A Vintage Piece of Pai
After more than ten years of self-imposed silence, Daniel K Pai, one of the great martial arts legends of the 20th century, has opened a new Florida temple and seems primed to rejoin the fray.
Interview conducted by Glenn Wilson. Written by Roy W. Reid, Jr.
On a hot Sunday afternoon, sixth-degree master Glenn Wilson and student Roy Reid made a pilgrimage to the new pai lum temple in Volusia County, Fla., to facilitate the first-ever interview with the pai lum kung-fu grandmaster Daniel K. Pai. The following article chronicles this legendary kung-fu figure's lifetime, philosophy and vision for the future of his schools.
As we entered the new temple, it was inspiring to see the work grandmaster Pai and sifu Shawn Dick has put into this facility. Their love and dedication was the inspiration of this very special retreat for kung-fu practitioners wishing to learn and study the ways of the white dragon.
Grandmaster Pai truly is the master of this domain and it is evident when he enters the room that this is the "dragon's lair." Our conversation touched more than three generations of kung-fu mastery. From his grandfather to his most recent students, grandmaster Pai chronicled the history and future of the World White Dragon Kung Fu Society. This is the umbrella organization for four different families of kung-fu: gong yuen chuan fa, the hard and soft fist; pai lung kuen po, white dragon fist law; bok leen pai, the white crane way; and tai chi young, the internal ultimate path. The future looks bright for this important style of kung-fu, but we began this interview in the past, when the concept of pai lum made its way from China to Hawaii.
As Wilson and grandmaster Pai discuss their early days together the many pictures in Dr. Pai's office prompt memories of Pai, Wilson and former kickboxing champion Don "The Dragon" Wilson and his brother Jimmy. They trained and performed together in the mid-1970s. Their style and schools of kung-fu stretched across the state of Florida and around the world.
At one point during the interview, grandmaster Pai took time to demonstrate some of the equipment he and his family had developed for the perfection of kung-fu. He worked on a split wooden dummy, designed for learning the art of throwing one's opponent. He then discussed the split crossed wooden dummy that gives a student the chance to work at throwing blocks and strikes in four crossing zones. Finally, he displayed the iron dummy, a cousin to the traditional wooden apparatus, which builds the hardness and strength of a warrior.
Grandmaster Pai is the head of the World White Dragon Kung Fu Society and its name - Pai Lung Kuen Po - represent the influences of its Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese roots. It is a diverse system incorporating many styles and traditions.
Daniel K. Pai's legacy began when his grandfather decided to immigrate from southern China to the United States. Like thousands before him, he saw a land of opportunity - a new life for him and his family. Pai grew up in a Hawaii rich with adventure. He was a young man with fire and a zest for life. In fact, his excitement and wild tendencies forced his grandfather to send young Daniel off to a kenpo school in Okinawa. This would be a significant point in his life. While in Okinawa, Pai learned the importance of hard training and staunch discipline.
Upon returning to the islands, Pai moved to the "Big Island" where he became a cowboy for the Parker family. He would befriend another martial arts legend, kenpo master Ed Parker. Pai also studied the art of judo during this period, and won many tournaments in the region. However, Hawaii could not hold this shooting star for long. Pai eventually made his way to the Mainland, where he immediately established his dominance in the world of kung-fu.
Pai opened his first school in the back of his apartment in San Francisco in 1952 while in the Army. The rest is history. Daniel K. Pai has influenced four generations of kung-fu practitioners throughout his life. His students have gone on to make significant contributions to the martial arts. From Bruce Lee to Don "the Dragon" Wilson, and every sifu or student who has come from the white dragon system, Daniel K. Pai's influence continues to impact the world of martial arts.
From the late 1960s and into the early 1980s the World White Dragon Kung Fu Society was the largest and most influential of the Chinese style martial arts organizations in North America. After nearly a decade of silence, the dragon is beginning to stir. With the international meeting last October, this organization has begun to revitalize its mission, vision and purpose. At the center of this rebirth is Daniel K. Pai.
Pai is last of his generation - a renaissance man. He has been a cowboy, a soldier, a bishop, a teacher and, above all, a grandmaster of his martial art. He is committed to making people better and providing them with the tools to become stronger in every aspect of their life.
This is his story.
INSIDE KUNG-FU: I remember you once taught me the history of your family's trip to Hawaii from China. Would you please recount this pilgrimage?
DANIEL K. PAI: In an effort to give his family a better life, my grandfather left his home, near a southern Shaolin temple outside Singapore, to start anew in Hawaii. I could probably elaborate the story a bit, or make it sound mystical in some way, but the simple truth is that he saw a way to become somebody great in a new land with his knowledge of the martial arts. He did just that. His arrival was sometime near 1924. He arrived with the name Po Fong, but later adopted a Hawaiian name, Po Pai. My father, one of six children, was named Kain Pai, and I was given the name Daniel Kane Pai.
IKF: Now, your family brought with them a diverse background in martial arts. How was the art taught by your relatives?
DKP: My grandfather was the grandmaster of the white dragon system, which is still the system with my family name. This is a hard system or a chu chuan. His school would work toward the concept of hardening the body to be able to break anything. My grandfather would say, "Make the man strong to break anything with his body first then the fist." The basis for this is found in the dynamic tension in the man's breathing. The challenge was to train the student slowly, then work it toward full force and speed. Much of the time in class was referred to "hitting time." The students would drill the fighting, constantly working on speed to develop the power. It was not uncommon for students to hit each other hundreds of times with their hands or sticks. I believe this training philosophy to be the reason the white dragon schools have always produced such fierce fighters whether in China, Hawaii or the U.S Mainland.
IKF: Would you say that this hard philosophy is still a major part of pai lum today?
DKP: The emphasis on hard training and a strong body with balance is the focus of all our white dragon schools. You see, this system basically teaches people the tools of a warrior, with scruples. The ability is not complete without control. This is to add compassion and scruples to those physical abilities. Control is important. We look at this element and have even expelled instructors for a loss of control - striking students and even the use of foul language while training. Students spend months drilling on the first basic concept, their stance. They know they must build their kung-fu from the ground up, like God makes the trees. Stance, posture and then technique - there are no shortcuts.
For instance, in the gong yuen chuan fa family, students receive their training first in the way of the hard fist, then the soft hand, followed by the blending of the two. This is essence gong/hard, yuen/soft, chuan fa/first way.
In the second stage of training, the student begins by studying the five animal techniques of tiger, snake, leopard, dragon and crane. Most emphasis lies in the dragon and crane techniques.
From the very beginning, all students develop their inner strength and peace. This is accomplished through chi kung and tai chi. These internal studies are found in every external white dragon family school: gong yuen chuan fa, bok leen pai (white crane way) and pai lung kuen po (white dragon fist law). The balance of yin and yang begins at the student's first class.
The iron palm, arm, vest and body are what intermediate white dragon students look forward to in their training. This is the segment that many newer kung-fu schools left back in China. While studying this part of the white dragon, students are schooled in the herbal medicines and healing techniques.
IKF: How does the kung-fu philosophy of your grandfather, the white dragon, differ from much of today's kung-fu?
DKP: unfortunately, many of the more modern styles taught in the United States seem to focus less on the development of this speed and power and more on showmanship - not "Ha-Na". Conditioning and training is what separates our traditional kung-fu from many of today's schools in America. We train for "real life," where as many schools train for how. In that, the schools have gone from a martial art, to a martial sport. Our philosophy is evident by the reputation of the kuoshu tournaments held worldwide. (The tournaments held in Hawaii and Las Vegas, Nev., were hosted by grandmaster Pai).
IKF: So what is the goal of a white dragon student?
DKP: This is a form of self-defense. As I said, we strive to "Ha-Na": a warrior with compassion and scruples. We really strive to instill a high morale value in everyone who studies here. Our students are trained to recognize violent behavior, understand it and respond to the aggression in the appropriate manner.
IKF: This would fall in line with the creed in gong yuen chuan fa, which states to seek peace always. But, if the soul is threatened, let the soul become a warrior.
DKP: Yes, peace is our goal. That is a major reason for this temple. We now provide students an opportunity to train in traditional ideals of the southern Shaolin monasteries. Train the body and soul through: peace in understanding, peace in the physical sense, and peace with yourself.
IKF: Returning to your family history, your grandfather was not the only master. Who else influenced your kung-fu?
DKP: Well, my grandmother was a master of the white crane system and world-renowned in this system and my father was a judo expert. In addition, my aunts and uncles also studied under these masters.
IKF: What was growing up in Hawaii like during this time?
DKP: This was really a rough time. I was born and raised in Honolulu and found it necessary on many occasions to use my skills just to survive. My training was the one thing that kept my focus. In fact, I was kind of wild in m youth, so my grandfather came up with a plan to find peace for his grandson. My family found me in trouble quite often, fighting with locals, sailors, it really didn't matter to me. After a while, my grandfather made arrangements for me to move to Okinawa, where I would live and study the art of kenpo. The move was meant to help me as a young male to "grow up" and learn a greater degree of discipline. In fact, later I learned that the kenpo master and my grandfather were old friends. My grandfather had made special arrangements with the master to be harder on me than the other students.
IKF: How was this difficult training evident?
DKP: Instruction often lacked specifics for me as a rebel, and operated with much anger. They would tell me to climb up a pole and hang upside down. However, they would not tell me how long to hang. When the master returned to the room, i would just sit there and wait for the next instruction, but would instead receive a crack across the back and be told to return to the top of the pole to hang. I'd say they were trying to teach me a few extra lessons.
IKF: Where did you go after the stay in Okinawa?
DKP: I returned to Hawaii to work as a cowboy at the Parker Ranch on the Big Island. This is the same Parker family where the late Ed Parker, famed kenpo artist, came from. In fact, my father, who began his career as a sea captain, and I both worked for the ranch and studied judo. As a teenager, I broke wild horses for the Parkers and drove cattle from dawn until dusk. We studied judo and massage with professor Osakis, who also ran the Hawaiian Kenpo Association, and Richard Takamora. This training was augmented by our work on the ranch, because we would practice our throws on the small cattle when we worked. People in Hawaii knew me as a judo champion and I received my brown belt in Hawaii before leaving to attain a black belt at the kenpo school in Okinawa.
IKF: You actually threw cattle to practice?
DKP: Yes. We never hurt the animals, but this gave us a chance to practice and increase our strength without hurting each other. Many times, however, our martial arts were needed to protect us from animal attacks. I can actually remember seeing my grandfather ward off wild dogs - breaking necks to keep from being bitten or killed. It really was a question of just surviving back then.
IKF: Your family became renowned for martial arts. When did they come to America?
DKP: In late 1952, I came to the Mainland to join the Army. I began my military career in San Francisco before shipping out to the Korean War.
IKF: Now you served just prior to the end of the war, and carried a unique piece of equipment into battle if I remember correctly.
DKP: Yes, I never did care for the bayonets on the end of the rifles, so I wore a samurai sword on my back into battle. I was comfortable with this weapon.
IKF: After the war how did your schools grow?
DKP: I opened my first Mainland school in California in 1953, just before leaving for Korea. The school was in the back of my home on Sunset Boulevard. After my return, I was shipped to Alexandria, Va. Following the openings in Virginia, I turned most of my focus to studying the ministries of the Pentecostal Church. During this time, I was living and studying near Chattanooga Baptist College in Tennessee, where I opened an additional school with Rev. Mike Crane.
IKF: Your work in the church was also very esteemed.
DKP: Well, I became a Reverend, then a Clergyman and finally, a Bishop.
IKF: By now, pai lum had a substantial following. Where were you at this time?
DKP: Well, throughout the mid-'60s and early 1970s, I had opened schools throughout the United States. My students are instructors in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Connecticut, Colorado, California, Canada, and Hawaii. At that time I was operating my school in Daytona Beach and assisting with the operations across the country.
IKF: That was about the time I began training with you. It was 1974, and I had a school in Homestead.
DKP: Yes. I remember you would leave Homestead, drive up through Stuart to pick up Jimmy Wilson, then continue up to Cocoa Beach to get his brother Don and Fred Schmits. Then the four of you would meet me in Daytona Beach for a weekend of "warrior" training. I also remember for years people thinking you, Jimmy and Don were brothers. Between tournament fighting, forms, weapons, and kickboxing, you three were the dominant force in Florida.
IKF: In fact, when Don first started kickboxing, I was officiating many bouts around the state, but they would never let me do his matches because no one believed we weren't brothers. Of course, Don and Jimmy were brothers, yet we all did become brothers within the pai lum schools.
DKP: That idea of family is what makes us strong.
IKF: Without question, I would say that pai lum was the largest kung-fu organization in America during the sixties and seventies. What has happened since then and where do you see it going?
DKP: Some instructors in pai lum have become self-sufficient, in their own way. Many maintain the pai lum ways, but some went on to discover their own way or have taken up different art. It is really quite simple to see why one would not be able to maintain the pai lum training. It is a lifestyle. White dragon started out with a desire to teach under the philosophy of the southern shaolin monastery. Yet with today's work world, it can't be done. Mixing those Chinese philosophies and the discipline with the working world is not easy, so many chose an easier road to travel. To stay in pai lum, you must stay dedicated. For those who did no choose a softer philosophy, I commend them for staying in the family. People simply cannot serve two masters. Even the Bible tells us that we are torn between our family and ourselves. One becomes confused when his constitution is forced to choose between two powerful choices. Now, with this temple, we will draw back some of those who need a place to study as shaolin, a place to call home.
IKF: This truly is a beautiful place. How did it come about?
DKP: Peace, family love and dedication. Sifu Shawn Dick and his family made this possible. He and I worked to build this. We asked for no money from anyone. This is a real labor of love. Set here in the woods off of Route A1A, we have a peaceful setting to find our art. I have always relied on the love of students throughout my life. I have made many mistakes, which I hope not to repeat, yet, there is always someone there to help me find peace. Kung-fu deals with the inside. How a warrior feels and acts. Students have the freedom to come here, to better understand those concepts. The concept of peace, action and responsibility.
IKF: Peace is a recurring theme in our philosophy. How can students best find that peace?
DKP: As I discussed earlier, all pai lum students find peace in their internal exercises, tai chi and chi kung. In a word, these exercises provide purification. Purification of the body, mind, lungs, intestines and muscle toning. It is the internal exercise for the whole system. Most people have drain-out energy, wasted energy. It escapes them and they get tired. These exercises regenerate and recycle that energy.
IKF: Now you have been known for your control of chi - this powerful internal energy.
DKP: The energy within you is very powerful. It can indeed do many powerful things, if you can control it. I remember showing students this power on many occasions.
IKF: I remember two specific instances where you demonstrated this to some of our students. Once, you had taken a very large man from the audience at a show and asked him to stand in front of you. You then placed your hand on his chest and focused all yoru energy into your and. Suddenly, you pulled the hand away and nothing seemed to happen. About two seconds later, while laughing, the man flew backwards three feet against the wall. Your energy actually was held until you wanted it to act. The second time was an ice-breaking demonstration. You wound up with a fist and swung it down powerfully at the six blocks of ice, but stopped short. You looked over at all the photographers, grinned and then simply slapped the ice with an open hand. Every block shattered to the ground. It was simply amazing.
DKP: But that power is within us all. Chi never stops. That power is what keeps our system powerful. Practitioners can feel this power just by simply recycling this energy when they feel tired or worn out. We take this lesson to business people in a series of seminars to show them how to use this energy and the dynamic breathing to overcome stress.
IKF: As the grandmaster of pai lum, how will you set up the schools in the future?
DKP: We will keep the family structure as we discussed earlier. The World White Dragon Kung Fu Society will be the umbrella for the four family schools: gong yuen chuan fa, bok leen pai, pai lung kuen po and tai chi young. Each family of schools will be led by a senior master to oversee the operational aspects of the schools and their training. We will be one family under the umbrella of the World White Dragon Kung Fu Society.
IKF: And what will you expect as the grandmaster?
DKP: Each school will train hard to understand the origins and culture of the Chinese philosophies that are the roots of our system. Students will strive to understand themselves and the world around them. They will always seek peace and work to be a better person today than they were yesterday.
IKF: What would you say to anyone looking for a "home" to study kung-fu?
DKP: Pai lum is a growing family. We welcome instructors and students from any style or new students wishing to learn. We will meet with them and look t o see what is in their heart. We seek those who will complement the World White Dragon Kung Fu Society. We have both high standards and high expectations of all who join our family.