We’ve been very privileged over the last couple of weeks to have hosted our martial arts instructors from South Africa right here in Australia. SiGung Marco Kavalieratos and SiFu Christian Hanche. The learning experience for us has been phenomenally intense. It’s felt a bit like a thermonuclear bomb going off in our heads because of the sheer volume of training and exposure to new material. Both SiGung Marco and SiFu Chris are extremely experienced martial artists. A pair of the most competent martial artists I have ever had the pleasure of training with. Their collective wealth of experience in terms of combat, application, technique and background knowledge is a real treasure of the system.
In addition to all of the training and forward progress, I was also honoured to receive the title of SiFu. For those who are not familiar with the meaning of that title, it is a traditional Chinese hierarchical family title. It means ‘Father’. The title was conferred to me not because I am somehow more special or competent than other students in our system of a similar level to me, but because of the function I am performing for the system in Australia. The function I perform is to act as the father of the Australian school. A function which comes with certain responsibilities and which requires certain personal sacrifices to be made.

I have been practicing the Chang Hong system of martial arts through the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre (CMAHC) for 20 years now. For roughly 10 years prior to joining the CMAHC, I had been practicing various forms of structured physical training and martial arts but without dedicating myself to any one type of discipline. So you could say that I have some experience.

Over the years, I have learned many things. I have at least learned enough to understand just how little I actually do know. I have even learned enough to understand just how little I will know before I have to shuffle off this mortal coil. There is so much to understand just in terms of martial arts that it is too much for any one person to grasp in a normal human lifespan. All we can do is reach for the sun. We can never touch it.

As I look back on my experience in the system, I can’t help but acknowledge that I’ve come a long way in terms of my skill. We get a lot of applicants who are very nervous about the training because their coordination, fitness, strength or flexibility are not very good. I would even hazard a guess that for every applicant who actually calls and makes an appointment for an interview, there are 10 who don’t because they don’t believe that they are good enough to practice martial arts.

Perhaps these people believe that we as instructors are going to deride them for not being able to perform. Or perhaps they believe that they will be punished if they can’t do the training perfectly. I’m not sure exactly what their fear is, but if they think that we will laugh at them or punish them for not being able to perform effectively, they are mistaken. You see, if I were to be impatient with a student who is struggling to grasp something, it would make me a hypocrite.

Let me explain…

There have been a few funny videos circling around recently on Facebook with captions that read something like “Actual footage of me at work.” Or “Actual footage of me at the gym.”. The videos usually show some person or animal performing a parody of the stated action such as sleeping at a desk or falling over on a treadmill in a humorous way. I think my first training session at the CMAHC probably deserved one of these parody videos. Captioned with “Actual footage of my first day training Chang Hong” with a video of an intoxicated monkey falling over repeatedly. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

So the title of this article actually applies to me. I was not coordinated enough to do martial arts. And yet here I am after 20 years. Still doing it. SiGung Marco was at the school when I first came for an interview as a potential student of the CMAHC. I sat the interview with a black eye that I had picked up in a fight outside of a rough Cape Town night club a week before. I am grateful that he didn’t judge me by my thuggish appearance.

I still remember the first lesson I ever attended at the CMAHC back in 1997. The classes were being held in a converted commercial warehouse in a centre called The Waverly in Observatory, Cape Town, South Africa. Outside of the warehouse was a rickety, cramped, notably non-compliant fire escape stairwell roughly three stories high. I fondly remember running up and down that stairwell during physicals… During my first lesson, I was introduced to circular jumping crescent kicks which involve a considerable amount of dexterity to perform. Dexterity which I did not possess back then. Combined with the low stance training and the high intensity interval training that we did that day, I was exhausted and demoralised at the end of the class.

I felt that I should have been able to do better because I had been involved in various types of physical training for quite some time before joining the CMAHC. It was disheartening and confronting. I believe that this is often the point in a beginner’s career when their ego triumphs and they walk away in shame never to return, or they manage to overcome their ego and show up at class the next lesson despite their perceived failure. My first performance was personally confronting and disheartening for me because I was supposed to be strong and fit. I lifted weights and trained at a gym regularly. I pushed cars around the block as a training warm-down on Sundays. One of the students came up to me at the end of class and asked if I was ever going to come back. He must have seen the dejected look on my face.

But I came back. And I kept coming back. And the rest is history. Not just history. It’s been a roller-coaster ride of high adventure. It has changed me in so many ways that there is not a single avenue of my life that has not been influenced by my training in the CMAHC.

I remember the first dinner that I was invited to attend with Master Chen, SiGung Marco and some of the seniors of the Cape Town school. It was early in my career. Perhaps only a few months into my training. It was at a small Chinese restaurant in a dingy corner of the Cape Town Dockyards. The occasional pole-mounted light struggled fitfully against the mist and gloom that rolled in from the sea. Ships at anchor strained without conviction against their moorings. The taste of salt spray in the wind spoke of far distant shores and exotic treasures. The restaurant catered specifically for Chinese sailors, so the food was authentic and sometimes unidentifiable. An air of awe, mystery and portent pervaded the whole evening. And thus my adventure in the Chang Hong system began.

It reminds me a bit of the fateful meeting between Frodo Baggins, his Hobbit companions and Strider at the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree. with the same air of mystery, suspense and a tremendous sense of impending adventure.

I’m rambling on a bit because the last couple of weeks have been a cathartic experience for me. I have had powerful flashbacks to significant turning points in my training over the last 20 years. To get back on track with this article, my point is simply this:
Don’t be turned away from martial arts by your present state of being. The training will change you. That’s what it is designed to do.
It is the most powerful tool for personal growth and change that I have encountered in my life.
If you train, you will get better. You will change. Mentally and physically. Guaranteed. Don’t miss out on the adventure of a lifetime for the sake of a comfortable life sitting in front of a screen.​
Written by SiFu Lester Walters, Head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia