Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, January 23, 2020

*Lam Hung Pak Mei: The Precarious Path from Koryu Bujutsu to Hakka Kung Fu*

Everyone has their own martial arts journey. Some people encounter a teacher/school/style and circumstances allow them to follow that single path for a life time. 

My own path has been somewhat more circuitous. Tae Kwon Do in high school (when Kung Fu the original series was on TV), then Yoshinkan Aikido as a young man. The Cheng Man Ching style of Taijiquan. Dabbling in Gao Style Baguazhang, an offshoot of Yiquan, a different school of Gao Style Baguazhang, Xingyiquan, Wu family style of Taijiquan, BJJ and finally back to my original CMC Taijiquan teacher until she retired and now with her senior student; while also working on a variation of CMC's Taijiquan on the side. 

Today we have a guest post from Jeremy Thomas, who trains and teaches Pak Mei in Arkansas and has had his own journey. Enjoy. 

*Lam Hung Pak Mei: The Precarious Path from Koryu Bujutsu to Hakka Kung Fu*


My step-father was an avid golfer. As a matter of course, I was to be as well. When I got my first set of (plastic) clubs, I immediately grabbed the driver, and struck a sword-pose akin to one of "Leonardo" from TMNT. We have a poloroid photo of it, hidden away in the attic. Needless to say, I don't golf.

That said, mechanically, a golf swing and a katana swing aren't terribly dissimilar..

Coming from a rough-and-tumble mining town, Joplin, Missouri, fighting was as normal as brushing our teeth. In fact, at one time, Joplin was known as "Little Chicago", due to the high rate of violent crime. Mom took the initiative; and she found Mid-American Taekwondo, under Instructor Steve Atkinson, where I trained until reaching 2nd stripe green belt. I still have the belts, certificates and patches. To this day, I credit my TKD experience for my "clean" kicks. But, with no weapons program, I eventually lost interest.

And, I knew my mother's finances were limited. I'm a "Momma's Boy", and proud of it.

In 8th grade, bullying issues led me to start lifting free-weights; I was the 4th person in a school of around 600, to break 200lbs on the bench press. The next step was the wrestling team. I had learned in TKD sparring, catching kicks works; really well for me, personally. Turns out, I was more inclined toward grappling.. or so I thought.

I lost every, single match that year. "Discouraged" doesn't cover it. And then the clouds parted. The last meet of the year was an Ozark regional tournament; I pinned 3 opponents that day, and took 3rd place bronze in my weight-class. What changed in my approach?

I got angry.

We all know "The best fighter is never angry". I wonder about that; it really hasn't held water in my experience.

After graduating, I obtained a construction job on the road, "storm chasing". This is when I started looking at Budo, kenjutsu and Iai. After a particularly nasty job at a chemical plant, I resigned my position, drive 9 hours home, hugged my mom, and slammed open the phone book to the yellow-pages. I knew as soon as I read it; "Butokuden West Aikikai". The first phone call with Mr. Karriman was fantastically awkward:


"Mr. Karriman?"

"Hi, "Mr. Karriman", my name's John."

"Apologies, sir, my name is Jeremy Thomas and I'm curious if you teach kenjutsu?"

"Yes. We're a sword school. Why do you want to learn it?"

(Awkward pause, as I hadn't considered the "why" for one second)

"Well, for knowledge and the discipline.."

"Better answer than most. Class starts at 7pm. I appreciate punctuality."

"Y-yes, sir!"

Mr. Karriman is a life-long martial artist, ex-LEO, and taught P.T./Defensive Tactics to Academy recruits at MSSU (Joplin, MO). He was, by far, my strictest teacher to date. He had trained with likes of Risuke Otake-Sensei and Obata-Soke. He was a no non-sense teacher, austere and authoritarian.

Just what I needed at the time.

Karriman-Sensei did not give "atta-boy's". Mistakes were ruthlessly exposed. If you were the first one in the gym, you BETTER have it swept. When asked a question, there was no "yeah". It was "yes, sir" or "yes, sensei". He has seen the very worst of humanity in his LEO/Security/Other career, and, in his own words, around 2008, "I'm just now starting to feel a touch of compassion again".

There were times, simply being in his presence was mentally and physically taxing. If you ask any of Karriman-Sensei's students about him, one word will be a common thread: "Intense"

And the quality of martial-education I received under Karriman-Sensei was equivalent to a "Master's in Violence and Defensive-Tactics", from a "Martial Harvard". Everything for use. Economy-of-motion. Tac-con's (tactical considerations). Blades and sticks, galore. OOAD loop. Situational awareness. We even had CPR and Phlebotomy classes. Everything was meant for real-world application.

Daito-ryu is a style founded on the concept of law enforcement and security. The original techniques, the "Oshikiuchi" (secret inner palace art) had been kept within the Takeda clan for centuries, with oral traditions stating the system was codified in the early 1100's by Minamoto no Yoshimitsu (源 義光) who dissected corpses brought back from the battle-field. The musculature was studied for the purpose of learning kyusho-jutsu (vital-point strikes) and joint-lock techniques. This deep understanding of anatomy lends the art well to Law Enforcement and Security, as many techniques are nuetralizations rather than direct-damage blows, though atemi-waza (striking techniques) are frequently used to set-up, "soften" or follow-up to a throw or pin.

Some of my best memories, are of my Kendo bouts with Karriman-Sensei, in the dark gymnasium, after the rest of the class had went home.

Talk about an "eye-opening" experience.

I rarely deal in absolutes, but if I can impart anything I learned from those years of Daito-ryu, it's this: blades are NO JOKE. And I can say that, absolutely. If you are not familiar with the "21ft. Rule", I highly suggest using some "google-fu", and getting familiar.

I'm looking at you, shooters. 

In 2014, I learned about this mysterious and, apparently violent, art of "Bak Mei' through a roommate who had already been training with Sigung a couple years. My daughter had just been born, and eventually, Daito-ryu fell out of my budget.  Pak Mei was available and convenient; I had ZERO experience with Traditional Chinese Martial Arts. I just wanted to train.

Calling the transition "rough", is an understatement. Budo and Kung Fu have very different approaches to, often, similar concepts. Now, at this point, I want to explain, what, for me, was the hardest "transition" between a Japanese Koryu and a Hakka Kung Fu style:

Generally, Koryu is heirarchal, based on rank and seniority. That said, in my dojo, I could make a friendly challenge to spar/roll with a peer of any rank; right up to Sensei, if I wanted to lay in a bathtub full of ice the next day.

TCMA is familial; literally fathers, uncles, older brothers, younger brothers, etc. In my experience, who it is acceptable to "cross-hands" with, as the saying goes, is often unclear, and it seems that there is little desire to increase the transparency of what etiquette is appropriate, in regards to hard-sparring. As one example, a 9th generation student would not be allowed to engage an 8th generation student to a sparring match.

I'm not saying this familial system is "wrong"; how could it be, to survive this long? What I am saying is it is very different from Koryu ettiquete and protocol. To me, Japanese dojo ettiquete seems fairly straight-forward; respect for instructors and peers, self-control, appropriate language, appropriate attire. To myself, pretty simple. The ettiquete of the Chinese kwoon is, to me, extremely complex, if not convoluted at times. I've noticed in my own pai, individuals are confused about who is there senior or junior. Confusion about being a general student, lineaged student, or closed-door disciple.

In my opinion, this confusion leads to a fair amount of, at best embarrassment, and at worst, real problems between individuals or even other styles.

This is something that I am making great effort to research and understand. In time, I hope to be able to contribute to solving these confusions and misunderstandings. Thus, severely limiting the amount of related issues. Unity and solidarity is something I think we should all be striving for.

Now, to the "good oil"; my first meeting with Lam Hung Pak Mei Master Simon Lui Long Chun.

My first meeting with Lui-Sigung was amazing; he showed up after an all-night drive, hugged me and gave me a saber and a staff. He explained the basic movement of the waxwood gwun (staff) with a clever and quite hilarious sexual innuendo, which I don't think would be appropriate to repeat here. Then, it was an immediate dive into Jik Bo (our first form, straight-step), head-first, sink-or-swim.

I managed a fair doggy-paddle.

We trained 10 hours that day. And I was hooked on Pak Mei. Watching Lui-Sigung perform is like watching a shaman of ancient times, vigorously, violently weaving a spell of subjugation over his enemies. When Sigung performs, his entire countenance changes; there's not a trace of "Papa Lui". It may be cliché, but "demon" is accurate a description as anything else.

But, if I was forced to use one descriptive for Lui-Sigung, I wouldn't have to think twice: "Generous"

My Sifu, Ruston Aaker, is incredibly knowledgeable about body-mechanics, structure and breath-work. His dedication and depth of knowledge are concealed by his perenially humble nature; do not let his relaxed attitude fool you, he is incredibly skilled, particularly in sword-play. Working with him over the last couple years has improved my Pak Mei ten-fold, and deepened my understanding of what makes the system unique and special; worth preserving. Along with my 9th generation brothers, Jordan Bywaters and Robert Holcomb, we exchange thoughts, experiences and methodologies which leads to a collective group improvement; there's no possibility of us "not being on the same page". Sifu and myself have several commonalities, including an affinity for swordsmanship, both inside and outside of TCMA. It makes the relationship smooth and comfortable. I would like very much to think he would agree.

The engine that drives Pak Mei is "luk ging", a type of energy expression unique to Pak Mei. Developed through the "Six Parts of Power" or the six areas of martial force (neck/teeth, shoulders, waist, abdomen, arms and legs), and the use of the Four Energies: Float, Sink, Spit, Swallow, we develop a "sacred" ging, something akin to "scared/shock power on steroids". For a closer cultural perspective, the following is a poem from 5 Ancestors Boxing, describing the "4 Energies":


Swallow, like flood waters into the earth

Spit, like an arrow leaves the (bow) string

Float, like wind blowing through feathers

Sink, like a rock cast into a river

The "4 Energies" concept not being limited to Pak Mei, has yielded many different descriptions and expressions through the various arts which utilize the concept. Here is another, more pragmatic poem on the "4 Energies" --

Swallow, Spit, Float, Sink

攻爲吐 - Attack is Spit
守爲吞 - Defense is Swallow
進爲吐 - Advance is Spit
退爲吞 - Retreat is Swallow
快爲吐 - Speed is Spit
慢爲吞 - Slow is Swallow
輕爲浮 - Light is Float
重爲沈 - Heavy is Sink
化爲浮 - Neutralize is Float
凝爲沈 - Stiffening is Sink

Using the "Four Energies" and the "Eight Methods" are paramount; without them, it's not Pak Mei, no matter how fast or clean it looks. The spine is the largest kinetic spring in the body, and Hakka arts have made good use of that fact, to produce maximum force, even when there is little space to "load up" a strike, illustrated by the following Pak Mei poem:


"Hands don't draw back to extend forward."

The "8 Methods" or "Baat Fa" could be consider Pak Mei's basic/common "movements". It's a subject that requires in-depth study, that this article's limits will not allow for. If any are interested, I recommend my Sibak, Sifu Adam Chan's YouTube channel. He has a video for each of the Baat Fa, and explaind them in detail. For now, here is a list of the eight, as my Sifu presented it to me:

"Baat Ging: Eight Methods/Actions"
鞭 Bin: whipping
割 Got: cutting
挽 Waan: pulling
撞 Jong: colliding
衝 Chung: charging
彈 Tan: springing/bouncing
索 Sok: jolting (searching)
盤 Pun: revolving/cycle

It's about generating as much force in as short a distance as possible. Where Bruce Lee had his famous "1-inch punch" we go even further, to "no-inch power". This power coupled with Pak Mei's "3 Gates" targeting system, makes it exceptionally devestating and accurate; in general, strikes are targeted at the eyes, groin and in our lineage, particularly, the throat. We all know the medical implications of those techniques ---

Pak Mei's reputation as an aggresive art is well-earned. 

While it's true that many of our weapons forms were trades with other styles, Pak Mei mechanics are applied to the forms, so they are, in essence, Pak Mei. That said, the best suited to express those mechanics is the pole (gwun). Grandmaster Chuen Lai Chuen traded three hand-sets for a pole-set, at one point. "Continuous Double Tonfa/Crutch" (回環雙枴) is also a Pak Mei speciality, generally reserved for advanced practitioners. "36 Movements of the Big Fork/Tiger Fork" (三叉大扒) is especially treasured by our lineage, as our 5th generation Master Ng Yiu was reknowned for his skill with the Dai Pa (also known as "Tiger Fork"). His Dai Pa was so heavy, three students had to carry it together to the demonstration grounds. The Fork is still on display in Hong Kong. Sigung-Lui once told a story, that Master Ng would "throw a handful of coins" across the kwoon floor. Then, grasping his Dai Pa, he would "hit the coin with the tine, bounce the coin into the air, then thrust it into the wall". He repeated this for each coin. Another notable fact is that Master Ng removed many of the "crouching" sequences from the form-sets, as his large stature made them impractical. As a large man myself, I really appreciate that. In fact, my body style is similar to Master Ng's in build, and I try to model my general "shape" from his postures.

We have many other sets including quiang (spear), huedeidao (willow-leaf sword), zhan ma dao (horse-chopping saber), kwan dao (glaive), qiao deng (bench) and several more. For a weapons enthusiast such as myself, it makes for a good fit.

Over the last year, I've been making the awkward, challeging transition from student-to-teacher. To be specific, it's more of an "assistant-teacher" or "junior-intructor" position. This lead to the creation of the Joplin Pak Mei Athletic Association, the organization I teach through, under the auspices of the Simon Lui Pak Mei Athletic Association of Minnesota. While I've worked with both, I really find myself elated after a training session with the kids class. Their raw enthusiasm and boundless energy reignite my own passion for the arts, time and again. The wonderful thing about teaching children: they don't know what they can't do. They haven't put limitations on themselves, yet. If I ask an adult to do a forward break-fall (front flip) he is going to give me the "huh?" look. If I ask a youth... they just do it. Children are certainly more malleable; and very impressionable. They are watching and listening before and after "bowing-in or out" of class. I have to remind myself; "they are always watching".

"Lead by example" was the motto instilled into me, early in my martial career. In recent months, many reknowned Sifu, Sensei and advanced practitioners have left this mortal plane. Collectively, we have some very large shoes to fill. If not us, then who?

In the spirit of that question, I'd like to share a portion of the eulogy that my Karriman-Sensei wrote for his own Sensei, Richard "Papasan" Gordon, when he left this world:

"I’ll continue to hang out with older folks. I’ll continue to visit them in the hospital, and occasionally I’ll lose one. That’s just part of the trade off. They pass what they learn from their life and the previous generations to us and we repeat the process — mistakes and all. If we had them around all of the time we wouldn’t get a chance to find out how important paying attention is. We’ll probably find that we were talking when we should have been listening.

I learned a long time ago that if you want to learn the fastest, safest, best way to do something, you ask someone older. Do yourself a favor and find an older adult and let them mentor your socks off. It’s kind of necessary if we ever hope to fill their shoes."

-  Sensei John J. Karriman

I'd like to thank and credit my Sigung, Sifu and all my pai brothers for their input, suggestions and support.

A special "Thank You" to my Sibak, Sensei/Sifu Russ Smith, and his student, Brother Joshua Durham of Burinkan Martial Arts, in Dade, Florida. Sibak Smith has been an inspiration and encouragement to me, since we first met at the 2016 LHPM Banquet. I performed a single saber set, which I had to augment on-the-fly, to avoid striking a spectator. Sibak Smith not only noticed, but commended me for the improvisation. Those few words of kindness took root in my very heart. All of the poems in the article were provided by Sibak Smith. Many can be found in his recent book, "Principle-Driven Skill Development". I cannot recommend it enough, especially to those are, or are intending to teach.

Brother Joshua Durham has become a close, personal friend, and we have many great exchanges of ideas for our youth programs. He has also provided me with great materials and insight into the Huedeidao, or the more commonly known, "Butterfly Swords". Learning and seeing his process and methodology has helped me shape my own.

Thank you, both, gentlemen. Not only for your guidance and encouragement, but for simply making yourselves available to an overgrown adolescent, who likely gets over-enthusiastic at times.  

Myself, and the Joplin Pak Mei Athletic Association fully support Burinkan Martial Arts, and all the wonderful things they are doing for Traditional Martial Arts.

Joplin Pak Mei Athletic Association:

Lam Hung Pak Mei Home Site:

Sifu Ruston Aaker's page:

Burinkan Martial Arts:


J Thomas said...

Thank you for this opportunity, Mr. Matz. If you are happy wirh2 this work, I would much like to write for CDK again. And again, thank you!!

Rick Matz said...

Any time! This was a popular post.