The Winds of Change
by Sifu Vincent Pratchett
Nature is a powerful force, its manifestations are cyclical, and its effects can be seen for generations. Winds blow through Canada on a regular basis. On the east coast they are the Atlantic mid summer storms, on the prairies they are called the warm seasonal Chinooks. These winds always bring something fresh and new, and sometimes they bring changes that continue forever, and sometimes they bring seeds. Toronto is not known for being a particularly windy city, but here in my home I have seen the face of martial arts training change for the long term with the arrival of California winds.
I grew up in Toronto, and have seen two major martial arts winds blow through her. The first storm was back in the early 70’s. The interest in martial kung fu excellence was palatable. In theatres it was Bruce Lee. Movie theatres were filled with kung fu clubs, with people in the aisles copying his every nunchuck move. At home after dinner, and in front of the television it was a simple shaolin monk of mixed blood named Kwai Chang Cain. It was David Carradine.
The effects of this first wind driven by Bruce Lee and David Carradine were long lasting. People enrolled in schools and began the serious study of martial arts. Racial barriers were broken down as non Chinese were taught kung fu openly for the first time. Martial arts were now understood to be more than a fighting system, they were a dynamic philosophy of peace, and many branches could trace their origins back to the original Shaolin temple.
The second time this California wind blew through Toronto was 20 years later. In the early 90’s Kung Fu the Legend Continues arrived. David Carradine and his martial arts entourage from California would shoot the TV series here for the next four years, and martial arts training would change in both subtle and dynamic ways once more, changes which still continue to this day.
The show was called Kung Fu, the Legend Continues, aka (TLC). Along with changes, both temporary and long lasting, these winds like others of their kind, carried seeds. It is the seeds of events and circumstance that flourished here, and took root. Two separate branches of a tree carried by the California wind still flourish here in Toronto and continue to bear the fruits from events long past.
Initially it brought with it two key components, Sifu Mike Vendrell and Sifu Rob Moses. Among many other things Sifu Vendrell was Brandon Lee’s teacher and Kung fu Advisor for the show, and Sifu Rob was David Carradine’s kung fu trainer and friend. Rob would eventually act in the role of Master Kahn, a senior Shaolin monk. Even though they have been gone for almost 20 years two martial arts schools have continued to teach the lessons learned from those days.
A cattle call was circulated that Warner Brothers was looking for skilled martial artists for acting roles in the upcoming TV series. That call was answered by many various Clubs in a large recording studio located in a western Toronto suburb. Tension was high that morning as what was one of the largest assemblies of many Kung Fu schools gathered under the same roof. This was not rare; it was unheard of and as the many participants eyed each other suspiciously and aggressively not knowing what to expect. The testosterone levels in that large room could have been cut with a knife.
Mike Vendrell and Rob Moses finally arrived and introduced themselves to the fired up crowd of perspective ‘actors’, people who now acted like they wanted nothing more than a good fight with a neighboring club. There had been rumors about Mike and his past fighting experience and lets face it, mostly everyone gathered there was there to impress. Sifu Mike’s appearance was not what caught everyone off guard. He was a big bear of a man, and well… there had been stories. What really took everyone by surprise was his Kung Fu attitude. He was relaxed, jovial, and friendly, while he got to the serious business at hand.
While everyone expected some sort of stage to display their martial prowess, what Sifu Mike said was, “Let’s have a Fu jam.” No one even knew what a Fu Jam was, but it was now clear from his movements and the way that he was enjoying himself, that it was about a whole bunch of fun. Later any that continued to train with him learned that it was about Love Peace and Harmony, and it was this principal that was so new up here, and it was this legacy that would be left long after he had gone. By day’s end people that had wanted nothing more than to scrap each other were talking like human beings and exchanging knowledge and techniques. It was rapidly becoming a kung fu brotherhood.
Mo Chow, his brother Ho, and his son Ian were very well respected kung fu men and could act. They were founding members of a the “Hong Luck Kung Fu” school in Toronto’s Chinatown and one of the first that had opened its doors to non Chinese twenty years before. In their associations with Mike Vendrell and Rob Moses, scouting locations in Chinatown for example, technique and philosophy were constantly being discussed and analyzed. Although the language and attitude of Kung Fu was as different as night and day, the truth was evident in its movement and its execution. It was this truth that quickly became their common language.
Ian Chow was young, in his mid twenties, and had been raised by his father and uncle in strict martial discipline, and it was Ian who would take the freshness of the lessons learned to the next level. For perhaps the first time martial artists in Toronto were beginning to understand that rigid training could strike a balance with the newness that can only be described as creativity and imagination.
Another young martial artist of those days was Rupert Harvey. He was a well known Reggae musician in a band called ‘Messenjah’ and had been training in martial arts since the early 70’s. He met Rob and Mike at a kung fu banquet and after watching both these men from California demonstrate their Kung fu, he was never the same. What he saw was real and it was powerful, it was in fact a spirit behind an art which had been heard of, but never before seen.
David Carradine was very generous. He allowed us to train in the school which was his actual school on the TV series. So in the evenings when the cameras were long shut down a core group of Toronto martial artists would study with Rob and Mike. Rupert was like a kid in a candy store, because of his musical ability the Tai Mantis forms seemed to come easy to him. He would memorize them first, and then he would teach the others who couldn’t pick it up as fast. I think this was a major factor in Rupert Harvey establishing a school of his own.
Eventually we would train on the roof of Rob’s apartment building all through the Canadian winters. If the weather was too cold we would tie caution tape to the end of our weapons and train in his underground parking lot. The tape was fun and nobody ever called the police because it looked like we were a rhythmic dance troupe.
On other occasions, private booths of Chinatown restaurants rang with the constant sound of double knocking as Mike talked openly about control techniques. He stated simply that if he ever used more force than needed to turn on a tap he wasn’t doing it right. As he spoke he gently held the hand of anyone sitting beside him. The double knocking was a continuous and constant series of ‘tap outs’ that coincided perfectly with his simple conversations on pain and leverage. Eventually when his dinner neighbor had had enough, the next tough guy would take his place beside Mr. Vendrell and the tapping and explanations would continue late into the night. It was like a Chinatown game of martial musical chairs.
Eventually the California connection would pack up and return home. Rob was here for four years and Mike was here for two, but what Mike Vendrell and Rob Moses gave us up here would not disappear so easily. The connections that were made by members of various Martial Arts would never be broken. Rupert Harvey went on to establish Golden Harmony Kung Fu with Rob and Mike as its mentors and its foundation. Ian would build his club in Chinatown, and call it Northern Legs Southern Fists, the connection and knowledge learned from Rob contained in the name.
Both these clubs still thrive up here, as does the Spirit of Kung Fu that Rob and Mike were gracious enough to share freely with any that made the effort to train. To say that we miss those times does not do it justice, yes Rob and Mike are missed, but in many ways you are still with us. Likewise the presence and generosity David Carradine still remains with us even though he does not. The two northern branches of a California tree have taken root.
Winds blow in bringing changes and freshness, and sometimes like back in the early 90’s, they bring seeds.
– Sifu Vincent Pratchett