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All The Right Moves
Foreigners in China

Foreign students warm up for a two-hour training session in martial arts in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province.

It is 7 pm on a mid-week evening and 33-year-old Richard Newton, a UK native and long-time Guangzhou resident, begins his evening by running and stretching before starting the first of a series of 50 repetitions of sit-ups. Over the next two hours, he'll practice close-range punching and kicking alone then work with a practice partner. Next is self-defense tactics before free sparring. He wears safety pads to protect his body from potentially painful blows by fellow Wing Chun students.

In nearby Tianhe Stadium, Ollie Pekka from Finland gets busy with a long series of stretches and push-ups before beginning a two-hour training session in which he'll practice repetitive leg kicks and long-range punches before donning protective gear for his own Taekwondo sparring session.

Also near the Stadium, Frenchman Charles Foret starts off raining blows on a heavy punching bag as he toughens up his body. He will then embark on a gruelling two-hour training session, to develop the skills needed to deliver punishing punches and elbow, knee and leg blows, to a similarly aggressive partner, but without the aid of protective gear. Alongside him, Muay Thai professionals, are already hard at work, pummelling padded bags with their knees or legs or doing an impossible number of stomach crunches from an inverted start position.

These three amiable expats are just some of the hundreds of foreigners and thousands of locals studying martial arts in the city.

Other fighting styles, such as Judo, taichi and the king of fight techniques, wushu, are also the favorites of students, who are making choices based on comfort, degree of difficulty or peripheral benefits.

Despite its slow movements, taichi is actually a martial art. It became popular after the 1970s US television series Kung Fu starring David Carradine, who used this technique.

There are thousands of taichi students in Guangzhou, not counting the elderly, who traditionally favor the gentler genre.

Excluding primary and secondary schools, there are up to 15,000 people practicing martial arts in the city, says Huang Biao, administrator and instructor at Guangzhou Wushu Association. About 20 percent are doing Thai boxing and another 30 percent learning Taekwondo, says Better Chen Changjie, who is both a Muay Thai boxing and Taekwondo instructor at Muay Thai Martial Arts Club Guangzhou.

"I've been practicing kungfu for more than 10 years," says Newton, who now studies Wing Chun under local master Huang Wian Yin. "Doing martial arts gives me more confidence. I feel I can handle myself. This is important, especially nowadays where people live and work in strange (and potentially dangerous) cities all over the world."

Having a fighting skill, Newton says, "is practical, useful for self-defence." On a daily basis, "it gives you strength, more energy. And it can lift your spirits."

"Learning a martial art requires commitment. Training is intense, but manageable. If you want to progress you can't slacken. Sometimes you don't feel like coming to class but you must. Language can also be a problem here, but luckily with martial arts a lot is learnt by copying the teacher."

Wing Chun is probably less dangerous than playing football, despite its combative nature, Newton says. "You only think about the game and winning, not injuries. But when you do martial arts, you are focused on your moves and your partner, so you are more alert to danger."

What began merely as a way to exercise has turned into a growing passion for 25-year-old Pekka.
The office worker needed some outlet and doing Taekwondo requires good balance because there is a lot of kicking. He found that his reflexes and health have improved, and he can get up at 7 am on a Sunday and generally feel he has more energy.


I prefer individual sports to team sports, so martial arts is suitable for me because it is about self-development," Pekka said.

While Muay Thai has a brutal reputation, ironically this is part of its appeal, says Chen. "People are attracted to Thai boxing because it's simpler to learn and you can practice straightaway," he says.

There are a few basic moves - the fist punch, the elbow, the knee and the leg. Chen considers Thai boxing "real" fighting and it only takes a year to become good, but you have to train hard. A typical student practices less than two hours a day but professionals train for nearly five hours each time. Many beginners cannot move their arms after half an hour.

"Thai boxing helps me release stress," says Foret. "Guangzhou is a strange city to me. I have to work. I am far from my friends and family, so I feel pressure."

While the regime is admittedly tough, the lessons are "fun", he says. "I like this kind of activity, plus the freestyle approach is more useful and I feel I can defend myself in a fight."

A busy schedule, with or without family here, means less time to practice the myriad patterns and moves required to master the art, Huang adds.

With local police and military officers among his students, Huang finds foreigners practice part time and most will not join competitions.

The people who do want to learn are very interested in China.

"People see Li Lianjie (action star Jet Li) at the movies. They come here very excited and want to be like him. They want to learn real fighting straightaway," Huang said.

Foreigners and locals who do well in wushu are usually natural learners with quick reflexes, he says.

Besides having a stronger body and learning a traditional Chinese art, wushu also enables expats to better understand Chinese attitudes and thinking.

"It's different doing martial arts in China and doing it back home," says Newton. "I get to integrate more with Chinese culture and the community. I can't imagine coming here and not training with local Chinese." (By Steven Chen)

( Source: China Daily )


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