A Fine Martial Hand

staves1 A few weeks ago, we were in San Francisco and stopped at one of our favorite shops, Brendan Lai Supply Co. Brendan, sadly, has been gone for several years, but the shop continues to operate under the experienced and expert guidance of his wife, Esther, and son, Al.

A single post does not offer the space to describe the many happy and wonderful hours spent over the years at Brendan Lai’s. For those with tenure in the martial arts, Brendan Lai’s is well-known. The previous location was layers upon layers of warehouse with weapons known and unknown stacked, leaning, and piled in the many-roomed building. There was a whole room just for fixing the weapons that arrived damaged from China. There were more swords than in a Chinese film, more staves and types of staves than a single martial artist might use in a career. Tridents, Snake-headed spears, Double Axes, those old silk pants that had to be held up with a properly tied sash, throwing darts (they were legal then,) posters, books…

And a visit to the shop always involved several stories from Brendan, along with demonstrations of some new Chin Na that he had developed.

So much has changed over the years in martial arts. Weapons back then that were so exotic you’d never hope to see one in your martial lifetime now flood the internet; of course, now they are cheaply fabricated, so many turned out to please a group more familiar with Chinese film than the actual feel of the heft of a quan. Our conversation with Al anstaves2d Mrs Lai, on this summer day, turned to what was still available. They bemoaned both the flood of cheap materials, which they will not sell, and the depletion of real weapon-makers in China and Hong Kong.staves3

Which brings me to the inspiration for this post: not to fall sway to memories of the good old times, but to comment on, of all things, the package of rattan staves sent by Al Lai a few days ago. When we were there, he told us that he had a nice batch coming in, and would send us some when they arrived.

First, they are beautiful. Al still takes time with every weapon that comes through his door and makes it good before it leaves: sanding, extra gluing of handles, polishing, straightening. Whatever is needed to make the weapon right. And they buy from people they trust in general, to get good material to begin with. These feel like the staves from days past: smooth, good weight, full. In that alone we would have been pleased.

But he went even further; take a look at the scattered pictures in this post and consider getting a package like this: first of all, Al split the pack of six plastic-wrapped staves into two rows of three, divided by a cardboard separator. Then he threaded pink plastic twine behind the cardboard, wrapped it at least eight times in six different spots down the length of the package.Then, each wrap was tied in with exactly the same slip knot we use to tie our Kung Fu belts.

Unwrapping brought back memories of those Qing Wu uniforms that had to be laced up a loop at a time but could be popped open in a flash (presumably to answer a challenge). It brought back so-called Tai Chi shoes which originally had replaceable soles that eventually became plastic bottoms, an item that made all the sense in the world become an item that was virtustaves4ally useless. It brought back hand-cupped spear heads, custom made weapons racks, school-produced training targets and equipment, Kung Fu boots with soles made from Goodyear tires, student-built safety equipment. It was a world that had not, in two thousand years, developed cookie cutter weapons to match cookie cutter performances.
Folk arts, you know. The scary point is when people can no longer tell the difference.


I don’t know if this bit of added attention will impress others, but I felt the need to shout out that there are still people in the martial arts with a fine eye and sense of quality; that despite the crassness of the commercial aspects, there is a shop in San Francisco—the last one remaining, by the way—that cares about the weapon that you might pick up and take outside to practice as the autumn day cools to evening.




6 Responses to “A Fine Martial Hand”

  1. J. Andrews says:

    What a nice post! Thanks for helping us who are new to the arts to get a sense of the legacy we are inheriting and the fine people who have kept the arts true, deep, and vibrant. We students learn to discern mainly because those senior to us take the time to teach us, to help us see and sense, to show us this rich inheritance. A beautifully written piece–thanks.

  2. Nicholas Hancock says:

    I’ve always been meaning to make a day trip there! Thanks for the great recommendation.

  3. patrick hodges says:

    Well said.

  4. Thomas Kiefer says:

    A wonderful article–thank you!

  5. G says:

    Just stopped by Brendan Lai Trading Co. It’s closed. A note on the door wishes everyone well and thanks for support over the years. I took a photo and will send along.

  6. Plum Staff says:

    Yes, just received an email from another person with a similar message. Very sad. Will report more later (if there is anything to report.)

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