Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dragons From The South - Ng Ga Kuen Thrives In Mexico.

This article appeared in the February 2008 issue of Inside Kung Fu magazine. It is only the second article in the history of the magazine to appear in both english and spanish. The article is based on the Sifu Mario Figueroa's work with the Dragon Mexico School of Ng Ga Kuen kung fu during visits conducted in August and November 2007. Further training and consultation is planned for 2008 to include instructor training, seminars and workshops. The Dragon Mexico School adheres closely to the teachings of the late Grandmaster Ark Yeuy Wong, and his Ng Ga Kuen, 5 Family / 5 Animal style of kung fu. 

Dragons from the South

By Sifu Mario Figueroa

I am driven through narrow streets crammed with cars and lined with shops of all sorts, multitudes of people in every direction. We stop in front of a large storefront only our destination is next door under a kung fu sign and picturing Grandmaster Ark Wong. This could have been Hong Kong or any of the Chinatown districts in large cities around the world but instead we are in Monterrey, Mexico, at the site of the Dragon Mexico kung fu school (www.dragonmexico.com.mx).

There is a Yin Yang symbol painted on the small roll up door which leads to a long, nearly vertical flight of concrete stairs. At the top is a large sized room. Iron shot-put spheres lie neatly on a corner of its concrete floor with traditional weapons, 2 wooden dummies, and a kung fu altar identifying this as a school of traditional Chinese martial arts.

Despite its non-descript appearance, the Dragon Mexico is one of the most important schools of traditional Chinese kung fu in Mexico. It has been in operation for more than 2 decades and currently serves over 250 students, including a branch operating at the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon, a university of the highest international standing.  

The temperature is blazing somewhere over 100 degrees and the humidity is showing similar excess. The school has no air conditioning, no cold-water fountain and only a small fan churns in a futile attempt to circulate the thick, moist air. This is after all, a kung fu school and its members pride themselves on the spartan conditions. Yet even though it is Sunday and the city is rich in places of leisure and entertainment, they prefer to be here and the school is filled to over-capacity with students. They are present to greet me and to participate in a seminar on advanced conditioning methods. As an older kung fu brother to their teacher, Sifu Alejandro Flores, students are eager to meet me and I am received with the utmost cordiality, respect and attention.  

Under the leadership of Sifu Alejandro Flores, the school has grown tremendously, not only in size but also in knowledge. Over the last 5 years, Sifu Alejandro has invested heavily in his own learning in areas such as Chinese culture and traditions, in understanding different styles of kung fu, in advanced training methods such as iron palm and chi kung but most importantly he has sought out and found the roots of his own kung fu style, Ng Ga Kuen.

A Unique Distinction

Sifu Alejandro Flores continues to expand his knowledge in various arts and disciplines yet remains strictly loyal in his teachings to the Ng Ga Kuen style of kung fu. He is a direct student of Master Seming Ma, the grandson of the famous 5 Animal, 5 Family kung fu teacher, Grandmaster Ark Y. Wong. 

In fact, his school holds the unique distinction of being the first and only school to follow specifically and exclusively follow the Ng Ga Kuen curriculum and sash grading system, unaltered as given to him his Master Seming Ma.  In addition, the school utilizes the system terminology in its original Cantonese language. There are other 5 Family kung fu schools both in the USA and Mexico that are integrating the Ng Ga Kuen curriculum, but to date only Dragon Mexico has made the complete transition. The first testing to these requirements was held in December 2007, an historic event for the school, the Ng Ga Kuen style and for traditional kung fu in Mexico.

Kung Fu R & D

Much of the efforts over the last 18 months have been at what can be called Research and Development. With the assistance of this author, Sifu Mario Figueroa (www.shenmartialarts.com/about.asp), the Dragon Mexico school has become somewhat of a "hands on" laboratory. One main aspect of this work involves the codification of the Ng Ga Kuen style. The style has long been transferred in the traditional method in which the Master demonstrates, and the student tries to emulate. As the student gets better, he gains ability and begins to “see” how the style works.  This method yields results that are directly relative to the natural abilities, focus, motivation and attentiveness of the student.  The persevering student also gains results and the un-decided or non-serious students are weeded out. 

Unfortunately, this approach also creates substantial variation in the understanding of students and over time yields significant differences in how the style is interpreted and understood.  In addition, in a time when we are seeking to spread the traditional arts, it becomes important to be capable of describing and explaining the workings of the system in a simple yet articulate manner. This will make apparent the many important aspects of training in the style and has the potential of attracting students that may not otherwise have considered participating in kung fu. It also helps to reach out to those in the grey area, individuals with latent abilities or hidden potential that need a bit more coaxing with information, insight and attention. Most importantly, having a documented reference of the style, its concepts, its principles, its approach and its scope will lessen variation in understanding and in teaching. 

All of this involves significant effort in the analysis, comparison, standardization and documentation of the style. Varying viewpoints and perspectives have to be considered in this process, as are the concepts and ideas of other styles that exhibit similarities in form and function. It is also recognized that there are many fundamental principles that are common to all Shaolin Kung Fu systems and that transcend style, family or system differentiation. These are elements that are part of our Shaolin inheritance and that no one style can make claim of.

This process of analysis and documentation was started by this author several years back and a good amount of codification of fundamental principles, theory, and approach have already been accomplished and are now being put into teaching and practice at the Dragon Kung Fu school with great success. Two areas in particular are showing excellent results in students of all levels; body conditioning, and kung fu utilization in free fighting.

Body Conditioning

Like many other styles, Ng Ga Kuen uses a simple 3 star arm blocking drill with differences between teachers and schools. A more complete conditioning drill derived from Iron Body training has shown improved results amongst students. The exercise is taught in stages as follows: 1) Basic Stationary 3 Star; 2) Stance Transitioning 3 Star; 3) Shin Star; 4) Elbow Strikes; 5) Body Hits.  Each of these elements can be practiced independently to focus on a particular body part or together as a complete 10 Star body conditioning drill. The complete drill can be used as a simple workout as it works stances, hip/waist rotation, trunk flexibility, balance stability, coordination and, if done properly and with intention, stamina as well.  It is important to hold body positions with attention to detail and to coordinate arms legs and body in the movement transitions.

Solo Practice with the 5 Family Wooden Dummy

The Ng Ga Kuen wooden dummy is a rare sight these days. At first glance it looks similar to the Wing Chun version but upon close attention, it has subtle yet distinct differences. The most obvious is the round portion at the end of the arms. This is meant to simulate human hands and is used to apply grabs and pulls.  Other differences come in the angles and dimensions of the design.

The exercises from the 10 star body conditioning drill can all be exercised with the Ng Ga wooden dummy in case a partner is not available.  The dummy however is best utilized as a bridging tool between empty hand practice and combat applications training. With the dummy, the practitioner can exert full speed and force not worrying about hurting a human partner, while at the same time exercising conditioning against the hard wooden striking surface provided by the dummy.  Complete forms, short sequences or single techniques can all be applied against the dummy.  Palm strikes, back slaps, bridge cuts, pulls, tugs, sweeps, and stop kicks can all be improved by practice with the dummy.

Using Kung Fu for Combat

One of the main criticisms that we as traditional kung fu stylists receive is that we do not use our style for combat. This is a controversial subject with differing opinions, but it is hard to argue the fact that most kung fu practitioners do not use the methods and techniques from their styles when free sparring. The prevailing opinion is that kung fu techniques are impractical and cannot be used for free fighting. 

In fact, kung fu techniques are designed for use in real combat and are difficult to use and apply under the restricted rules of competition point fighting, and to a lesser degree in the now popular combat sports. Still kung fu is meant to be flexible and the kung fu practitioner must learn to adapt to the conditions at hand and to utilize the many effective techniques contained in traditional kung fu training.

To this end, emphasis is placed on using kung fu methods and techniques as archived in the style’s forms, for free fighting. Great care is taken to protect the students from injury as the techniques imbedded in kung fu forms are truly meant for life and death combat. 

One method that helps students to gain confidence and to experiment with their repertoire is to slow things down.  This starts with two students taking turns, one moves, the other responds, taking turns in a continuous, random sequence. This allows the students time to think and to respond without fear of getting hit. Over time, the response time becomes shorter and the techniques used become more varied. Eventually, the students respond instantaneously and the flow and speed of the exercise is becomes that of free fighting.

Progressive Thinking

Sifu Alejandro realizes that he does not know all there is to know about kung fu and has the courage and humility to seek out continued learning and the integrity to share all of his knowledge with those that wish to learn. These are the characteristics of a true master. With an open mind, a deep passion for traditional kung fu and a vision of continued advancement, Sifu Alejandro Flores and the students of the Dragon Mexico school in Monterrey, Mexico are not only keeping the tradition alive, but are taking their kung fu to the higher levels.

Sifu Sifu Mario Figueroa is a freelance writer and kung fu instructor based in Vista, California. He can be reached at www.shenmartialarts.com or by email at shenmartialarts@cox.net

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