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Kung Fu Dalian‘s Champion

back to May-JuneIssue
Interview by Todd Embley

Raphael, who commonly goes by Ralf, was introduced to the martial art of Kung Fu by his father when he was just 3 years old, yet it took him ten years afterwards to convince his mother to let him study and train at one of the local schools in Atlanta. After moving to California for University at age 20, he decided to make a career out of his passion, which naturally led him to start learning Mandarin. Following a summer class one evening, his professor offered him the opportunity to study in China in return for teaching English. Six years and multiple competition championships later, Ralf is much wiser, not only in Kung Fu, but of life in Dalian and of martial arts in China.
FD: Why do you love Kung Fu so much?
RS: After being introduced to it by my father and then not being able to study it for almost 10 years really created a huge desire inside of me. When I finally started, people would ask me the same question. I could never really give them an answer other than ‘I don’t know, I just do it.’ When I was 22, just before I came to China, I realized that I really wanted to capture the old style, the traditional style, because I had become so intrigued by it and the way it was in the movies during the 60’s and 70’s. It was just work, and it didn’t have any of the glitz and glamour it did later on. Nowadays Kung Fu has become all about the show, it’s become commercialized. .Other martial arts went from traditional to Olympic, the highest level it can be. Chinese Kung Fu went from traditional to show, so that anybody can look like they’re doing Kung Fu with a little bit of training. People who are very prevalent in the martial arts world will even ask me are you doing real Kung Fu or are you doing that other kind of Kung Fu, and that’s what keeps me going now. Out of the one hundred Chinese Masters I’ve met only one or two know traditional Kung Fu, and they are hard to find.
FD: So what’s the real deal with the Shoalin Monks who do the traveling Kung Fu road show?
RS: The Shoalin Monks are incorporated now, I’m not sure if many people know that or not. Shaolin has taken on the business side of things and works closely with the government to promote tourism. Once upon a time, perhaps pre-Mao, Shaolin was still very traditional Buddhism and martial arts and there was no separation. If you were in Shaolin you didn’t have to be there for martial arts. I think after Mao all these monks started defecting and many foreigners started coming in, and they decided to start selling it because they realized they could make a lot of money. Somewhere along the line the Shaolin Monks lost the traditional Kung Fu essence.
FD: So how did you get into Kung Fu in China?
RS: I really wanted to get into Tai Chi at this point, because I was becoming more interested in the internal arts of Kung Fu. My Southern Praying Mantas training in California had a good mix of the external and the internal, but I had really taken to the internal side. I wasn’t interested in the performance art at the time, and actually remember thinking at the time that I had seen better Kung Fu in the USA than I had here. After a few months I found a teacher who reminded me of my former teacher from Atlanta. He had a woman student from Minnesota in the first class I watched and I remember thinking ‘Wow she’s good! She must have been studying with him for at least 4 or 5 years.’ So I approached her after and asked her how long she had been doing this. She told me it was her second day. I was shocked. Based on what I had seen her be able to do after only two classes I told him I would be back to start classes the next night. The rest is history; I stayed with him for four years until the end of 2009.
FD: Just training Tai Chi the whole time?
RS: We actually moved into training in Lost Track. He said my body wasn’t in good shape so we started with external to improve my flexibility and stamina. After a year I started doing Chen Style Tai Chi with him.
FD: What is Lost Track?
RS: Do you know Jet Li? He did a movie called Fearless. It was about a very famous man from China, Huo Yuanjia, famous not just for Kung Fu but also for his patriotism and the art he practices is called Lost Track. It was because of him that it spread throughout China. Lost Track is external martial arts similar to what you would see traditional Shaolin practice, and my teacher here did a version similar called Northeast Lost Track. The Northeast style was introduced via one of Huo Yuanjia’s disciples moving to Shandong, then his disciples spreading out throughout Northeast China. Anyway, it was the kind of training I needed because I knew I wanted to be a part of a professional school where I could learn not only the Kung Fu but also the business side of things, including licensing and judging.
FD: Most people know Tai Chi to be the agonizingly slow movements of old people in the parks. Are we correct?
RS: It is that, but it is not the representation of what it should be. It is hard to find a good Tai Chi teacher. There is one word behind Tai Chi – quan, which is representative of boxing. If your movements are not related to boxing, you’re not doing Tai Chi. I won’t dispute those who claim what you see in the parks as being Tai Chi because millions of people around the world enjoy that, but if you want to call it Tai Chi in the traditional sense than you can’t, because it’s not, because it is missing the elements of boxing.
FD: Yoga seems closely related to Tai Chi. Is there a relationship there?
RS: If you accept that Shaolin is the birthplace of Kung Fu, then that means that you accept that India brought that over. And if you compare the ideas and movements surrounding chakras and energy points in Tai Chi, all that stuff is the same! There are many positions and postures in Yoga that are very similar in Kung Fu. It’s very easy for a logical person to see the similarities.
FD: You’ve been competing here in Dalian. What’s the competition scene like here?
RS: Dalian’s city tournament, which is called an international tournament, doesn’t have a large turnout; maybe 200. I competed for the first time in this tournament back in 2007 in Long Fist. I did Lost Track, and competed in the weapons and fist forms categories, finishing first in weapons and third in fist forms. Then in 2008 I had to leave due to the F visa restrictions, but came back in 2009 and competed Tai Chi. At this point Lost Track had become a personal pet and I wanted to show people that Tai Chi is something I can really do well. I placed first in both weapons and fist forms. Outside my schools’ teachers and their affiliated schools, there’s a school near Zhongshan Park that does a different style of Tai Chi and they usually clean out the competition. There’s the Sanda School on the opposite side of Dalian near the Maritime Square, and they usually come in and rinse the competition for the Chinese kickboxing. In my opinion these are the premier schools. The school Lao Wu Tan is hands down the best for performance Kung Fu, and they do some amazing things with their kids. Surprisingly, the Big Red Door, the school that all the foreigners seem to know, really isn’t very good. One thing Dalian does have is park schools. At Zhongshan park from 6am to 8am there is what I call the ‘Kung Fu Mecca of Dalian.’ There are at least 5 or 6 big schools having class Monday thru Friday. It’s crazy; there are so many people there doing forms, weapons and fighting. Labor Park, near the west gate in the trees and near the gazebo, has quite a few teachers there as well and they’re pretty decent. What to look for, if you’re planning on hitting up the park schools, is that it should be a very traditional class, and when I say traditional you should be getting a dissemination of forms into fighting, fighting into drills, and drills into culture. If you’re just getting forms then you’re better off going to one of the schools because more than likely that’s the only way you’re going to be able to use it and you’re missing everything else. I find that if a school has enough money to have doors, they are competing, so whatever they’re teaching you it’s most likely in relation to getting you ready to be in front of the public eye to show the school’s name. The park schools aren’t worried about that so you should get a more complete experience. Zhongshan Park is the best in my opinion.
FD: So what’s your favorite Bruce Lee movie?
RS: Hands down Chinese Connection!