Thursday, 21 July 2022

[Interview] Glen Stanway - How Chin Woo Kung Fu Changed His Life

It was a car accident in 1994 that changed Glen Stanway’s life. So severe were his injuries Glen was told they were permanent and he would need to take painkillers indefinitely. Unable to work, and past the point of frustration with the constant pain Glen enrolled at his local Chin Woo wushu school hoping that kung-fu would give him his life back. The training he underwent gave Glen back his strength and flexibility, and a new passion. 
Over the next two decades Glen travelled and competed all over the world representing the Chin Woo name, and founded his school the GMAX Academy, based in the town of Royston, Hertfordshire. 

Glen is a certified gymnastics and kickboxing coach and 5th Grade Northern Shaolin Chinwoo Wushu Master. To fully capture the heart of Chin Woo, Glen researched and published one of the few (possibly only) definitive books widely available; “Fearless; The Story of Chin Woo Kung Fu. I asked Glen if he felt Chin Woo greatly influenced how schools operate today?

I certainly think so. The "open door" policy and equal-footing for women to train was revolutionary in early 20th century. Women didn't even have the vote in most nations! Until the 1920s, use of advertising, sponsorship, training manuals and promotional film footage, things modern martial arts schools take for granted now, were unique, as far as I am aware, to the Chin Woo Association. As well as wanting to preserve the traditional side of the martial arts, the founding masters took a modern view on exercise. They incorporated the latest training methods and equipment, such as importing modern-style dumbbells from America. There was a distinct shift away from the old ways of a Master taking on just those disciples he thought worthy, or only passing on family styles to family members, and the sometimes superstitious, ritualistic or secretive nature of martial arts. The Chin Woo philosophy of promoting culture and good health through Chinese martial arts was eventually taken on board by the nationalist Kuomintang government in the 1920's with the development of kuoshu, or "national art". 

Master Hou Yuanjia
Master Huo Yuanjia
Why hasn’t more been written about Chin Woo and Huo Yuanjia? 

Chin Woo is also known as "Jingwu" or even "Jingmo" and Huo Yuanjia's Cantonese name is Fok Yuen Gap. This can sometimes cause confusion when looking for material in English. There are a couple of other English-language books that I am aware of that were published in the USA, but they deal almost exclusively with the establishing of the original school in Shanghai. One of the American books I have is more or less a translation of the 10th Anniversary Chin Woo book printed in 1919. I own a reproduction of that book, which is a great source for old photos of the early masters and students of the Shanghai school. Aside from that, much of the written history is contained in other Anniversary Celebration books from various Chin Woo schools. Unfortunately, many of the original schools were established during very turbulent times for China and much of Asia. The civil war and Cultural Revolution in China, and the Second World War across Asia, saw the closure of many of the schools and destruction of a lot of the recorded materials. As for Huo Yuanjia, although he is a popular patriotic hero, much of the legend about him came from the exaggerations of the Chinese press in the early 1900s. The small matter of him dying at the height of his popularity doesn't help either! So it's difficult to pin down what is provable fact and what was tabloid hysteria. 

Master Huo was a unifying figure in Chinese history and a symbol of national pride. How does this philosophy translate across the schools around the world, in particular your own?

All the Chin Woo schools practice the same foundational forms established in 1910, which is unifying in itself. When I visited schools in other countries, or met other Chin Woo practitioners, there is an instant bond when you perform the same routines together. A key quote attributed to Huo Yuanjia is "To strengthen the country you must first strengthen the people!” I really believe in this philosophy. If we can educate people from an early age the importance of regular exercise and taking care of THEMSELVES, and make it an enjoyable experience for them, imagine the benefits? Less obesity in youngsters, more active pensioners, improved emotional well-being, a reduced strain on health services. The Chinese martial arts are perfectly placed for this with the acrobatic wushu and kickboxing sports for youngsters, and the traditional kung fu forms and Tai Chi for mature practitioners, although they needn't be exclusive to one age group. The whole philosophy of my school is to offer all these things to students of all ages and abilities. I try to pass on the "Chin Woo Spirit" of wisdom, benevolence and courage.

Glen Stanway performing with the Daoshu
Credit: Paul Marshall

Popular culture seems to have blurred the lines between legend and facts; do you feel some of the myths surrounding Chin Woo in any way denigrate its teachings?

That's an interesting question. I doubt the founding Chin Woo members would advocate the revenge plot lines of many of the films! My teacher, Master Teng told me that after “Fist of Fury” came out in 1972, the Chin Woo school in Kuala Lumpur was inundated with new students which is surely a good thing. Jet Li's film “Fearless” was present in my mind when I was writing about Huo Yuanjia. I think it's a great martial arts movie, one of my favourites in fact, but it’s a shame that it’s presented as historical fact. At least with films like “Once Upon a Time in China”, or “Fist of Legend”, it's fairly obvious that it is all fictional. “Fearless” took some basic real history and wrapped a tale of a man whose arrogance and ego cause terrible, tragic consequences for all concerned, until he learns to use martial arts for the greater good. I totally understand why Huo Yuanjia's ancestors took the filmmakers to court over it. Of course, I also understand the message Jet Li was illustrating in the movie. I wanted to try to be as truthful to the real Huo Yuanjia as possible in the book. All the accounts I have read describe him as a well-educated, benevolent patriot, whose beliefs about the benefits of martial arts training still resonate to this day. That is why over one hundred years on, he is still the “face” of the Chin Woo Association.

How long did it take you to research and write the book?

In some ways I have been unknowingly researching it for over 20 years. Although I have been interested in martial arts since the early 1980's, it wasn't until I became dedicated to training in Chin Woo in 1995 that I started learning more about its history and origins. Over the years I trained at or visited Chin Woo Schools in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Penang, Singapore, and Tianjin, picking up new material and information. The masters at each school gave me souvenir anniversary books as a gift, which proved to be an invaluable and rich source of information. I spent about a year getting various documents and articles translated from Chinese, corroborated as much information as possible. I am in regular contact with my Master, Mr Teng Wie Yoo in Malaysia, and he was very helpful with any questions I had.

Master Teng armed with
the Qiang
Seems Master Teng has given you his blessing. How pivotal was he in helping you write the book? 

When I told Master Teng about the project he was very excited! He is always keen to see Chinese martial arts and Chin Woo promoted widely and in a positive light. As you mentioned, there isn't too much out there about Chin Woo. One of the aims of the book was to trace the history from the original school in Shanghai through to Master Teng's school. Master Teng has very fond memories of his own Chin Woo teacher, Master Ye Shu Sheng, whom he has spoken about a lot over the years. The hardest part was getting Master Teng to talk about himself! He is a highly regarded master in Chin Woo circles, but very, very modest. Aside from his technical knowledge, Master Teng also gave me unrestricted access to his photos. I am eternally grateful that I train under such a generous and knowledgeable Master. He continues to be a huge influence on me.

What new facts and stories did you learn about Chin Woo and Huo Yuanjia?

There were a few! I knew most of the Huo Yuanjia story, but I hadn't realised his father, Hou Endi, also a famous martial arts master, actually outlived him by seven years, and his wife didn't pass away until 1960. I also discovered that his great-great-granddaughter Huo Jinghong is a wushu instructor at the Tianjin University of Finance and Sports Department. It was quite exciting to discover that Wong Fei Hung performed at the opening ceremony of the Guangzhou Chin Woo School and that Bruce Lee had learned some of the Chin Woo curriculum. In fact Bruce Lee's concept of Jeet Kune Do takes its name from a popular Chin Woo form, Jie Quan, which is Jeet Kune in Cantonese.

Huo Yuanjia was a sickly child and it was martial arts training that helped with his recovery. It’s a familiar story especially when reading your personal history – how much of your own experiences could you relate to Master Huo?

When I originally did kung fu as a kid I suffered quite badly with asthma, as did Huo Yuanjia. It wasn't until I was 23 that I began training full time in martial arts having suffered back and neck injuries in a car accident. The training helped me recover from those injuries and inspired me to become a coach to pass on those benefits to others. I figured if I could do it anyone can, with the right coaching. I've never consciously drew a parallel between myself and Huo Yuanjia, although in the book I did call myself the "Sick Man of North London". I certainly subscribe to Huo Yuanjia's views, that everyone should train to better themselves, and that those with the knowledge to facilitate that betterment have a duty to impart that knowledge. 

Your book is very comprehensive in covering the history (even the legends) surrounding Chin Woo. Is there enough scope maybe for a second book? 

Spear training in the snow
Credit: Susan Inglesias
It wasn't until after the book had been out for a year that I got an opportunity to visit Tianjin in China, Huo Yuanjia's birthplace. One of my fellow Chin Woo students, Alexis Georgiou, a former member of the British Wushu Team, now lives there. He initially went there to study modern wushu as the coaches are excellent. He told his old wushu coach Master Zhu about me, and he very kindly arranged a visit to Master Lang Rong Biao's wushu school. Lang Rong Biao is a famous wushu champion and his school has over 2000 full time students. Later I was taken as a VIP guest to the hugely impressive Huo Yuanjia memorial. It's built on the site of Xiaonanhe Village, where Huo Yuanjia was born and raised. His and his wife's remains were interred in a mausoleum there, and there is a huge statue, conference centre and museum, all dedicated to the legendary master. In the museum there are rare artefacts and photos, even of Huo Yuanjia as a child. Most interesting of all, there are newspaper cuttings from the early 1900s of Huo Yuanjia's exploits. I had never seen these before and had assumed they must have all been lost to the ravages of time. These along with other testimonies, such as photos of Huo Yuanjia's students fighting a match with Japanese Budo students, helped to confirm my summarisations in the book were accurate. If I do write a second edition, I would like to include copies of this evidence, and possibly expand on how martial artists from Chin Woo were involved in the fight against the Japanese during the war. As it stands, I think my book is a pretty comprehensive summary of everything you need to know about Chin Woo.

So looking back how has Chin Woo Kung-Fu shaped your life?

Being a part of Chin Woo has played a huge part in shaping my adult life. The training helped me recover from my physical injuries, but it also made me capable of achieving things I’d never dreamed of, like being able to do the splits! It led to me pursuing a career in coaching martial arts and gymnastics, which I think would astonish anyone who knew me prior to my twenties. Before my accident I was a trainee mechanic who never did any sport or exercise and spent most of his time partying! My training has taken me all over Asia and I have even won a couple of medals and trophies, again something I would never have dreamed of previously. I have made some really close friends for life. We all went through 6 or 7 years of really tough training and competing together. Although we don't always see each other that often these days, we are all still in touch wherever we are in the world. Master Teng recently visited my school and many of them came together to see him even though they might not have trained for ten years. It's a unique bond. 

Glen with fellow Student Brendan Gibson and Master Teng

For more information about Glen visit his website and connect with him on social media.

Twitter; @GlenStanway
Instagram; @glenstanway

Fearless: The Story of Chin Woo Kung Fu 
is available to by through Amazon. 
Order your copy in paperback or Kindle 
by clicking the image.

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