David Whitley signs up for a free t’ai chi class in Hong Kong, and gets fighty in the process
Take an early morning walk around any part of Hong Kong that bravely attempts to make a passing impression of open space, and you’ll see them. It’s usually men of a certain age, clad in loose-fitting clothes, and making odd shapes. They seem supremely oblivious to anyone around them, slowly going through their moves. T’ai chi is big here. It is to the late-middle aged men of Hong Kong what complaining about petrol prices is to the late-middle aged men of Britain.
The t’ai chi practitioners have an odd grace about them; I, it turns out, just look odd.
My indoctrination into the ways of t’ai chi begins in a hotel entrance foyer. It’s just me, Master Cheung and two bemused tourists waiting for a taxi. It’s not long before a few nosy locals start to pour in for the sort of gawping usually associated with multi car pile-ups on the M6.
Master Cheung is in his special white suit. I’m in whatever I could throw on in a hurry, suddenly remembering that I’d signed up for a t’ai chi lesson. He greets me, and garbles something about different styles of t’ai chi. And then begins the dance routine.
I find myself stepping to the left, making odd gestures with my hands and generally bumbling around cluelessly. I’ve no idea why I’m supposed to do this, what benefits it might have and how on earth I’m supposed to remember more than three movements at one time. In imitations bearing little resemblance to the moves Master Cheung is making in front of me, I run through the “seven stars style”, “grasping the bird’s tail” and the hilariously filthy-sounding “stroking the lute”. I follow, or at least attempt to follow, in a fug of bewilderment. Heaven only knows what the photo-taking locals are thinking.
Eventually he realises that his pupil is a little lost sheep, and opts for a different style of teaching. He starts explaining the practical explanations of the movements. And attacking me.
He comes in with a fist, and tells me to use the hooped fingers of “grasping the bird” to deal with it. This is essentially done by grabbing the approaching wrist and pulling it to the side while the other arm sweeps across and knocks my assailant to the floor behind me.
Now this, I can get into. Put together a series of abstract movements for the purpose of focusing the mind and I’m befuddled. Give me a little Chinese man to beat up, and it all starts to make perfect sense. Master Cheung makes all the right noises and actions, playing along even though I suspect he could floor me within seconds. But it’s the only way it works for me – fighting techniques.
But this does put t’ai chi in a new light. I always thought it was just about old blokes flapping about in a park. But it’s not, what they’re doing is a deliberately slowed version of a genuine, not to be messed with martial art. And it’s a martial art designed for the small, nimble and intelligent – it’s about balance and using the attacker’s force against them.
With that in mind, I’m not going to get overconfident. Master Cheung might be able to train me to get the moves right by playing the gullible mugger, but he could probably nail me in seconds...
David took part in the free Tai Chi class offered at the Eaton Smart hotel, where he was hosted. Free classes can also be taken as part of the Hong Kong Cultural Kaleidoscope programme.