Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman
Wah Lum Temple's Heritage Flows from Pui Chan to Mimi Chan

By Martha Burr

In the United States, there are few pioneers who have had as deep an impact on the world of kungfu as Grandmaster Pui Chan. His transplanted branch of kungfu, Wah Lum, has not only taken on American soil, but flourished here. Chan's story is a kungfu version of the American dream, one which creates a link back to China and yet looks to the global future as well. With thousands of students worldwide, Pui Chan has created a legacy that will surely endure.

From the age of six the young Pui Chan trained with the fifth generation disciple of the Wah Lum system, Lee Kwan Shan. Lee's teacher was fourth generation Wah Lum master, Abbot Chin Young. Wah Lum means dense forest, the name of the temple in China where the system comes from, and the style combines Tam Tui (seeking legs) with Northern Praying Mantis.

Pui Chan had a hard childhood in Southern China. His parents were sent to jail by the communists, and he only went to school until he was nine; then he had to go to work. He taught himself to read and write Chinese - and then later, English. It was perhaps this strength acquired at an early age, whether through kungfu or an indomitable perseverance, that was to make Chan a leader of his generation in Chinese martial arts. From China he escaped to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong he set sail for America, with no money, or English, but with guts, ambition and a dream.

And after years of work, the dream came to fruition with the American Wah Lum Temple in Orlando Florida. There it flourished under a kungfu family, both literal and extended. And while Pui Chan's legacy stands unchallenged, it is his daughter Mimi Chan who carries the torch into the next generations.

Like her father, Mimi is strong, determined, and most definitely a leader. She grew up in the temple, immersed in kungfu from an early age, learning skills, discipline, and tradition. Anyone who has seen her compete at tournaments knows how good she is - she has never gotten less than first place in any event she has ever entered. Graduating from college last year, Mimi also made her initial foray into acting as the real life model for Disney's Mulan.

On paper, it sounds so simple. But when you know Mimi, you find a complex young woman, who is anything but simple. She's serious about her traditional kungfu, yet she likes movie stunts too. She balances tradition with innovation. She went to China to study the root of kungfu, but also sought out the McDonalds bathrooms. She has a focus, and a vision. And not without memory of a childhood that shaped her in many ways. Her story, then, really is a coming of age story.

Early Days
I sat down to talk with Mimi planning to do a father/daughter piece. By the time our conversation ended, I not only had a unique picture of a remarkable young woman and martial artist, but also I saw Pui Chan through the lens of Mimi's experience. It is this unique perspective that simultaneously brings two people alive, and it reveals a very special relationship which is also a living thing. Here is a story of a father and daughter; one who built his dream, and one who carries it forth. And none can describe it better than Mimi.

"My father," she begins, "went from Southern China to Hong Kong, and from there he became a seaman. When his boat came to America, he had to jump off in the middle of the night and swim ashore. First he stayed in New York, teaching there in Chinatown, and working in a restaurant. Then he decided to move to Boston, and opened a school there in 1970. He was one of the first to bring kungfu straight from China to the U.S., and spread the system."

Suzy Chan, Mimi's mother, grew up in Jamaica and left the tropical island the same year Pui Chan came to America. They both landed in Boston around the same time too. As destiny would have it, they would meet one night in a Chinatown nightclub.

"My mom's a professional singer," says Mimi. "She still sings, in fact. Her brothers are also musicians. They would do reggae, calypso, top forty hits, they'd play dances and weddings. She would sing in Boston area nightclubs, and at one club in Chinatown my dad heard her sing. He didn't speak any English, and she didn't speak Chinese. But he fell in love with her voice, and he'd go listen to her sing every week. He had his friends translate for them, and there was one Chinese song that she sang that he requested every week. They fell in love, and got married in 1977."

A year later Mimi was born between two of the biggest snowstorms ever in Boston. Her memories of the city are few, sine the family moved to Orlando, Florida in 1980. "For one thing," she explains, "my mom's family was there. And second, there wasn't enough space in Boston Chinatown to build an American Wah Lum temple which was my father's dream. But in Orlando, there was lots of room, and that's exactly what he did.

My father was very innovative. He was the first one to have people come live at the temple to train. He was the first one to bring the Shaolin monks over."

Mimi's early memories are of many of the Boston students coming down to Florida to help out building the temple. "I remember their kungfu uniforms," she says. "I remember them doing basics, and stretching. We had live-in students, and I was always hanging out with them, not the other neighborhood kids. Those 19-35 year-old kungfu guys were my best friends!"

"When I was three years old my dad would stretch me too. I started running around in class, and then learned the Wah Lum fist form. I remember taking kungfu class with all the other kids, and by the time I was five I was already performing, and doing shows. I remember learning little gim forms that were specially for the little girls. We were the first ones to bring Chinese culture to Orlando, especially with the lion dance at New Year's, with shows, and firecrackers. The Orlando community would change too as we grew."

Mimi went to Catholic school, and everyday after school she'd go to the temple. She would do the kids class, and remembers that it wasn't intense training, just regular class and working out with her dad.

Growing Up Wah Lum
"From the ages of three until ten I did kungfu and it was all I knew," says Mimi. "It was not really a choice. I was just doing it. I wouldn't say I was great, I wasn't a prodigy, and my parents didn't push me too hard. But I had no choice but to be in class. My dad was always busy, he had to teach every class, to build up the temple."

Orlando was a different environment for the Chan family, and Mimi recalls that there weren't a lot of Asian people, and no comfort zone like in Boston Chinatown. Besides building up the Wah Lum temple, the Chans were also building their family, with Mimi's little sister who was born the first year they moved south.

"My younger sister Tina, who's now 21, was born in Florida in those early years," says Mimi. "She was born prematurely, three months early, and was given a one percent chance to live. But she did. She's a miracle. She had a lot of complications, including cerebral palsy, and underwent a lot of operations the first year she was born. At two months old, she had heart surgery. But she started kungfu when she was seven years old, and it's been really theraputic for her. She was way ahead of other handicapped kids her age, and I think the kungfu helped her immensely. She's the miracle of the family."

Tina graduated from high school and now she teaches the kids at the temple. Mimi remembers that when Tina was young, she was always helping the kids in her classes. "The exposure she got from growing up at Wah Lum temple really developed her. My mom says I'm the extroverted one, but at the temple they call my sister Miss Qigong - she keeps it inside."

The whole Chan family teaches, including Suzy Chan of course, who started doing kungfu and taiji, and now is one of the main taiji teachers. "She trained in China too," adds Mimi. "In Florida, everything began to grow more for everyone. My mom is the cornerstone, the organization person. My dad had the ideas, but she was behind it all, making it happen."

And happen it did. The Wah Lum temple grew steadily, attracting students from many different countries. With its diverse student body, and growing numbers, life for the Chan family was hectic. "My parents worked really hard, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every night. After school I was never one of the neighborhood kids, hanging out riding bikes in the neighborhood, playing. I never experienced that. My parents worked all the time, but I was there with them. They were both great cooks, and my dad was a master chef. When we'd finally get home late he'd cook and we'd eat right away."

On the whole, even though her parents worked long hours, the family remained close, and Mimi spent a good amount of time with her father. "My dad was teaching a lot of classes, always," she recalls. "I spent time with him at the kungfu school. He'd take me to school in the morning, and sometimes he'd pick me up, and maybe take me for ice cream. But it was mostly kungfu when we were together. When I was really young I was very attached to my dad, and cling onto him. I was daddy's girl.

"I don't regret not being a normal child, not getting to play with other kids. I feel I was lucky, I grew up a little faster. I met people from all over the world who came to train with us. They were always interesting to talk to, and learn things from."

Mimi started teaching kungfu when she was 12, to the kids at the school. "I had been performing since I was five," she says, "so I wasn't scared, and teaching little kids is easy. The first class I taught, my parents just said, 'Ok, you're teaching a class today.' I was nervous at first. But I just led the class, then helped students one on one. It got easier."

It had its challenges too. Teaching the little kids may have been easy, but soon Mimi also had to teach her peers. That," she says, "was harder. When I was fifteen, teaching other 15-year-olds, sometimes I had difficulties. Especially with the boys, who didn't necessarily want a girl teaching them. And then too, from twelve to fifteen, I just wasn't that great at kungfu. I lost interest a little bit, I wanted to do other activities, and school things. I was getting teenage burnout."

Waking Up
"Then one day, I was around 16, I don't know what happened. I just looked around me and opened my eyes. I saw my father, and all the people who came from all over the world to learn from him. I respected him as my father, but also respected him as a grandmaster. I realized I didn't train that hard, I wasn't that good. And then it clicked. I wanted to be good. I wanted it more. So I started training harder. I spent my sixteenth summer coming in early every morning, every day. People thought I was sick, not normal - but I really started getting into it. I was waking up."

As Mimi improved, it got easier to teach her peers, and she had more confidence. That became her motivation. "It also came from seeing the respect for my father," she says. "I watched him more, and he was amazing. The wisdom, the stuff he could do."

It became a big responsibility - school, the kungfu school, training, teaching. Mimi trained all day on Sunday; that was the day for herself. She also began competing seriously. "I had done competition since I was twelve," she says, "and though I was always flexible, and placed first, I never thought I was that good. I didn't feel strong, or confident. But I got serious about it when I was sixteen, and got my first grand championship when I was seventeen. I felt I was redeeming myself."

Once Mimi started practicing more, her dad started working with her more. "We trained more, and worked harder together," she says. "By then I was teaching and training full-time at the school. My parents never said to me, this is what you have to do when you grow up. My dad was patient enough. He knew I would find it in my heart."

My Mimi's own account, her father was "encouraging, but he was never big on compliments. I'm a lot like him teaching now. But I would overhear him, talking to friends about me, and only then would I overhear him saying I was doing good. That's the only time I would hear it. But I could tell he was more excited when he would teach me things. I cared, and he knew."

Father to Daughter - The Secrets
At this same time Mimi was making college plans, even though she knew the temple would eventually be her life. Her father, she says, "makes you make your own decisions. Even with the kungfu it would have been traditional for him to say, 'you are doing this!' But he left it up to me. When I got serious about it, we were a lot closer. He probably felt he had a lot more to talk to me about."

Mimi states that she knows clearly that it was practice that brought her forward. The practice was obvious. Even teaching her students now, she says, "If you practice, you will see the results. If you put in the time, it will pay off."

Kungfu has always been associated with secrets, with things kept inside a single family and never revealed, until sometimes entire systems would even die out. This rather gothic tradition is the last thing you would expect to find on - well, a cruise. But, in fact, the Wah Lum tradition is being passed on, perhaps dangerously close to the shuffleboard, bingo and buffet. As Mimi describes, "My family likes to go on cruises a lot, maybe twice a year, and every time that was my training vacation. I'm up at six a.m., watching the sun rise over the ocean. That's when I would learn a lot more advanced material, and get more one-on-one training with my dad. I actually just learned the "secret form" last January on a cruise.

"I know it literally will take a lifetime. I try to learn as much as I can, but I'm a perfectionist. I have to learn every form thoroughly. My dad's been teaching me more of the secret forms, because somebody's got to preserve it. As open minded as he is, he still does have a traditional base, and some things will remain in the family. That will stay with me. And even as Americanized as I am, keeping that tradition to me is the most important thing.

"I very much think like my father does. Even though I majored in marketing in college, I say no to a lot of modern martial arts marketing. I know my father wanted the tradition. Or he wouldn't build a temple. He'd put it in a mall. Seeing the heart and soul he's put into it, I couldn't change it. As modern as I am."

Although it's sometimes been a struggle, Mimi does believe she is finding a happy medium. At 22, she's done a lot, and seen a lot. And made sacrifices, when most young people are in their most selfish years. She initially had, for instance, her heart set on going to the University of Florida in Gainesville. But, it was two hours away from the temple. And, she says, "At 17, I knew I wanted to do the temple for the rest of my life. So, instead I went to UCF in Orlando, and stayed here. I was very focused on my studies, but school was still somewhat secondary to my kungfu life. If I wasn't training, I wouldn't be happy.

"College was busy, but good," she notes, "because I could make my own schedule. I'd have to get up at 5 a.m. to train, and then teach every day, four hours a day, every day. Sometimes I'd study until 2 a.m., and then get up again at 5."

Mimi got her BS in marketing in three and a half years. She also taught computer science at UCF for two years. "I believed," she says, "I could do everything."

Another convergence of fate was to bring Mimi into a whole other realm. That realm would be Disney. And it would incarnate Mimi into the legendary Chinese martial arts hero, Mulan.

Orlando turned out to offer more opportunities than the Chans dreamed of during the Boston snowstorms of Mimi's birth. Because besides offering space and room for growth of the temple, it also provided a stage for martial arts demos, which Wah Lum would come to do on a regular basis. "We do a lot of professional shows at Disney, they know us really well, and always call us for a Chinese show," Mimi says. "And when they do a project, they go all out. For Mulan, they sent the animators to China, just to give them atmosphere. They give them Chinese food every day, to get them in the mood. They also hired my mom to go down and teach them a taiji seminar, also to get them in the right frame of mind. My mom was ahead of the game, of course, and brought me with her."

Mark Henn was the supervising animator for Mulan. He saw the similarities between the young Mimi and the young Mulan right away. "I was seventeen," she says, "and Mulan was seventeen. We both do martial arts. The personality, our fathers...it was almost weird. Mark saw everything in me for Mulan. So I became the video reference for the character, doing the choreography and movement they based the action on."

The animators of the movie watched Mimi's movement, and incorporated it. Or, as Mimi describes, "They capture your essence. I was fortunate, in the right place at the right time. My dad was really happy too, because of course he knows the legend of Mulan."

Despite having performed since she was five, Mimi had never really thought about doing movies. Mulan was easy, she says, because she didn't have to do a lot of acting. Then Motal Kombat came to town. "I knew friends working on it," she recalls, "and I tried out and got a part. That was my first acting for TV. Then I sent in a tape for a new martial arts TV show, the Disciples, and got to double for the lead character. It was interesting, working with a Hong Kong stunt coordinator, and Hollywood stunt guys.

"Now I'm pursuing acting more, and I could see doing it for maybe the next fifteen years. I know it's a really hard industry, but now I'm out of college, and I'm only 22. It's got to mean something that I did Mulan, and I have to take advantage of that. I just can't pass up the opportunities. As long as I get to do kungfu, I'm happy. And, I know where I'll be in the long run."

China Training
If Disney is the height of fantasy, China is as real as it gets. Just ask Mimi, who went there two summers ago for training. "In 1998 I went to China to train for a month. It was very difficult. Honestly, I was kind of miserable. I did a lot of training in the basics, and some qigong. I was staying outside of Beijing, and it was very dirty, very primitive. I wanted to go to McDonalds just for the bathrooms! It was especially hard, too, since I don't speak Mandarin.

"I grew up here, I'm an American. It's another world over there. I trained with a lot of children, and they were good, and disciplined, and they still got beaten. I can't imagine what they're beating them for...my heart would go out to them. It was just because they weren't doing it right. But it's their goal to succeed, if they do, it's their ticket out."

During her stay Mimi did a lot of qigong in the mornings, and, she felt, she needed a summer off. "I needed to get away and train. Mostly, I focused on the traditional basics. Truly, the only thing that's important is basics, if you want to be a real martial artist. It's the most important thing even for us teachers. That's what I went for, what I wanted, to get down to the root of it."

Sifu Mimi
The root of it has a deep hold on Mimi now. As a senior instructor at Wah Lum, she teaches advanced classes and leads the demo team. And she takes the role of continuing the school very seriously.

"As a teacher you're catering to people for different reasons," she says. "Some people are just here to work out, to do exercise. Others want to learn the art, and some people are very devoted. It's all fine.

"I'm the mean one at the school. I'm very strict. In all honesty, if you're a girl it is different. Some people are shocked, and they stereotype you: 'Really, you don't look like a kungfu teacher.' But I definitely play the role of the teacher. I'm the sifu, I'm not their friend. We don't have personal relationships outside the classroom. I can't be the friendly me, especially at my age, and being female. I need that respect."

Mimi teaches some beginner's classes, including the forms, applications, and some self-defense. In this area, "Keeping the tradition and purity of the form is most important. I also like to show them the meaning behind every movement. I want them to know that."

Mostly, however, Mimi teaches advanced classes. "It's funny sometimes," she laughs, "because people think going into the advanced class that they're going to learn all these secret forms. I teach the basics at an advanced level. But I do also want them to understand more, and I get a little more philosophical and historical in these classes. Kungfu means hard work, and I definitely live by that. Ask my students."

Mimi, however, remembers the early days of Wah Lum, and adds, "Even if I think I'm strict, it's not like watching my father teach when I grew up. He was a lot more strict. He had two hour classes then, and everyone would be dead after class! Now we teach a one hour class."

Mimi has also taken over teaching the professional demo class, made up of her hand-selected students. They are the ones she takes to Disney, and the ones she takes to tournaments. They must have at least 3 1/2 years training, and then Sifu Mimi approaches them, to find out what their goals are.

"I look for people who are dedicated, honest, and willing to work hard," she states unequivocally. "I don't look for people to be good already. They don't make the best team. I look for people who can work together, be patient, and who want to understand the system. The best students are the ones with a good heart. The demo team is representing our school, and my job is to make them good. They get worked really, really hard. The class is 2 1/2 hours long, and run completely differently from the traditional Wah Lum class. I can tweak it any way I want. We do a lot of endurance training, basics, and an emphasis on performance. It's another arena, and I think it's a good experience."

Wah Lum Circles Back
Mimi Chan may have come of age, but her portrait is by no means finished. It is still a work in progress; in fact, it is a self-portrait. And she is the artist.

"What I've gotten here at Wah Lum," she says earnestly, "what my father has taught me, and having him teaching me still, is priceless. I'm really glad I had that opportunity. I didn't have a young role model like me when I was growing up, and I want to offer that to the students. Some kids are lost souls, but dedicated to kungfu. Whatever they learn here, I hope they can take out into their life. If I can give them that, I've done my job. I want to share the knowledge I have with people who want to learn."

"My family has really helped me along the way, and you don't always get to tell them you're thankful of that. If I have a role model, it's definitely my dad. How he lives his life, his hardships, his kungfu. And my mother is always supportive of whatever direction my life goes in - she's the cornerstone. And my sister, who always stands up for me, and is there for me. I look at my dad, and I see him affecting so many people's lives. If I can at all make that kind of contribution, I will be truly happy."

Wah Lum Celebrates With Tournament
Coming up on July 1&2, 2000 Grandmaster Pui Chan will host a tournament in Orlando, Florida at the UCF Arena. This two-day event will offer seven Grand Championship awards in both traditional and contemporary categories, a huge Master's Demo Saturday night, and a martial arts trade show. Many people from China and all over the world will be coming to celebrate the 20th year of Wah Lum in Orlando, and the 30th anniversary of Boston Wah Lum. For more info go to www.wahlum.com

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2000 .

Written by Martha Burr for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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