An Interview with Sifu Rik Kellerman

 I asked Sifu Rik Kellerman to do and interview here for this series, and he agreed. I could not be happier with the results. A true wealth of knowledge, and a sense of humor. Here it is!

Rik Kellerman

Wallace: Rik, I want to thank you for your time in allowing this interview! First, I want to start with what I call the “obligatories”. Let our readers know something about your training history and how long you have been training and what you teach now, etc.

Rik: I started out in Northern Siu Lum when I was 15 in 1973, and did that for 2 ½ yrs.
After that, I trained in various arts-Ji Do Kwan TKD and Hapkido, Tang Soo Do, American Kenpo, Sayoc Kali, Togakure-ryu, Kyokushin-Kai Karate,Yang T’ai-Chi Ch’uan,

Bot Gua, Wing Chun, Bak Mei P’ai, Shuai Jiao, Jiu-Jitsu,  Choy Li Fut, Hung-Ga (Tang Fong and Lam Sai-Wing lines) and Kwongsai Jook Lum Ji Nam Tang Lang P’ai. So, it’s been about 40 yrs, give or take. (oh, and I just started BJJ about two years ago!)

Wallace: That is a WIDE range of experience!

Rik: You have to realize, that often I would be training at several schools at once. For example, I had Tang Soo Do on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, Wing Chun on Fridays and Sundays, and Kenpo on Saturdays.  When I opened my school, I met other teachers, and I would lease them space in exchange for lessons. I never passed up an opportunity to learn from someone.

Confucius said, “If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher.”

Also, since I teach, I feel that many teachers stop learning once they start teaching, and in doing so, they stop growing. They also get burned out.
By constantly learning, I get to keep my “beginner’s mind,” I gain greater insight, and I also prevent burnout. I come back to my school, fresh, inspired and excited to teach.
So when I was younger, I definitely skipped around a lot, so as they say, “Don’t be impressed with  the man who claims to have studied ten years, when all he has is two years, five times.”

I started Hung-Ga in 1985 under Sifu Michael Manganiello, who opened up under the auspices of GM Yee Chi-Wai. Actually, I was introduced to Fu Hok Seurng Ying Kuen (Tiger/Crane Form) by a friend who taught Fu Jow P’ai, before that, and I already had around 20 yrs in Martial Arts by then, so it made it easier to pick up the Hung Kuen.

Sifu Michael and Sifu Yee parted ways, and I studied privately with Sifu Yee for a brief time, to maintain my Tang Fong forms, as Sifu Michael was only teaching the Lam Sai-Wing line at the time.

Later, I trained privately as a closed-door disciple to Sifu Tsang Wai-Ming, who taught Hung-Ga and Choy Li Fut, as well as his father’s village Hung Kuen.

About seven years ago, I began studying Kwong Sai Jook Lum Ji Nam Tang Lang P’ai (Southern Mantis) with Sifu Angelo Quinto, whom is not only my teacher, but one of my closest and dearest friends. His teachings opened up doors of understanding and insight to the higher levels of Gung-Fu, particularly the short bridging.

I also have a friend/student relationship with Sifu Chao Hung, who teaches Hung Kuen, as well as Suht Gohk, Dai Sing Pek Kwar and Tai-Ch’i.

Chao-Sifu is also a bonesetter, and his personal “hand” is derived from his medical experience, so he specializes in cum-na sao (joint-locking/breaking skills). Chao-Sifu is around 78 yrs young, from Guangzhao, and was declared one of China’s Living Treasures. He is now “retired,” and spends his leisure teaching members of Chinatown’s Police Force, teaching early morning Tai-Chi classes, and making house calls-all before lunch! (He knows only two words in English- ”Good!” and, “Again!”…and I’m gonna kill the ***** who taught him, “Again!”)

I opened up my Mo-Kwoon Ten Tigers Kung-Fu Academy in 1986, and with my Sifu’s permission, began teaching Hung Kuen. I have been teaching Siu Lum Hung Kuen (Hung-Ga Gung-Fu) for 27 yrs.

Wallace: And this long list of experiences is precisely why I wanted to do this interview! For someone with your level of experience, and still finding people to train under is just amazing, and rare!

So, obviously Hung Ga is a mainstay for you. What is it about the style that keeps you training and studying for decades?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARik: I see Hung-Ga as being a well that you can drink deeply from. It is so designed that a practitioner can play at many levels. A person at the early levels does not have to feel inadequate, and can hold his own in a fighting situation. For example, in the beginner level, we teach basic punches: ping-choy (level fist/reverse punch), gwa-choy (Backfist strike), so-choy(sweeping punch), sow-choy (scraping punch), cup-choy (overhead smothering punch), been-choy (whipping Backfist strike), and how to crash the opponent’s horse, break structure, and occupy his space. Simple, basic, aggressive, and brutally effective. A student can literally learn gwa/cup, and drop someone on the first day of training.

Wallace: Absolutely!

Rik: The first Pillar form, or first two in the case of Tang Fong lines, Gung Ji Fook Fu Kuen, (Taming the Tiger Form) contains the basic strikes, kicks, defenses, and counters, and the development of structure, breath, and power generation. This, in itself, is a body of work. So, if all the student learns is this set and its training, applications and concepts, he will have all the tools he needs to fight effectively. Believe it or not, most practitioners never go beyond this level.

Wallace: Speaking only for myself, I go through extended periods of training where this is the only set I train.

Rik: The next form, Fu Hok Seurng Ying Kuen (Tiger and Crane Form) presents the practitioner with the short bridging techniques, and the softer aspect of the art-which is necessary in order to develop the aforementioned  short bridging skills. The techniques are a refinement of the basic skills laid down in the first sets. Techniques are shown with subtler angles, more complex footwork, and linked together in combinations that take the student to a higher level.
These techniques in themselves can literally comprise an entire system, or sub-system, and if one so chooses, can devote a lifetime to its study.
Ng Ying Kuen, (Five Animals Form) besides introducing more advanced techniques, enters the realm of mental and spiritual training. In our Hung-Kuen, each animal not only has physical techniques, fighting concepts, theories, and power generation associated with the individual animal, but also, each animal has a specific emotional content, or mindset.

Wallace: Let me have you draw that out a little bit and clue the readers in on some of the mindset you are speaking of here.

Rik: The emotion associated with the Dragon is commonly described as happy, or indomitable spirit. That’s really a nice, P.C. way of saying it. But we’re talking of fighting, so let’s go a little deeper. Part of the Dragon section contains Iron Body training. Iron body training gives one the ability to take a strike, and take a step forward, and continue. Picture the guy who gets punched square in the mouth, spits a bloody tooth on the ground, and smiles as he steps towards you, saying, “Come get some!” Now THAT guy is happy!

Wallace: I’ve met that guy! I don’t like him.

Rik: A snake is cold-blooded. It feels no emotion. It strikes the opponent to the eyes, and while he’s screaming, clutching his face, gives him two more shots. No remorse. He’s an assassin.
Leopard is cunning, slick and crafty. He looks to exploit your physical weakness, as well as your mental and emotional weakness. Show any hesitation, and he will shoot in and devour you.
Tiger is Angry. If you take ferocity and couple it with explosiveness, you have the mindset of the Tiger. Not blind rage, but focused aggression, right down your throat.
Crane is serene-the polar opposite of the Tiger, he displays calmness in the face of aggression. If Tiger is the Bull, Crane is the Matador. The techniques are similar to the Matador as well. Evasive, emotionally  centered, and striking at soft targets, while avoiding the head-on attack.

Wallace: Wow! I have never heard that comparison before, but it hits the nail on the head. “If the Tiger is the Bull, the Crane is the Matador”. No offense, but I am stealing that analogy for future use. Please continue.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARik: No problem! All these emotions come together to form the complete mindset of the fighter. One who is fearless, merciless, cunning, aggressive, and composed and focused.
So the system is pretty vast.
In addition, the physical training is superb. The way that the forms themselves train the body.  The power generation, the stance work, the iron forearms, iron body training, Iron Wire, Hei-Gung, Lien-Gung, etc. It is a complete method that gives the practitioner strength, power, and stamina. Hung-Ga develops not only longevity, but a vibrancy  and vitality amongst  its practitioners that is not seen in a lot of other Martial Arts.

So, this is my understanding of Hung-Ga, my personal evolution. It may differ from others, but this is my understanding drawn from my own experience. And, since I am still seeking, searching, experimenting, growing, evolving, it is a work in progress, just as we all are.  That is what keeps me training.

Wallace: I can appreciate that thought. Everything is a process, constant growth.

I would like to go a little bit into your take on bridging, and the “12 Bridges” in Hung Gar. You come from a different branch on the family tree than I do, well, part of your training is from the same branch but you trained deeply in another branch as well and I would like to hear your thoughts on this aspect of the system. So, to start, level of importance to the system: where do you place the twelve bridges?

Rik: That’s a tough one, because my views differ from the norm..as you may have already surmised!

Wallace: The norm is boring. I doubt if all you ever did was “tow the party line” this interview would even be happening at all.

Rik: I don’t see the Twelve Bridges as individual techniques, but as qualities of energy, feeling, movement, sensitivity, direction, pressure, etc. When hand touches hand, foot touches foot, etc, a bridge is formed. How you deal with that touch, how you respond, how you use that connection to overcome your opponent, comes down to what is called, “aliveness.” The hand must be alive.  For that, you need touch sensitivity/reaction training, such as chi-sao,(sticking hands) tui-sao (push hands) ting-kiu,(listening bridge) and variations, which we collectively call, kiu-sao-Bridge Hands. This skill can only be taught through direct, hands-on transmission.

Wallace: I agree 100% here. I have often said that the outer look of a form can be learned from a book or video, but the person learning in this way cannot possibly understand the inner workings of any style or system’s forms that way. Such understanding has to be hands on from one who knows.

Rik: I think this skill was divided into twelve separate permutations, but as a teaching aid; to explain to the student what and how he should be training. Later on, especially after the publication of Lam Sai-Wing’s books, they became something secret and special. I think the only reason they were referred to as secret, is because these books were not until very recently, translated from Chinese. This gave those who could understand the writings a sort of exclusivity. It allowed certain individuals to exploit this and elevate themselves to a higher status as well.
I remember playing hands with Sifu Quinto, and he said, “Ask me which bridge that was.”
So, I said, “Okay, which bridge was that?”
He responded, “I have no idea!” He went on to explain, “Once I touch you, it is an immediate, instant reaction, solely dependent on what is given.”
It is an advanced skill, and takes many years of constant hands-on practice to develop; which is why it is usually taught later on in a student’s training. I however start the student in bridge sensitivity/reaction fairly early on, at the time they are learning  Moi-Fa Kuen. (Plum Flower Fist-a shorter form, containing trapping and counter trapping skills. It is usually taught in Lam Sai-Wing lines, but we train  it as well in my school.) When they get to Fu-Hok Seurng Ying Kuen (Tiger Crane double shaped Fist) is when it starts to intensify, as the short bridging skills are emphasized at that level.

Wallace: For the sake of the readers I have who do not practice CMA at all, would you care to explain short bridging?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARik: Short bridging occurs when you are fighting at a closer range, like toe to toe, and the movements need to be shorter, more compact, out of necessity.
For those who do not practice Chinese Martial Arts, let’s draw a comparison to Western Boxing.
In Western Boxing you see the jab, cross, overhand from outside, but in close, the short hooks, shovel hooks, and uppercuts come into play. This is also where the skilled boxer can tie up his opponent’s arms in the clinch. Clinch Fighting, Dirty Boxing, etc., works on developing these skills.
The short bridge skills are similar, and as the name implies, there is a bridging or contact, in order to control, or shut down the opponent’s weapons. This is where sticking, immobilization, and trapping come into play. The hands are played more forward, to intercept and strike, (as opposed to Boxing, where you bring the hands in to cover) and the elbows are tucked, protecting the ribs and organs. The bridge needs to have a developed sensitivity to feel and read the opponent’s movements, and react instantly. The strikes must be quick, short and explosive. Most of all, the movements must be economical, to eliminate all gaps in time, movement, and space. If you examine the opening sequence of Fu Hok Seurng Ying Kuen, you will see many short bridging hands.

Wallace: What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of the style in the different ranges? What I mean by this is; to me Hung Gar was always a short bridge specialist. However, I always felt pretty secure in the style’s ability to hold its own in the different ranges, and I would like to hear your take on how you view this and perhaps you could throw a few examples out as well?

Rik: I definitely agree that Hung-Ga is a short-range style. Some styles, have the reputation of being close-range because they  fight toe to toe. Hung-Ga is even closer than that, because we not only fight toe to toe, knee to knee, but  hip to hip! Even the long armed strikes are used in close.

Like I always say, ”Long armed doesn’t mean long-range.”
I think one of its strengths is the ability to close from long-range to close range. Within the forms are several quick, short leaps, steps and  shuffles designed to quickly close with the opponent. (I never really understood why Hung-Ga had the reputation for lacking agile footwork. I don’t see it.)  We even have a shuffle side kick, but it isn’t used to stay at long-range and kick, but to quickly close with the opponent, using an attack.

There are many methods of covering, such as what we refer to as Hak Fu Jow “Black Tiger’s Claws,” a side horse with a forward low guard and the rear hand covering the upper gate. This guard is seen in many styles-Mohammad Ali used to fight from this guard from outside. Sport Karate fighters use this guard, and many other systems use this and variations of it.
I teach several methods of using this for covering while closing. You can jam the opponent’s kicks and strikes while staying well protected.
Bik Kiu/Bik Ma (pressing Bridge/Pressing Horse) is used for crashing into the opponent’s structure. There are several methods we use for this; Cross-Shape Hands, Iron Door Jam, Wood Carrying posture, etc. These are used to literally crash into the opponent, break his structure and balance, and occupy his space, while using the body’s natural shields, allowing you to  deliver your own strikes.

Wallace: So, short bridge, in-fighting, getting in and getting dirty…where do you rate Hung Ga in terms of being able to address the types of attacks we face in our modern time?

Rik: I assume you’re talking about the (not so )recent advent of MMA and the development of the ground game?

Wallace: Yes sir.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARik: You know, when I was younger, the only time you had to worry about being on the ground was if you got tackled by a football player, or got in a fight with a kid from the wrestling team, (in which case, you were in serious trouble!) Otherwise, most fights were stand up. The saying that 90% of fights end up on the ground was taken from police stats, which included officers taking a perp down, and didn’t actually reflect street fighting accurately. Sure, schoolyard fights usually ended up on the ground, but when I got older, a fight, say at a bar, was more like one guy was knocked down! One guy was lit up, the other guy was left standing.
Once UFC hit, things certainly did change.

Today, you go on YouTube and EVERYBODY knows how to ground n’ pound. Everybody and their uncle will try to take you down, so you’d better have the ability to handle yourself in that range. If not to finish on the ground, then to be able to avoid the takedown, or if taken down, to get back on your feet.
As Bruce Lee advocated, a fighter must be competent at all ranges of combat.
Now, does Hung-Ga have all the answers? Does any Martial Art have all the answers?

Wallace: Of course not.

Rik: Of course not.
I used to be one of those guys who said, “I’ll just get in my horse and drop an elbow shot.” But I was at least smart enough to get on the mat with a friend who was a collegiate wrestler and work it.  Boy, was that an eye-opener! But that’s how you learn.
That is why I sought out teachers  from Shuai Jiao, NHB, Collegiate and Greco-Roman wrestling, Silat, and BJJ,  etc. You need to evolve.
You need to always be looking at the nature of self-defense, and fighting. So, in addition to the above mentioned ground game, you need to address defenses against knives, guns, clubs, grabs, holds, etc. You need to address the myriad of Martial Arts that are available to people, and understand their techniques in order to be able to defend against them.

I’ve seen far too many teachers of Southern styles say, “We don’t kick above the waist.” So, not only can they not kick, but they can’t defend against someone who can, because they don’t train with these people. And then they teach ridiculous defenses to their students. You want to defend the Thai roundhouse? You’d better bring in a Muay Thai guy, and train to not only be able to throw the kicks, but  set them up. Learn the strategies behind what makes the kick effective. THEN, and only then will you be able to defend that technique. The same goes for defending the blade. You’d better train some serious blade work, like Kali or Silat, and understand how someone who knows how to really use a knife plays,  or you’re going to end up carved up like a Sunday Ham.
So…what I do in my school, in my teachings is work on tool development, skill development, or to coin a JKDism, attributes. The forms and concepts are Hung Kuen, but I include techniques from different sources. A practitioner shouldn’t be limited by his chosen style.
Was Wong Fei-Hung any different? He brought in a lot of techniques from different sources, and re-organized the sets. And that was only four generations back.
Then Tang-Fong and Lam Sai-Wing took it further. Each generation after added other sets, weapon sets, two-man sets, etc. The beauty of Hung-Ga is that it encourages change, growth and evolution.

Wallace: A far cry from the “my style has remained unchanged for 10,000 years! We can prove it with cave paintings we found!”

Rik: Ha-Ha! Standardization is cool, if you have a large organization, franchise, etc. It’s great to be able to go to any school in your organization and know that the forms will be the same. There’s a certain stability in that. However, that in my opinion, is the beauty in Hung-Ga, particularly in the Tang-Fong lines. I know Sifu from five different lines, all stemming from Tang-Fong, and each one plays it differently, depending on their individual backgrounds.

Wallace: Let’s do a bit of indulgence. Say, everything goes exactly as you want; what is going on with you five years down the road?

Rik:  Hard to say. My Gung-Fu is not the same as it was ten years ago, five years ago, five months ago! I am not the same. “You can’t step twice into the same stream, etc.” So as I evolve, my understanding evolves. I am very lucky. I try to surround myself with quality people, quality teachers, training partners, and I am truly blessed to have met the people I’ve met.
I would like to write some articles and publish a few books I’ve been working on, build up my school, possibly open up a few branches. I have a few guys who are fighting and want to take it to the next level, so I would like to get them into sanda, cage, smokers, etc.
No sign of slowing down, that’s for sure! Several years back, one of my student’s Moms was a financial consultant. So she asks me what my portfolio had as far as retirement plans. I said, “Gung-Fu Sifu don’t retire. We just teach until we’re dead. So I’ve got that going for me, right?” She shook her head and gave up.

Wallace: From the days when I spent a lot of time on the kung fu forums, there are only a few people I still try to keep in touch with, and you are one of those few. You should be publishing books! There is a ton of knowledge in just what you have said so far, so I hope that does happen!

And you are right, I’ve never known a Sifu who retired.

So you like what you are doing and want to explore new levels! That is awesome!

Rik: Well, each year, it keeps on getting better and better!

Wallace: Alright, so if someone wants to train with you, how do they find you?

Rik: They can reach me at my school: Rik Kellerman’s TEN TIGERS KUNG-FU ACADEMY

725 East Jericho Tpke. Huntington/Dix Hills, NY 11746  (631)351-1556
our website is www.ten-tigers.com

Wallace: I thank you so much for this. This has been awesome!

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