hand-picked some books from other publishers that we thought people would enjoy.
Then we found the VCDs. I remember the first ones we got–on Shaolin, BaJi, Wing Chun, Chin Nah, to name a few. An hour of BaJi footage from China for under $10.00? It seemed too good to be true. We took home a pile and stayed up half the night watching them.
“Think about it,” Ted has said several times since then…especially every time we’ve expanded the line. “Some of these are styles people have only heard about, or read about in Robert Smith books. We never hoped to be able to see them. I have old books on some of them, but to see a person performing and teaching is amazing!”
Our trip to Taiwan in 2001 brought us to Mr. Kang of Lion Books. Mr. Kang is himself a collector of many old martial arts books, and at a certain point he realized that there was still interest in the old texts. So he added reprints to his line and we, as his American distributors, included these titles on our site.
The reaction was amazing. Once again, people who had only heard of these almost mythical texts and teachers could now buy these writings.
We had never stopped looking for the old books, the classics, but it now seemed that we could be shopping for more than ourselves. We found multiple copies of a few classics and posted them to the site. We couldn’t update the out-of-stock items fast enough.
It is a thrill, this gathering of the books. A lot of the old stores are gone, and in the ones remaining the martial arts books are being replaced by computer manuals and beauty texts. We comb the shelves, Ted with his practiced eye and me with my infant Chinese.
“This was the first book I wanted to translate,” Ted says, holding open a book on Iron Palm. Looking at the condition I think it’s possibly been on this shelf since that time.
“What about this one?”
He looks at it and smiles. “I have the original. See these line drawings? They’ve traced the original photos. Still,” he turns a few more pages. “There’s not much on Southern style sets. Yes, this is a good one.”
There are two or three generations now of American Martial Artists–probably the same is true in many of the Western countries. For most practitioners, this martial tradition does not originate in their native country, and neither does the literature. But many have twenty or more years of training, are familiar with their lineage and can identify the names that accompany the old pictures on their teachers’ or their own walls. We’ve come around to a point in martial history where these books are once again treasured. It is a breathless moment to be able to pick up a book and perform the first eight moves of an old set you’ve never seen but heard of, or to see your own practiced set demonstrated in old black-and-white snapshots of your grand-teacher.
These books may have begun life in Hong Kong or Beijing or Taipei but they may end in Portland or Krakow or Buenos Aires. When we find a title it really feels like finding treasure. It’s easy, now, to imagine the person who will click on Page Three of our Simplified Chinese offerings and say, “That book on Xing Yi —I’ve always wanted that,” or “My grand-teacher’s writings on T’ai Chi!” Believe me, it’s not for the money; the work involved in posting a title with only three copies available–the translation, the review, the scanning, the shelf space, the order processing–money’s not the thought that comes to mind when we see that thin, slightly yellowed volume on the bottom shelf. What do we think? “That’s a great one–someone is really going to love this!”