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Q&A with Mimi Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer

A scene from Kung Fu Pioneer.
A scene from Kung Fu Pioneer.
Ray Kouguell
Keeping tradition alive in an ever-changing and complicated world is not easy.  But there is at least one person whose contribution proves you can do it. VOA’s Ray Kouguell tells us about a new documentary that looks at the amazing story of a Chinese man who in his own way has enriched America and the world:


KOUGUELL: His name is Pui Chan, a Kung Fu Grandmaster of the Wah Lum Chinese martial arts system. He’s a diminutive man whose size and agility helped him overcome very humble beginnings under political repression in the small village of Sha-jeng in Guangdong, China to a life of recognition and global influence. A new biographical documentary called “Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer” details his remarkable journey of adventure and dedication that’s the stuff of novels. 

Pui Chan was born in 1938.  At the age of six, he became the youngest pupil of Master Lee Kwan Shan.  Chan was the smallest student-about three feet tall. But blessed with amazing flexibility, he became the Master’s final disciple at just ten years old.  Hardships under the Chinese Communist regime later forced Chan at the age of 19 to escape to Hong Kong.  He used his talents as an oyster diver to fool the authorities and sail off with a government boat. Chan found work as a seaman on a cargo ship and never stopped practicing his Kung Fu skills.

Chan’s travels eventually took him to New York in 1968 but immigration authorities refused him a visa to come ashore. Bribing a watchman with whisky, Chan lowered himself off a ship with everything he owned in a small plastic bag and just 24 dollars.  He swam over a mile to a pier near Newark Airport in New Jersey and eventually took a cab to Chinatown in New York. Chan met with an uncle who helped him contact his older brother in Boston.  That’s where Chan set up the first Wah Lum Kung Fu School four years later.  Marriage and a young family ultimately took him to Orlando, Florida where in 1980 he set up the first Wah Lum Kung Fu temple in America.  It now has affiliates around the world.

Mimi Chan directed the movie about her father, “Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer.”  As a first generation Chinese-American, she is also a major part of her father’s legacy.  I asked Chan about the motivation to take on such a personal project.

CHAN: I’ve always had it in the back of my head to make a film about my dad. I’ve always wanted to make a film about his life to share all of the things that he’s been through and gone through to bring Kung Fu to the USA and I just find his life and story just so inspiring that I hope to inspire others as well.

KOUGUELL: Was it hard to be objective while you were making the movie?

CHAN: Yes and no. So, in terms of being objective, I think the hardest part was in the editing room, on what I found really important and what I thought a general viewer would find important, because obviously it’s my father, so to me, all of it is fascinating, all of it is interesting, all of it is relevant. But as a film maker, the most challenging part was kind of putting my personal feelings and my personal viewpoints aside. Obviously, my niche is very geared to maybe a lot of people who have an interest in martial arts already have heard of my father, but beyond that, I thought that this story and his life would be equally as interesting to people who are not martial artists and I wanted to kind of separate that and that was probably the most difficult part.

KOUGUELL: How would you define the Wah Lum style of Kung Fu and how it’s different from others?  

CHAN: The Wah Lum Kung Fu system is a traditional northern Kung Fu style and what defines it is a lot of the emphasis on leg movement and the fluidity and it’s very acrobatic, lots of kick in a physical sense.

KOUGUELL:  Did your father have some kind of divine insight to come up with the idea for a Wah Lum temple in Florida?

CHAN: He shared with me on his journey: to make a better life for himself and to escape China, escape Hong Kong, escape the ship life and start anew. I know that he attributes a lot of his success in his mentality and the strength that he has to do all those things to his Kung Fu training. So to best honor what he learned with his training and his master and his style and that tradition, I think it was always in his head that he wanted to have a place dedicated to that.

KOUGUELL: Why is the health and spirituality of Kung Fu not so well known here in the United States and perhaps other countries around the world?

CHAN: I think that Kung Fu finally got its start with Bruce Lee honestly with entertainment, people realizing that it’s not the same thing as karate. It’s just kind of a slow start up educating the people in America as to the benefits of Kung Fu that it’s not just a fighting form and that it’s not just punching and kicking, that there is greater health to it, and of course spirituality.

KOUGUELL: What would you say is the overall message of the movie?

CHAN: The message I wanted everyone to get out of the film more than anything was the inspiration of if you work hard, if you have a dream, you can be successful, you can accomplish anything the way my father did. So I really wanted people to leave the film, just feeling inspired to achieve what they wanted to and learn their hard work and perseverance does pay off, that you can do all the things you’re supposed to do and have everything come to fruition.

KOUGUELL: Chan’s documentary is a profile of a man who is a true example of patience, determination and courage. With archival photos, films and interviews Pui Chan’s prowess is on display, skills he still practices now at the age of 75.  Mimi Chan is a proud daughter who’s made a movie about dreams coming true.  Her father is proof that a great American success story can start -- on the other side of the world.
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