Paul Brennan: ‘Kind-Of-Extremely-Violent’

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Blitz Magazine, January 2015

Southern Praying Mantis Kung Fu is among the most practical, street-ready forms of kung fu available. Paul Brennan can testify to that, having learned it on the tough streets of Kowloon, Hong Kong, from one of the progenitors of the style, Ip Shui.

Brennan had grown up in Mount Isa and moved to Brisbane as a child. While living there, he began his martial arts training.

“I began with tae kwon do, mainly because that’s all there was on offer. I was pushed into it by my brother and his friends. It wasn’t what I wanted; the internal aspect was missing.”

From there, Brennan soon found his way into kung fu.

“I studied a generic version of the style I do now; a very basic version of the Mantis system. I always felt when I was training that there was more to it, but my teachers didn’t have the answer. That’s the reason I went to Hong Kong in my early twenties.”

When he went to Hong Kong, it was long before martial artists regularly traced their styles back to their place of origin in the hope of participating in authentic training. This had a lot to do with the fact that foreign students were neither desirable – nor welcome.

The living master of the style, Ip Shui, was an almost mythological figure, spoken about in Brennan’s Australian academy as if he were as much a ghost as a man.

“He was the world authority. Everyone used to talk about him. There were all these stories that he wouldn’t help you; he’d take advantage of you. I went on a whim to find him. I felt it was what I had to do.

“At home in Mount Isa, there was an acupuncturist friend of mine who encouraged me to do this and follow this. I was at a good age to go; it was a good opportunity to learn from [the master] while he was alive.”

Long before the era of the internet and the smartphone, Brennan found himself in Hong Kong with little to help him find his way, or the man whose style he sought.

“I was twenty-four or twenty-five at that point. I didn’t know where I was going; I had a piece of paper the size of an iPhone with the name of the style written on it. I knew that Ip Shui was the grandmaster. I’d seen his picture just once.”

“I went to schools and asked – I must have gone around to probably fifteen schools – before I found the Mong Kok Martial Arts Association and got a different Mantis style.”

While Paul had found something, his gut told him it was not what he was looking for.

“After two weeks, I told them I was going to leave. I was still going to look for Ip Shui. They told me they didn’t know who he was. I found him three hundred meters down the same street!

“All the signs were in Chinese; I didn’t know how to read them. Later, Ip Shui was very angry they misled me. He wanted to go down the street and take on the fight.”

Hong Kong was a closed culture, a dog-eat-dog place even for the Chinese natives that called it home. For Paul, finding Ip Shui meant the real ordeal was about to begin.

“In Hong Kong, it’s a different atmosphere. It was a different area. It was very raw; people would fight to the death. [In Australia] we teach everyone until we discover they are idiots. In Hong Kong, they assess you straight away as to whether or not they want to teach you.

“[Ip Shui] had the ability to look inside your soul; language wasn’t important. He had the ability to look inside you, assess you, decide if he wanted anything to do with you or even have you in his house.”

Paul’s reaction to the grandmaster was, under the circumstances, quite reasonable.

“I was a bit scared. He was close to seventy, but he was ferocious. He looked like he was in his forties or fifties. [At that time in Kowloon, people] fought with no rules until someone fell over or died.”

This kind of practical application rendered the need for ‘pressure testing’ unnecessary.

“One of the customs in Hong Kong was when you went into a restaurant or a public place, you always sat with your back to the door and the master faced the door. There was also lots of full-contact sparring with no protection at all. Ever. A big part of training was getting used to being hit.”

Brennan had entered uncharted territory.

“I was the only white guy there,” he says. “There had been one prior to me. [Chow Gar administration] tried to get me to go to one of their branches, which was full of people they didn’t want to train. I was sent there to get conditioning.

“[Because Ip Shui had taken an interest] I was envied, so they beat me. Some of them wanted me to be permanently injured. [They were] all Chinese. Pissing blood was a regular occurrence; I even lost a few teeth.”

The toll of Brennan’s kung fu odyssey extracted a greater toll at home.

“I was in Kowloon city for nearly four years. The longest stint of being away from my kids was two years. They lived with their mother on a cattle station.”

When Brennan returned home, he found that his experience had changed him from the man he had been when he had married and started his family.

“My wife hadn’t changed; I had. I’d had too much vicious action against me for years. I’d been beaten daily, seven days a week. His son was pretty cruel to me. If I was broken or had something dislocated, Ip Shui looked after me. He wasn’t Hakka Chinese [himself], so he understood my position [as an outsider].”

Ironically, more training seemed to be the cure for a broken heart.

“After I had split from my wife, I went back to Kowloon for another year. I wanted to feel physical pain to equate the pain in my heart. I’d never been so heartbroken in my life. [It was] horrific. Really bad. If I could, I’d like to dedicate this story to my children, Justin Troy, Bianca Jade and Aceia Sharon, and my ex-wife, Loree Anderson.”

The decision to keep going may be at the core of what made Brennan the martial artist he has become.

“If I came home, then I would be coming home and leaving something half-finished. I’d broken through [into] something that no one had ever achieved. I was nearly there; nearly finished. Would I respect myself when I was fifty, sixty? I knew I wouldn’t.

“I was getting something that I knew no one else in Australia had. I was learning from someone that no one else in Australia knew. I was the only one that had it.”

Single-minded purpose became Brennan’s road to redemption. That dedication took him into the essence of his style, and distinguished him from every other practitioner in Australia.

“[Southern Mantis,] the actual use of the body, the way it moved and generated force, is all about the concept and science of isometrical pressure exercises, which we call ‘Bridge Training exercises’. The Cantonese word literally means ‘bridge’, the connection between two bodies.

“As your training increases, so does your sensitivity of power between two bodies to develop resistance energy within the other body. When they [Brennan’s original school] were doing it here, it was just an arm exercise. The more you train, the more you get heavy and reactive internally.”

“He’s just too powerful, that’s the problem,” says Jeremy Small, a student of some twenty years of Sifu Brennan. “If he uses full power on you, you’ll just get wrecked. If you’re not fit and able to handle him, you’ll end up getting hurt.

The drawback of Southern Mantis is the essence of what makes it difficult to learn.

“It’s very painful; the attrition rate for Mantis is very high. Over time, you might keep four per cent of your original students.”

It is at that point of difficulty that the maxim ‘The more senior the status, the more hidden the artist becomes’ apparent.

“The more you train it, the deeper it goes. There’s no finish to it.”

According to Small, the immense focus required is part of the high attrition rate amongst students.

“The system is technically specific. It’s hard not to get caught up in a wrestling-type motion… [It’s] easy to get caught up in what the [opponent is] doing. The point is to maintain form… the form is the key to the power.

“You have to maintain form while doing the partner exercises. Sifu is very specific on keeping form correct and keeping the system authentic. That’s the crux of it; that’s what makes him different.”

Successful Sifu have developed strategies over time to combat this intense pressure. Brennan’s Sifu, Sibagung Ng Si Kay, speaks of the importance of ‘play’.

“The Chinese classify [training] as play; it’s a mental concept that allows them to train all the time. In Ip Shui’s day, they would train between four and five hours a day, seven days a week.

“The Chinese work out a way to not worry. Sometimes, we train seven hours a day. Sifu [Sibagung Ng Si Kay] is seventy-five years old. He’s like a kid – he loves it.”

Once Brennan had endured years of punishment to get inside Chow Gar, it was time to return home and introduce the authentic Mantis style to Australia. The effect was profound.

“I came back to Brisbane and set up a school, and a medical clinic. It’s called ‘Hit and Fall Medicine’, which is the way it translates from Cantonese to English. My school started off with another instructor from a different Mantis School; I asked him if he wanted to do some training.

“Then, next time, he bought four instructors and by the end of the month, I had a class of 30 students. [Southern Mantis] was unseen [at that time]. It was a completely different system.”

Jeremy Small explains that his introduction to Sifu Brennan was the result of coincidence.

“I had a black belt in Aikido, but I was taking a break – I had injured my neck in training. I wanted to learn a stand-up system. Aikido is non-violent. Kung fu is kind-of-extremely- violent.”

Small was training with a different school at the time, under Sifu Malcolm Sue.

“One day, all the instructors left en masse to go and train with Paul.”

The quality of Sifu Brennan that made a profound initial impression was his raw physical power.

“His power was the most amazing thing. He’s a natural athlete and has a tenacious ability to train incredibly hard.”

That tenacity was, according to Small, what allowed Brennan to become the instructor he is.

“In [Hong Kong], they couldn’t help themselves; they used to line up ten-deep to smash him. Four years later, he was smashing them. [Brennan then] swore at them in Cantonese about their mothers so they would beat him harder.”

Essential to the Chow Gar system is medicine.

“All kung fu systems have their own,” says Brennan. “Many masters focus on their clinics when they get sick of [teaching].”

Just as medicine is integral to kung fu, so too was medicine and healing an essential part of Brennan’s education.

“I was involved because grandmaster was involved and I lived with him and his wife. [They were elderly and] needed someone to help with the clinic. He would make poultices and pitches and I would apply them. It was good for him and good for me.”

Paul Brennan’s ‘Hit and Fall Medicine’ continues to take up a substantial amount of his time.

“I treat about sixty people a week; it’s been like that now for twenty years. Always busy. Southern Mantis develops a strong, claw-like hand, which allows you to get in there with great sensitivity. It’s a fine line; if you push too hard you damage it, or not push hard enough and not help.”

“In wing chun, you see a lot of damaged hands and shoulders. Muay Thai is neck and lower back. Boxing, wrestling, whatever: [Hit and fall Medicine] deals with trauma from falling, over-training, any sort of practise.”

“His medicine is excellent,” says Jeremy Small. “I [originally] had an aikido injury to my neck and couldn’t have a break fall. It locked up all the time. [Brennan’s] medicine fixed it. He’s fixed heaps of injuries I’ve had over the years – most of them from training with him!

“He’s actually got people out of wheelchairs. Their bodies were so mangled from car wrecks… There was a sky-diver who had hit the deck, he didn’t break his back, but his body was full of scar tissue. Within eight months, [Brennan] had the guy walking and exercising.”

Small says that Brennan’s ‘Hit and Fall Medicine’ demonstrates the dichotomy at the centre of his persona as a teacher.

“He can go from the caring parent to the stern master. It’s the yin and the yang of the mental.”

While martial arts such as karate and tae kwon do have spawned large organizations, kung fu remains disparate and separate. Brennan says that this is to the benefit, rather than the detriment, of the style.

“It’s beneficial because the system gets taught properly. [Chow Gar] takes long, one-on-one periods of time to teach because of its immense complexity. That makes it difficult to train large groups of people.”

Ultimately, it’s a matter of quality control.

“You need to associate yourself with the best person and devote yourself to them. That way, you end up with ninety per cent, instead of twenty per cent. [Poor quality artists] go with the twenty instead of the ninety because that’s too much commitment.

“It boils down to integrity, intelligence and the will of a person to persist and endure, regardless of the style or origin.”

That old-school approach governs Brennan’s belief that kung fu competition should be prevented from reaching a sporting threshold.

It’s not a sport, it’s a martial art. Conceptually, it was never allowed to be a sport. As soon as you commericalize something and turn it into a sport, you lose its value.”

Chow Gar has recently entered the limelight after Sifu Ng Si Kay claimed that ‘Other styles do not match Chow Gar’ and that if challenged by a master of another style he could ‘take his power away from him’. Brennan is quick to return the comment to its proper context.

“That was a little bit misunderstood,” he says. “The technique for the captivation of internal air… other styles don’t go there, but this one does.” Implicit in this technique is the beauty of the Southern Mantis style.

“Because this style is only three-hundred years old, the information is still accessible. It will take your body to a lot of places that other styles won’t take it.”

In closing, Brennan tells a moving story about his mentor, Ip Shui.

“On my last visit he asked me what I would do when he died. I told him I would never forget.”

He does this by passing on what he learnt in the manner it was taught to him.

 “I try and maintain an honest integrity to things by keeping them original. Not copying, not mimicking. I don’t mix it with elements from other styles. I keep to the way they taught me. Over a long period of time, it changes you.”

It is uncertain as to whether Brennan is referring to the physical or spiritual.

“Men like [Ip Shui] are very rare and I was lucky enough to have some time with him. It took ten years to get to know him. After that, they adopt you. They’d discipline you, scorn you like a child. You lost your grandfather when he passed away.”

Ip Shui remains present in the Chow Gar style as taught by Paul Brennan.

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