There is a side to kung fu that many Americans don’t see. Beyond the cinematic image of towering figures like Bruce Lee, the discipline is rooted in a deep tradition, something that was on full display at a rare international kung fu event held at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center last weekend.
Nearly 200 students and teachers, referred to by the Cantonese word sifu, were in attendance to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the local Richmond Moy Yat Kung Fu Academy, opened by sifu Anthony Moy Tung Dandridge in 1986.
If there was one perfect example of the traditions of kung fu, it was provided by sifu Lee Moy Shan, an American who studied under Moy Yat, the man who first brought kung fu to the United States. Lee had flown in from China to take part in the celebration, leading the group in a baishi ceremony, a rite of passage that students undertake as part of their training.
Part of a baishi ceremony is the showing of respect for teachers and founders of the art; for most students of American kung fu, that means Lee’s teacher Moy Yat, who was represented by a portrait set atop a rosary tower and wrapped in incense. Bowing before the photo, Lee held three incense sticks to his forehead, then seemed to choke up as he offered his gratitude, saying, “Thank you sifu, for giving us the nurture to our existence.”
A rapt audience watched and listened, leaning forward along with Lee, who continued, “This is a special bond between the sifu and student, heart to heart, merge together, as it has been passed down for many years, thousands of years.”
In a place of honor sat Helen Moy Yat, widow of the late grandmaster in the portrait. As the ceremony concluded, she went to sit in the front-row, while Lee and his eldest student shared tea; the baishi ceremony is also a way to honor the student. To applause, Lee said, “Our disciples carry our dream, carry our hope to give back to humanity. This is a momentous occasion, a bond between the sifu and student, heart to heart, merge together!”
In a tradition rooted in reverence and respect, it was a fitting ceremony to honor Dandridge and his Richmond kung fu school. To bring kung fu to Richmond, though, the River City native had to leave first. He moved back for two reasons, he said, after years of training: To take over his parent’s farm, and to open the academy, because he “wanted to share with the world what I had to share and because I just wanted to train,” Dandridge said.
Although Dandridge was the direct link between Richmond and kung fu, it was all possible because of an earlier move to New York by Moy Yat in 1972. Moy Yat was one of the first Ving Tsun (also romanized as Wing Chun) practitioners to teach westerners, and Dandridge, with Lee, were among his first disciples.
Lee said that their mentor saw things differently from other teachers, saying the founder thought, “these Americans, they give us freedom, we can move to their country and open a business…We owe it to them to share our kung fu.”
Both men try to adhere to the values and ideas of their beloved mentor. Dandridge said, “The bottom line is that I’ve taught the same way as my teacher, using his same philosophy.” Not everyone comes into it aware of the history, but they learn. He said, “We get a lot of people that just want to do wing chun, a few months go by, once they get the taste of it, they begin to really love it.”
Dandridge’s own disciple, sifu Barry O’Brien, handled the logistics of the event. O’Brien said, “My teacher has been teaching for just around 30 years, so we wanted to recognize that.” He planned small–a select gathering over three days–but word spread quickly, turning it into an international event. O’Brien said, “When we had begun planning, a lot of his brothers chimed in, wanting to bring students to train.”
Despite the unexpected response, Dandridge was at ease in the gathering. The attendees he didn’t already know were the students of teachers he’s worked with for nearly three decades, and he knew they would all be “really good people.”
For the larger gathering, O’Brien planned programming practical and theoretical, covering a wide range of kung fu tradition and arts, from chi sao, a training technique where two practitioners keep their arms in contact while they practice attacks and defenses, to operating the Mook Yan Jong, a wooden sparring dummy that might resemble a coat rack to the uninitiated.
One of the things that O’Brien was most excited about was a chance to see how practitioners from all over the world performed their art. “You get to see if there’s any difference in how guys in Brazil do chi sao vs guys in Texas and what we find is it ends up being similar but with slightly different takes- an imprint of the personality a sifu leaves on their school.” O’Brien said.
He also said he felt blessed by the attendance of so many members of Moy Yat’s family, which included both his wife and son, William, who has followed in his father’s footsteps. Their blessing was important to the local kung fu practitioners, because much like a family relation, kung fu lineages are tracked and passed on. Lee said, “Once you become one’s teacher, it’s for life. This brings a great responsibility, to teach my children, and act as father- this is where sifu started.”
Although rooted in tradition and reverence for the past, something that seems contrary to modern western society, the event was also a sign of kung fu’s continued relevance to broader western culture. Regular releases in the Ip Man movie series, a biographical set of films on Moy Yat’s teacher, the legendary Wing Chun master Yip Man,and increasing rates of attendance at kung fu schools across the country, were some of the examples that teachers pointed to to demonstrate the staying power of their art.
O’Brien pointed to one aspect of all martial arts that makes them an “evolved” form of combat when he said, “You don’t have to rely on the physicality of it, you don’t have to be the big strong guy to be able to win a fight. You can be anybody, you just have to put in the time.”
The other reason kung fu endures, according to Steve Goericke, another disciple of Lee: The tradition. He highlighted the tea ceremony, saying, “When they share the tea, they share the blood of the family. And this gets lost over time. What Lee is doing is bringing in historical aspects to bring unification to the house, because we’ve got thousands of people all around the world that need this.”
Of all the people at this event, it was Paulo, an older disciple who had left everything he’d had in Italy in order to study kung fu in America, which really exemplified the power of kung fu. “Why do you live if you’re not realizing your dream?” he asked me, astonished when I asked him why he left his life in Italy. After a pause to let it sink in, he continued, “People die without realizing their dream.”
Photos by Landon Shroder