Interview with ‘Fu Jow Pai’ Sifu Paul Koh, Pt. 1

When we learned that Sifu Paul Koh was setting off on a new publishing venture, to bring out a series of beautifully designed books on traditional forms, we asked if we might interview him, to expose a few more of our Plum followers to his Tiger Claw system. Although we know Sifu Koh to be a thoughtful teacher and good writer, we were delighted by the unexpected depth and breadth he applied when addressing our questions. Since the interview is lengthy, we decided to print it in 4 successive parts—this being the first—but for those who want the read the entire interview as a whole, without waiting for the separate parts to appear, you can download it here.

 

Is Bo Law Kung Fu a branch of Fu Jow Pai? If so, what is the relation of Fu Jow Pai to other Southern “Hung” styles?

Bo Law is my name that was not only a translation but also given to me by my teacher. It’s actually rather significant because the term Bo can be translated into something precious or a treasure, and Law translates into an arhat or a disciple that preaches the message, so it’s very suitable because it’s my task to preach this treasure of an art that I’ve been privy to. Traditionally speaking, the separate mo gwoons, many of them are named after their teachers. People often misunderstand, thinking the name of the school is having something to do with the system or style being taught. It’s just a name, like Gold’s Gym or Equinox Gym. In the Chinese tradition, many times they will put the Sifu’s name and call it “Joe’s Kung Fu” or “Tom’s Kung Fu.” In this instance, it’s the same. So, the name of the school is Bo Law Kung Fu, but since my early teens, I’ve been training exclusively in the Hung Family System and the Tiger Claw System. A lot of people make that mistake thinking that Bo Law Kung Fu is some kind of an offshoot, but BLKF is the name that represents my school. I teach the Kung Fu that was taught to me by my teachers. Too many people get caught up with systems and styles and names and lineage, which are all fine and well and necessary to a certain extent, but in the end, it boils down to the same thing. These different systems and styles are paths of enlightenment that should serve to awaken the individual martial art student and take them to a certain level of realization.

Regarding the relationship of Fu Jow Pai to other Hung systems, a lot of people don’t understand that the term Hung Kuen is a very general and broad term for systems of the south that came about in the latter part of the 1700s and early 1800s. With the remnants of Southern Shaolin wanting to overthrow the Manchurian regime, the term Hung is a very general term used as an umbrella to cover a lot of Kung Fu in the south, so if you want to see a relationship, there are many systems that are related to the Hung System. You have systems such as Hung Fut, Jow Gar, Choy Lee Fut, even Wing Chun to a certain extent, have relationships because they are all southern systems. And, of course, Fu Jow Pai has a relationship because they come from a similar source. Every system has its specialty, and the Tiger Claw System is that. It’s a quintessential representation of an attacking tiger and the tiger claw technique, much more than other southern systems. Many other systems include elements of the tiger, but it is not their forte and specialty. Various Hung styles are much more generic in the sense that they are well suited for everyone, and many students can study those kinds of styles and come away with a strong basis and knowledge in martial arts. But, when you go to more esoteric and unique systems, the requirements are a little different, and the specialization and time required to learn and master make them more rare. The stylistic interpretation and the way the movement is played are unique and special.

 

What do you feel are some of the essential differences between northern and southern kung fu?

People like to classify systems as being northern or southern, internal or external, and I think that’s all great in the beginning of your training, because you need to have some kind of a structure wherein which to learn. The difference may seem great on the outset, when you’re looking at the outward performance, but if you want to talk about application of the move, there are a lot of crossover principles that cross that so called invisible boundary between northern and southern systems because that’s a really general classification. I’ve seen techniques and concepts in southern forms that could be interpreted as northern, and vice versa. There’s one northern system, Bhat Gik Kuen which has many techniques that resemble southern movements. They use low, strong horse stances, short, hard hitting hand techniques and elbows, so there’s a lot of intermingling. Obviously, the most apparent difference would be the execution of the techniques. The northern systems tend to be longer in their hand extensions and have a lot more jumping and kicking. The southern tend to have shorter hand techniques.

We all know the stock interpretation. But I think the real difference between northern and southern systems lies in the actual practitioner’s personal interpretation of the movement, how they play their form and what they want to accomplish with it. Many teachers will teach softer aspects and others, harder aspects. And I think it boils down to the individual to decide what they prefer and what works for them. In the grand scheme of things, to me, Kung Fu is Kung Fu, and, as we said earlier, those categories and divisions only serve to help the novice or outsider navigate their way through what is what. I think both northern and southern systems have their forte and their inherent strengths and weaknesses, but a better, less biased viewpoint may serve the individual better, and in that way, not necessarily be constricted to northern and southern viewpoints. I can admire and appreciate a well-executed northern form, which I’m not very good at, just as much as a traditional southern set. But as we’ve said in some of our other talks, whatever gets the job done is in the end the most important. Both schools of thought have a great wealth of knowledge to impart on the Kung Fu enthusiast.

 

In China, there are some styles that change with their region. Has being in New York has influenced your style and, if so, in what ways?

When you’re talking about Chinese Kung Fu, that’s a huge subject, which I don’t think many people understand. It’s like if you talk about the United States, and you say I come from South Carolina as opposed to Montana as opposed to New York. The attitudes and mental makeup of the individuals will be drastically different even though you’re living within the same country. The same thing is true in China speaking in terms of Kung Fu. Kung Fu is thousands of years old and has been heavily influenced by the regions where those martial artists may have grown up and learned and promoted martials arts. Some are cold, some are hot, some are dry and dusty, some, hot and humid. This would put certain physical parameters upon what types of techniques they would prefer and be predisposed to utilizing, which is extremely interesting in how certain Kung Fu systems grew and became highly specialized in particular approaches. This is part of what makes Kung Fu an extremely diverse art form. There’s probably no end to studying Kung Fu.

As far as being in New York, being a born and bred New Yorker and particularly studying these traditional hard styles of Hung System and Tiger Claw and the penchant at that time when we were growing up to participate in tournaments and fighting, I think greatly put a particular emphasis and/or edge on the approach. Growing up in the environment with the masters that I grew up with, my teachers and my grandmaster, and the times, the late ‘70s, ‘80s, and so on, New York was and still is a pretty rough and tumble kind of place. You have to be able to hold your own. These systems and styles, because they came out of the outgrowth of fighting for the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty, were already predisposed towards that. Many of the techniques are very straightforward and simple in the sense that they’re there to be utilized directly. That is only accentuated by the “New York state of mind” attitude that we would have here, as opposed to another part of the country where things would be more laid back, or the emphasis might be on a different cultivation of the aspect of any particular system of Kung Fu. So, the southern styles go pretty well hand in hand with New York. I’m very, very lucky to have been so young and to have the access to my teachers and to one of the biggest Chinatowns in America, and be able to grow up in that ethnic environment, whereas in another place in the world, or another state in the country that doesn’t have that hub of Chinese culture, you’re missing the cultural component. Being in New York and particularly Chinatown and able to grow up with the smells and the scent and the language and the customs definitely gives you a different insight, a deeper connection to the cultural component of the art, which I feel is very difficult to learn and try to grasp if not immersed in it.

 

I’ve always admired the southern styles, especially Tiger styles. How does the tiger manifest in your style, in what way is it represented?

I can only speak for me personally as I was taught and learned, because the style that we do is “the tiger” style. Everything is permeated with the spirit, the body, the mentality, the heart and the attitude of a fighting tiger. There is not one approach that I have seen that doesn’t just scream tiger. Just very recently, I was training with my teacher and working on a sequence of a set that he wanted to do, and this piece had no clawing movement whatsoever. But as I stopped myself and I stepped back to watch him perform these actions, the thing that I was gob smacked, if I can use that term, the thing that hit me so hard when I was watching him was the silhouette was that of a tiger, because he embodied the full spirit of this animal in his movement. His energy, his chi, his mental focus was all that of a tiger, and that’s through years of cultivation of that pure mindset. So, every punch, every kick, every twist, every turn resembles the ferocity of this animal. It transcends movement and becomes the ethereal spirit of that imposing image of a tiger.

The manifestation of the tiger is based upon the oneness of the individual and his movement because the spirit of the tiger is already within the movement. Even though another individual or another system may include tiger like movements, we’re not talking about that. It goes beyond that animal play. You’ve done that so much that it becomes something else, It’s within the person. If you’re looking for a really in-depth answer to this question, there’s three chapters of Southern Shaolin Tiger Claw: Principles of the Tiger that address it. I can’t even find enough time to write about this subject; it’s so deep.

 

Your style has a dynamic Tiger energy. How does this affect the style and students?

The dynamic energy of the style and the movement go hand in hand. It’s impossible to separate that dynamic power from the tiger. The tiger is, as the poem goes, framed in that fearful symmetry that so aptly explains it. The dynamic energy of the tiger is inextricably imbued in every motion and movement of the system. That being said, its impact on individual students is different. Just speaking personally, from the onset of my journey through this somewhat secretive world of Kung Fu, I have always been drawn to that dynamic energy of the tiger.

Just to give you a little bit of background, circa 1979, I’m scouring the streets of Chinatown NYC with a laundry list of masters and schools teaching Kung Fu. I don’t even remember how I amassed this list, but it was pretty lengthy, and with the help of a Chinese friend of mine to go along for translation if need be, we systematically visited and/or eliminated and/or were eliminated by many different schools. In my incredibly young, naïve mind, I saved the best for last. Tiger Claw. I can still remember it as though it was yesterday, buzzing the buzzer on Canal Street at the mouth of the Manhattan Bridge and being unpretentiously greeted by the grandmaster at the top of the stairs, welcoming me to come up and have a conversation. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The system impacts different people in different ways, and it has many effects. Some people stand and admire it and are in awe of it, are attracted to it and want to emulate and understand and grow into that spirit. Honestly, it’s not a one size fits all kind of an idea. Some people never really go too much further than a few lessons or even just a few years. I’ve taught a lot of people over the years, but have not had many stay so long that they can actually start to grasp the deeper, finer points and inner workings of the tiger and its dynamic attitude. I think it really does take a special person to go beyond the superficial levels, and many individuals don’t understand that you can’t really learn the art of Kung Fu, regardless of the system, in a handful of years. You can get some good basics and a few techniques and be on your merry way, but if you really want to delve into the tiger system or any system of Kung Fu and come away with a dynamic understanding and application of it, it’s going to take much more than you bargained for. I’m sure many of us have come to that realization, so it impacts different students differently. In some of them, it awakens a spirit and energy, a self-empowerment that they never knew they had. I’ve also had students say to me, “Sifu, you’re too intense.” But what do you expect from a tiger? A tiger is intensity encapsulated in that vessel. That’s not to say that there isn’t a quieter side. There is an undertone of wisdom that goes along with that intensity, and I think that grows with the practitioner the longer you play your movement. It’s definitely a system that can be carried forward with an individual for their lifetime and will mean and look and feel different as you grow and mature into the concept. It’s definitely still as intense to me today as it was to me as a teen, but in a different way. Now, as an older man I see it even more powerful than I did in my youth in a variety of different ways, not just in a physical manifestation. The dynamic power of the tiger crosses all barriers and is very difficult to label or quantify. It has to be experienced.

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