Tai chi, friendship, old iPhones and rock ’n‘ roll
It used to be a unique scene in New York’s neighborhood parks when Chinese immigrants would gather in the morning and go through the graceful and mysterious motions of tai chi.
Nowadays practitioners of the traditional martial art in New York can be seen regularly on Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, Lincoln Center, virtually everywhere.
“Tai chi is like an open secret among the upper class of New York,” said film director You Jun, who has been shooting a documentary of New York-based tai chi master Ren Guangyi and his US students, who include a businessman, a Broadway tycoon, a doctor, musician, painter, policeman, writer, psychologist and a photographer, among others.
“I was surprised by [the American students’] extensive knowledge and deep understanding of tai chi,” said You. “It’s a big part of their lives.”
So devoted were those students to the martial art and their teacher that many of them, who have consistently turned down media requests, agreed to be filmed for You’s documentary.
Jonathan Miller, former CEO of AOL and chief digital officer of the News Corp, welcomed You and his film crew to visit his new tai chi resort in Upstate New York, which is currently under construction.
Laurie Anderson, avant-garde artist and widow of rock legend Lou Reed, who was a student of Master Ren for 12 years before he died, performed some of her electronic music that was inspired by tai chi’s concept of yin and yang.
“Tai chi has become more and more popular in the past 25 years in the US, and in the world,” said Ren, who studied with Chen-style Tai Chi Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang for eight years in China’s Henan province before moving to New York for his wife’s education in 1991.
His weekly group class has grown from two students to more than 30, and he has become a frequent visitor to many of Manhattan’s luxury apartments and brownstones, giving private lessons to the likes of actor Hugh Jackman, Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estee Lauder, and Freddie Gershon, chairman and CEO of Music Theatre International, a theatrical licensing agency.
Many of the students originally came to Ren for health reasons. One of them is Dr. Daniel Richman, a pain management specialist who often recommends that his patients try tai chi, which significantly helped his own neck pain that he was not able to cure himself.
Others came with a fondness for the Chinese martial art. A writer said tai chi helped him get in touch with the world and look people in the eye; a painter said tai chi helped her find inner peace; and a photographer said she just found tai chi to be very cool.
“Tai chi was born in China, but it’s for the world,” said Ren. “Now we see people around the world practicing yoga. Maybe one day they will turn to tai chi.”
You’s documentary will be aired on China Central Television sometime around the next Chinese New Year, the biggest annual holiday in traditional culture honoring the glory of ancestors.
“We often think Chinese immigrants in the US live in Chinatown and die in Chinatown, and they have no influence on mainstream society,” said You. “It’s not true. Now we see master Ren, who doesn’t speak much English, but makes a huge difference in the lives of these American elites.”
Master Ren Guangyi led a tai chi session at New York’s Lincoln Center on July 30. The martial arts performance kicked off a day-long tribute to The Velvet Underground rock legend Lou Reed.
Master Ren, who taught Reed for 12 years before he died in 2013 from liver disease, said Reed was his best student, and none of his others have ever reached his level of understanding of the ancient art.
Ren met Reed in 2002. “Lou was very interested in Chinese kung fu and had studied with other teachers,” said Ren. “After he watched me practice, he asked if I would give him private lessons.”
For six months, Ren went to Reed’s apartment several times a week, never knowing who Reed was. “We didn’t speak much. He’d let me in, we’d practice and he’d let me out,” said Ren.
“I had never heard of Lou Reed,” he said. “The only American celebrities I knew were Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. But I knew he must be important because two or three months in, I happened to notice a photo behind the door of him in front of the White House.”
Eventually, Ren learned about Reed’s fame and saw pictures of him on stage, never dreaming that one day he would be on the stage with him.
“One day in 2003, Lou let me in the apartment, and I said, ‘Let’s start’. But he said, ‘No, sit down, I have something to tell you’.”
Reed told him that both of his doctors said that his health had gotten a lot better since he started to practice tai chi with Ren.
“Lou said that I had changed his life and he invited me to perform with him,” Ren said.
Lou (Reed) said that I had changed his life and he invited me to perform with him.”
The first show was in Los Angeles, and Reed had to serve as translator for Master Ren. “My English was so terrible that only Reed could understand me,” he said with a laugh.
The show was a hit. Master Ren’s tai chi blended smoothly with Reed’s music. The two became partners on stage.
Ren flipped through photos of himself and Reed on his dated iPhone 4S, and it was slow viewing. When a reporter suggested he should get a newer, faster phone, Ren said:
“I should, but this was a gift from Lou when it was first released.”
Ren performed in more than two hundred shows with Lou Reed. Now on his own, he performs often for his best student and close friend.
Top: Ren Guangyi practices Chen-style tai chi. Above: Lou Reed and Ren Guangyi practice tai chi.