Interview In "INSIDE KARATE" February - March 1986

By Paul Okami

The voice on the the other end off the phone held an undercurrent I couldn't immediately identify, was it aggressive, or was it simply sure of itself?

"So how do you know so much about goju-ryu?" said the voice, "and what do you really know about its Chinese origins?"

He was referring to a series of articles I had written for a martial arts magazine. Apparently the pieces had offended some people, and I had been receiving a few hostile phone calls as a result. Thinking this to be another such call-and having grown sick of them, I retorted, "Well how do you know so much to be calling strangers on the phone and asking them how they know so much?"

He laughed.

"Well, for one thing I've been studying and teaching gojuryu for almost 20 years, and I also happen to be Chinese. How is that for a start?"
"That's wonderful," I said. "You've been in the art longer than I so you obviously know more than I. So why call me up on the phone to ask me questions?"
"Hey look, if you don't want to talk to me just hang up the phone."

That was a little odd. He sounded as if he couldn't care less whether I spoke to him or not, Which put him in an altogether different category from that of what I had come to call the "telephone ninja." So I did not hang up. 

"And." he continued, "if you dislike talking on the telephone as much as you seem to, why not meet me in person?"

The combination of his somewhat provocative questioning and the seeming indifference to my response intrigued me, as did his claim of 20 years experience in goju-ryu. I had thought I was familiar with the names of most all the practitioners of traditional griju-ryu in New York, but the name Kao Loon Ong meant nothing 'to me (although it means a lot to me now).

"Right," I said, "I'll meet you-just name the time and place.
"How about now? I'm right across the street."

Now that brought me up. How had he been so confident that I'd take him up on what might have been construed as a vaguely threatening invitation? 

"You got it," I said, feeling a little reckless; after all it was past 11 pm and for all I 'Knew I was about to walk into a meeting with a full-fledged New York lunatic ... and several of his friends. But there had been something in the man's voice that had made me think his hard-boiled pose had been just that - a pose, a test. He was waiting on the corner-, approximately 5'5", with the posture, build and bearing of a well trained but relaxed military man. He was extremely polite and quite friendly. I knew immediately that the very fact of my having taken him up on his "challenge" had improved his assessment of me - and assessing me was what I knew quite well he was doing. I became even more curious about his motives. 

We retired to the nearest Greek coffee shop and I sat listening while he spoke. He first complimented me on my writings, which he claimed, were the first "decent" pieces on goju-ryu that he'd seen for a very long time in a popular magazine', and that although he didn't agree with everything I had written (he said my articles were "about 80% right"), he still felt that I'd performed a service to the art by "bringing goju-ryu out of the closet.'' Before I could get too puffed up, however, he proceeded to brutally dismantle 80% of the tenets and beliefs I'd held about goju-ryu for fifteen years. He was scathing. He was merciless. And just when I thought I'd had enough, he brought his elbow sharply down on the table and changed my life.

That's right, folks, an elbow on the table did it. Bad manners perhaps, but that motion - a downward arc used to illustrate a point about technique -caused the restaurant to shift on its foundation and an earth tremor to be recorded in, I believe, Costa Rica or Panama. And Paul Okami sat up a little straighter and began to listen more carefully. I had seen, in my brief time in the art, some very prominent movers move. But I had never seen a motion quite like that elbow arc: simple as that. The hairs on the back of my head stood up and I knew that I was watching a genuine master of goju-ryu as he sat opposite me eating apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top. What did such a person want with me? He told me. "if there Is anything I can do to help you, I'll be happy to do it."

He'd looked into my eyes and decided I was okay, if a little misguided. If it had been anyone else making such a benevolent but apparently condescending offer, I would have laughed or felt insulted. But instead I was very grateful, because I knew that I was going to finally learn the answers to some questions that had been plaguing me since I had begun my karate training. questions like "Why?" and "Is this really?" and "How?" and "What it?" and "What's the real reason?" Questions like that. 

I listened carefully that night, and continue to listen to this day. Kao Loon Ong remains one of the very few karateka I know who can truly actualize a high level understanding of his art: he can do it, he understands it, and most importantly, he is willing to teach it. 

In the weeks that followed, I came face to face with the origins of my art. Although I had seen examples of Okinawan goju-ryu, and had been tutored for a while in one version of it, I had never been able to see what I was looking at - before Mr. Ong, Although I could not agree with all of his ideas - many of them are controversial, to put it mildly - I knew that I had never before had a one-to-one relationship with a practitioner who had attained such technical mastery and who was willing to share this knowledge so unselfishly. And share he did.

In his view, a serious student should be taught everything he or she is capable of learning, and Mr. Ong is very suspicious of instructors who hold back information or so-called "secret techniques." He considers these teachers either covering up their own ignorance or fearful of being outstripped by their students. Mr. Ong is seemingly unafraid of being outstripped by anyone. In fact, his attitude and teaching methods appeared-to my traditional Japanese-style "sensibility"- to be outrageous, if not blasphemous'. It seemed that the more traditional the techniques and forms became, the less "traditional" was the atmosphere in which they were taught.

Refusing to be called "sensei," for instance, Mr. Ong insists that his students call him by his nickname, Kayo. (I had to force myself to drop the "sensei," but "Mr. Ong" is dying hard). His classes were informal, conducted exclusively in English ("Please Teach Me" instead of "Onegaishimasu," "Down Block" instead of "Haraiotoshi-uke" or "Gedan Barai," etc.). There was almost no sign of the almost military-style discipline commonly found in karate schools (including my own!) His dojo reminded me alternately of: 1 ) a Chinese martial arts school, where the instructor-although typically respected every bit as much as in Japanese schools-is rarely accorded the kind of "Yes Sir! No Sir!" treatment found in the latter: and an American freestyle school, where a point is made of modifying etiquette and terminology to reflect the reality of the American setting. 

However, the forms, techniques and program from the warming-up exercises, the emphasis on "stance first, then hands," to the pre-arranged sparring, kata and bunkai, were all straight out of an Okinawan backyard dojo circa 1925. Mr. Ong would meet with me for hours on end, talking, teaching, sharing, and just hanging out. It was a family-like feeling, something quite foreign to the basis of my own martial arts education which had emphasized the importance of creating a distance between sensei and student, senior and junior. He asked for nothing in return except, in his own words, "that you remember what I've shown you."

He accepted no money, asked for no allegiance, no switching of styles or organizations ... nothing but respect for his art. This I most certainly have. Furthermore, his teachings expanded my understanding of my own style (a Japanese version of Goju-Ryu), and I now firmly believe that any Japanese karate practitioner of whatever style, would do well to obtain a foundation in the purer form of the art: Okinawa-te. This is particularly important, I believe, for those practitioners who love kata, because it is in the Okinawan art, that the confusions. contradictions, or seemingly unlikely explanations of techniques from kata and the improper applications of those techniques that often plague traditional practitioners, can be clarified and rectified.

How could such a treasure have remained buried in the bowels of lower Manhattan?

Mr. Ong made it plain. "To tell you the truth, I got sick of all the politics, It was just too much hassle, and not enough training -if you get my point- So I just dropped out, and Chi-Do, the name of our style, has been basically underground for the past 10 years.

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