American Shaolin: An Interview with Matthew Polly
Greetings fellow readers,
It has been a while since I had the chance to sit down and write a blog post as I have been incredibly busy setting up the class format and structure for Personal Protection Training's new weekend classes to be held at the Holistic Business Hub in Bentleigh, finalising requirements for security company and keeping a watchful eye over my instructors and ranking them for the next grade (special congratulations go to Annette who has now earnt her Yellow Shirt.)
Despite all that is going on around me I am also taking care of my health issues among other important obligations. Setting up, not one but two businesses is incredibly challenging, and its even harder when you have family commitments to attend to. I hopefully will have all of that sorted in the near future and have a thriving business.
Today's post is very special as I had the opportunity to interview someone who has achieved much in his life, and I first read about his story when my brother Patrick's former partner Pauline bought me a book called 'American Shaolin' for Christmas about 5 years ago. This book for me has brought me much joy and I remember reading it cover to cover on Boxing Day, the day after I got it. I locked myself away in my Mum's bedroom whilst the family were over to visit so I could read it in peace. I have to say this book as well as Andre Agassi's "Open" has to be one of the best books I have ever read!
I was hooked from start to finish. I always dreamed as a young impressionable teenager that I would one day study the art of Kung Fu. 18 years later I am training in the art of Hei Ban Wing Chun Kung Fu, which was taught to my Sifu, Mr Andrew "Bruce" Leader. I have been learning with Sifu Bruce since December 2016, and can honestly say that Kung Fu is something I would be very keen to master, my footwork and fitness have greatly improved and I have had to learn to develop patience when learning the art. It has taught me to become more fluid and has also reconnected me with the spiritual side of my training.
My CQC training will always play a massive role in my syllabus and my security work but now I want to focus on my Kung Fu as well as newly acquired Pacific Archipelago Concept training that was taught to Hock Hocheim by his teachers Remy and Ernesto Presas. It has been an honour to be one of the small minority of instructors world wide who has been taught this system of PAC, and whilst only a basic instructor in that system, I am impressed with the flow and practicality of the drills. I now teach what I have learnt to my special needs students and they are grasping the concepts rather quickly despite their ASD diagnosis. My ASD students get excited when I come to their home with my Kali sticks in hand, as they know they will have fun and learn something that stimulates the mind and is practical.
Unfortunately, I will never get to meet the Presas brothers as both have passed on, much like my Sifu's instructor Grand Master Leung Kwok-Keung (Liang Guo-Qiang). But, I am confident under the guidance of Hock, Wayne Bubb and Sifu Bruce, I will continue to learn and develop and become a master of these arts.
Back to today's post when Matthew agreed to do an interview with me I was beside myself. It would be the equivalent of a young teenage girl meeting Justin Bieber for the first time. Matthew didn't brush me off, or ignore my Facebook messages requesting an interview, in fact he actually responded to me and that is what made me realise he is really a terrific role model for those who are looking for inspiration. He does care about his fans.
The fact he has also written two other books which I am yet to read, and I am certain they will be nothing short of brilliant. Anyway, without further ado here is the one and only Matthew Polly!
I was given a copy of your book ‘American Shaolin’ by my former sister in law several years ago. I was hooked from start to finish!
I'm so happy to hear that you enjoyed the book.
Can you tell me how you got interested in learning about the Chinese Culture and what prompted you to study Shaolin Kung Fu?
I was one of those skinny, bullied kids who dreamed of being a superhero. When I was 12 I saw Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon for the first time and he leapt off the screen into my imagination. I wanted to be a kung fu master like him.
To partake in your quest you dropped out of university and wished to use money from your college fund to finance this endeavour much to your parents dismay. Have they been supportive of you since returning from China all those years ago?
When I sold the book and movie rights to it, my dad forgave me. Kidding! Mostly. My parents were relieved when I came back and finished college and then went to graduate school. They were afraid I was going to ruin my life. Then I became a writer and they were sure I had ruined it.
As you mentioned also that there was no internet back then, was it difficult to find the Shaolin temple you were so desperately seeking?
Nowadays you can go on Google and see live images of the Shaolin Temple. When I went there in 1992, there were no directions. Even in China very few people knew where it was. It was like a mythical place that only existed in the movies. When I arrived in Beijing I asked around for four days before I finally found someone who knew where it was.
Who was the most helpful and friendly person that you had met at the Wushu centre? Do you still keep in touch after all these years?
Monk Deqing became my teacher and best friend. He was the most talented monk at the Shaolin Temple. He could jump onto a wall and run across it for 7 or 8 steps. I used to try that and could never manage more than 2. He moved to Europe and opened a kung fu school. Every few years we call each other on the phone.
You mentioned that in the style of Small Red Boxing that it took a while to learn basic movements. I’m studying the art of Hei Ban Wing Chun Kung Fu and spent many months just learning the movements. I am onto my first form after many months of practice?
How did you find the experience of learning Kung fu?
It was slow and difficult, particularly the stretching. I was very stiff when I started and it took months to loosen up. The most difficult part was to keep training when I was sore and tired. Many days I wanted to quit. I'm glad I didn't.
You spent much time ‘eating bitter’. Could you explain that more to our readers and what you went through?
The Chinese believe the key to learning kung fu is to "eat bitter," by which they mean "to suffer." It is not supposed to be easy. With constant, daily practice it is supposed to take 3 years to be decent and 10 years to master a particular style of martial arts. For me, learning kung fu was very hard but also very satisfying. I enjoyed being able to focus on only one thing at a time for weeks and weeks.
China has undergone many changes since you were there in the early 90s. Do you still visit China and train over there?
I have visited China twice since I left Shaolin in 1995. The country keeps getting rich and more modern every time I visit. That's good for the people, but I sorta miss the way it was. It's been over five years since I last went. I hope to go again soon.
I remember seeing a news clipping of you during a tournament parade and one of you winning a silver medal. Are you still recognised by the locals after all these years?
Ha, no, the locals don't remember me any more. It's like when college graduates return to their schools after many years. The current students don't really care about the old guys.
I thought I would ask you more about your new book about Bruce Lee. What makes this book unique amongst other titles about the one and only Bruce Lee?
Many book have been written about Bruce Lee, but the last biography about him was 25 years ago, and to be honest it wasn't that good. My book is the first comprehensive biography of Bruce Lee. I spent 7 years working on it. I spent 6 months living in Hong Kong for my research. Most books about Bruce Lee don't really spend any time on his upbringing in China, because the author's can't speak Chinese and don't understand the culture. Given my background in China and with kung fu, I believe I was able to write about Bruce with greater depth than others.
Writing this book did you have any trouble with anyone for challenging the legend of Bruce Lee and the history of his legacy?
Bruce Lee has a lot of fans. I know, because I am one of them. Some of his fans are protective of his image. My believe is the best way to honor our heroes is to write the truth about them.
Finally, after success in Kung Fu, your foray into MMA and being a prolific author do you have any words of encouragement for readers wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Writing like kung fu is hard. It takes many years to master and even then it is still hard. The best way to succeed is to keep practicing every day.