Paul Koh Interview Part 2: On Masters and More

This is Part 2 of a 4 part interview with Sifu Paul Koh, who has recently published a series of beautifully designed books on traditional forms. 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 second—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.


In your time, you have studied with some great Masters. How do some of those early experiences compare with how you teach, and students learn, today?

Yes, I have had the honor and privilege to be taught by some of the best Kung Fu masters. It’s a humbling experience because trying to live up to the quality of their skill level and teachings has always been something in the forefront of my mind. The early experiences training with these masters has definitely left an indelible mark on me in many good ways and in some not so good ways. Training with these Sifu was thrilling and exhausting at the same time because the requirement that they established for the aspiring student to achieve is high quality and pristine execution of every single movement that I found, as a youth, so exacting, so particular, so focused and disciplined almost in a perfectionist kind of way that I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. That did leave a big impression on my teenage mind, and it’s carried over and never left. It’s a yardstick that I use to measure myself and my students by and I routinely fall short of it. This attitude of trying to perfect one’s technique is one thing towards your own personal training, but does, in this modern day and age, make teaching more difficult, because, as some would say, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I understand this concept, but, for me, not having that hardcore, old school challenge put in front of me may not have allowed me to get to the stage that I am today. Now, I do see the value in it. That old school mentality had a purpose. It ensured that those that learned and learned properly would be able to maintain it and have it for the remainder of their life, and those that couldn’t, would be weeded out. It’s very plain and simple. Kung Fu is a very unique art that cannot mass produce high level practitioners as other arts do.

I feel that the old school training is more about diamonds in the rough. The concept of Kung Fu training was aptly explained to me by one of my teachers using this example. How do you create a diamond? Lots and lots and lots of pressure over a really long period of time, and then, a lot of those presumed chunks of coal that go through that pressure crack and never make it to the diamond stage. Even those that make it to the diamond stage have to go through the selection process of clarity, color and carat. Once all those parameters are met, then you still have to get cut, polished and set. So, from a pile of rocks, how many of them actually end up becoming a real, full-fledged diamond that is worth millions? Very few. That’s the process which students learning Kung Fu go through. You can come back to me and say, well, wow, if that’s the case then why should I even bother? I’ll just go do something easier. And you have that choice, but that’s the crucible that we were put through. Every class was rough. Every class was hard. Every class, you were sweating buckets, and the higher you rose in rank and ability, the more you got crapped on. In every class, you had to asset your willpower. Never knowing that severity of discipline coming from a relatively loving homelife was a shock. There’s much to be said about that discipline and getting that in certain formative years leaves quite an imprint on you.

So, you see things differently than other people do. You calculate, and your powers of observation are different. Because of your training, you look at things in a different frame of mind. You look at things like a martial artist would look at them, and this is why many people may not understand you at the onset. Even though that discipline was hard and arduous, and many times you secretly hated it, it is something I would never trade in for anything else. At a later junction in life, you reflect back and you can understand why the teachers taught you like this and how necessary it really was in order to develop that strong foundation for your future as a martial artist and to grow up to be a valuable asset to society. Many times, I will tell my students, we trained one form for three years, and you learned nothing else. You weren’t exposed to any other sets or weaponry. All we did was one form and sparring. But once that corner stone was set, it became easier to translate that knowledge to other aspects of learning. That discipline also translated itself into your life. This is the galvanizing process that everyone must go through in order for you to go to the higher level of understanding, but that takes quite a bit of time. That’s that process from ruddy piece of coal to become a diamond. That’s what I’ve taken away from my early experience, and in today’s day and age, it’s extremely difficult to superimpose that on the students. I’ve chased away many students by utilizing this process. If you want to look at it from a business standpoint, you can say, well, you’re not a very good businessman. You’re not going to make millions teaching martial arts. But at the same time, I never signed up to open a McDojo; that was never my intention. My intention from the get-go was to learn this marvelous art as much as I could understand it at that point in time and had the dream of trying to become this Kung Fu hero. I think all aspiring heroes have to go through a crucible of fire to be tested. And then you get to those other levels, and at that point your relationship with the art, your teacher and yourself elevates and changes and becomes something else. This is difficult to explain to the person that’s not going through the same thing that you’re going through. So, in order for you to understand what your teachers are trying to teach you, you almost have to go through what they went through to a certain degree. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to capture the heart of your Sifu’s teaching, which is everything.

Teaching is harder than learning Kung Fu in some aspects, because learning it and being in that closed environment training with yourself is one thing, but how to express what you understand and make the other guy grasp it and have him be able to articulate it back to you and have that physical and energy dialogue is an amazing thing and very difficult to bring that person onto the frequency that you’re on. In the beginning, everything is very rigid, very structured, very militaristic and mechanical. This is necessary to a certain extent for that structure, but once the structure is set, once the foundation of the building is set, then we can start talking about other ideas. This stock, cookie cutter approach can only take you so far. You have to find a particular way to communicate to individual students because each person learns differently. It’s the Sifu’s duty to help guide the individual student according to their ability. That being said, the student and teacher have to have a reciprocal relationship.

So even training with Si Gung many times I distinctly remember training with him years ago and it took me a long time to catch up to what he was saying. As the years go by and our relationship becomes tighter and stronger and I’m able to pick up on his energy, the amount of turnover time is less but nevertheless still exists. Routinely I’ll say, “I’m sorry, Sifu. Maybe I’m having a bad day, but I just can’t keep up with you.” And he says graciously, “Give it a couple days and you’ll catch up.” Then I go home and think about it and a lot of nights lose sleep over it, even more so than before, and then I’ll come back and he’ll say, “Yeah, you’re getting closer to it.” Because it’s that ethereal, untouchable kind of knowledge that can’t be quantified in just a physical manipulation of the body. You really have to understand instinctively and move your mind and your chi to form that action. That’s something that’s really kind of unique to Kung Fu. It takes a long time and the student has to be open to that, doing the gesture so effortlessly and fierce, but happy, almost like a kid at play. Even if the student wants it, it’s not easily passed on, which is a concern that I have. They have to have the ability already naturally within them and then they also have to have the capacity to be able to remake themselves on a continual basis because you can latch onto one level and get stuck there for years until the teacher says, well, you’ve got to start from zero again. 

Now, I teach based on feeling. If I’m teaching a small group or an individual, I feel the energy of the person, what they want, what their ability is, mental as well as physical, and feel the energy and train accordingly. Even the same set, form or weapon is different every day because the nature of Kung Fu is to be alive, not to be a robot or a mechanical gesture. The issue is most people never pass the Neolithic period of their martial arts. In the three states of matter, solid, liquid and gas, most students do not pass the solid stage. They never make it halfway through or never put in enough work to get to the liquid or gaseous stage where the movement becomes more flowing and more real so it almost seems to materialize and dematerialize at will.  Watching my own Sifu over decades, I see him be able to transform and change. But unless you go through the hard stage you cannot get to soft stage, which is not necessarily soft but still manifests itself to be hard. Teaching is a one-on-one thing, so if you don’t spend one on one time with your Sifu, you will never learn. If you want to learn, you have to hoc Sifu sum, learn Sifu’s heart. Talk, hang out, play, move, laugh, cry, and then, maybe, you can start to learn. Otherwise, it’s still conforming to a very western style learning. Class is X time to X time, and we go through specific requirements, blah blah blah. You get a basic framework, but the student never really worked it. Because Kung Fu is like any other art form, be it music or painting or sculpting or writing poetry. You can go to a poetry writing class and get an A, but this does not make you a poet. The guy singing rap in the street is a better poet than you because he learns and executes from the heart. This is what every student has to do; otherwise, it’s just mechanics. It will never come alive. That will be shown by the Sifu, so I show you how I feel when I move, taking the chi and manifesting it into a move, but you have to latch onto it. Most students, because of their level, only latch onto the look, so they try to emulate the look without having the substance, but it’s the substance that produces the look, not the other way around. Your shirt looks cool because you’re cool. It’s one thing to say and to want. It’s another thing to be able to do. So, in teaching, everyone gets taught according to their just desserts, and this is why you have so many different levels even within the same bandwidth of students. You have a different capacity, a different level, a different frame of mind from different students. Even under one master, a whole bunch of students come out different, so the real master teaches each one differently.


If you had to choose a different style, what might you want to study?

This is a tricky question to answer, and I don’t have a straightforward laundry list of systems and styles that I would like to study. I know this may sound like a stock answer, but all systems are great and have legitimacy and intrinsic value. The slant of any one particular style is going to denote its approach and what the student will be taught. My personal penchant leans more towards the southern Kung Fu systems, and I’ve been exposed to some Karate training, too, which is an outgrowth of that.

So, I guess my upbringing in a very strict Hung Family and Tiger Claw Kung Fu System has tainted that somewhat, but I can definitely appreciate other systems, be they northern or southern, or even some other types of martial arts such as Silat or Muay Thai, etc. I see the value in all of them, but to pick something else that I would like to train in is a very difficult question to answer. I’ve been lucky enough not to have to give that too much thought, but as the question is put towards me, I think traditional Northern Shaolin and Praying Mantis are very cool things to look into, as well as Choy Lee Fut and even Chen Tai Chi with its hard, internal approach. I just love Kung Fu and am open to be exposed to and learn anything at this junction, because there’s so much knowledge that is broadly dispersed through many martial styles.

That’s the wonderful nature of the martial arts in general, is if you boil it down to the basic premise, it’s a strong punch, a strong kick, a good stance, your physical and mental toughness. But because of this grand diversity of martial arts, martial artists throughout the centuries are able to interpret this core and expound upon it in so many various ways. Now, as I’m getting older, I starting to understand what my teachers were saying. I grew up in a different environment. It wasn’t not like today where it’s okay to jump from system to system, teacher to teacher, style to style. I grew up in a very traditional format, in the sense that you had one system, and that’s the system that you stuck with, not just because of respect and reverence and honor, which is part of it, but even more so, the fact that each system is so deep that there’s enough information there for you to glean for a lifetime. I can remember my teachers not being happy about guys that had a first or second degree in two or three or four different styles, basically looking at that almost like a character flaw in some sense that you didn’t have enough discipline and devotion to see it through and go to the higher levels. At the higher levels of all systems, everything merges. That’s the many roads lead to Rome idea. So, you may take one road, I may take another, but in the end, the conclusion that we’re going to come to is the same. That’s the wonderful diversity of the martial arts and why we have so many different systems and they all have value but appeal to different people. Some people like to wear dress shoes; others like to wear sneakers, some like chinos; others like jeans. But I think sticking with a particular system, even though it is extremely difficult over a long period of time, and you need to be able to remotivate and inspire yourself to get through all those various plateaus, is essential in order for the martial art practitioner to have that solid foundation.