Tai chi, friend­ship, old iPhones and rock ’n‘ roll

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By HEZI JIANG in New York hez­i­jiang@chi­nadai­lyusa.com By HEZI JIANG in New York

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.

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