Monday, May 29, 2006


Chapter 1

Bruce Lee is reported to have issued this mandate to Taky Kimura, “Get a nondescript little place and work out there; have a good time, develop strong friendships and a good philosophy.”

Well, my martial arts odyssey through the Philippines and the United States did take me to countless nondescript little dojos, it is true, but also to colorful, unforgettable teachers. I had a good time, made many friends, and in the process, evolved my own martial arts philosophy. Here then is a collage of several dojos in the Philippines I trained it, from school gyms to parking lots, as well as the hardy and venerable Masters who presided over the training.


The very first martial arts system I trained in was in Kodokan judo, which in the 50’s was the premiere martial arts system in the Philippines. In fact, one of the biggest judo schools (called “clubs” in the Philippines) was run by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the counterpart of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The head of the NBI, Col. Lucban, was at that time the highest ranking Filipino judoka in the Philippines.

It was school summer break, and for a couple of months I trained at their school somewhere near Taft Avenue in Manila. This is where I got to wear my very first gi (called kimono back then) and my only accomplishments at this point consisted of learning how to tie my white belt properly and making my first acquaintance with “tatami” mats. The highlight of the class was always the “randori” or free-style sparring. All the black belts knelt in front of the class, and any lower belt student who wanted to spar would bow before the black belt of his choice, thus requesting the honor of sparring with him.

A few years later, I was one of the first students at my high school judo club, the Ateneo de Manila High School Judo Club in Loyola Heights, Quezon City. Every afternoon, after class, we would proudly don our gis, and roll out the judo mat at one of the corners of the huge school gym, called the “covered courts,” so called because there were rows of basketball courts with basketball hoops along the side. There we shared space with dozens of other students playing basketball, volleyball, chess and other intramural games.

Our first instructor was Jose “Pinggoy” Asuncion, a ruggedly handsome athlete and national judo champion many times over. Unfortunately, we enjoyed his martial arts expertise for only a few months. At that time, he was also co-hosting a TV show on Channel 7 (Bob Stewart’s channel) called “Judo and Quick Draw.” Judo and quick draw (yes, just like the westerns, except you cleared leather against an electronic clock, not a desperado) were not strange bedfellows since the host, Eddie Limjap, was an NBI agent, a judo black belt, a handgun instructor and a quick draw aficionado.

Anyway, Pinggoy was “discovered” and recruited into the movies. After a blockbuster debut titled “Diegong Tabak” wherein he showed off his ripped physique, martial arts prowess and histrionics, he found fame and fortune in the celluloid world as one of the nation’s top action stars with the screen name of “Vic Vargas.” Other top action stars of this period included Joseph “Erap” Estrada, the former disgraced President of the Philippines, karate master Tony Ferrer, former stuntman Jess Lapid and others. Sadly, I was informed a few years ago that Vic Vargas had passed away.

Back at the judo club, he was ably replaced by Master Florencio Arambulo, a Kodokan-trained judoka and veteran police officer of Quezon City, a suburb of Manila. When we asked him if he ever had to use his
martial arts skills in his work, he answered matter-of-factly, “Many times.”

Which leads me to an observation at this point. While Kodokan judo is strictly a dojo sport, the judo masters I knew were far from one-dimensional. Most of them cross-trained in either jiu-jitsu (called “combat Judo” in the Philippines), karate, arnis, or were active in law enforcement or military service. They were true warriors, street-wise and battle-tested, and developed the practical aspect of their art.


Most of the Chinese kung-fu schools in the Philippines in the 60’s were closed societies, open only to Chinese and usually ensconced deep in the heart of Chinatown. I was able to train in this style in two private dojos, one in a sports club across my college, De La Salle College on Taft Avenue, Manila, the other in a company-sponsored martial arts school.

The first school was taught by a sifu named Lito Vito. Together with his brother Teddy, Lito Vito was one of the first Filipinos to train in the closed kung-fu school of Hong Shi in Chinatown. Other than his tremendous kung-fu skills, I remember Lito Vito for being armed with small metal weapons he had in his pockets. They looked like finger rings with spikes or protrusions. One of the students in this school, a fellow student from La Salle named Manny Pleno, eventually became a noted kung-fu fighter and competitor in the 70’s in the Philippines. . Eventually, I also got to train privately with Lito’s brother, Teddy.

In the second dojo, we had several thousand square feet for training—the company parking lot during the dry season and the warehouse during the rainy season. The sifu was a Chinese-Filipino named Wilson Yap, who worked as a warehouse supervisor for the company and who also happened to be a bodybuilding champion. If you had the image of a slight kung-fu master doing balletic, flowery motions unsuited for street fighting, Wilson would have quickly dispelled this notion. He was built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and fought like Don “The Dragon” Wilson.

In addition, he revealed to us that his original school had a “breaking” requirement. Each one had to specialize in breaking with a specific technique, e.g., downward knife hand, straight knuckle punch, and so on. Wilson chose the rear roundhouse kick with the ball of his right foot. He showed us his right foot. Outwardly, it looked like a normal foot. But when he curled his toes up and “balled” his foot, the ball of his foot swelled to about three times its normal size. I have seen a lot of karate-toughened hands, but his was the only instance I had ever seen of a karate-toughened ball of the foot.

Wilson claimed that he could break an adobe block (a solid natural stone weighing at least 50 lbs. used in construction in the Philippines, usually for walls or fences) held head level. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to see him do this feat, but I have absolutely no doubt in my mind he was capable of such a feat.


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