Paul Koh Interview Part 3: Present and Future Approaches to Kung Fu

This is the third in a four-part interview with Sifu Paul Koh, who has just released a series of beautifully designed books on traditional forms.  Sifu Koh was gracious enough to grant Plum an interview, which turned out to exceed our expectations in terms of length and depth. Since the interview is lengthy, we decided to print it in 4 successive parts—this being the third—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.

“Kung Fu In A Minute” looks like a great idea; how does it work, and how is it working?

KUNGFUINAMINUTE, oddly enough, was inspired by a YouTube channel that I had stumbled upon in regard to teaching and learning Cantonese called Cantonese in a Minute. This young man would pick a word or two, but most likely one word, and expound on its meaning, its usage and its application in everyday situations. I found it extremely useful and entertaining as well as educational, and I said, that sounds like a great idea. Why don’t we try to emulate something like that and tailor it for Kung Fu where we can take a movement, a technique or a series of techniques from a form and distill it into its functionality, which seems to me the most difficult aspect that most students have, just like the Chinese language or Cantonese is difficult for the Westerner to comprehend because it’s not written in an alphabet or syntax that they have familiarity with or capacity to understand.

In many ways, the Asian martial arts, especially Kung Fu, are so elaborate and abstract in certain ways as is Chinese language and it’s writing, it’s difficult for the individual that doesn’t have any kind of understanding to gain a grasp, so they overlook it and deem it unusable and archaic. This give Kung Fu a bad reputation in the sense that it’s not usable, which is absolutely false. We all, being Kung Fu practitioners, know and understand that Kung Fu is a grandfather of sorts to many modern-day martial arts. This is undeniable. So, I thought it was a rather interesting way to enlighten and unravel some ideas for those interested in the actual application of Kung Fu. T one minute format was strictly just for display, and then it slowly grew into 5-, 10-, and 20-minute lessons that we made available on different mediums such as Udemy, Patreon and Vimeo on Demand. Some techniques are short and one or two movements. Some are much more elaborate. All of them done in real time, and spontaneous. That’s one of the unique things about KUNGFUINAMINUTE. I would walk in on a given day we’d designated to shoot something and not really have too much of an idea of what we wanted to do. This was almost done purposefully. I wanted to, rather than have a canned, dry, stock application that you could find from another source, rather have a much more spontaneous, combustible reaction. I would basically play off of whatever the lesson was that day, whatever little snippet of a form or technique we were doing and break it down. Let’s try it and see how it’s going to work, and in that spontaneity and live response, bring out the dynamic nature of the technique and its variants and how it would be used. When you’re talking about form practice, there’s certain parameters, bells and whistles that you have to hit, and form covers a huge array of possible scenarios. Then, when you come to application, you have to be able to access whatever those given scenarios are and make it work, and that’s the functionality of it, and that really boils down to the player. A different individual may play the same technique with different interpretation. Neither is good or bad. The bottom line is getting the job done. KUNGFUINAMINUTE is an ongoing experiment, and it’s really revealing in the sense of learning more in depth about the actual inner workings of the technique, not taking anything for granted, and striving to make it work by having the catalyst.

KUNGFUINAMINUTE, I think, helps greatly for the individual to have a better visualization of how the intended application may be utilized and its variety in its scope because one technique can be used so many different ways. I can remember my teacher saying to me you have to show a minimum of three possible ways to use that application. I remembered that when we started doing KUNGFUINAMINUTE. That’s a pretty tall order, three as a minimum. But that was their standard, and I think that’s a really good acid test for any one individual to try to come up with that. It’s a mental and physical challenge, and it goes far beyond just relying on a technique and a form and assuming that it’s going to work out well. You have to be ready for various scenarios and the unpredictable so that has to be reconciled by the individual. We try our best in KUNGFUINAMINUTE to bring that out, as well as talking about different aspects of angles and direction and different types of power and the overall fighting attitude that you need to have, because for all intents and purposes, the original germ of Kung Fu is to be a fighting art. We’ve done about 2 year’s worth of mini movies, if you want to call them that, and then we’ve done a little bit of a shift to come and start producing these books, because I was very fond of writing a weekly or biweekly blog for KUNGFUINAMINUTE, giving certain perspectives of martial art technique, tradition, philosophy and everyday situations. Several martial art friends and other individuals commented to me that this would be great to start putting all this down in a book, so those martial musings and little tidbits of colloquial wisdom are being collected, but in the meantime, I said, well, it’s nice to shift and do some books in the name of KUNGFUINAMINUTE and start publishing some items on certain things that we’re teaching. Now, we are working on bringing these books forth on particular forms and weapons, and in the future, we will be doing two man sets and application series. KUNGFUINAMINUTE is an ever growing, changing and evolving enterprise, and we’re having a lot of fun doing it, promoting and preserving the art of Kung Fu to the best of my ability.


I know this is a cliched question, but what do you see ahead for martial arts, and do you see a path forward for the traditional rather than the modern?

Who can tell what the future will bring? People are very fond of asking about your five-year plan, your goals, blah blah blah, and I’m not going to sit here and pontificate like I know where the next trend of the martial arts are going. I can’t tell the future. I don’t think many people can, and if you’re that gifted, give me the lotto numbers.

That being said, I think that there’s a lot to be said about the modern trends that are going in and around the martial arts today. A lot of it is good. A lot of it’s not. There’s the sportification of the martial arts has done some good and a lot of damage at the same time.

I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of trends coming in and out of the martial arts. I grew up in the traditional Kung Fu mo gwoon with all its disciplines and adherence to traditions and so on. I’ve seen the waves of taekwondo schools teaching droves of children, the battle between what’s better, Karate or Kung Fu, the rise of the ninja craze, the rise and fall of the Chinese mainland Wu Shu craze, the Shaolin monk craze, lots of stuff. Now we’ve gone through the BBJ and the MMA and all that.

So, as I said before, a lot of good, a lot of bad, but coming from the background of a traditionalist, and that shouldn’t be taken as a bad word because some people misconstrue it as something bad. I’m a traditionalist but I’m also a realist at the same time. You know, we’re from New York, so we have a different look on things, and as I always say, I was very lucky to be brought up by and taught by some of the most well-known Kung Fu teachers on the East Coast, who had fighting experience and imparted that upon us. So, I don’t adhere to tradition just for tradition’s sake. Within the traditional values of Kung Fu is health and self-defense, but the value the traditional martial arts have aside from those two major attributes is to be able to impart the martial virtue and/or code of ethics that is sorely lacking in today’s society. Some may disagree with me, but I feel that respect, honor, discipline and strong work ethic is what a lot of these traditional schools were built upon, aside from their fighting prowess, and I think that is a hallmark for me. Because you can go to a gym, hang up a bag, punch and kick the bag day and night, and become fast, strong, powerful and an excellent fighter, but still be missing certain redeeming qualities that make you a true martial artist.

Just take the definition of Kung Fu itself and why we use that term as opposed to the more proper term of Mo Sut or Wu Shu. The term Kung Fu itself, if you break down the calligraphy characters, you have Kung, which literally means physical work, and then Lek, which is the power that needs to be imparted to execute this hard physical task, and then the character of Fu, which is comprised of Yun, the character for man, with two strokes, denoting someone of a superior quality. So, when you talk about superior quality, it doesn’t just lay in the realm of the physical attributes of the individual, because you’re not just the physical manifestation of what you are, but the mental, spiritual and physical must come together in order for the person to acquire that Kung Fu, that skill, or at least that’s what I was taught and try to aspire to.

I want to believe that there will always be a place for the traditional martial arts, even though it gets harder every year. I’ve seen quite a shift in the makeup and mentality of the students over the last several decades. I think this has a lot to do with societal attitudes and the cultural norms of the day. Without disparaging the current society, there is a general lack of focus and ability to stick with and work hard at learning traditional martial arts, predominantly because of two factors. One, in the traditional martial arts, the payback is really slow, but with that being said, lasts a long time, your entire life. So, people today are really fixed on the short term, let me get it now, have it immediately, there’s no app for this, kind of attitude, which is in direct contrast to martial art training overall, regardless if you’re talking about modern or traditional. Martial art training requires hard work, focus and energy.

The traditional martial arts, as I was taught, are really deep and require even more patience, which is an attribute and a virtue not held in high esteem today. I thought when I was training that I was impatient, but when I look at students today, I marvel at the lack of fortitude that they have. And I think, unfortunately, that has a lot to do with the modern-day society’s view upon what’s good, and when can I get it, and how fast can I get it. Two, I think a lot of people forget the martial arts are a military art. So, to a certain extent your feelings and attitudes and opinions have to be put on the sidelines in order for you to be able to clearly witness with all your senses what is trying to be taught to you.

Unfortunately, that’s not fostered with the younger generations, especially people younger than me. If you’re growing up now or you’re in your 20s, you’ve grown up entitled or with the concept of being entitled, whereas we were raised in a way that no one was entitled to any knowledge unless they proved themselves worthy, and even then, you had to continue to prove yourself worthy, which I still struggle with on a daily basis. I still critique myself. Can I stand up to my teachers and those that have come before me and represent properly? You may say, well, that’s a hard way to live, but at least it’s true and honest and keeps you on your toes. I think that’s a really good quality of traditional martial art training, but the individual must want to partake of it. As far as seeing what the future is, I have no idea. I’m the last person to make a prediction. I think what happens with the martial arts, as any other subject in history, there’s always a period of waning and waxing, and it’s up to the martial artists themselves to be able to sustain themselves and their art through those periods. That’s going to be the determining factor if traditional Kung Fu is going to survive or not. I’ll be honest with you. I am fighting every day to help this thing survive and be propagated to the future. Remember that Kung Fu, as an art, has been around for thousands of years, so there’s a good chance that it’s going to be around a little while longer in some way shape or form. Our names and/or systems may be forgotten in the sands of time, but they will be rediscovered again and again.


We’re very excited about your new and upcoming books. Are these traditional forms that you are teaching? Ones that you have developed?

Honestly speaking, the books that have been written and the ones that I’m working on all stem from the knowledge of my teachers, predominantly Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng, Grandmaster Tony Lau, and my own Si Gung, Grandmaster Wai Hong. Several of these Tiger Boxingbooks, Southern Shaolin Five Element Fist, Southern Shaolin Immortal Crane Fist and Southern Shaolin Tiger Claw: Principles of the Tiger, particularly have been inspired by Grandmaster Paul Eng and his knowledge and experience in the southern systems, as interpreted by my teacher, Tak Wah Eng. So, I feel extremely honored to be able to write about this subject and display it in this format. These forms are traditional in the sense that all the material, techniques, concepts and ideas are classical, but they’ve been updated and reinterpreted, which, I think, is part of the learning within the martial arts. We constantly seek to improve and better ourselves through the knowledge handed to us by our predecessors, not only honor it by emulating it, but also elevating it.

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