Ling Nam Siu Lum Kung Fu Academy was established in 1984 by Sifu Michael Manganiello. It was the first kung fu school on Long Island that was to open to the public. Prior to that, only private instruction was available.
Lung Ying (Dragon Shape Boxing)
Chinese Shaolin Boxing Association
Choy Li Fut
Bak Hok Pai Bak Hok Pai
Kwong Sai Jook Lum (Southern) Praying Mantis
My training in martial arts began at age 9 (approx. 1966). At that time, I trained in Jiu-jitsu, Shotokan, and later Go-ju-ryu Karate. Around 1970, I met a 7-Star (northern) Praying Mantis stylist. We matched up (bare-knuckled, of course), and I lost terribly. That I was out-classed on every front, was an understatement to say the least. His hand speed was awesome, and his grappling and sweeping techniques were unlike anything I had ever seen. Clincher was, I was the young rising star of my school. He, on the other hand, was the lowest man on the totem pole at his. Needless to say, I chucked the gi, the belts, and the trophies and never looked back. And so, at the age of 13, I began my journey into the mysterious society of New York Chinatown, the world of Chinese Martial Arts.
For the next three years, I trained in 7-Star Mantis and Lung Ying (Dragon Shape Boxing) under a Sifu Li. Unfortunately, the school lost its lease and disbanded. I never learned the Sifu's full surname or background. Being young and quite awestruck at the time, I never thought to ask such pertinent questions. Many years later, I spent some time training with Sifu Willie Manguel (Brooklyn), a disciple of the late Sifu Chiu Leun. I described Sifu Li and the location of the school, and he felt pretty sure it was one of his older training brothers. To be sure, we will never know.
At age 16, I enrolled in the Chinese Shaolin Boxing Association. There were two locations: the Norwalk, Connecticut YMCA (run by Sifu Peter Robinson), and the Samuel H. Post Legionaire building in the Bronx (run by the late Sifu Bart Crofton). Both teachers were under the tutelage of masters Gin Foon Mark and Bill Chung of the New York Chinese Freemason Association. During that time, the predominant course of study was Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut and Bak Hok Pai. In my last two years before the school disbanded, I was introduced to the rudiments of Kwong Sai Jook Lum (Southern) Praying Mantis. It would whet my appetite for many years to come for this secretive and illusive art form. This school would eventually disband after about five or six years.
For the next two years, I trained informally around New York City Chinatown. Over the years, I had made many friends and contacts amongst the various clubs and associations, most notably the Freemasons. I gleaned what I could of such arts as Hung Gar, Southern Mantis, White Crane, Choy Li Fut, Wing Chun, Ba Gua, Hsing-I, Yang Style Tai Chi, etc. It was during this time, that I would come to meet three of the most influential teachers of my career: Sifus Frank Yee (Yee Chee Wai), Robert Chu (Chu Sau Lei), and James Tsang (Wai Ming Tsang).
Around 1980-81, I was accepted into Yee's Hung Ga Academy, then located at 82 Bowery, along with my friend and training brother Nick Lancione. Nick and I had known each other since childhood, and had previously trained together at the Chinese Shaolin Boxing Association. The school was in a third floor walk up office of the Sit Wah Acupuncture and Herbal Clinic. The honorable Sit Chiu Wah (affectionately known as Si Bok to the students) was one of Chinatown's leading authorities on Herbalism, and was Sifu Yee's mentor in the healing arts. Many years later he would prove to be an invaluable source of information while I was researching material for my manuscript on Chinese Pharmacopeia and its use in martial arts training. He had graciously allotted us the use of his patient's dressing area during off hours for use as a classroom. It was a 10' by 10' room, with no A/C, surrounded on all sides by sweat shops. During the summer months you could actually feel the temperature rise by 10 degrees as you ascended each flight of stairs. The steam from the sweat shop's presses would waft into the halls like fog. Tough conditions to train under for sure. And yet those days hold some of the fondest memories of my youth. To this day, whenever I enter a Chinese apothecary, and smell the pungent aroma of Chinese herbs, I am often transported back to that little room, the clanging of brass mortar and pestles, as the pharmacists scrambled to fill patient's prescriptions while rivers of sweat ran off my body as I fumbled through the movements of the Gung Gee Fook Fu. Like childhood memories of your favorite holiday dishes in your mother's kitchen, those aromas never cease to stir something deep in your soul.
Sifu Yee himself was the quintessential Kung Fu master. Very formal, very old-fashioned and very strict. On the one hand, he had a very calm, pleasant demeanor. He rarely, if ever, raised his voice. Yet, he was a stern taskmaster. Because of the classroom size, training with Sifu was one on one. The training was very rigorous, with Sifu often performing alongside you, stopping only to make corrections in the form, show a particular application or comment on certain key aspects of it. Over the next decade I would learn the entire system directly from him in this fashion. He was very well known and respected in New York Chinatown society and is considered to be the Grandmaster of the Tang Fung system of Hung Ga. His lineage was impeccable (see family tree below) and could be traced directly back to the Shaolin Temple, person by person.
Around 1982-83, I was introduced to William Cheung (Cheung Cheuk Hing) by Victor Parlati. Victor had worked for my father at our family business in Brooklyn, and had been a student of Sifu Moy Yat for a number of years. (Many years later, Victor would go on to become the point man for Cheung's headquarters in New York). Cheung had built quite a reputation as a fighter and was surrounded by quite a bit of fanfare at the time. He had been Grandmaster Yip Man's houseboy, and was a boyhood friend of Bruce Lee, who he introduced to Yip Man. Years later, Cheung would be a mentor-like figure in Bruce Lee's early development. As the story goes, Cheung, while living with Yip Man, learned an alternate version of the Wing Chun system that had never been exposed to the public. That he would now do so, by giving a full-length seminar on the Bil Gee (thrusting fingers) form, the third and most closely-guarded set in the system, caused quite a stir in the Wing Chun community. The turn-out was fairly large, and the hype that preceded Cheung turned out to be fairly well-founded. His skills were exemplary, and his version of the art was very different from the status quo at the time. Unfortunately, the P.R. surrounding Cheung's claim to having the only "true" version of Wing Chun tended to alienate a lot of people, myself included. Although I would go on to learn Cheung's entire system right through to the Wooden Man and weapons, let me state for the record that I lay no claim to his lineage and or methods. Like many others, I gleaned what I could, keeping what I felt was useful. Other than that, I mention the incidents only as a chronological point of reference, as it was while attending the Cheung seminars that I would meet the man that would become my Wing Chun Sifu, Robert Chu.
Nicki and I first noticed Robert during the Cheung seminars, as he was very vocal during the question and answer sessions. He was very talented and stood out from the crowd, not only because of his skill, but because of his stature (well over six foot, ~180 lbs.), which was unusual compared to most Chinese people that I knew at the time. He looked very familiar, but we could not place the face. It was not until he walked into Yee Sifu's one day that we put two and two together. Sifu Yee introduced us, and explained that Robert was one of the senior members of the academy. We all played it very low key, as if meeting for the first time. Yee Sifu was a very old fashioned teacher, and would have looked down on the fact that we were engaging in "outside" study. It might well have been grounds for expulsion for all of us.
We struck up a friendship with Robert and found out that he was running classes out of a dance studio in Chelsea. We asked to study with him, but he turned us down. SEVERAL TIMES. He had been taking a lot of flak from Sifu Yee over his practice of Wing Chun and did not want to be perceived as a fifth column, much less as "poaching" students from Sifu. Yee Sifu knew he was a WCK Sifu already, but wanted him to give up WCK for Hung Ga. However, we were persistent and eventually he relented, allowing us to join his school provided that we remained training with Sifu Yee.
Where Sifu Yee was a taskmaster, Sifu Chu bordered on fanatical. Each succeeding class seemed to push us more and more to the limits of endurance. The classes were highly structured, spending equal amounts of time on form, Chi Sau, San Sau drills and endurance training.
About a year later Sifu Chu invited us to take part in additional private classes at his residence in Jackson Heights, Queens. This consisted of a small group of his most serious students, who met up to two nights a week plus Sunday mornings. Along with Sifu Yee's classes twice a week, this had us training six to seven days a week. Training consisted mostly of Chi Sau and San Sau drills, with Sifu Chu being very hands on. During training, he would constantly be touching hands with everyone in the room.
Sifu Chu was a firm believer in the "live hand" school of thought. Form was merely a vehicle for transmitting concepts cohesively down through the generations. It also provided a constant source for self-discovery for the practitioner. Although I would learn a great many things in my years with Sifu Chu, one of the most important was how to "read" and interpret form, and the proper mechanics of issuing force throughout the Southern fist sets he taught me. Everything was based on proper alignment and twisting into the form. All the "secrets" or concepts of a system are contained within the forms, quite often in a "coded" manner. Each style tends to have its own "language." One must learn the vernacular of a given style in order to unlock these secrets. There are often many levels of interpretation, (subduing, crippling, lethal) to any given technique within a form. Quite often the literal or obvious translation represents the lower level techniques (subduing). The higher level techniques, (crippling, lethal) are usually much more conceptual, thus hidden from the casual observer.
Sifu Chu's background was extremely broad, encompassing many styles of Kung Fu, and in many cases, several different versions of each. He had studied with Moy Yat's top disciple, Lee Moy Shan, as well as Koo Sang, for several years in the classical Yip Man style. He had also studied the Gu Lao and Yuen Kay Shan styles of Wing Chun under Sifu Kwan Jong Yuen. Then there was the aforementioned training with William Cheung. Many years later he would study with Hawkins Cheung. Needless to say this all had a profound effect on Robert's teachings. Where Sifu Yee had been more of a "historian," transmitting the art faithfully as he had learned it from his masters and their masters before them, Sifu Chu was more of a maverick, constantly re-assessing and reorganizing his art to suit his needs. Throughout his writings, the quote "Let application be your Sifu, let function rule over form" comes to mind. His art was in constant flux, evolving continuously, which in a sense is the heart of all Kung Fu and Wing Chun in particular. The ability to change, to adapt, and to evolve through a process of self critique, trial and error is the only way we can achieve a higher level of learning.
As I had mentioned earlier, Sifu Chu was also one of the senior members of Yee's Hung Ga. In addition to the Tang Fung system, Robert had also studied the Lam Sai Wing system of Hung Ga. I would eventually learn the Lam Sai Wing minor forms from him. These consisted of: Lau Gar Kuen, Gow Duk Kuen, Wu Dip Jong, Small Five Animal, etc. During the mid-80's, the late Lama Pai Grandmaster Chan Tai San took up residence as a guest teacher at Yee's Hung Ga, teaching both Lama Pai and Bak Mei to some of the advanced members there, among them Robert, James Tsang and Thomas Lee. Many years later I would learn a good portion of these systems from both Sifus Robert and James, as an adjunct to my repertoire. ( For example; Sifu Chu taught me the Siu Lo Han & Dai Lo Han and then many years later, Sifu Tsang would combine the two as well as teach me Chut Ya Bo.)
Around 1984-85 (shortly after opening LNSL) I began training with Sifu James Tsang on Sunday mornings. Sifu James often worked out at Sifu Chu's on Sundays, and quite often would assist Robert in coaching me, eventually, at Robert's urging, I began to train more with Sifu James on Sundays. It was all quite casual at first, I was still a member of Yee's Hung Ga, and so James trained me appropriately in the Tang Fung style. Through the grapevine, I had learned that Sifu James was in the process of synthesizing the Lam Sai Wing system along with his father's "Village Style" of Hung Gar. I had seen James training some of the techniques with Robert and Thomas on a few occasions, and had noted how explosive the techniques were, as well as the intricacy of Jame's footwork. Robert had intimated at some point that James was looking to take on a single student to pass his art onto. As I was the most likely candidate, I should just be patient and above all diligent.
This arrangement lasted a little over a year, until one day, Robert pulled me aside and told me that I could now approach James and ask to formally be his student. I was now at a true crossroads in my martial career. On the one hand I was still a member of Sifu Yee's school. But I was at a dead end. I had completed the Tang Fung system a little over two years prior, and basically just went down to work out with my training brothers and also learn what I could of the Tiet Tah (healing arts). The next step up was to Bai See (discipleship). Unfortunately, that wasn't on the table, for a number of reasons:
1) I was Lofan (round eyes, American). Having a westerner for a disciple wasn't too "in vogue" in NYC Chinatown in those days.
2) This was compounded by the fact that many of the top Chinese students had moved on for one reason or another at that particular time: Thomas had been studying I-Chuan with Chan (David) Bong. Thomas, Robert and Chan Bong had all recently discipled to Lui Yon Sang, the renowned master of theFei Lung Fu Gwun (Flying Dragon and Tiger Pole) system. Dixon Fung and Foo Gee had both gotten involved in careers that took up much of their time. And James was now involved in developing his own system. This left a "vacuum" at the top echelon ranks of Yee's Hung Ga.
3) Years earlier, when I had first opened the school, there had been a lot of hard feelings by those who felt they had "been passed" over. Those wounds had just begun to heal. Were I to step up, and not them, would cause a major schism in the remaining hierarchy, and open those wounds anew. On the other hand, were Yee Sifu to have all of us to Bai See, would leave him with a half dozen Lofan disciples and no active Chinese disciples on board. Not a particularly desirable situation in mid-80's Chinatown society.
Prior to my training at Sifu James, Sifu Chu had broached the possibility of discipling under him. We both agreed in the end that it would be impractical, as he had already made plans to move to the west coast. Having just opened the school, I was deeply indebted financially and would not have been able to close up and follow him. I'm sure Sifu Chu realized this at the time, and was just being gracious, given my tenure with him.
And so, the aforementioned crossroads. On the one hand, I was now a senior member of Yee's Hung Ga, one of the most prominent schools in New York City Chinatown, standing in direct line of a family tree that stretched all the way back to the Shaolin Temple itself. Not a bad thing to have on one's resume, given that I was a non-oriental proprietor of L.I.'s first Kung Fu school. I could stand pat, and wait for the time's to change. I could also end up withering on the vine, like I had seen happen to so many non-orientals that had found themselves in the same position as me. On the other hand, the tremendous opportunity being offered me by Sifu James was a once in a lifetime chance, not to be taken lightly, as it would not be offered twice. Through Sifu James, I was beginning to see Hung Kuen in a whole different light. In addition to the big, wide open power moves that Hung Kuen is almost synonymous with, (e.g. Ng Hang/Five Elements), Sifu James' applications included the liberal use of Chuin Ging (Short Power) as well as Cum Lau (Grappling and Seizing). Coupled with his very agile footwork and emphasis on body connection, it made for a very streamlined system with devastating applications. The situation also presented a considerable downside:
1) It meant being a beginner all over again. Although the two systems (Tang Fung and Lam Sai Wing) were very similar in overall construction, there were major differences in form. Not to mention the applications that had to be relearned.
2) I was up to the task, but what of my students? I had been teaching the Tang Fung system for years. Eventually I would have to switch over and there would be fallout, both political and subsequently financial.
3) My conscience was nagging me. I had never left a school (or a master) before. I had almost a decade invested with Yee Sifu.
4) I would be walking away from a very prominent lineage. Although Sifu Tsang had studied with some of the most prominent teachers that NYC Chinatown had to offer, he did not follow any one teacher in particular and so did not lay claim to any one lineage.
In the end, I would follow my heart and make the leap of faith. For the better part of the next decade and a half, I would be Sifu James' only student. Many years later, I would come to realize it was the most logical decision to make. On the one hand, it let Sifu Yee off the hook by relieving the pressure to Bai See anyone at that particular point. Several years later, as it became more socially acceptable, he would allow some of my training brothers to "step up." To their credit, over the years they have helped build his organization into one of the largest of its kind in NYC Chinatown and now have even opened a branch in Mainland China. Along with the support of the members of the East Coast Kung Fu Federation, they host twice a year what is probably one of the best Kung Fu tournaments in the tri-state area.
On the other hand, by training with Sifu Tsang, I would come to see Hung Kuen, both its form and its applications in a whole different light. The training sessions were intense, often spending several hours just training three or four moves. Considering the length of most forms in Hung Kuen, this was akin to learning a symphony one note at a time. I would also learn many versions of each form, which we would later dissect and examine for their merits and deficiencies.
The first two years of training were spent re-learning Gung Gee Fook Fu(I-Pattern Tiger Subduing Form). Sifu Tsang's emphasis was always on "body connection" (breath, stance, posture and bridge) and application. As I stated before, he would often teach me several versions of certain sections in a form. This would allow me to compare many different interpretations of particular moves and sequences, thus increasing my "vocabulary" as I learned the language of Hung Kuen.
After the first six months, I began simultaneously training in the Double-ended Crescent Monk Spade and the Gung Gee. Throughout the remainder of my tenure with Sifu Tsang, my training sessions would be split between an empty hand set and a weapon. This would not only help to lesson the tedium of such intensive study, but would allow me to see the corollaries between the techniques of both the empty hand and the weapon. Sifu Tsang was particularly adept at the Hak Gwun (black handle) or "heavy weapons." Among them, the Double-ended Monk Spade was one of the most unique. A very rare set, I knew of only one other Sifu in Chinatown who taught it. It is one of the most difficult of the heavy weapons, requiring a tremendous amount of stamina, as the set was very long in duration. It also required a very high degree of concentration and mental awareness, as the position of the blade and hand on the shaft changed constantly.
The third and fourth years were spent learning the Fu Hoc Cern Ying Kuen(Tiger and Crane Double Form) and Yu Gar Dai Pah (Yu Family Tiger Fork). Sifu Tsang's Fu Hoc was very different than the Tang Fung system, as well as from other Lam Sai Wing versions I had learned in my younger years. For one, the footwork was much more subtle, and many of the bridges were shorter in execution. One of the major differences was in the area of the "Ten Tigers." I have often held that Sifu Yee's personal performance of the Crane section was the most explosive I have ever seen, but Sifu Tsang's Ten Tigers was the most powerful and fluid I have ever learned. Needless to say, in my own synthesis of the art, I have strived to combine the best of both worlds.
The Tiger Fork was also a favorite of Sifu Tsang's. It required a tremendous amount of stamina in the forearms and wrists. The weapon was very heavy and constantly turns and twists with each movement in order to provide the necessary torque to wrench an opponent's weapon. This would later help to develop the "bridge" musculature necessary for grappling and seizing techniques. Over the years, I would learn many different versions (Hung Gar, Bak Mei, Southern Mantis) of this set. Eventually, I would combine the best aspects into one cohesive form.
It was at about this time that I took the next step up in my martial career. On October 13th, 1987 I underwent the Bai See ritual, where I became Sifu Tsang's disciple. The occasion was Sifu Tsang's birthday. After dinner, I was called aside to another room with all the men in the family. Sifu James' father sat us down and explained the rules of conduct and what was to be expected of me with regards to training, personal conduct, lifestyle and revelation of certain aspects of the art to the outside world. A chair was set against the wall, Sifu James sat down and I was instructed to stand next to him where our picture was then taken. (The picture shown below is the "formal" picture taken a week later with Sifu James at my school.)
One must understand the nature of the Bai See or discipleship. On the one hand, the master agrees to give full disclosure of his art, above and beyond what is normally made available to the public. This would include the style's most advanced (lethal) techniques and strategies. This is also a form of public acknowledgement on the master's part to the martial arts community of a designated heir and future extension of that particular Kung Fu family's lineage. Transmission of the various herbal formulae often may occur during this period as well. These formulae are used to construct the various liniments, poultices and plasters used to condition the hands and body as well as treat the various injuries that may occur during advanced training. They are some of the most closely guarded secrets in a Kung Fu clan. On the other hand, it is the disciple's responsibility to uphold the master's name, as well as the teachings and integrity of the school. The disciple agrees to disseminate the art's secrets in accordance with the master's wishes. This includes withholding certain techniques that are to be given to disciple level students only. This has always been a time-honored method for preserving the secrets of a system. It is not uncommon for many schools to teach "alternate" or "advanced" versions of the forms and techniques at the disciple level. These versions are never performed in public, put on film, or shown to junior classmates. They constitute that body of knowledge which is often referred to as "closed door." They represent the most devastating and lethal techniques of a particular system, and therefore are appropriately shown only behind closed doors. This is done to protect the public at large as much as it is to protect the art. The thought of certain techniques falling into the wrong hands is unconscionable. This is why Kung Fu schools customarily engage in a constant "screening" process throughout a student's tenure, from the day they walk in, right up to the Bai See. It is at that point that a student's integrity and character has been established. For me, it was one of the most important days of my life. I had arrived.
Years five and six were devoted to Ng Ying Kuen (Five Animal) and its larger version, the Ng Ying-Ng Hang or Sup Ying Kuen (Five Animal Five Element or Ten Shaped Fist). The Ten Shaped Fist was a continuation of the Five Animal with an extended section devoted to the Five Elements. It acted as an overview of the system itself. Being quite long in duration, it required a tremendous amount of stamina. In addition, I would learn both the Travelers or Monkey King Double-ended Staff set as well as the Darn Do(Broadsword). These two sets would later be taught as seminars at my school by Sifu James.
Seventh and Eighth years were devoted almost entirely to the Tiet Sien Kuen (Iron Wire Set). This was the jewel of Sifu James' system. It was quite different from the Tang Fung system and very streamlined compared to LSW I had seen. For one, the breathing was very relaxed, not "forced" like in some systems. The contraction and relaxation of the musculature was also more "gradual" rather than "abrupt" as in other versions. I would liken it to a "rippling" effect, radiating outward from the center of the Dan Tien rather than a sudden contraction of everything at once.
The next five years or so was spent refining what I had learned, as well as augmenting my repertoire from other systems (Choy Li Fut, Bak Mei, Lama). This included the Jik Bu, Sup Gee and Gow Bu Toi from the Bak Mei system; two of Choy Li Fut's most advanced forms, the Sup Gee Kow Da and Ping Kuen sets; and the Chut Ya Bo, and Siu Gum Gong from Lama. We also spent time refining techniques from the Broadsword, Spear and Pole sets. I had already made a decision to keep the Tang Fung versions of the Pole, Spear, Broadsword and Kwando as part of my curriculum. I had two reasons for doing this; on the one hand, I preferred the Tang Fung versions over the Lam Sai Wing (I will elaborate on my reasons why at length in the next section). On the other hand, I wish to honor my tenure with Sifu Yee by maintaining that part of the system.
My studies with Sifu Tsang came to a close around 2000-2001. When the constraints of geography (we lived in separate states) not to mention the burgeoning pressures of family life and business, along with their inherent scheduling conflicts, prevented us from getting together on a regular basis. We remain in touch and still keep correspondence around the holidays.
- Sifu Mike