EP40 Sifu Kisu: Behind the Legendary Moves in the Avatar Series – Full Transcription
Janelle: You're listening to Staying in the Game, a Plum Dragon Herbs podcast where we have conversations about mindset and techniques for staying at the top of your game. Plum Dragon Herbs provides herbs and Dit Da Jow to support all types of martial arts training and wellness programs. Our podcast welcomes voices from all corners of the martial arts and health communities. We understand that there are many conflicting martial arts and health philosophies, and our podcast showcases the wide variety of opinions that exist. The views expressed by our podcast guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Plum Dragon Herbs, its staff, or partners.
I'm your host Janelle Leatherwood. And today we have the pleasure of speaking with Sifu Kisu, who is a fifth-generation Bak Siu Lum Pai disciple, descended from the Great Grand Master Ku Yu Cheong, through Master Kenneth Hui of the Northern Shaolin Kung Fu Association. And he has been a dedicated practitioner of traditional Chinese Kung Fu for over 50 years. And his daily practice has led him to understand how to transmit the physical energetic components in such a way that is open and accessible to the Western mind, which I find very intriguing.
He is a master in the Chinese martial arts focusing on the style of Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. He is most famously known for being the Chief Martial Arts Director, and consultant for the animated series "Avatar," "The Last Airbender," and "Avatar, The Legend of Korra." From his lifelong experience in martial arts, he created the bending styles seen in the series and linked to the styles of the Chinese martial arts. The Northern Shaolin style of kung fu is one of the most prominent traditional northern styles of the Chinese martial arts.
And we're going to be talking a little bit more about that today. And I would like him to back up a little bit in his life story and tell us how he first got exposed to the world of martial arts at a young age in Toronto, Canada, or had you gone elsewhere by that point?
Sifu: Yeah, we were in Missouri by that point.
Sifu: And there was a local karate school. I think it was Bob Yuranel [SP] owned the place. And I got the chance to study the Shorin Ryu style, if I'm not mistaken. And did that for a number of years until I think I may have achieved a junior black belt, which I find kind of laughable at this point. But then from there, I went on, and my parents were stationed at Norton Air Force Base, San Bernardino, California, and I met a fellow there who taught Tae Kwon Do. Then I went off to the military. And at one of the special forces schools that I attended for martial art, they did the same style of
Tae Kwon Do that I had studied as a teenager. And I got a chance to do that. And I did that for many, many years. I think I got a second, maybe a third-degree black belt in that.
And met my teacher. I moved to Los Angeles. I was in Hawaii at the time. And I met my teacher, Kenneth Hui, at that point and he is my sifu until today.
Janelle: Oh, that's amazing.
Sifu: I talked to him a little while ago today that as a matter of fact.
Sifu: Yeah. So it's been a little bit of a journey.
Janelle: A long journey.
Sifu: My taekwondo teacher, he was, I guess, a primary school classmate with the man who eventually became the President of Korea, Park Chung-hee. And I got a chance to take a few trips to Korea where I went to the World Taekwondo Headquarters, and I trained with President Park's bodyguards. Well, my teacher taught his bodyguards. And so got this chance to explore Korean culture, got a chance to learn some of the deeper aspects of Taekwondo and its parent art, which is taekkyeon, which is the old Korean foot fighting.
I think the difference between modern taekwondo and the old taekkyeon was that their mandate was to kill with the legs. Right? So a lot of the high jumping techniques were used to take an opponent off of a horse, or, you know, and pitch battles, you know, running forward and, you know, taking down a whole row of people, and that sort of thing. So, I think most of what I've learned in terms of martial arts, it has been from lineages that were tried and tested before the advent of firearms.
So, you know, if you didn't have, you know, fist of iron, or if you didn't understand the sword, or the saber, or the spear, you might not have been able to survive in those times. And so, our lineage is linked back to those times. The Northern Shaolin, for instance, predates the 1600 and 1700s. The modern version, propagated by [inaudible 00:06:09], I think it was refined and standardized around in the 1920s, when they opened the National Guosho Institute in Nanjing, China, where I guess there was a contest of thousands of people from all over China who came. And I forget the name of the tournament. It's a big historical event. But our Great Grandmaster was one of the 15 winners. And out of the 15, I think 10 went on to teach at the institute in Nanjing.
And out of those 15, 10 of them were the legendary 10 Tigers who went south. They sent them out to Guangdong to teach the militias. Mind you, my understanding of history is somewhat suspect. I'm kind of giving you the word-of-mouth version that I got as I went along. But it's a grand lineage and it has taught me so much about myself, so much about life. And I understand the martial arts, I think, in a very particular way, as opposed to someone who may not have had my experiences.
Janelle: Tell me more about that. What do you mean?
Sifu: Well, my teaching school, when I got there, it was all Chinese. I was one of maybe three non-Asian people that were there. And we didn't really feel welcome in the beginning. And, you know, it's just a matter...it's a vast cultural gulf. Right? And I've made so many mistakes over the years in just dealing with my teacher from the fact that, culturally, I'm an American, which is a potpourri of cultures, and him being a very traditional Chinese man. And so, I think I made a lot of mistakes in interaction that put a few bumps in the road along the way.
My teacher is probably one of the smartest men I've ever met. He's a military scientist. He invented said several pieces of hardware that are used throughout military...I mean, used by militaries throughout the world. And most recently, he was responsible for the space telescope they launched, the James Webb Space Telescope.
He was on the team at Northrop Grumman that created that. I think, in particular, he designed the deployment systems for it. It was folded up like an origami piece and bolted into this thing that is about to change our understanding of the universe. So I'm very proud to be his friend and his student.
Janelle: Wow, yeah. That's amazing that so many martial arts masters have this incredible knowledge that goes way beyond, you know, martial arts. So that's interesting. And yet, they dedicate so much of their life to the training in martial arts.
Sifu: It's true. In my own education, I got my master's in engineering, and I got a second master's in business administration. And did that for a number of years before I just kind of dropped out and became a kung fu teacher full time. And I've been teaching steadily for the last 25, 30 years. Since the early '90s.
Janelle: Yeah. What have you seen that has changed? Like, could you generalize, over the years, the students have changed in this way? Or is that not accurate?
Sifu: I don't know. I think in terms of the martial arts, martial arts has always been subject to trends. If we look back, the ninja fad came and went. And then, later on, the kickboxing fad came and went. And then Brazilian jiu-jitsu became very popular, and you had various levels of that. And, you know, I guess, like, the K-1 and the UFC stuff kind of promoted a sort of realistic/MMA/Muay Thai/Brazilian jiu-jitsu affair.
And, you know, so I've seen a lot of trends and phases coming and go in the world of martial arts and I have my own opinions about each of which. The reason that I've studied and stuck with the Chinese martial arts for so long is, for me, it didn't teach just fighting. It taught you how to engage at a series of ranges and helped me develop a series of defensive capabilities that I may not have found in another style.
I've also found that I'm 63 now, and in the course of my career, I've watched...I've had different rivalries and, you know, people that didn't like me and people that worked against me, and people that wanted to fight me and longevity. You know, at my age, I still could do the splits three ways. You know, I still got plenty of wind. Except here at altitude, of course, it's really difficult to breathe at 6,000 feet. So that has also changed me in an amazing way. I've lived in the mountains for the last five years. And when I go back to Los Angeles, or San Francisco or something, I'm superman. But up here, I have to be very conscious of the breath.
Janelle: That is so true. I'm a Californian, as well, by birth and transplanted to Utah. And I know I remember distinctly feeling like I can't breathe when I'm running. And then I went back to run a couple laps in California, I'm like, this is so much easier. It's, like, crazy. Yeah, it's crazy.
Sifu: I went back to my teacher's Christmas party a couple years ago before the pandemic. And since I had been in Colorado, I hadn't even attempted to do a full training form. I was practicing in sections. And I went back, and I just breezed through one of the intermediate forms. I surprised myself. I was expecting to fall apart in the middle of that, and that didn't happen.
Janelle: That's funny.
Sifu: So the martial arts has been good to me. I've watched many of my contemporaries pass away over the last few years, people who are much younger than me, and I've been keeping a catalog of the various ways that people die. And, you know, taking notes for myself, and I've dodged a couple of bullets. I've made a couple of mistakes. But so far, so good. I spent the last three winters snowboarding a lot, which, you know, snowboarding and skiing is a full-body experience.
Janelle: Yes, absolutely.
Sifu: And so, yeah, probably stronger and healthier than I've ever been in my entire life.
Janelle: Oh, that's great. We've exchanged some pictures, me skiing, and you snowboarding. We'll have to get you back up to Utah again sometime. And I'll try...I need to try Colorado.
Sifu: Oh, yeah. If you come, I would be glad to show you around. I've got a couple [inaudible 00:14:27]. I have some friends that live in Park City at one of those amazing security enclaves up on the side of the mountain. The Promontory Club is one of them.
Janelle: Oh, okay.
Sifu: And so, whenever I go out there, they treat me like a lost prince.
Janelle: Oh, nice, nice. Yeah, Park City's pretty cushy.
Sifu: I wasn't that impressed with the mountain.
Janelle: Yeah. Oh, interesting.
Sifu: I had a really good time in Park City.
Sifu: Yeah, it was icy when I was there.
Janelle: Oh, okay. Yeah, that can happen, of course, yeah.
Sifu: That's a kung fu all its own, though. People in your audience that don't do snow sports, it'll change you.
Janelle: Yeah, yeah. Well, okay, so I'm sure your students love you and are excited to find out about your connection to "The Last Avatar." And I'm just wondering if you could touch on that for a little bit because there's so many other things that I want...or I'm sorry, "The Last Airbender." If you could touch on that for a little bit and then I want to talk to you about a number of other things. So tell us about how you got involved with that project and what your role in it was.
Sifu: Well, I was actually kind of minding my own business at the time. I wasn't looking for a job in the entertainment industry. One of my students at the time, Bryan Konietzko, worked for "Nickelodeon." And I think they were doing a project called "Invader Zim," at the time, which I think is very popular. And he was in my student group, and he approached me about this project that he was working on. And I had actually told him, at the time, I wasn't interested, and everybody in L.A. has got a TV show that they're trying to do. I told him I wasn't really interested.
I worked out at Sevant [SP] for years. I worked on "Power Rangers," the "VR Troopers," "The Masked Rider," "Big Bad Beetleborgs." So I was utility stunts and character acting in a number of costumes. I think on one of them, I played the villain for 61 episodes. And was really tired of the entertainment industry at that point. And when this guy came along with this show, I was suspect and skeptical about being involved, but it turned out to be a really good experience.
We got into, I don't know, methods and areas that I don't think that anyone in the animation industry had ever attempted before. We created...
Janelle: With the bending art?
Sifu: Yeah. So the bending arts, when they first came to me, they had a couple of ideas about what they wanted to do. And they started talking about the four elements, the five elements. And I said, "Well, it's interesting that you would talk about that." I said, "Because certain styles of martial arts actually lend themselves to particular elements." And so I made some bold choices and I basically selected from the styles of martial arts that friends of mine who practice them where either respected them or I was terrified of them.
And so, like, I have a lot of my brothers are from the Hung Gar School. And so we chose the Hung Gar style for the earth bending because of the low stances and the types of trajectories, the swinging arms that they use of that style. And I don't know. In my own mind, I felt like... Wait. My camera is falling. In my own mind, I felt that, you know, certain essences permeated different styles. Like, for air bending, I was like, Bagua is famous for tornado power. Right? Northern Shaolin I selected for the fire benders. Number one, they were the antagonists in the show. And number two, much to my teacher's chagrin, I had always kind of been the bad boy in our group. So that was kind of a mischievous choice on my part. Water bending and Tai Chi, they went hand in hand as far as that went.
And Bryan Konietzko had been my student for several years, and had learned a lot of the basics and learned a couple of weapons and he was absolutely intrigued by it. So he had a lot of input. I'll say, right here and now, although all the visual references for everything that happened in that show came directly for me, it wouldn't have been have to show it what without Bryan taking the time to become a student, and actually immerse himself in the learning of the Northern Shaolin style. So I want to give him a lot of credit.
And plus, he's probably one of the best artists I've ever seen. I mean, you start talking to somebody and they start telling you how they're drawing in a particular camera lens style, right? It's a telephoto or wide-angle or wide or whatever. I mean, who thinks of that, right? And so, he's an extraordinary visionary. I think they're working...I think he's doing a movie right now there. I'm not sure what they're doing about the martial arts in the thing, but I've been busy with other things. And I wasn't particularly interested in that sort of thing anymore.
Janelle: Yeah. Tell me...
Sifu: Go ahead.
Janelle: Well, I was just going to ask you with the different forms in the movie, like, where does the reality meet the fantasy here?
Sifu: So that's a really good and interesting question in that everything that we use in the show came from arts that I felt were tried and true methods of self-defense and combat dominance, right? So the Northern Shaolin style alone, by itself, is to this day, very secretive, and very legendary, as opposed to, you know, you can find a taekwondo school on every corner. So it's not something that is common knowledge. It's not something that's been commercialized.
The popularity of it has multiplied exponentially since the onset of the show. And I get contacted all the time by fans who tell me that they started their martial art journey because of the work that we did. Or, you know, I get people who wanted to come up to Colorado just to visit me and take a few lessons because of their interest in the show. Oh, all of that is cool.
But something else I noticed after we got going with the show, is that, you know, what people see on television, the TV's like this magic box, right? And so you become part of that magic, and people tend to start treating you...I've had people stand in front of me and talk about me in the third person as if I wasn't there.
Sifu: And so yeah. I even, at one point, had found people making jokes about my involvement in the show, which, you know, in some ways, it felt like it was taking the legitimacy of the art away. And so I like to be very clear with people that I am first and foremost an exponent of the Northern Shaolin style. And, you know, not the model for cartoon characters.
Janelle: Right, right. Yeah.
Sifu: But besides that, they drew a couple of characters based on my likeness. Sokka's Master, the Master Piandao was drawn from me, the guru, and a couple of other ones. And pretty much anything that you saw that was cool martial art movement in that show, I'm responsible for that.
Janelle: I love it. I love it. Well, it's so interesting to me how these forms that are so graceful can be so lethal at the same time.
Sifu: And that's good that you brought that up because I've been talking to a couple of my students about that recently. And it's, you know, the beauty of martial arts, the lines, and the transitions and the dynamicism, all of those things are what makes up, you know, real and true martial arts. The problem that's happened now is that because of YouTube and TikTok and all of these different platforms, everyone has a voice.
And so, you have all of these people that some of them, in my opinion, don't even understand the basics of martial arts, and they're making instructional videos. And I think that has hurt the martial arts, you know, from some perspective. But I'm not the kung fu police, so what am I going to say?
But in reaction to that, I have begun to back away from my associations with various people in martial arts. A lot of the young people now, including my sons are into the tricking art, which is acrobatics with kicks added to it. And, you know, I have some strong opinions about that. I won't share them here because I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. But martial arts is martial arts, and acrobatics is acrobatics, and I'll leave it at that.
Janelle: Yeah, I can see how that would be frustrating. Or I don't know it. It gets a little bit...I don't know if political is the right word. But everybody likes their own style, but now, like, there's so many people that are kind of, like, wannabe martial artists, I guess, creating their own styles. And...
Sifu: There's a lot of that going around. You know, Bruce Lee, for instance, created his own style. And anyone that'll do any research into that will find that, you know, Bruce Lee was a product of several different traditional methods of self-cultivation, and that he really shouldn't have taken... What's the word I'm looking for? Credit for it. I mean, the traditional martial artists say that all credit that you should have in the martial art should go to any teacher who put his time and trust, and patience into building your skills. Right?
So to this day, my teacher, Kenneth Hui, is still my father, teacher, I would never ever, you know, turn around and take credit and say, "Oh, I made up my own style," or something like that. That's absurd. It's David Wei, who was on your show, is very loyal to his teachers and has... The thing about traditional martial art is in order for you to be taught to get the real sauce is that someone has to trust you enough and you have to show that you're loyal and trustworthy enough to learn what they have to teach.
I mean, let's face it, anyone can be dangerous on a stage, anyone can buy a gun, right? And go and blow somebody's brains out or something like that. But how many people can actually defend themselves? How many people actually understand how to own their own space? Right? And I think that's the bottom line with all martial art is that people just want to be left alone. When you see the guy with the big MMA sticker on the back of his car, or the Tapout T-shirt, or the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu sticker, I think a lot of those people are just saying, "Please leave me alone. I could be dangerous to you." Right?
And I don't...I think that martial art is much more than that. You know, I don't...martial art, it's about self-cultivation, it's about self-discovery. It's about people who wouldn't normally be interested in learning about spiritual practices or healing find themselves drawn into those fields because of their martial experience. That's my opinion.
Janelle: Right. Yeah, well, it seems like those who are maybe claiming their own style don't understand, like, how important the history and the culture of lineage is in martial arts and they don't know how to maybe give their due respect where it's deserved. I don't know if it was because they didn't...they weren't taught that themselves properly through, you know, a real teacher and passed on. It could be or they just don't care, you know, which is a shame.
Sifu: We're in interesting times. A lot of people feel entitled to a lot of stuff that they're not really entitled to. A lot of people...you know, I mean, it's like lying on your resume, right?
Janelle: Yes, yeah.
Sifu: It's, if you get the job, it worked. And, hopefully, HR doesn't find out.
Janelle: Yeah, I know.
Sifu: It would have been interesting for...just to go back to Bruce Lee for a second. It would have been interesting had he survived, because between...he died at 30-something Well, between 30 and 40, and 40 and 50, and 50 and 60, you begin to mature. And hopefully, you start to become the person that you were always meant to be. Right? I think, you know, me making it to the age that I've made it to and I'm still healthy and still vital and still full of energy, is a success that can't be measured in dollars, can't be written on your resume. You know what I mean?
Janelle: Yeah. So when you say that you're kind of backing away a little bit, I mean, what does retirement look like for you? Because people can still really benefit from your gifts. So why pull that away? Or...
Sifu: Well, I intend to continue being my teacher's student. I intend to continue teaching. I think I may be on my last group of adults and I'm thinking maybe sometime in the next 10 years, I may only concentrate on young children. And see what that does. My teacher feels that the Northern Shaolin style follows the rules of natural body development, right? Like, I taught all my children in Northern Shaolin. And they are all stronger and faster and smarter than a lot of the people around them. And I think that that means something.
I taught a lot of people. When I was in Los Angeles, I had thousands of students. And out of those thousands, there are several hundreds of people who are all at the top of their game in their careers, you know, cinematographers, police officers, military operatives, you know. I've been blessed to meet some amazing people. One of my students is an intelligence officer in the army and he's also a Delta Force operative.
And I asked him once. I said, "Don't they teach you how to kill people with your bare hands?" And he says, "Well, yeah, of course." I said, :Well, how does that compare to what I taught you?" And he said, "Sifu, it doesn't hold a candle to what you've shown." He says, "I'm above and beyond most of these people from my experience with you." So that's made me feel really good.
Janelle: Yeah. Would you say that most of your serious students come to you with, like, a level of humility or have you had to, like, take some people aside and say, "Look, I know you think you know a lot, but you have to come here with, you know, the expectation that you have everything to learn and nothing to offer yet at this point"?
Sifu: I've never had that conversation with people because martial arts, in its developmental phases, causes all sorts of human reactions. You know, the ego swells. I've even noticed people that get to a certain level, and who started out to be very humble people and ended up turning into bullies or a-holes, excuse my French. But it does all sorts of things. For me, it has humbled me on so many levels. I learned how to fight and defend myself a long time ago. But that's only a small part of the martial arts.
The real essence of martial art is learning to control your own blood, breath, body, and your chi, your lifeforce energy. And then, after you've reached a certain level, you're able to regulate your opponent's body, blood, breath, chi, right? That the practice and use of weapons teaches you how to extend your lifeforce energy beyond your own fingertips and through a weapon and through your opponent's weapon into their body. You know, there's...without...you know, martial art is mystical. It should be mystical, but it shouldn't be woo-woo.
Janelle: So, but I guess what I'm wondering is, like, do most of your students come with, like, a teachable attitude? Or do they have to...
Sifu: I've been lucky. I've made some mistakes teaching and some of my students have made some mistakes. But I think in my class, most of my students have been long-term. And through that long term, we've all expanded our path of self-discovery. And again, I think that's what the martial art is about. It's about self-discovery. It's about the self-revelation. It's about spiritual growth, in my opinion.
Janelle: Yeah. So what would be, like, some of the key advice that you've given to your students?
Sifu: Well, kind of, I've got all sorts of little ciphers that I tell my students. I teach them the principle of martial art and I teach them the rules of engagement of martial art. But I let people know that it's not just about learning how to fight. I mean, you know, any monkey can ball up a fist and shove it in someone's face, right? But how many people can learn to make their movement and their life a work of art? And so I think that's the big message that's in the martial art is I think that you...
How does my teacher say it? My teacher says that there are several stages of learning a martial art. The first stage is you learn mobility and flexibility. In the second stage, you learn strength and endurance. And in the third stage, you learn how to apply what you've learned against your resisting opponent. And then that the fourth stage is what they call the self-awareness training. And that stage of study will dictate whether or not the student becomes just another fighter, or an enlightened martial artist, right?
And then we could talk about what that means to be an enlightened martial artist. And I can't say that I've achieved any level of enlightenment, but most certainly, my life has been enriched by what I've learned so far.
Janelle: Yeah. Who do you think has been, like, the most enlightened mentor that you've worked with? Like, what do you hope to someday...like, how do you hope to become like that person someday?
Sifu: Well, my teacher, for sure, he's one of the smartest and wisest men I've ever met. He teaches in Southern California, at the Northern Shaolin Kung Fu Association and he's worked very hard there. So he's one of my idols, and my father, teacher. The other one, my yoga teacher, Yogi John Frangioni [SP], was another near enlightened, crazy, [inaudible 00:36:05] genius. I mean, he could do straight leg chin to toe, you know. He'd kick himself in the forehead. He really understood the essences of yoga and the Ha [SP] and the Ta [SP] essence of yoga. And so I learned quite a bit from him. Outside of my own family, those are probably two of my greatest heroes.
And then, you know, I've had the pleasure of meeting, like I mentioned, David Wei. And there are other martial art teachers and masters, very humble people, that I've met over the years, who had extraordinary skills, and were kind enough and were friendly enough to just share things with me. And I'm really glad I didn't meet them in a dark alley.
Janelle: Yeah. gosh. Well, so how would you say, like, air bending, the bending movement and all that, how much of it can you explain to the Westerner, like, some of the things that look kind of magical? Is it possible to explain how it works? Or is it, like, we'd have to be a student of yours for many years to be...
Sifu: No, no. It's actually kind of simple. So when they came to me in the beginning, they were just looking for cool moves to put with their magical bending and they had some ideas about it. And so that I got very specific, and I said, "Hey, well, Tai Chi is a lot, you know, the flowing of water, right?" The the five elements is a true thread of thought for all the Asian martial art, right? And so I said, "Let's go ahead and assign particular arts to the particular bending. And that way, it'll give it a substance in reality, right?"
One of the offshoots was that, you know, 30 years ago, there was never a child in a Tai Chi class, right? And so when "Avatar" became famous, people would contact me over the internet. It's when the internet first started getting popular. And they were like, "We don't know who you are or where you're from, but for the first time ever, we've got children in our Tai Chi class. Thank you."
Janelle: Oh, that's awesome.
Sifu: Yeah. So anybody who's got kids in their class, because of our TV show should send me $1. I'll give you [crosstalk 00:38:47].
Sifu: My God.
Janelle: Well, what do kids have to learn when they start? Like, because they probably come ready to, like, become part of the myth. And I mean, but you probably don't want to crush that idea, either. Like, you want to work with that.
Sifu: Well, I don't teach children, first off. My teacher does. And I think he's gotten a few students that have come because of the popularity of "Avatar." He teaches mainly in the Chinese community, and he is about the promotion of traditional Chinese culture. So I have a lot of students come to me and they were enamored with the TV show and so I have to bring them back to reality pretty quick and go, "You know, that's just a cartoon. You know, all of those bend moves that you like are built on traditional martial arts. But what I'm teaching is not bending."
So I think I may have busted a few bubbles or hurt a couple of feelings or something like that. But most people get it. The other side of it is, oh my God, I've met so many people and gone to so many places, you know, after my association with that project. I got invited to hundreds of Comic-Cons, which are a thing in and of themselves. If you've never been to a comic book convention, they are something else. And then...
Janelle: Yeah. I haven't but I've seen a lot of people, you know, friends going to those [crosstalk 00:40:18].
Sifu: And, you know, people dressing up in costume is always cute. And I mean, you get to be your favorite superhero for a day. There's nothing wrong with that.
Janelle: Yeah, yeah.
Sifu: You know, I think anything that occurs in this life that allows you to meet people and make friends with people it's... I think, quite frankly, had I not done that work on that show, I would have never met David Wei. I met David Wei one day when I was being interviewed at "Kung Fu Magazine." And I went to dinner with Jean Ching [SP]. And, you know, David was a fan of the show. And one of the coolest things for me over the years is that, legit martial artists, I mean, people that are real badasses, have contacted me and been fans of the show. And they could see the traditional martial art. They could see the amount of work that went into the show.
You know, they nobody thought that stuff up. They filmed me doing a particular antic. And then drew, frame by frame, me performing that antic. And then, you know, applying a character's face to that throughout that motion. The world of animation, 2D animation, they would send most of it to Asia to do what they...they draw keyframes, but there's the in-betweens, what they call, tweens, that you have to draw.
And so the problem with that is that the guy who's drawing that or the lady that's drawing that, you know, they're getting the same money, whether they're drawing "Tom and Jerry," you know, or stick figures or detailed martial art motions with particular geometries flowing through and animated real-time. And I think the people that ended up working on this was a Korean studio, Studio Mir. They really earned their money. This stuff was not easy.
The kids who created the show, they were overwhelmed at one point by what they realized they had undertaken. But corners were not cut, details were applied, and we created something legendary together. And let me also say that, that those shows, no one person could take credit for those shows. Those shows were the result of hundreds, even thousands of people working in concert to create each and every one of those episodes. Every episode of Avatar, for instance, cost over $1 million. You know, 22 minutes of animation.
Sifu: Yeah. And that was all the consultants, that was all the artists, that was storyboard artists, that was directors, that was the writers. I would be real surprised in the future if they were able to come up with anything even close to that because it was a magical dream team of people that came together to create that show.
Janelle: That is so awesome that you got to be a part of it. Like, that just sounds so much fun and rewarding to see, like, you know, real Northern Shaolin skills being shown in a cartoon fashion and that the animators took such pride in incorporating all the tiny little movements that they could have maybe left out.
Sifu: There was a lot of pushback, you know, on the business side of it, of course. The producers were...they couldn't understand why they had to pay a consultant the type of money they were paying me. And a bunch of people went to bat for me and said, "No, no, no, no, you don't understand. We can't do that without this guy, you know, we're doing this thing." And then after the first season came out, and the numbers started coming back, you know, then I found myself in somebody's office being patted on the back repeatedly.
Janelle: Right, right.
Sifu: Because the business side is totally different from the creative side. So, you know.
Janelle: Yeah. If you could pick your own project and maybe have full control over it, what would you like to work on?
Sifu: Interesting, you would say that. My friends and I created a show called...this is the first time I'm going to say this on a public broadcast but it's important that people should know. We created a show called, "The Legends of a Swords Society." And it was a journey, discovery, adventure with a bunch of young people in a China-esque land. And we intended to include them going to, you know, all the tribes of the world where, you know, there would be African people, there would be European people, there would be Asian people, there would be indigenous people from various continents.
And I took it to Disney. Disney looked at it, told me they weren't interested in doing it. And then they did "Raya and the Last Dragon," which was not my story, but it is my show. They ripped me off completely. And then we did another show called "The Scavengers," which was my kung fu space pirates. So don't get me wrong. I'm not a writer, but I saw how the business worked and I decided to take a shot at it. And so I also took that to Disney XD brand. They're a bunch of thieving liars. And they took all the elements from my show that they liked, and they married it into the newest generation of the "Star Wars" stuff.
Janelle: Oh, gosh.
Sifu: The Donnie Yen character that was in one of the most recent "Star Wars," was the exact character of one of the members of my crew on my little kung fu spaceship journey. Which, I was inspired, I think, by the TV show "Serenity" to do that one. And I think my inspiration to do "Legends of Sword Society" was the movie, "The Bride with White Hair," and a couple of other Taoist [inaudible 00:46:31] movies.
But basically, I was looking for a way to put my kung fu surfboard on. I wanted to really immerse the audience in the process and discovery and the pain of learning kung fu. And so it was a martial art school on a spaceship. I think "Cowboy Bebop" kind of influenced me for that one too. But...
Janelle: Did you have any of your own animators or were you hoping that that's where Disney would have done the right thing?
Sifu: Oh, no, we did our own artwork. I worked with a young man by the name of Russell Brown [SP], who I've never met in person. And Russell brought to life all these amazing characters it's...
Janelle: You guys should release it on your own.
Sifu: Yeah, it never worked out that way. But this is some of the artwork from the show. Spaceships and a character that looks a lot like me and a blind swordsman, and this guy was one of my favorites. This was the crazy Rasta captain that was on the show.
Janelle: Oh, that's awesome.
Sifu: And I can't seem to find it right now, but if I were to show you the "Legends of the Swords" stuff, it's...let's see. I'll keep looking. But I can never find anything I'm looking for when I'm looking for it.
Janelle: You should show us your swords too that you sent me earlier.
Sifu: Oh, yeah, that's easy enough. The story behind these is that I practiced with all of these. And some of them are really, really beautiful pieces.
Janelle: Love it. Those are gorgeous.
Sifu: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I brought several of them on my many trips to China and I was gifted a few of them here. A couple of them are from my teacher. And yeah, I've been a sincere practitioner of Chinese martial arts since about 20 years old. I started [inaudible 00:49:02] in 1977, 1978. And I think I opened my first school in '91. And it's been a great journey. I don't regret anything except my involvement with Hollywood.
Janelle: Maybe a love/hate relationship with him, or is it pure hate?
Sifu: No, I don't hate anyone. I really don't. I've taken everything as a lesson. You know?
Janelle: Yeah. Yeah.
Sifu: You don't really learn anything well unless you get your nose rubbed in it. You know, that's all about growth. And, you know, nowadays, you know, people are all about, once you're good at something you should monetize, right? I'm a bit of a warrior, poet, priest as opposed to a merchant or a salesman. So that's kind of where I am right now.
Janelle: Well, what would your students like you to share about yourself? What are... I bet they all, like, love something about you that they think our audience should know. I'm going to ask it that way because I think you're a humble guy, and you might not say it otherwise.
Sifu: My students, I have been blessed with some of the most amazing people ever. And it's always fate. You know, it's always kind of, you know, just the luck of the draw if you find a sincere and legitimate kung fu teacher or if you find someone who's just running a business, right? And so, I've never run it as a business. Although I'd made money teaching martial arts. I had thousands of students in Los Angeles, and I was able to make quite a nice living there. But Los Angeles has its own dynamic, of course.
Since I've been in Colorado, I teach a much smaller group and the inroads and tribes that I've made with these young people, they're mind-bending, they're breathtaking. I've helped and watch people grow to their fullest potential and I am proud to have taken part in that.
Janelle: That's so incredible. Yeah.
Sifu: Yeah. Mentioning David Wei again, I actually went all the way to China and hung out with him and his teacher at Wudang. And we had a great time running around China together.
Janelle: Oh, that's nice.
Sifu: Because if you ever want to have fun in China, go with David Wei. He was a funny guy. I love that man.
Janelle: Oh, that's funny. That's awesome. Well, before our show started, you were rubbing some Bruise Juice on your toe.
Janelle: Did you get rid of any of that?
Sifu: Yeah, my toe feels much better.
Janelle: What did you do to your toe?
Sifu: Oh, I was teaching my opponent the other day. I was teaching my opponent...my student to throw and he was really surprised that it worked. And I came down, like, on my bent toe, and kind of jammed it backwards. So it was about as red and bruised and swollen as a big toe gets. So the Bruise Juice is helping. Plum Dragon, get it.
Janelle: Yeah. Well, before we wrap up, was there anything else that you were hoping to share? Did we cover it all?
Sifu: I believe I probably shared more than I meant to. I was a little shy thinking about talking to you because I've actually gotten really humble lately. I don't have a lot to say, except to my students and about the martial art. And I've grown from this experience. I started out wanting to learn how to not get beat up by bullies and learn how to control myself and how to give myself radiant health into my old age. So I think I'm probably more successful than I ever set out to be.
Janelle: Yeah, oh, well, that's good. I'm so glad. And let's see. Can you still get into any unique forms? Are you super flexible and bendable?
Sifu: I still got splits three ways and can still grab my foot and pull it up to my head.
Janelle: Wow. Oh, my goodness.
Sifu: I really messed up my shoulder from snowboarding. They say skiers will injure their knees, but snowboarders will have upper-body injuries. I'm six-foot-three so when I get body slammed, I really get it body slam. So but kung fu has made me a better snowboarder. I went yesterday and did about five, six hours and didn't fall once.
Janelle: Oh, that's good.
Sifu: Yesterday was a good day, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Janelle: It looked beautiful. I saw that picture you sent me of the snow.
Sifu: Yeah, yeah. It was really awesome. If you guys go across my Instagram page, people can find me, Kisu Stars on Instagram. I think my tag is lophopkuen, L-O-K-H-O-P-K-U-E-N, if anybody wants to track me down there. But yeah.
Janelle: Well, we'll link to that so people can find you and they can hit you with some more questions.
Sifu: Yeah. I want to make my way up to Utah sometime and put in some turns with you one day.
Janelle: Yeah, exactly. That would be fun. And yeah, I have a fortunate circumstance to work from home. And although just to clarify, Plum Dragon's headquarters are in Chester, Maryland. But yeah, I get to enjoy the mountains and some skiing. So it's been a lot of fun.
Sifu: Well, I believe in your products maybe we can talk about representing some of them here in Colorado.
Janelle: Yeah, absolutely.
Sifu: I know a lot of my friends are always... My...I've got, like, a big bottle of Jow that I've had in my closet that I've had for about 30 years and my friends keep begging me for some. And I'm getting stingy now.
Janelle: Oh, okay. Yeah. You can make a whole gallon jug with some of our herb packs as well.
Sifu: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I...
Janelle: And we have an affiliate program. So, yeah.
Sifu: Okay. The bottle I have right now, I got the herbs from my friend, Don Hanby [SP], who's a Hung Ga Master. And then there's another formula that's attributed to our Great Master, Ku Yu Cheung Iron Palm Master. That particular formula I haven't seen in years. I had a couple of herb packets of that after a few moves, it's either in a box or it's gone.
Janelle: You should compare that to our Ku Yu Cheung formula. See what you think.
Sifu: I would like to very much. Thank you. Yeah.
Janelle: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us, even though you are shy about doing these interviews. We really appreciate you doing that. I'll have to thank David again for convincing you to come on our show. And...
Sifu: I'll see you soon, again, I hope.
Janelle: Okay, sounds good. Thank you have a good one.
Sifu: Thanks again, Janelle. Okay. You too.
Janelle: Bye. We also thank our listeners for joining us today. For show notes and links to information shared with you, visit us at plumdragonherbs.com. And if you liked this episode, we'd love for you to share and subscribe wherever you like to listen. If this episode has sparked more questions for you, we invite you to check out our new private forum where you can get answers to some of your toughest questions on herbalism and martial arts. Click the banner at the top of our website page for more information. Until next time.