Every week on Saturday, at around 8 pm, a small group gathers in front of a Geylang housing block to practice a martial arts form. The group has its youngest member as a 7-year-old while its oldest member is in his 50’s. Garbed in the traditional white and black gis, they do not practice taekwondo or the more popular karate, but a blend of Southern Shaolin kungfu called Taichokun. You will be surprised to know that this small group, with members not exceeding 10, are the last torchbearers of the Singaporean martial art: Xinjiaquan (新加拳), loosely translated as “Singafist”.
The founder of the martial art form, Teo Chung Teck, a 78-year-old man, observes from his deck even now. Although his frame is still stout and strong, his knees have undergone several surgeries. The grand-master happens to be a ninth-dan black belt – the highest honor in Chinese martial arts. In Mandarin, he says:
My legs are spoiled. How do I teach?
Then, suddenly grasped by a deafening agony, he says:
Anyway, nobody wants to learn it, and nobody practices it anymore. 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.
Sometimes, the practice is led by a Singapore-based New Zealander Keith Kerry Mahony. His wife, who is a black belt instructor herself, is a Chinese-Singaporean. And the best part of the entire class that continues to keep the martial arts form alive is that it draws in pupils from a variety of ethnic groups.
Describing the origin of the martial arts as a “unique melting pot of different patterns”, Mahony recalls how this very diversity has come to reflect the origins of Xinjiaquan.
According to Tao, this martial art form was conceptualized in 1985 by eight grand masters of disparate styles, all of whom hailed from the Singapore Martial Arts Instructors Association:
Silat, taekwondo, karate, Northern Shaolin kungfu, Southern Shaolin kungfu, judo, aikido, the Indian martial art of silambam. 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.
Meanwhile, Dominic Lim, who has been Teo’s disciple for over two decades, loves to describe the martial art form as something “inherently Singaporean”:
Some people like to say rojak but I don’t like the term … It’s more like a taste platter.
How did it lose popularity?
Although the students of Xinjiaquan is now limited only to a handful, when it was first rolled out, there would be thousands streaming through the doors of Teo’s Sancheendo Martial Arts Institute. The erstwhile fire-engine driver recalls:
Back then, there were a lot of Chinese, Malay, Indian students. Whoever wanted to learn, I would teach and there really were quite a number of interested students.
Such was its popularity that they even earned a spot at the 1987 National Day Parade!
Shifu (Master) would set up shop and just sit there and wait for people. 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.
Even in the 90s, each class would burst with more than 20 students, and this flourish continued for years till Sancheendo Institute was asked to vacate its premises some years back. Today, the average attendance at its current makeshift Geylang location hovers around five.
The 38-year-old Lim, who is a seventh-dan black belt himself, estimates less than 10 active practitioners of Xinjiaquan – only brown belts and above are taught – and less than five qualified instructors.
But it’s uniquely Singaporean!
After being simply out-of-sight and out-of-mind for a prolonged period, the martial art form gained notice last year, after some media outlets picked it up. However, the reception continues to be dismal and Lim, who also heads his own Taichokun school, believes that being “not sexy enough” has led to the fall in its popularity in contemporary times.
If you talk about karate, people will think it’s Japanese and want to do it, right? 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.
Lim, who is identified by Teo as his de-facto successor, further said:
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.”