Jackie and Jim Yuen while promoting "The Big Brawl"
Sifu Yu Chan-yuan, the master of the infamous school now lives in a small apartment in Los Angeles, its walls decked with mementos from his career in Peking opera, his school, his famous students, and his recent movie made in Los Angeles, The Old Master(The Intrigue). Now in his late seventies, Yu is living testimony to the benefits of kung-fu. He holds his trim, compact body erect, shoulders squared, as if his role as a general, which he played for so many years in Peking opera had permanently molded his lineaments along soldierly lines.
From a teacher's perspective, an education of any value includes a certain amount of unavoidable pain. In reminiscing about, his years as master of his Peking opera school Yu emphasizes the difficulty of imposing a classical tradition of beauty, grace, and precision-the art of the Peking opera--on an uncivilized mass of undisciplined reflexes and raw energy-a class of seven-year-old children.
"It's important to be strict" says Yu "One must be very strict, especially for young children of seven, eight, and nine. They're very naughty. You can't use reason with them. They need threats and punishment. That's the only way you can keep them in order day after day. That's the only way they will be benefited. Most children are very lazy."
Since Yu was especially hard on those children with talent, it's likely that Jackie came in for an extra share of punishment. "Only those children who have natural ability can be actors," he says. "We only pay special attention to those for whom we have high hopes. We don't bother to be strict with those who will never have any ability." However, Yu denies that he is overly rigorous. "A person learning any kind of art requires tremendous discipline to be outstanding. When young boys start out at age seven, I have to teach them to be patient, to help them develop their character and personality. They must learn to be more restrained."
"Peking opera training is very precise. When you learn somersaults or jumping, it's not just to show one's agility. The movement has to be graceful, and done exactly right. Any mistakes can result in injury."
The elegant precision of Peking opera developed over the centuries, as the traditional Chinese drama of the 13th and 14th centuries evolved into a highly sophisticated, highly stylized art. In today's opera, each gesture of the hands and fingers, each movement of the arms and legs, and each facial expression has been preordained. Every step, leap, or twirl in the dancing, gymnastics, acrobatics, or manipulations of stage weaponry must be perfected through long practice. Every note sung and every detail of the makeup follows a long tradition.
Admirers of Chan' s brand of inspired trouble making will not be surprised to learn that Yu still shakes his head over young Jackie's mischievous nature. But, in some ways, his high spirits worked to his advantage. "I remember Jackie as very smart and very naughty," Yu says. "He always liked to fool around. But naughty boys learn fast. If you want to become an actor, you can't be moody or quiet. You must be more active. Jackie wasn't at all shy. Once he was on the stage, he would give whatever he had."
Yu doesn't consider Jackie his best pupil however, and is unimpressed by Jackie's success in his movie roles. "There were many boys as good as he. In terms of ability in Peking opera, there were certainly better ones than he. His great success is a surprise. I guess it's just a matter of individual opportunity and pure luck."
There are probably several reasons for this blasé attitude toward his superstar pupil. For one, Yu is used to having successful protégées. Seven of is students-nicknamed "The Seven Lucky Boys"-gained fame in the Hong Kong martial arts movie world. Besides Chan, the names of Hung Chin pao (Enter the Fat Dragon), Yuan Kuei, Yuan Biao, Wu Min-tsai Meng Yuan-wen, and Yuan Teh are all well known in Hong Kong.
Second, one senses that Yu's pride in his movie star pupils is mixed with a certain amount of disappointment that they never became successful in Yu's real love, Peking opera. Yet even though Yu's goal was to transform his students into successfUl opera performers, he designed his training program so students could use their skills in a variety of ways.
Yu explains, "The old-fashioned teachers pick out their best students and concentrate on them. If they're rehearsing a special play for the good students, the poor ones don't even get to stand by and watch. I let everyone be there, even if they're not required for a special role. I still want all the students to learn as much as they can."
Yu suggests that in this way he is safeguarding his pupils' economic futures. "In the old fashioned schools, if a student can't get a job doing Peking opera, there's no place to go. I'm more flexible style-wise and philosophy-wise. Peking opera isn't that popular in Hong Kong so the students need as broad a training as possible. With this training, they can open a martial arts school or work in Cantonese opera, or get into the movies. If my students can't make it in Peking opera, they should have other chances."
Yu's own story is one of great achievement and success in Peking opera. His father, Yu Yun-hai was a well known performer in Peking. After moving to Shanghai where his son was born, Yu Yun-hai began training the small child in Northern kung-fu styles and other aspects of opera. "To become a Peking opera performer you have to start early, practicing the martial arts, singing and hand gestures," Yu says.
Yu eventually began to specialize in portraying generals and warriors. Because of the intense complexity of each part actor's normally learn one role, which they keep all their life, refining and perfecting their art as they mature. The male roles fall into either the wen (civil) category or the wu (military) category. Wu roles feature elaborate swordplay, acrobatics, and kung-fu. The violent physical movements required of military actors is complicated by the intricate costumes worn--heavily embroidered garments representing armor, and four pennants attached to the actor's back which stream out behind him as he engages in the fierce choreography of spears and lances.
Occasionally, Yu would abandon the majestic bearing and grim ferocity of the general to appear in bandit roles, which require insouciant swaggering and light-footed grace. Bandits must be particularly skillful with the tao, a broad bladed short sword with a curved blade. Brandishing these weapons, the bandits engage in the formalized leaps and dives of stage swordplay. Unlike the general the bandits don simple costumes of dark, tight-fitting garb which makes them resemble unusually agile cat burglars.
According to Yu, the young Jackie played a variety of roles, including some female parts, but he specialized in the painted face roles of the opera clowns. The wu clowns (there are also wen clowns) are noted for their skillful acrobatics and humorous gymnastics. For these parts, the face is fully covered with paint, each brushstroke painstakingly applied by the actor himself. A complete makeup job may take more than an hour. Although one might expect Chan to excel in monkey roles as well, Yu says, "He was too chubby as a child to be a monkey."
Yu's career began to blossom when at age 16, already a veteran performer, he went to Taiwan to perform Peking opera in the Japanese occupied nation. "Before I went there, the Taiwanese had little chance of seeing Peking opera," Yu says. When Yu returned to Shanghai two years after he was invited to join the Peking opera troupe, which performed regularly in the famous Big Theatre. At the same time, Yu was awarded the prestigious position of martial arts director, not only for the Big Theatre, but for the other Shanghai theaters as well. Yu attributes this honor, unusual for someone so young to his special talents: his tall skinny figure gave him a more prepossessing state presence than his rivals and his somersaults were better than the others. "I also had a good voice," Yu adds. Since performers of military roles are not expected to sing well, this gave him a decided advantage. Yu was to keep this position for 20 years.
The martial arts director had a weighty responsibility. "If a new play were being performed, I would design the costumes. Peking opera has strict rules for costumes. One must go with the rules, but then you can add your ideas. "I would also direct the special fighting sequences, and invent them for new players." Any decisions Yu made about new sequences would be continued, immortalized, for as long as that play would be performed.
The idea of Starting an opera school did not begin to take shape until the death of one of his best fRiends, R.T. Lee. Yu explains, "Lee was one of the best performers of military roles. But he never taught any students before he died in Hong Kong. I felt badly because the man was so fabulous, and after he died no one could perform his style. That's why I established a school so I could pass on what I know." Yu decided to open the school in Hong Kong and moved there in 1950 with his wife and young daughter, Yu So-chow. So-chow was eventually to become a well known actress, starring in over 200 movies. Her most famous role was in The White Serpent. Through his daughter's work, Yu became familiar with the intricacies of the Hong Kong movie industry, and was even called upon to appear in a documentary film on Peking opera. Yu commented on how different movie work was from performances on stage. "On the stage all the moves are traditional. In the movies, you can be more free. Everything is freestyle," he says.
After 20 years of teaching in Hong Kong, Yu decided to continue spreading his art in the U. S. In 1973, he was invited to train a troupe of Peking opera performers in San Francisco. One member of his troupe was Gini Lau now known as an expert of eagle claw kung-fU. Like Jackie, she still vividly recalls the rigor of the training to which she and the 65 other members of the troupe were subjected. "We worked for more than 25 hours every day," she laughs, before describing a typical day. "We all lived together. Everyday at 7:00 am, we would get up and get on a bus, going to where Sifu Yu lived. We had to be there exactly at 8:00. Then from 8:00 to 12:00 we'd practice acrobatics, types of somersaults, and kung-fu. At 12:00 we'd take the bus back to where we lived and eat lunch Then we'd take the bus back, and by 2:00 we had to be back to work, practicing on the floor. We'd practice until 6:00, then hop back on the bus to go to the theater where we were going to perform. We'd get there by 7:00, and then have to warm up, change, get our makeup on, and be on the stage by 8:30."
The troupe would then perform from 8:30 to 10:00. "We'd clean up and take the bus home, getting there around 11:00. Then we'd have a midnight snack and go to sleep at midnight," Lau continues. "Sometimes we would work extra hours around Chinese New Year and other holidays." This regimen was followed seven days a week.
Lau's memories of Yu's disciplinary techniques substantiate Jackie's tales of woe. "Sifu Yu is a very good teacher, but very, very strict" she recalls, a rueful note entering her voice. "When we made a mistake we would have to bend down and he would hit us in the rear."
After Jackie Chan became a smash boxoffice success, movie companies began to seek Yu out to appear in a movie of his own. Yu finally agreed to appear in The Old Master(originally The Intrigue) with William Louie, an expert in goju karate and white crane. A native New Yorker, Louie has appeared in a number of productions, including Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, and Sonny Chiba's The Bodyguard. In The Old Master, Yu plays a kung-fu master who moves from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, and then is cruelly tricked by one of his senior students. Another student, played by Louie, befriends the old master, who reciprocates by passing on the secrect of his kung-fu style. Combining his new knowledge with his karate training and with movements picked up from watching a toy robot, Louie creates his own "robot style" kung-fu.
According to Louie, Yu was an extremely cooperative fellow actor. "There couldn't be a better person to work with," Louie says. "Although he's a master, he didn't come on strong. He was very gentle." While on the set, Yu taught Louie some sword moves and acrobatic techniques, as well as blocking out some of the fight scenes.
Despite Yu's age, he had no trouble completing the film. Louie recalls, "We were shooting one day that was the hottest in L.A., 105 degrees. He was out there in full uniform, and he did better than the younger guys." Nevertheless, Yu has no plans to do any future films. "I'm 77 years old. Can't do too many tricks now," he says". Although he retains a keen interest in the martial arts movie world, Yu refuses to comment on the differences between Hong Kong and American films. After lengthy consideration, he would only say, "To each his own. The Hong Kong style is the Hong Kong style. It has certain advantages. But there are also advantages to the movies here. It's good to have a contrast." Yet he still has the teacher's critical eye for his own students' work. "Jackie Chan is pretty good" he admits, "but he doesn't expose all of his ability. He hasn't shown all the kung-fu he knows. Perhaps he'll show more in his next movie."
SOURCE: THE DRUNKEN MASTER