Friday, March 28, 2008
Wire Insider Part II
Afaa Michael Weaver
The Plum Flower Dance
HBO’s The Wire is done. I am adding the second of my three postscripts to the show. This second postscript speaks to the Asian, more specifically the Chinese presence in Baltimore.
The gentleman in the photograph is Shiye Huang Chien-liang, my teacher and the 64th generation grandmaster of the Tien Shan Pai system of Chinese martial arts. Shiye Huang has lived and taught in Baltimore for more than 25 years. In the Owings Mills section of the city he owns and directs the U.S. Kuoshu Academy. The word “Shiye” means teacher and advisor.
As one of Shiye Huang’s disciples, I travel to Baltimore for my studies and sometimes study privately with him. When I get there early enough I head in to change my clothes after bowing to him in the traditional way. While going through his mail he will look up and ask if I want some tea. I am always excited to have tea with him because it is a chance to chat with a great man.
A soft-spoken man in his 60th year, Shiye is the only disciple of Late Supreme Master Wang Chueh Jen, a tiny man from Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province. Wang trained Chiang Kai Shek’s special forces and came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai Shek in 1949, at the end of the Civil War. As Shiye Huang makes the tea, he is sitting at his front desk with the red boards bearing the Tien Shan Pai calligraphy behind him. These boards were given to him by Wang to signify that he was passing the system to him. The tea is delicious, like silk to the lips.
Shiye Huang is a serious teacher who does not spare severe criticism. Watching me one day struggling with the long staff, a long piece of flexible wood that is one of the highest weapons in the Chinese system, he gave a ready assessment.
“You look worse now than you did the last time.” He stood there frowning. I was honored as in the way of the Chinese educational system, I had just received some hard-earned affection.
Shiye Huang’s annual international martial arts tournament is the largest of its kind in the country, and the only tournament that gets official recognition from the federal, state, and local governments. Each year dignitaries from the White House, the Governor’s office and the Office of the Mayor attend the conference. In the past two years I have done volunteer work as one of the security people at the doors to the competition arenas. I enjoy my job. Watching the kids fly across the room at the speed of light is a humbling experience.
I have won a few medals, including a gold medal for demonstrating that long staff. I was in a room with a low ceiling, so I was worried about hitting the sprinklers. When I got the gold medal, I told someone it was for not setting off the fire extinguishers and flooding the room.
Beyond stereotypes of martial arts and Asian culture, in the 1970’s, when black people felt disempowered by the changes in their lives and seemed to be floating away from each other, kungfu movies were a new way of experiencing community. Let us not forget the Legends of the Ghetto, folks with superhuman powers we often heard of but almost never saw. In Baltimore there was Winky, who could jump from the ground and kick up over his head to hit a basketball rim with angelic ease.
Black American and Chinese American histories have been involved with each other at least since the American Civil War when they did the same kinds of laboring jobs, but the connectin more likely happened around the matter of food. There were Chinese take out restaurants long before any fast food restaurants. However, genuine Chinese food was a long way from the place on Milton Avenue in East Baltimore that I have named The Alamo. It has been there since the mid 1960’s and is still there, although the exterior is mostly a matter of security bars covering a cement surface, like a bunker. The neighborhood is now rather dangerous.
I have been at martial arts in one way or another since my cousins and I saw Bruce Lee on television as Kato, the Green Hornet’s sidekick. Stevie Wonder was right in including Lee on his classic album Songs in the Key of Life. Naming the list of heroes for black people, he cites Bruce Lee.
We had boards we tried to chop with our hands, dipping them in vinegar for hardness. That bright idea came from one of one of my cousins. To test the toughness of our hands we tried our skills on each other. One day my cousin Geff introduced us to a friend of his who had a brown belt in karate. He gave us all a private lesson. We knew we were ready for a ninja attack. In high school, I took Okinawan karate with a classmate who was a member of the Nation of Islam. While sparring with him one day I managed to land a spinning back kick, but on another day while sparring with a classmate, I got my first black eye.
While working in the warehouse section of Baltimore’s Procter & Gamble plant, I used to practice my Taijiquan out on the warehouse floor during my breaks. I danced my way out of factory life. It was a good job when I could get it, and the trials that The Wire shows are facing the city are due in no small part to the change in the face of the world of work in Baltimore.
The jobs I danced my way out of have danced their way out of the lives of poor people across the racial and ethnic range, forcefully changing their lives in the town that was once known as Charm City.
Shiye Huang and I finish our tea, and he tells me to go and start working out. He teaches in the traditional way, which is to show me a form or a section of a form and then leave me to practice. At the end of the hour, he comes to check to see if I have remembered. In the 6 or 8 weeks between trips, I practice at home in Massachusetts, sometimes on the parking lot just behind the house where my apartment is located, and the neighborhood kids are a difficult audience.
“Do you always move that slow?”
It was a bunch of kids from the high school across the street who were my audience on this particular morning. I did a few of the Taiji moves at high speed to answer their question.
They shouted, “Whoa! Look at that!” Thus inspired they went across the street to school, which is where they should have been in the first place rather than smoking cigarettes behind the houses. I had performed some intervention, as I know some of the cigarettes are marijuana, not tobacco.
Martial arts intervened in the black community as it was beginning to take a beating from the onset of drug culture and the loss of industrial jobs. In the third and final postscript to The Wire, I will talk about what Baltimore was like when working class jobs were plentiful, in the old days.