SINGAPORE: Every Saturday at 8pm sharp, a small group - never more than 10 people - gathers in front of the same quiet, dimly-lit Geylang housing block. The youngest is seven, the oldest in his 50s. Barefoot in their white and black gis they do not practice taekwondo or karate, but a blend of Southern Shaolin kungfu called Taichokun.
Residents, used to their presence for almost a decade now, pass by uninterested - and likely oblivious that these are also the last remaining torchbearers of the only known Singaporean martial art: Xinjiaquan (新加拳), loosely translated as “Singafist”.
Its founder, 78-year-old Teo Choon Teck, sits and observes from nearby, his still-stout frame hampered by surgeries to both knees.
“My legs are spoilt, how do I teach?” he says in Mandarin. He is a ninth-dan black belt - the highest honour in Chinese martial arts, and one that qualifies him for a “grandmaster” designation.
“Anyway, nobody wants to learn it, and nobody practises it anymore,” Teo tuts and sighs. “Sometimes I think it’s a waste … but there’s no use. Just let it die out.”
“Even if people sign up, all they have is this little Saturday class to go to.”
ROJAK … NOT
That weekend, practice was led by native New Zealander Keith Kerry Mahony. His wife and fellow black-belt instructor is Chinese Singaporean, and their students are locals drawn from all ethnic groups.
The diversity reflects the origins of Xinjiaquan, which Mahony, 56, described as a “unique melting pot of different patterns”.
As Teo recalled, it was first dreamt up in 1985 by eight grandmasters of disparate styles, all hailing from the Singapore Martial Arts Instructors Association.
“Silat, taekwondo, karate, Northern Shaolin kungfu, Southern Shaolin kungfu, judo, aikido, the Indian martial art of silambam,” he reeled off in short order.
“They taught each of their styles to me, asked me to do some experimentation, and after a few months I put together four to five moves from each, to come up with one Xinjiaquan.”
“It’s something inherently Singaporean,” said Teo’s protégé of 20 years, Dominic Lim. “Some people like to say rojak but I don’t like the term … It’s more like a taste platter.”
Teo, who picked up boxing in his kampong at the age of 10, explained that Xinjiaquan was created as a form - a series of choreographed movements - and not for fighting purposes.
“I’ve never used it in combat,” said the 1968 national champion in leitai - a full-contact, bare-knuckle contest. “But anyone who practices kungfu will know how to fight.”
ROAD TO DECLINE
Xinjiaquan kicked off promisingly enough, with thousands streaming through the doors of Teo’s Sancheendo Martial Arts Institute, curious about this newfangled form.
“Back then, there were a lot of Chinese, Malay, Indian students,” said Teo, who was a fire-engine driver, married with two sons. “Whoever wanted to learn, I would teach and there really were quite a number of interested students.”
Advertisements, media coverage and plain word-of-mouth led to numerous public performances and even a spot at the 1987 National Day Parade.
“Shifu (Master) would set up shop and just sit there and wait for people,” said Lim, 38. “It worked then - the place we trained at in Kallang used to be next to a big road, and we kept getting new students.”
“We went into decline when they cut off the road - because of the new National Stadium - and then it all started going downhill.”
In the late 90s, each class would see at least 20 students turn up. The number dropped to 10 when Sancheendo was asked to vacate its premises some years back. Today, the average attendance at its current makeshift Geylang location hovers around five.
Lim, a seventh-dan black belt in the Southern Chinese martial art of wuzuquan and fourth-dan Sancheendo black belt, estimates less than 10 active practitioners of Xinjiaquan - only brown belts and above are taught - and less than five qualified instructors.
After a lengthy obscurity, the martial art earned brief mention earlier this year on both Asian television network History and MediaCorp’s Channel 5, prompting a letter to the TODAY newspaper calling for more support.
But reception continues to be dismal and Lim, who also heads his own Taichokun school, believes it’s down to Xinjiaquan simply being “not sexy enough”.
“If you talk about karate, people will think it’s Japanese and want to do it, right?” he suggested. “But you talk about ‘Singafist’, people go ‘Eee, Singaporean!’.”
“Out of respect for shifu, we do it. Xinjiaquan is more like a tribute to him,” said Lim. Teo pointed to the latter when asked where the future of the form lay; though one of his sons, Anderson, has also recently come forth to claim succession to both Sancheendo and Xinjiaquan.
Said Lim: “One day, it will be gone. I will still teach it when people ask. But I would break it down, make it practical. These days, people want to know why they’re doing what. If we just teach the form, it’s not going to work.”
“I still do hope it can be passed down.”
That hope rests with the likes of Primary One student Jayden Chong, the youngest and greenest of the lot with a year of Taichokun training under his belt.
“I like learning martial arts and I want to protect myself," he said without prompting. "I’d like to learn Xinjiaquan someday."
(Photos: Justin Ong)