Traditional Kung Fu from the Birthplace of BJJ


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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine - March + April 2018 “I just turned 50,” proclaims Master Daniel Tomizaki, “I'm having fun. I'm sweating a lot.” At the half-century mark, Daniel could easily, and enviably, be mistaken for a man half his age. He’s still spry, quick and powerful, and can easily throw a kick high enough to knock an apple off Stephen Curry’s head, although standing at 6’ 1” he has an advantage. “He's too tall to be a martial artist,” chides his wife, business partner and fellow Kung Fu master, Steffani, reflecting on her first impression of her husband-to-be years ago. When he first walked into her Kung Fu class, she mistook him for a bookkeeper. They laugh at it now. “I don't know, you know?” gushes Steffani. “All my instructors were short.”

Together, the Tomizakis form one of traditional Kung Fu’s leading next-gen power couples. Their school, Tomizaki's Champions Kung Fu Institute in Concord, California, just crossed their decade milestone last year. And this year, their tournament, the International Traditional Kung Fu Association (ITKFA) Chinese Martial Arts Championship, will follow suit with their 10th annual competition. This is a "Traditional Kung Fu Only" contest; there are no divisions for Modern Wushu whatsoever.

The Tomizakis are proponents of Choy Lay Fut (蔡李佛), which traces its roots to Chan Heung (1806–1875 陳享). Chan fused three Shaolin-influenced family styles, Choy, Lay and Fut (the first two are clan surnames; Fut means "Buddha") into a popular fighting method that combines both northern and southern tactics with animal styles. There have been many strong Choy Lay Fut proponents in the United States, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. So many southern Chinese immigrants landed at the Golden Gate first, and many masters still settle in the Bay Area from the People's Republic of China today. However, although their institute is only about 30 miles from S.F., Daniel was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, so his story is different.

Kung Fu in a Booming Global City
São Paulo has a population that exceeds 21 million. In 2016, it ranked fifth among the most populous cities in the world after Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai and Mumbai. However, unlike those teaming metropolises, São Paulo is more cosmopolitan with many Arab, Italian and Japanese immigrants. Daniel's parents are Brazilian and Japanese, and he speaks English with a Portuguese accent. Fate brought him to Kung Fu. “I was at a street fair and I saw a performance of Capoeira,” recalls Daniel. “And I was a kid. I'm like, 'Yeah, that's pretty cool.' So I told my mom, 'I wanna start training.' I go back home – two blocks from where I lived, there was a Kung Fu school. Fate. It could have been Karate, Taekwondo; it could have been anything. My intent was to do some kind of martial arts. I was thirteen. I got there and, unbeknownst to me, that was the best school. It was one of the best Kung Fu schools in the country at that time. The school is called Associação de Kung Fu. My sifu, he came from the military, so he has a very militaristic teaching, but classes were packed.” Daniel's first master in Brazil was Dirceu Amaral Camargo, a proponent of Seven Star Mantis (Chat Sing Tong Long 七星螳螂).

In the '80s, the Brazilian martial arts scene had yet to explode. However, São Paulo was on the verge of becoming a major global economic hub, which attracted Chinese immigrants who brought Kung Fu with them. As Daniel explains, “There were five Chinese sifus that brought Kung Fu to Brazil. Out of these five, one was Li Wing Kay (李榮基). Li Wing Kay is Lau Fat Mang's (1902–1964 劉法孟) student, so he went there and he started developing Ying Jow (Eagle Claw 鷹爪). As a matter of fact, Lily Lau (Cover Master October+November 1996 & May+June 2011 劉莉莉) is his sijie (elder sister 師姐). But Li Wing Kay was a very accomplished martial artist, so he had a black belt in Karate, a black belt in Judo – I think he did Taekwondo as well – all in Hong Kong. And in the middle of all the martial artists in Hong Kong, he learned Praying Mantis, the Chat Sing Tong Long (Seven Star Mantis 七星螳螂). So he had this big organization in Brazil. He was very good and had a lot of phenomenal students.

“For my sifu, I don't know the details on that – whether my sifu wanted something different or he wanted to teach my sifu something different – somehow my sifu got the Praying Mantis part. So the entire organization was everything Eagle Claw. My sifu was Praying Mantis. We were the only Praying Mantis in the whole country. No one else was teaching Praying Mantis. So this became a very big organization at that time – not many famous people because it was pretty much contained in Brazil.” Daniel progressed quickly through the ranks and became one of the school's top instructors. He was Brazil's first black belt in Seven Star Mantis.

Meanwhile, a new fighting style began to emerge in Brazil, one that would soon dominate the world – Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Uncaged
Master Tomizaki was just ahead of the BJJ phenomena, but he bore witness to its birth. “At the time that I was in Brazil, Jiu-Jitsu wasn't that big. I got here in '89. Until then, there were pockets. So there was Kung Fu. It was big, in its circle. Judo has always been the biggest in Brazil. And there was Karate, not much Taekwondo – Capoeira – which is Brazilian. However Capoeira was considered like a second-class art, not very prestigious. It had a stigma that all the bad people would do it – which is NOT TRUE AT ALL. But at the point, growing up, that was the misperception. The history of that was that it came from Africa with the slaves. But it settled most on the northern part of the country. So it didn't get deep roots in the south, where I was from.

“And then Jiu-Jitsu wasn't very big. It was in that secondary line, and obviously, there were the Gracies. But the Gracies – again, we can't generalize – I can't tell you which one of them did that – had the reputation of bursting into a school with cameras and all of that and challenge the person on the spot. You're between a rock and a hard place. You don't fight them – they say you chickened out. You fight them – yeah, they would submit you. They were experts on their art. All the credit to them. Again, I don't know how many events like that happened, but enough that people said, 'These are not good guys. They don't uphold martial ethics.' So they got this stigma with Jiu-Jitsu. You know, you have a kid. You want your kid to learn discipline in the martial arts. You don't go into that.

“And then they start coming to America. Their first UFC was early nineties [UFC 1 was November 12, 1993 – ed]. And that's how they built up. They built up so big here. People started to realize, 'Oh, the roots are in Brazil. This is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.' It came from the Japanese but Helio Gracie just modified it for his physique and trained a lot. That was unbeatable there, and through the UFC they settled their name. And it was spectacular that they cleaned up their name. So now, yes, in Brazil, the favorite thing everyone wants to do – Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, which eventually became the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But for me, I didn't get close to any of that.”

Nevertheless, Daniel did fight full-contact in Brazil, but not in the Octagon. The attitude towards full-contact fighting was much different back then. While fighting matches are surely as old as mankind, the notion of safe bouts is relatively new. And in Brazil, where people like to fight, caution was thrown to the wind. “My first full-contact fight – I just went,” Daniel recalls. “I'm ready to go and my classmate says, 'Come here. You got to wear this.' 'What is that?' He had one mouth-guard – that we all shared. Yeah, disgusting. There was one groin cup. I had no idea what that was. And then boxing gloves and head gear. 'Put this on.' [speaks in a muffled voice] 'I can't even talk.' So that's how it went. That was early '80s. It's crazy looking back. It's like something that we would not let our students do that. We fought on a stage of a theater. You know how the stage goes here, and the chairs are down here. So if you fall off, not only do you fall off, you fall off into chairs. Totally amateur you could say, but that's how it was. Did anybody care? We didn't care.”

Coming to the Golden Gate
“I believe after the nineties, you start seeing and hearing more about Brazilians, not just in Kung Fu but in martial arts in general,” reflects Daniel. While BJJ was in its infancy, Brazilian practitioners from other traditional styles began venturing out of Brazil, eager to make their name in the martial arts world. “Brazil, at that time, was a very humble place. We didn't have money. We're not people that travel, can go abroad, can go compete. There was not many competitions anyways. Perhaps in China, but China was the other side of the world. I don't have money. We don't have the language. We can't do that. They [the masters] don't want to go back there. They just got out of Hong Kong. They're set. So the famous people at that time are unknown to the rest of the world. However, the work that they kept doing kept expanding. And then, little by little, people start traveling. People start going out to compete. And that's where I believe that the Brazilians start getting seen. Like, 'Wow! Look at these guys. They train hard. They're pretty hardcore.'

“So that time, once practitioners came out and came to the U.S. and showed their skills, it impressed people. These are tough people. These are athletic people. These are dedicated people. And that's how some people got their name and became well known. Because on the fighting side, fighting is not a problem. Everybody likes to fight. And the forms too. People trained hard.”

Seeing his colleagues abroad, Master Tomizaki thought he'd give an international competition a go too. He has a classmate in San Francisco and one of the biggest tournaments back then was the International Chinese Martial Arts Championships & Masters Exhibition, promoted by the man who would become his next sifu, San Francisco's own Choy Lay Fut Master, Tat Mau Wong (Cover master November 1999 王达谋). “I came to Tat Wong's '89 tournament. And after that, it was a funny thing. I thought I was going to stay about six months and maybe I'll train more. So I look – at that time it was Inside Kung-Fu – I don't think you guys had the magazine [Kung Fu Tai Chi launched in 1992 and Inside Kung-Fu ceased publication in 2011 – ed]. I looked at a Praying Mantis school. I'm going to go there and stay there. And I think I'll just walk to this school. So here's my knowing where I'm going. So I'm staying in San Francisco. The school that I found is in Los Angeles. To me, it's just a name. I'll walk there. So I got here and I talked to the friend of mine that I stayed with and I say, 'By the way, I'm going to start going to this school.' 'That's in Los Angeles.' And I'm like, 'Is that far?' [laughs] And then I say, 'That is not going to happen.'”

So Daniel explored some of the local mantis style proponents like the late Master Brendan Lai (1942–2002黎達沖), but it didn't work out. His classmate was training under Master Wong so it was a natural progression. Although the styles are very different, Daniel's Mantis background served him well, and he progressed quickly through the Choy Lay Fut ranks to become an instructor at the Tat Wong Kung Fu Academy. “At that point, he was changing a lot of their schools to modernize to have systems and a lot of the old instructors left. He needed instructors.” Daniel became a standout competitor in the Bay Area, winning in both forms and sparring at the tournaments that Master Wong continued to promote. “I did the '89. I did the '91. I did the '93. I did the '97. That was the last one.”

Back to Brazil
Once he had a good grasp of Choy Lay Fut, Daniel returned to Brazil to share it with his former classmates. “In 1992, I went back and talked to them, saying, 'Look, this is what I'm training. It's a great style. There's no such thing in Brazil.' Although Chan Kwok Wai (one of the aforementioned five Kung Fu masters in Brazil陳國偉), he knows Choy Lay Fut. He taught some, but it's not the primary. You go to his schools – Bak Sil Lum (Northern Shaolin北少林). Some people knew Choy Lay Fut, like on the higher levels. But at that point, pretty much nobody knew. At that point, even he didn't tell people that he taught that. So I said, 'Look, I can show you this. It's an amazing style. It's practical – all the good stuff.' So we set up a seminar. I went in and started teaching Choy Lay Fut. That's the first time they saw Choy Lay Fut. They started learning the style.”

As Choy Lay Fut began to spread in Brazil, Master Tomizaki faced another life change, one that many masters have to face at some point in their career. “As the years passed, we got to a point that I parted ways with my sifu. And then I told them, 'Look, just to let you know, I'm going to step out of this school. I'm going to be on my own.' And I was just telling them. There was nothing beyond that. Even here, when I left the school, people don't even know. Some people thought I was dead. They started going all wild. You know, I respect him. I just stepped out.”

Tomizaki established his own school and many Brazilians stayed loyal to him. “Some of them said, 'We want to follow you, wherever you go, whatever you do.'” Along with some of his fellow school owners, he established the ITKFA in an effort to promote Traditional Kung Fu both in Brazil and the United States. Brazil has been suffering from the same influx of Modern Wushu and competition-driven schools that has been happening in the U.S. The ITKFA aspires to provide a place where traditional martial artists can get together to compete without having to be in a mixed division that's supposed to be traditional but many competitors are not really traditional.

The Tomizakis insist that competition is not the ultimate goal of Kung Fu. “All the work is to compete,” says Daniel about competition-driven schools. “Their reputation – everything is competition. It was losing the essence of the tradition – the respect, the patience, the perseverance. It's only for winning. But you know what? I'm not going to do that. We get together and we can promote how we train.” Nevertheless, the Tomizaki's Institute has a stellar competition record. Their son Braiden Tomizaki continues to win first place with Southern Choy Lay Fut and Northern Mantis, which their Institute still propounds to its advanced students. “Don't get me wrong. We have the champs. We sweep the tournaments too. But the tournament – whoever wants to. I don't force anybody. But if they want to do it, okay.”

The Perpetuation of Tradition
“I was fortunate,” says Daniel. “Like it was fate the way it happened. But I was fortunate to be able to do it – everything in the traditional Kung Fu – we did the forms, we did the weapons. I did a northern style and a southern style. I fought and did the lion dance. We have some stuff we can offer people AND keep this going, so the art won't diminish, die, fade, you know how it's been.”

Today, the Tomizakis are straddling two countries, aggressively working to keep traditional Kung Fu alive. Beyond running their school, they are active in the American Kung Fu community, not only by promoting the ITKFA championship, but also often traveling to support other tournaments and bringing their students from the U.S. and Brazil to compete. And they make a trip back to Brazil every year to continue to foster Kung Fu there. “At times, people ask me, 'Do they train harder there or harder here?' Look, you go back to China. The kids train for eight hours a day, because that's all they have. That's how it's structured. Parents send them there and they train. It's a boarding school. Our kids here – they have school, and then they have soccer, and lacrosse, and computer class, and dance and ballet and piano. In America, our kids are busy with several things, not only one thing. In Brazil, they had more time.

“But I still believe that nowadays, things are different. The kids there are just like here. They're busy. Their parents put them in swimming class and other things, whatever. So they're becoming just like American kids – busy. So do you get dedicated students? Do you still have a long line of followers?”

Daniel's generation may have been the last to experience the kind of hardships that forged traditional Kung Fu in the first world. With rising concerns of safety, many of the old ways fade. In the old days, Kung Fu was not so safe. “I tell the students 'We have mats now. What a luxury.' The whole floor is padded and when we do rolls, we put another mat on top of the mat. And people, they still complain. At that time, where we rolled, it was concrete. We learned to roll on concrete. I had classmates that learned to do backflips and acrobatics on concrete. I refused. I can't do that. But they did. I didn't know any sparring gear until I got here. At that point, it's perfect. We spar. We hit each other. It's great. You try not to get hit as much as you can because there's no protection at all.”

Nevertheless, the Tomizakis remain dedicated to traditional Kung Fu. Beyond the self-defense and the champion accolades, they see a deeper value to the venerated practice. “People ask me, 'Why did you start teaching? Why are you still teaching? Why don't you go do something else?' And I tell people when you see the result. Not the trophies, the medals, but you see the people and what Kung Fu has done to them. There is no words to describe – there is no prize – there's no value to that. And that's why we keep going. Because we see the change that it does in people's lives. Now we can talk about all the traditional and all that, but the important thing is to touch a person's life and make it better. Whether it was like 5000 years ago, where it is now – that's why we stick with the traditional teaching – because it did help people throughout thousands of years. And it still does. Yes, it's nice to get the trophies and all that, but it's going to sit there, you know? Hope someone takes a look one day. But it's what made the person better.”

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine - March + April 2018

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For more on Daniel and Steffani Tomizaki and their school, Tomizaki's Champions Kung Fu Institute in Concord, California, visit To see Daniel Tomizaki perform Fu Ying Kuen (Tiger Shape Fist 虎形拳) from Choy Lay Fut, visit our YouTube channel in March.

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