Saturday, 6th, June, 2009
Sarah and I spent a few weeks back in Yang Shou and I studied Taiji while I was there but that’s a story for another time.
From Yang shou we took a flight to Kuala lumpor and from there to Penang island airport. We arrived in the evening, the weather thick and muggy. Nigel and his wife Fong picked us up in their car
For more information about Nigel Sutton you can view the Zhong Ding web site.
Coming to Penang has been a dream of mine for about 10 years now. I remember hearing about Nigel’s martial arts school from my then Taiji teacher Lynn Gordon. Lynn told me that Nigel ran a full time year course to train instructors. As soon as I heard this I was obsessed and for ten years I daily thought about it. Now after all this time I have finally made it here.
While I am in Penang I will be learning Krabi Krabong, Escrema, Lian padukan and silat tua.
Fong drove us back to their condo apartment and kindly allowed us to stay with them until I go to live at the Zhong Ding training center and until Sarah finds a job in Penang. For a few days afterwards we stayed at their apartment and rested. Nigel and Fong fed and watered us. We felt well looked after.
We had a look around the island. tropical, steaming hot and with a multicultural population. Malays, Chinese Malaysians, Indians and westerners. The beach is very near to Nigel’s condo and it looks inviting from a distance but on closer inspection the pollution and waste on the sand puts you off the idea of swimming.
On Monday Fong drove Nigel, Sarah and me to the Zhong Ding training center. The drive is along a small road which wound around the hills, through thick forests, durian fruit farms all around. The huge durian trees reach high up and you can spot the yellow fruit. Nets around the tree trunks catch the falling fruit. I think a falling durian fruit is one of the fructose family I would least like to be hit by, Surly it would cave your head right in. The drive made me feel incredibly sick and I tried to focus on looking straight ahead.
Thankfully we arrived before I turned gray and threw up. The training Centre is in a small village on the opposite side of the island. It’s a gritty dirty looking village with a strange feeling like you’re in an old western town. Gangsters and old men purr around on battered old motorbikes. There are Chinese, Malay and Indian people here and one Thai prostitute.
The school is compact; you go through the gates and into the hall. A longish room with swords hanging on the walls and an impressive statue of Guang Dong the Chinese god of war. There are 4 small bedrooms in the school, a shower, loo and kitchen with gas hobs, microwave and washing machine.
I unloaded my luggage into my new room which I was sharing with Vin another young English guy who had already been here for a few months. My new room has 3 beds, many knives, sticks, swords, fencing masks and a few electric fans.
Outside the house there is a long training area sheltered by a corrugated roof. The floor is wooden, balls on string hang from the ceiling and a wooden man stands by the door. Another unsheltered training area on the other side of the house has punch bags. Just by the entrance is a wooden shelter with a table and benches.
The school is also next door to a gangster who is apparently a loan shark. When we arrived I heard shouting over the wall, giving in to my newly formed Chinese habit of shamelessly gawping at anything I please. I shuffled over to the wall to have a look. The other students who were there advised me not to look at all. “Especially don’t look at his wife”. Then when we were going to dinner I had a peek at his house and I was told “don’t look at his house”. We ate at one of the two small restaurants in the village, Plastic tables and seats with tatty old posters on the walls. It wasn’t busy; most of the inhabitants were. fishermen relaxing.
Back at the school Sarah helped me unpack my luggage into my new room and I began my training. Although I was allowed to wear shoes Nigel, Vin and John Another English man had bare feet so I followed suit. I was handed a wooden katana and told that it was mine. ‘’it’s actually heavier than a real Thai Krabi so it’s good strength training’’ Nigel said to me. I was also told that while in the training Centre I should always have it by my side. Even when I eat, shower or sleep.
I was also given a wooden forearm shield. It was made of heavy wood with canvas straps to attach it to your forearm; it also had a metal strip lined down the Centre of the shield. Traditional the shield is a hollow segment of bamboo. Not much of a real shield so I was told to use it lightly. ‘’ when you are going to use your shield just use it to deflect a blow and compensate by moving your body out of the way. Don’t actually block the strike’’ Nigel explained.
John Began practicing Bagua. Walking in a wide circle practicing the different arm positions. Myself and Vin began our Krabi Krabong training. Vin has already been doing it for a while now and has learnt all of the strick sets and the dance. Vin and Nigel showed me the different strikes and blocks and how to put your body’s weight behind each blow.
After only a few minutes of holding the sword above my head and my shield out in front I began to feel the ache in my shoulders. The strikes were easy to learn. Horizontal, vertical and diagonal and thrust. Basic blocks with the shield and after I had them remembered Vin and I began to practice together, using a set of strikes and blocks. I found it quiet scary at first as we quickened our pace. Slashing and thrusting at each other. When Vin tried to attack me I raised my shield and when I blocked the shock ran through my arm. Even though the strikes and blocks were preset I was worried what would happen if one of us failed to raise our shield. We got to the point where we were using full speed and power.
Soon I began to get blisters on my feet from being bare foot on the hot floor and I was sweating profusely. I thought about how even if you’re fit in a certain area of physical movement it doesn’t mean you are in another. I am still reasonably fit from training Shuai jiao in China and I am used to wrestling but I have never trained with a sword and shield in wet heat before. It shows and there is only one way to change that. Practise.
Later that night Sarah went back to the condo with Fong. Even in the evening the weather was steaming hot. Although I was tired I found it hard to get to sleep. The electric fan was most welcome but the heat was too strong. I even had to get up in the middle of the night to have a cold shower.
The next day we worked on incorporating Thai boxing kicks into the Krabi Krabong training but Nigel told us to remember not to over use kicks or to kick too high. We still had to remember that our sword and shield were the most effective weapons compared to kicks and punches and you don’t want your opponent to block your kick with their sword either.
That night a group of youths were loitering by the training center. It sounded like a group of young men on motorbikes. Their cigarette smoke wafted over the wall and into the training area. It was dark and Vin and I were getting ready to do some night time training. Nigel turned the CD player on and selected some traditional Thai music, usually heard at Thai boxing matches. If you’re not familiar with this type of music I would recommend you take a sample.
It had the desired effect and almost instantaneously the youths started up their motorbikes and rode away.
Nigel turned the lights off and Vin and I donned our swords and shields. In the dark I could only make out Vin as a dark salute brandishing a sword. We practiced slow sparring in rhythm to the music. Although not the sort of thing I would turn on after a long day at work the music fitted perfectly with the sparring. It’s the music of fighting. It’s agitated and flits about, sometimes fast sometimes slowly.
We circled and moved, slashing and stabbing, deflecting and dodging. It was one of the most special sessions I have ever had. It’s only been a few times that I have really felt the weight and significance of practicing martial arts.
You can easily think about it. Think about how blessed you are to have the health and opportunity to train, you can think about the lineage of the art you’re practicing. The work and sacrifice generations went through for it to have become what it is today but it’s not often that I feel it through my whole being.
Getting to bed after this training was hard and I had the first of my violent fighting dreams which would continue almost nightly even after I left Malaysia.