Nov 23rd 2015  

 News, Travel diaries

We first heard from Alex Cole (FWC City & Islington) when he wrote about “Training for Competition” (which you can find here). Here he is again with his follow-up, starting as the A Team assembles at the airport…


Our trip to the Global White Crane Fist Gala (Yong Chun),
to give it its official name, starts at 5:30pm at Heathrow Terminal 3. As usual, we’re travelling light. Broadswords – check. 20 odd bottles of brandy – check. Two dozen children’s fruit smoothies (long story) – check. Bags, weapons and spirits all make it safely into the plane and we set off for Yong Chun via Hong Kong and Xiamen. The first flight is turbulent but some of us are lucky enough to sleep straight through. We land in Hong Kong at 4pm on Wednesday and are greeted by the news that our connecting flight to Xiamen is delayed by an hour. There’s no guarantee that there will be any dinner when we get to Yong Chun so we decide to eat at a noodle bar in the airport – “just to be on the safe side”. One of us points at a photograph of a dish which promises to be a smorgasbord of green vegetables. A soup arrives with a single mushroom floating around in the middle of the bowl. “Where are all the vegetables?” “There! Mushroom!” “Where are all the greens!” “No greens!” Welcome to Hong Kong.

The delay is compensated by the fact that the connecting flight is only an hour – less than we had thought. On the flight we have a second dinner – “just to be really on the
safe side.” We land in Xiamen at 9pm and immediately board a coach to Yong Chun. Yong Chun has always been described to me as a “village” so it’s a shock to find a sprawling town with tower blocks, blaring traffic and neon signs everywhere you look. A sign perhaps of how much China has changed in the last 10 or even 5 years. After our two dinners it’s a surprise (although a welcome one) to find a third one waiting for us in our hotel.

The competition has full government backing and the VIP treatment we receive hints at the size of the Chinese public purse. Hotel and meals all paid for. Goodie bag on arrival. We finish dinner and head to bed at around 1am. Thursday will be the first day of the competition – our group will be doing their weapons patterns in the afternoon. Freehand isn’t until Friday so those of us not competing in the weapons category will have an extra day to beat the jetlag.


First day of the competition. None of us are involved until the afternoon so we go just to watch in the morning. Our VIP treatment continues – we’d have been happy to make the 10 minute walk to the stadium but the organisers have sent a coach to pick us up. There’s a heavy police presence around the stadium but inside the atmosphere is surprisingly
informal. The judges are all very solemn – they march on in single file dressed in matching red outfits and remain silent and inscrutable for the whole two day period. But this is not Wimbledon – everyone else chats their way through the proceedings and phones loudly go off during the performances. There are two “mats” (although they are more like AstroTurf). Each competitor has a mat and a full team of judges to him- or herself (in contrast to previous competitions) – the judges score by writing down a number on white ping pong bats and raising them above their head after each performance. Every branch of the crane family is represented – Yong Chun of course but also flying crane, feeding crane, shaking crane. The list goes on. The standard is very high. Chris (our resident Mandarin speaker) is ambushed by local television news who are eager to get his perspective on White Crane, Kung Fu and China in general. He’s been answering the same questions for 10 years but very patiently trots out his standard responses.

We return to the hotel for lunch and then go back straight into competing in the weapons category. Daniel is the star of the first day, winning gold for his sword pattern. We stay just long enough to see Mr Su Ying Han’s newest fresh-faced student, a 78 year old Japanese and an 8th Dan in karate. Of course white crane is the ancestor of karate and it’s interesting to see karateka still acknowledging the debt. In the evening we visit Mr Su’s new gym. It’s an amazing place – the front room is a shrine to white crane and its history and the back room a huge training hall with heavy bags, weights, mirrors and a padded floor. We learn about Mr Su’s grandmaster Pan Shi Feng whose face was ravaged by scars from a childhood illness. He was shunned by society as a result of his appearance and lived alone in the forest where he devoted himself to becoming a white crane master. I briefly thought about whether sleeping rough in the nearest forest might help me the next day in the competition but decided our hotel was a more reliable bet.


Second day of the competition. We boys are the third group on the mat. This means we have to go straight into the waiting room at the beginning of the day but then hang around while the first two groups perform. It’s a relief when we are finally invited to queue at the mat itself. The performance itself goes by in a blur. And then the girls are up. Chris and Amy are today’s gold medalists. We stay to watch the masters category before heading back to the hotel for a post-competition whiskey. The afternoon brings good and bad news. The good news is that we’ll be performing in the opening ceremony to the competition (the White Crane Festival), which logically comes after the competition itself. The bad news is that we’ll be performing the Yong Chun first pattern, which the majority of us have never even seen, let alone learned. The afternoon and early evening are taken up with emergency patterns training. Luckily it’s their version of our own first pattern (San Zhan) and many of the principles are shared with our style.


We wake up on Saturday morning to find Werner’s photograph splashed across the local newspaper. Buoyed (or “Boyed” maybe?) by our newfound celebrity, we take a coach to the dress rehearsal for the festival. Apparently the 2008 Olympics have inspired a mania for these kind of opening ceremonies. This one is a high-cost, high-camp extravaganza. I think about the chain of events that brought me to this point in time. About three and a half years ago I idly thought to myself “I should really do some more exercise”. Apparently the logical conclusion to that thought was standing on a giant wooden stage surrounded by a hundred Chinese schoolgirls dressed as nectarines. In 35 degree heat. We are suffering through a heatwave that is apparently unprecedented in November. The organisers of the festival clearly haven’t planned for this kind of weather and they aren’t willing to make any concessions either. A slavedriver of a director keeps barking “one more time” at us (I lose count at the number of times he says this) as small children on stage visibly wilt in the heat. After several hours of this he announces that we are required to be back after lunch. There is a ripple of discontent among the children and their parents. We briefly consider mutinying but in the end we grudgingly do as we’re told and return in the afternoon.

It turns out to be a few hours well spent – the temperature is cooler and we spend most of our time sitting in the shade watching the rest of the performance, which at times is breathtaking. Isaac is attracting a lot of attention – apparently teenage boys with red hair are something of a rarity in provincial China. Over the course of the afternoon it develops into full blown Beatlemania mark two. But John Lennon wasn’t living in the age of the camera phone. “I am the Justin Bieber of China” says Isaac breezily as a group of girls breathlessly ask how they can contact him on social media. Finally we are released. We have just enough time to freshen up for the official festival banquet, which is taking place at Yong Chun’s new (and only) five star hotel. We are seated with Mr Cheng, a government dignitary, and so the dinner becomes a crash course in Chinese etiquette – if in doubt, raise a toast; when chinking glasses, always make sure yours is lower than his; there is an elaborate ritual to go through of offering and refusing to be served (what happens, I wonder, if Mr Cheng really just doesn’t fancy the pork?). The second everyone’s finished with dessert they make a beeline for the exit. I thought maybe that’s just the way with these banquets. In fact it turns out that we have invitations to a local show but no one thought to tell us (this is a recurring theme of the trip). We get there to find that the actors have decided to kick off at 8pm whether the audience is seated or not (they aren’t and spend the next 30 minutes loudly squabbling over seats). The comfy seats and heat inside the auditorium send most of our group straight to sleep. I would attempt a review but I’ll just come clean and admit that I was one of them. Apparently it was a melodrama in Chinese with no subtitles. Probably just as well.


Up early to take the coach to the site of the White Crane Festival. We sit and wait in the blazing sun for the dignitaries to arrive, at which point the festival can begin. A number of us fashion Lawrence of Arabia style headscarves using towels and t-shirts to protect ourselves from the heat – it’s never hard to spot the Brits abroad. The proceedings begin with a beauty parade of waving dignitaries and then move onto a series of introductions and speeches. It’s all MC’d by a perma-smiling man and woman who we think must be local television presenters. Chris, who is fluent in Mandarin and lives in China, is asked to read out a scripted speech in English about how far he’s travelled to be here, which is translated into Chinese by an interpreter. Werner is invited onstage to accept a medal on behalf of all the overseas participants at the competition. Finally the performance proper begins with 100 young boys and girls dressed as cranes flapping their wings around an adult couple performing classical ballet. The television presenters return to the stage to give a speech about white crane’s influence on other styles (Bruce Lee and Ip Man both get a name check) and then the martial arts performances can begin.

First a group of men in light blue satin suits perform San Zhan, then some young students do exercises with bundles of chopsticks to demonstrate the strength of their fingers. The performance lifts into the stratosphere as a number of young masters (including Mr Su’s son, Su Jun Yi) take to the stage and perform the advanced Yong Chun patterns. The speed and lightness with which they move is quite amazing. Each performer is doing a different pattern – the only downside is that it’s impossible to watch them all at once.

Next they are joined by Mr Su Ying Han and four other older masters and all hell breaks loose as the entire group are handed weapons and begin to cut and thrust across the stage. It’s a health and safety nightmare but fantastic to watch. We disappear backstage to prepare for our turn as the performance becomes increasingly bonkers. The outfits alone are a good indicator: the tangerine schoolgirls from yesterday; schoolboys dressed like glam rock era David Bowie banging on giant drums; another group of boys looking like parking attendants on a night out in disco era New York. All accompanied by music that could have been the B-side to the Final Countdown (it turns out that 1980s arena rock is alive and well in China). We enter to perform San Zhan and remain in situ for the finale in which all 500 or so performers take to the stage.

With proceedings brought to a close, Beatlemania breaks out all over again as Isaac is once again mobbed by admirers. After a good hour of selfies we head back to the hotel for lunch. We have most of the afternoon off for coffee, naps and laundry. Before dinner we take a trip to a newly built memorial to Fang Qi Niang, the founder of White Crane. The walls are covered with pictures of old masters and recent martial arts visitors to Yong Chun. We even recognise a few familiar faces from FWC (but not necessarily the waistlines). Back for dinner and then to Mr Su’s gym to learn some more Yong Chun White Crane. We meet a group of students from Canada who have spent a week learning Wuzuquan at the Shaolin Temple before coming to Yong Chun. They have arrived too late for the festival and have no idea just what they’ve missed. An extraordinary day all in all.


The competition and festival are now over and we settle into a week of training with Mr Su. We spend the morning practising in the walkway outside his apartment before switching hotels. Until now we’ve been put up in a hotel by the river by the organisers of the competition but the new one is actually an upgrade – the rooms are bigger and the food is better. After lunch at our new accommodation Mr Su’s family arrange a trip to a local incense factory. (It is a sign of their incredible hospitality that they insist on accompanying us everywhere we go throughout the week).

The factory is a 20 minute minivan drive from the centre of town – plenty of time for our driver to demonstrate a penchant (and, it has to be admitted, a considerable talent) for overtaking on blind corners. We arrive at the factory and a lady gives us a guided tour, talking us through how incense was historically made (the process is now largely mechanised). We then move into an indoor museum where we are given a demonstration of the traditional incense burning ceremony. Lots of other features of traditional Chinese life are also on display – an exquisite xiangqi (Chinese chess) set; a guzheng (an ancient stringed instrument); and some beautiful calligraphy. And most importantly, a large gift shop, where we promptly go beserk for the next hour. Today is Mr Su’s birthday and so in the evening we hold a dinner in our hotel in his honour. Saturday’s lesson in etiquette really comes in handy here for the endless rounds of toasting that follow. Who knew that a 71st birthday would be a more drunken affair than most 21sts? The dinner is a parade of local delicacies – abolones and fairy crabs among them. Afterwards we stumble back to Mr Su’s for tea. A small handful continue the party with even more wine and barbecue at a third venue but the rest of us are already safely tucked up in bed.