A site honoring the teachings of Kuo Lien Ying and the magical time that we were able to learn from Si Fu
Portsmouth Square 1965-1985
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Don Porter's Biography
Memories of Portsmouth Square
He stood very straight, and was an interesting mix of good humored and serious. He laughed frequently, and would check on people who seemed down, depressed, tired, try to raise their spirits a little. High energy, but grounded. When we showed up in the morning he liked us to stand tall, clasp our hands and SHOUT “Sifu Tsao” (good morning). He would sort of assess our energy by how it sounded, and encourage us to let it out. The following is mostly about studying tai chi.
We practiced individually and he would come over and work with us individually. Sometimes he would clarify moves with an application, for example, one day he looked at me doing part wild horses mane and winced , buhau city (not so good). He wanted me to be more focused with my lifted fore arm. He then took me out with it, his fore arm horizontal chest height, stepping into me. Well that was clear. How a guy his relative size and weight could deliver that kind of impact was impressive and interesting. I wasn’t hurt, and he’d explained a lot. With him we were practicing a martial art, and to get the focus and energy right you had to know what you were doing.
He did not lead us through sets. He gave us the moves one by one, individually at our own pace. It seemed that he wanted us to adjust to the moves with our own body’s adaptation ( not change the move, just bring to it the body we had), not imitate his “dance”. So each move had a martial function, a focus, an energy, a direction, a beginning and end, etc., that we would slowly learn and adapt to with him watching, and occasionally interceding.
There were several parts of the set he liked done hard; the lotus kick, the downward punch following it, and the shoot the tiger punch right near the end. If you happen to really snap the kick you’d hear it in the toe slap( it kind of had to be natural not forced) and he’d turn and smile, say hau(good).
I asked him about prenatal breathing( reverse breathing), he didn’t like it. He was all for natural breathing. I asked about speed(we’re talking tai chi here) while learning sets do it slowly, but after that medium slow or fast, but they should not feel forced.
On a less serious note, he chewed raw garlic. On people’s birthdays he sometimes would come out with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, and paper cups, and we’d find ourselves drinking a toast to them at 5 or 6 in the morning.
For the most part things were quiet while we practiced in the park, but afterwards sometimes people who had a minute would go up to Uncle’s and have a quick breakfast. There the conversation was fast and thick about how to develop and use applications, form work, and all. I learned a lot there, not the least from Hank who was generous with his knowledge.
Thursday night was push hands at the studio. Ah yes, investment in loss. I remember one guy who worked the cable cars who had a grip so strong he would grab hold of both my arms and hold me in the air, my feet swinging ( I’m over 6ft and 200lbs). Hard to defend against. Sifu enjoyed this whole scene immensely. He would sit and laugh, and let us figure it out pretty much on our own. Two very specific memories, once he pushed me and I flew through the air and slammed into the mirrored wall and slid to the floor. I wasn’t hurt, but I was spooked by the glass, and very grateful it hadn’t broken. I always felt that he was powerful but had control of it. He never hurt me. Also once he wanted me to push him very hard and not stop, I now take this as collecting. It was a little scary. He kept shouting harder, don’t stop. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there when this atomic reservoir ignited. It was like he was processing, changing the energy and at some point some catch would slip and I’d be blown away . It felt like his internal torso was a steel spiral slowly shifting inside. I didn’t move him, and I didn’t get sent flying either. Others tried, he was angry people weren’t pushing hard enough.
Sometimes he would come out in this brown post office nylon parka somebody had given him with his rope dart carefully wrapped around him. Eventually he would tug at it and it would fly into immediately useable spiral loops with a sort of syncopated rhythm that was fascinating to watch. Several times I was a little sleepy doing warm ups sort of half focused and the dart would hover for a moment a few inches from my nose, then disappear into the darkness, with Sifu cackling in the background somewhere. A little like a hummingbird stopping to check you out. Definitely would wake me up. Often he would finish with it by slinging it into one of the trees so it would stick, and tie the rope around a nearby bench like some medieval conceptual feng shui art piece, or kid playing, some of both I guess. (NOTE -Do not play with rope darts with out someone who knows what their doing guiding you, at least wear a helmet, eye protection, honest).
Once a middle aged guy in business clothes grabbed a spear and started running after people. I remember him aiming it at somebody’s back and starting to close on him. Sifu walked up quickly and cleared his throat in this way he used to do that was at about 100 decibels. You could hear it a block away. The guy with the spear who was running fast stopped on a dime with his legs together, his arms in front holding the spear for Sifu to take. It was so abrupt, it was hard to understand how the guy stopped so quickly and kept his balance. Later when I read about people doing some kind of chi shouting I felt I’d seen it. It felt like the guy had been hit with a moment of 220 volts. Then he slipped away. Sifu chuckled.
I remember at least two years when we had yearly banquets. At night in a large local restaurant, it was different seeing everybody in the evening in fancy clothes (not work out sweats). We sat at big round tables and spirits were high. Near the end Sifu would stand and speak, telling us to go out and teach, help people be healthy. Somehow there was a sense of time out side of regular time at those things, I don’t know.
I feel that Sifu Kuo set an example of high spirit and energy. I feel he set a place for people to learn that was friendly and accepting. He let people develop at their own speeds, challenging themselves at their own pace, treating themselves and others with kindness, patience, and a sense of humor. By offering a sort of gracious human respect, he helped them avoid being defensive, thus helping people be a little clearer, more grounded, able to heal, able to learn ( kind of important in the martial arts community with so many chips on shoulders fogging things, making things rigid, this seemed professional). I was lucky to know and study from him, and to know all the folks who were there too, making it happen. I learned a lot, and continue to benefit and learn from his tai chi.
So look, here’s to all my kung fu extended family out there. Good Luck. I hope you’re doing well, whether you’re practicing or not. I want to thank Randy for putting this together, it must be a huge amount of time. Studying with Sifu Kuo meant a lot to me. I hope this sparked a fun memory or two for those of you who were there, and for those who weren’t, but are involved in the style, maybe it helps give a brief window, one perspective, on it all.
But enough talk, excuse me, I’ve got to go work out!
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