Chain Reaction

By Gene Ching

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Master Dino SalvataroOn May 12th, 2008, a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan, China. The exact toll is still debated. Some estimates put the deaths as high as 90,000 people with another 11 million left homeless. Two weeks after the quake, the Tiger Claw Foundation staged Martial Arts Benefit for Quake Victims, a charity benefit performance of Chinese martial arts. Held on Memorial Day Weekend, the event saw an outpouring of support as the finest masters and demonstration teams of the San Francisco Bay Area participated. Over two dozen schools sent their best representatives ranging from individual masters to demo teams with dozens of members. Over a hundred performers took the stage that night, all donating their time and kung fu to the cause. Martial Arts Benefit for Quake Victims raised over $70,000 for quake victim relief from that performance. The Foundation continues to raise money for the Tiger Claw Foundation's special Sichuan fund through DVD sales.

Standing humbly among the shimmering wushu silks, the traditional frog-button and mandarin-collar cottons and the austere monk robes of Shaolin disciples was a lone master demonstrating in street clothes. Dressed in black slacks, a short-sleeve collared shirt and leather walking shoes, Grandmaster Dino Salvatera recited a chain whip form from the traditional Southern style of Hung Sing Kuen. To the untrained eye, it was a modest performance. There were no aerial flips, no leaps into splits, no pop-and-swoosh sounds from light wushu steel. There wasn't even a dramatic stance where the performer posed and screamed. What's more, Salvatera doesn't even look Chinese. Only a few realized what they were watching - a rare performance from one of America's kung fu pioneers.

Ancient Chinatown Secrets
Nowadays, martial arts schools can be found offering classes in strip malls all across America. But it wasn't always so. In fact, the "strip mall dojo" has only risen within the last few decades. Martial arts became popular in America after Bruce Lee's impact in the '70s. Prior to that, there was only one place where you might be able to find kung fu instruction - Chinatown. Grandmaster Salvatera's roots are buried deep in San Francisco's Chinatown. "I'm born and raised in Chinatown," says Salvatera with pride. "I was born in a Chinese hospital in 1945 and went to school south of Market." Salvatera bears a Chinese name, Jew Tien-Loong, but most just know him as Sifu Dino.

Today, the Chinese community is the least criminally violent in San Francisco by any measure. But the Chinatown of Salvatera's childhood was quite different. It was so dominated by tongs and triads that S.F.P.D. assigned a special task force called the Chinatown Squad to deal with it. Like anything Chinese, tongs and triads are very complex. Pop culture paints them as Chinese mafia, and some are clearly organized criminal gangs. But others are benevolent. The tongs and triads arose from China's notorious secret societies, a social phenomenon that has pervaded Chinese history. The word tong means "hall" and is commonly used for government offices. The meaning of "triad" opens a numerological Pandora's Box that holds the Three Harmonies Society (sanhehui). Three Harmonies and the Hung Moon are martial brothers, descendants of the Heaven and Earth Society (tiandihui). These secret societies share the same legendary origin as the bulk of southern kung fu styles : five Shaolin monks escape the burning of Shaolin Temple by the Qing dynasty and form an underground resistance under the banner of "overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming" (fan Qing fu Ming). The Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, but these secret societies remained alive and underground. Chinese refugees and immigrants carried these secret societies abroad. As one of the world's foremost Chinatowns, San Francisco became a battleground. The tongs had significant leverage in immigrant ghettoes. Splinter gangs arose and fought for turf. "The times dictated," confesses Salvatera. "I'm sixty-four now. When I was a boy, you grew up in San Francisco, you learned to fight. Period. Now you grow up and go to school. That's a lot better. You don't want to dodge getting stabbed, jumped on, you know. There's a big difference."

Salvatera trained under one of Chinatown's most legendary grandmasters, Lau Bun (1891-1967), as well as Lau's student, Jew Leong. The Hung Sing Choy Lee Fut School was established by Lau in Chinatown during the 1930s. It holds claim to being the oldest continually-operating kung fu school in the United States. Lau also worked as a bodyguard and a casino bouncer. He was a member of Hop Sing Tong. Hop Sing is a powerful benevolent association with many active branches across the West Coast. Nevertheless, Hop Sing is still associated with gang violence, as was the case with the highly publicized murder of Allen Leung in 2006.

Accordingly Grandmaster Lau's school wasn't open to the public like today's schools. "In the old days," reflects Salvatera, "if you came into the studio, we'd all stop and say, 'Who are you and what do you want? What are you looking at us for?' Now it's like, 'Hi! How ya doing? Can I see what you got?' It's more social. It's a whole new direction for martial arts. It's a good direction, definitely. It's encouraging young people to do something better than hanging out on the corner and shooting guns and stuff. Plus they get into it. They're learning Chinese. They're learning our culture."

While Chinatown openly welcomes everyone today, back then it was a culture of silence. The martial arts were strictly for practical reasons. It was not a topic of open discussion or public demonstration. "My teacher, Jew Leong, he's not a talker. You start talking about martial arts, he gets pissed off. He'll tell you 'Why don't you shut up and practice.' The only English he knows is, 'Shut up and practice' and 'Stop talking so much.' He don't like that. Lau Bun was even worse. He would whack you with something. Not in the head, none of that movie stuff. He'd whack you in the leg with a thin stick. That's the line that I come from. That's my flavor."

Spirit Is Thicker than Blood
Salvatera's heritage is what Americans know colloquially called hapa. Hapa comes from a word in Hawaiian pidgin that means "half." It refers to the growing population of mixed race Asians in the United States. Salvatera's father was part Chinese and part Filipino. His mother was Irish. Salvatera remembers growing up hapa in Chinatown before the term was fashionable. "What's that term? A.B.C. (American Born Chinese)? F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat)? Mixed? What are you? You look Italian or Mexican - anything but what you are. I don't care which one I look like, but I look like a minority. I'm not your average 5' 6" guy. When I was a boy, I seen them badly treat my parents. I was a young kid. When the navy used to come to town, we had a lot of hillbillies coming in. They'd say some nasty things, be pushing my parents around, my godparents. They were short, pure Filipinos on that side of the family. I would just cry because I was too little to do anything and they'd just laugh. They'd spit. I saw that s---, man - in San Francisco, of all places. Chinese insult you. 'Oh, you look Japanese.' Don't let it get to you. I'd say "Arg! Get out of here with that stuff. Don't talk to me.' Even the Japanese thing, I'd just tell them, 'I don't want to hear that stuff. Get out of here. Who are you? You came here. Don't deal with me.' So the mixture has come into play, but I've earned my place in my society. People respect me."

Despite his mixed heritage, Salvatera penetrated some of the most famous, most exclusive, and most notorious Chinatown tongs and associations. "I was in Wah Ching at the very beginning," admits Salvatera. "I'm in Hung Moon. I'm an official in Hung Moon. I'm in Hop Sing." Salvatera is also a supervisor of the Ghee Kung Tong, also known as the Chinese Freemasons. This is a bit of a misnomer since the Chinese Freemasons are not related to European Freemasonry, despite their adoption of the square and compass emblem. The secret society probably fell victim to a poor translation, but the moniker stuck. In truth, Chinese Freemasons are connected to Hung Moon. Salvatera entered these exclusive associations by the tenacity of his fighting skills, along with a keen sense of Chinese customs. "What's the one rule in Asian community?" poses Salvatera. "Mind your own business. The one enforced rule. Mind your own business."

Since Lau Bun's school was the oldest, Salvatera bore witness to the slow but sure migration of kung fu masters to America. In those early years, everyone came through Chinatown first. Salvatera recalls, "All of these teachers - Y. C. Wong, Yau Kung Moon, White Crane - I remember when they arrived. I'm the old timer. And I respect them. I don't believe in, 'I was here first!' (Laughs.) It was good to see something different. I get something out of that. They're all good people."

Over the last few decades, those other masters and their followers graced numerous magazine covers. Yet despite Salvatera's precedence, this article marks the first time he's been showcased. This was in part due to the philosophy of some old school masters like Salvatera. Many old timers shunned the limelight, preferring to keep their practice secret.

Today, this longstanding tradition of secrecy in kung fu has given way to open public demonstrations. Flamboyant forms pervade tournaments, street demonstrations, movies and even live theater. Popular martial arts - in particular, kung fu's showy godchild : modern wushu - focus on the spectacle. But in days gone by, kung fu masters were far more guarded about their skills. As a confessed "old school" practitioner, Salvatera seldom demonstrates, especially outside of Chinatown. "To this day, one of the few places I personally performed was for the Martial Arts Benefit for Quake Victims. That was the only outside that I did. I don't do it. It's a habit. I do in Chinatown - if required. If there's not enough for an association banquet and they need a little performance, and they're running short and I don't have enough performers, then I'll do something. So that did conflict with some of my beliefs. Once again, you're looking at a different era.

"I guess the '70s would be the turning point. Bruce Lee showed up. That was the time when people wanted to see it. And that's when the teachers, including myself, pushed the students to do it. We'd make a little change, a little extra money, coming our way. So we kind of adjusted with it. In my heart, I don't show too much. To me, showing people what I know is like saying, 'I got $5000!' That's stupid, right? That's what that means to me. You don't know who's going to call you on it. Somebody that could do something might call you on it and he or she is just a jerk and wants a good fight. You could get killed - hit yourself on the edge of the table or a chair or a glass or something, you know?

"As far as showmanship goes, it fits the era. All of my students, when there's something going on, they always shove me out there. But fortunately, it's near Chinatown, so everybody there knows me since I was a boy. I spent my whole life in Chinatown. They know what I know. I don't really feel that I'm exposing too much there. They all know me as a kung fu guy, as a teacher."

Links to Street
The chain whip Grandmaster Salvatera used was a custom-made piece. Today, there's a proliferation of chain whips available commercially. Since the trend is towards performance, ultra-light whips for wushu are the most popular sellers. Salvatera's whip is made from three shanks of heavy flat bar steel, attached to a handle. If you hold the handle next to your hip, the length of the whip is measured so the tip touches the floor. Most modern whips weigh less overall than a single shank link of Salvatera's whip. The shanks give his chain an added property. "You can block and snap," reveals Salvatera. "You see the bind in it. It'll crush that bone."

In Hung Sing Kuen, the chain whip is revered for its versatility. According to Salvatera, "It can be a stabber, a bone crusher, a way to do close locks, a mini-dagger or sword. This is a normal southern style whip. For close combat, you got a dagger. You got a blocker and an arm breaker. You can beat, too. That's your choice." The most powerful technique is what Salvatera calls the "pop." Like the crack of leather whip, the momentum of a strike is forced into the tip, throwing the sharpened tip forward like a dart. "The pop is the ultimate of the whip," declares Salvatera. "Lau Bun was known for dart and the whip. One time, the story was that he cracked it and it went into the floor because the link snapped. It went into a concrete floor. It had so much force." Salvatera wonders why wushu performers don't deploy popping in their chain whip routines.

The other notable attribute of the chain whip is that it folds up making it easy to conceal. It's against the law to carry a concealed weapon. In most states, a special permit is required to carry a concealed weapon, and this is typically only used for firearms. In a few states, it's illegal to carry the cold arms associated with gang violence, like switchblades, stilettos and, of course, nunchaku. Strictly speaking, a chain whip isn't illegal unless the arresting officer can somehow define it as a nunchaku, but that's a completely different story if it's concealed. "Did I ever pack this? Not this one, but some, yes. I did pack all this s---. If you remember, there was a phase when all the young people saw the Bruce Lee movies. They were all packing nunchaku. It's nothing unusual. It's just the young people of my time. If you knew, you would pack your favorite weapon because it was hide-able. Some used to walk around with a sword on their back in Chinatown. The hidden weapon is for people that are thinking about self defense. If you want everybody to know what you're doing and you're showing off, then you walk down the street with your weapon saying, 'I'm going to practice.'

The chain whip has become extremely popular within modern wushu circles. Not only is it visually spectacular, it makes a dramatic whooshing sound when adorned with colored silk kerchiefs. Salvatera restrains himself when commenting on wushu whips. "It looks nice. It looks like it could be used in someone's hands that knew how to fight. To me, because I'm a southern stylist, it has certain limitations. You need a lot more space because they tend to be longer whips. The techniques would be different. They should pop it. It's a whip. In my opinion, they follow the rope dart. It swings a lot. I won't criticize something I don't know about. Anybody that has any knowledge - there could be tricks involved that I don't know about."

"I'm not looking down on wushu. I would have at one time. But that's all in the upbringing and the generation and the times. I'm pretty much for the wushu people now. If I can help show them how to pop it, I'd like that. I'm really on that because that's what a whip is for to me. When I'm learning this stuff, it's for self defense. It's for if you need to kill somebody. That kind of mentality is what I was raised under - the Lau Bun lineage. Jew Leong is my primary teacher. We don't think that way - for showmanship."

Mixing It Up
According to Chinatown legend, Bruce Lee was challenged for being the first to teach non-Chinese. A few other masters also stake their claim for this dubious honor. However, like any discrimination, it's artificial. While many perceive the Chinese race to be homogenous, modern China is made up of over sixty acknowledged minorities. For those of mixed racial descent, at what point does someone become non-Chinese? Salvatera comments, "In Asia, they've got a lot of mixed - Thai, Burma, Indian, Chinese, all that stuff - so it's common." Should Lau Bun and Jew Leong be credited as the first to break away from teaching Chinese only? After all, they taught the first half-Irish.

Salvatera took an even more radical step back then. He was one of the first to take African American students. In fact, it was what set him on the path of teaching. Salvatera chuckles when he remembers it. "In the Asian community - a black guy - oh no! But he's the one that enticed me with the teaching. So he's been with me 40 years. I lost that stuff a long time ago. The next group of outsiders was his whole family - his sisters, his cousins, his nieces, his nephews - I'm serious. He brought about twenty in there and I'm going, 'Who are these people?' 'Oh it's my family.' 'Oh my goodness.' And that's when I became a teacher, around '69."

Segregation is founded on a false sense of purity. This notion of purity, whether racial or cultural, has impeded self-proclaimed traditionalists for generations. It is often used as an excuse to remain in a comfort zone, to avoid the edge of the envelope and refuse to evolve. Such is the path of extinction. Today, America martial artists have overcome the majority of racial barriers, but the cultural hurdles remain. This is particularly sensitive in the era of mixed martial arts.

Despite being a stalwart traditionalist, Salvatera is open-minded when it comes to MMA. "As far as mixing kung fu goes, that's not mixed martial arts, because they're all mixed. Hung Gar - what's their famous form? Tiger Crane. Mixed. All of them have it, all the way to tai chi. They are all mixed with each other. But what we are referring to in mixed martial arts is a different nationality mixed with a different nationality, a different principle mixed with a different principle. I would say even in the Asians if you did judo combined with some kind of mantis, then that would be a mixed martial art. It's only happening here in America because we're all mixed. This is American thinking. You go back to Japan or China, 'What are you talking about? You either go there or you go here. That's it. Everything you can think of here has been done in China. They mixed this with that, that with this. It probably got a couple hundred versions of tai chi, for all I know, mixing this with that. I'm not sure how many. You got a strange one that's kind of weird to me - tai chi praying mantis - tai mantis. So there's all kinds of things. They're all good. In our modern environment, you can get in trouble for fighting and carrying weapons. So going to the floor, it's okay with me. I'm down with it. I'm not against it. Do I think any less of it? No. But that night coming from Safeway, what are you going to do after you hold him down? I'm not going to the ground. I'm an old man now.

"The problem is : whatever you learn, you have to learn to be good. I don't care if it's judo, jiujitsu, whatever it is - you got to learn to be good. The problem today is there's too much in your face. Then, I did not have much of a choice. I chose this or that. I chose this. Why? Who knows? I felt left-handed that day. I don't know. I went to the left. Now you have five hundred choices. Some of your friends are over here. Some are over there. So you're going to go to a little bit of everything.

"Do you have the time for that? Those (MMA) guys are pretty dedicated. It takes some dedication for that. Now that's how the old kung fu was. Now you don't need 10 hours a day. Whatever you do, I would say in America, three days a week, two to three hours a day, you could be fairly good. You don't need to go to a studio. Just practice at home in front of a mirror. With the regular stuff, you can do good. You're looking at the best of the best. You're not going to go to that level unless you do what they do - Cung Le and those guys - they're high up. The average person wants to go see movies, go buy a record, check the girls out. There's far too distraction. Even for me, I go to movies.

"I hear a lot of MMA guys will go take a year or two of one Chinese art or Japanese art and they go and do that. They're not good at what they do. Period. One or two years? They're not good. Flashy. You don't want to flash out there or the street guys are coming at you. You want to knock them down. So I will say that if someone really tries, whoever their teacher is, whatever their style is, even if you have a teacher that only learned a little bit, but over the years he'll improve and you'll grow with him. You'll be good - if you practice one thing at a time. To get an understanding of other styles, nothing wrong with that. You know your tai chi for ten years and then you want to go to xingyi, bagua, that's ok. There's nothing wrong with that. But you specialize in your tai chi. That's what you're good at. This is a self defense point of view. You're strong at what you do.

"What they have promoted, your average MMA guy looks like Godzilla. Do I think they are going to hurt the business of Chinese kung fu? No. The difference is we are now mainstream so we don't have that flair and glitz we had when we first came around. You mention kung fu, everybody drops dead. They say, 'I'm going to do this now.' It's just a new thing. Gracie Jiujitsu was a new thing for a minute. MMA is a new thing for a minute. Both have become mainstream. And they're good! They're not going to go, 'Oh, none of that,' in two years. (Laughs.)

"I love all martial arts. The only difference is that I'm old school. I stay where I'm at. I'm an old man. I like what I do. I don't intend to mix it because I'm already happy with what I do. I love all martial arts. I love mixed martial arts. I got nothing against them. I like to watch them, sometimes, not all of the time. I'm not a TV person. I think all things are good. I think wushu is good. I think Shaolin is good. I do not dislike anybody. I like everybody. On this earth - gay, black, white - we're all the same. So when that alien attacks, he's going kill us all. (Laughs.) We need to get together here, you know?"

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