Chan Siu Dek, aka "Jimmy H. Woo"
Family accounts now hold that Chan Siu Dek was born in Sanba Town, Taishan City, Guandong Province, China, in the early 1900's.
began training as a child, but we're unsure exactly how old he
Various assertions range from four years old to seven years old, but he
told one of us his
father started teaching him at six.
As with many of the confusing accounts, the disparity could be something as simple as this: he
may have begun form practice on his
own at four, began to learn technique from his
father at six, and began formal training at seven.
Some recent accounts through Chan Sai Mo also suggest that in addition to Chan Siu Hung's Hero's Victory, Hung Sing Choy Li Fut training, Chan Siu Hung studied Hung Gar and Eagle Claw , suggesting that Chan Siu Dek
may possibly have known at least something of those art families as well.
Chan Siu Dek
was first a fighter by nature.
great uncle not only taught him technique, but constantly urged him to fight with others around him in the streets of China from his
early childhood to test and employ those techniques.
also learned the uncommon skill of almost completely dissassociating himself from consequences.
would rather kill than loose a fight.
would rather die.
So any opponent had to face a tough fighter, trained and practiced at techniques designed to injure, maim, or kill, and was perfectly willing to go to the extreme in an escalation.
And that extreme was not unlike the 100 pound woman who goes mad, requiring five strong men to place her
in a straight jacket, or the teen ager who lifts an automobile off of his
injured brother with his
These traits did not make Chan Siu Dek unbeatable, but they definitely made him formidable.
While Kung Fu San Soo is a remarkable fighting art — admittedly among many notable fighting arts — perhaps the art did not so much make Chan Siu Dek
a great fighter, as his instructional efforts, real world examples, and training methods made Kung Fu San Soo a great art for true fighters.
The Guandong province of China, where Chan Siu Dek was born and raised, where his fighting ancestors opposed the inequities imposed on them by the Qing Dynasty, was the principal source for Chinese labor immigrating to America.
About the time the Japanese invaded Southern China in the mid 1930's, or perhaps in anticipation a little earlier, family sources tell us that they arranged a passport for Chan Siu Dek
under the assumed name, "Kun Haw Woo" , so he
could travel to meet his
father, who according to some important sources, had immigrated to America through Mexico 12 years earlier.
We are told he
later changed it to "Jimmy Haw Woo" at the suggestion of an American teacher.
Although some sources insist he
arrived at the Port of Los Angles directly by steamship, given the immigration situation for Chinese in the early 1930's, we find it highly unlikely.
We imagine that like his
father before him, he
most likely came into America illegally from Mexico.
On their respective arrivals, they very likely found food, shelter, and support from the benevolent society in Los Angeles China Town, the Hop Sing Tong
Probably because of the Exclusion Act, his
mother remained behind.
is said to have sent her
money while she
was alive, he
never saw her
Given the mistrust by the Chinese after decades of American persecution, concerns about the Immigration Service, and fear about how his
mother might be treated by the Communists in China, Chan Siu Dek
apparently tried to keep an intelligent profile.
insisted that he
was born in Hawaii until the end of his
life, thereby implying that he
was an American citizen by birth under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, and always went by his
assumed legal name, Jimmy H. Woo.
This is particularly poignant because he
was in fact a member of the very famous Choy Li Fut Chan clan with roots going all the way back to Chan Heung, the founder of Choy Li Fut, and while he
did often assert it, he
really freely couldn't use it to publicly support his
At the peak of Chinese labor, there were more than 500,000 Chinese working in America.
By the time Chan Siu Dek
arrived in the early 1930's, repatriation, discouragement, and death had reduced that number to less than 25,000.
The Great Depression was raging with 25% unemployment.
Similar accounts claim Chan Siu Dek
sometimes visited Lau Bun at his
Tsoi Li Fut school in San Francisco.
Whether this is true or not, it's very interesting that this school lineage is one of the few places beyond the world of Kung Fu San Soo where we find the calligraphic word Chan Siu Dek
used for 'Ho' replacing the traditional 'Mok' in the five family name, Tsoi Li Ho Fut Hung.
For years, Chan Siu Dek
taught through the Los Angeles Sing Kang or "cousin's club".
Unlike most of us today, a person like Chan Siu Dek
did not have the luxury of marching around displaying his
belt ranking or a sport trophy — as much as we respect all those modern institutions and the tough individuals dedicated to them — but had to earn his
'rank' by consistently fighting in mortally serious combat, your life or mine, and survive.
So for those of us who are lucky enough to study his
art, the debt of gratitude we should hold is not possible to further describe in words.
But Chan Siu Dek
allegedly won a large amount of money on a horse race, and somewhere around 1960-1962 he
created a studio in the Midway Shopping Center in El Monte California, opening his
doors to anyone willing to learn.
posted a motto over his
It read, "You can take my life, but not my confidence" . It's probably safe to say that everyone who met him, from the first look in his
eyes, firmly believed it was true.
Those very few that didn't believe uniformly found out the hard way.
The stories are always inspirational.
One moment a "tough guy" would be mouthing off or make a move toward him, and the next instant that person would be lying on the floor, always stunned, sometimes quivering.
One account holds that a very large kick boxer pushed his
way into the El Monte studio one day, only to find himself humbled like this.
This account holds that Chan Siu Dek
stood over him proclaiming, "You come in like a lion...but you go out like a little pussy cat!"
We are told that Chan Siu Dek
did not have a belt ranking system when he
first started, as belt ranking was not common in China.
In 1962, few had heard of Kung Fu, much less Tsoi Li Ho Fut Hung.
first called his
school, Chinese Karate Kung Fu, and later adopted a belt ranking system much like that popularly used at that time in the world of Karate, producing considerable confusion about the nature of the art, its origins, and the ranking.
In in 1961, T. Y. Wong and K. H. Lee, wrote a book titled, "Chinese Karate Kung Fu: Original Sil Lum System for Health and Self Defense" , right at the time Chan Siu Dek
was opening his own school.
Some recent testimony suggest that later in life Chan Siu Dek
regretted taking on the Karate-like belt ranking system and, given the opportunity, would have stayed with a more traditional Chinese ranking.
For most Asian martial arts in America, emulating the Karate belt system was almost universally embraced during this time period, almost out of perceived necessity.
But while many of the other systems emerging at that time really did become hybrids, Chan Siu Dek's teachings remained very close to his
From this and his
fighting prowess, we know he
art were the "real deal" .
method of teaching was quick and tough.
He used to tell prospective students, "You give me 90 days, I make you a better fighter.
But while most view Kung Fu San Soo as an external art, Chan Siu Dek
always stressed the use of the mind to manage, or 'operate', the body , a notion very much associated with the Chinese concept of Yi in the internal practices.
Most great Chinese masters of the caliber of Chan Siu Dek
knew a great deal about traditional Chinese medicinal practices, and many were "bone setters" . In an age where modern medicine was nonexistent and in an art where serious fighting was highly likely to produce such injuries, masters often knew how to set broken bones, or realign displaced bones.
We don't know for sure how much Chan Siu Dek
knew about traditional medicine.
But we do know of one particular incident for a fact, as it happened in El Monte to one of us from the Sonora School
When the student dislocated his
fibula at the outside of his
knee, Chan Siu Dek
looked it over, and with a quick move, relocated the bone.
When the student let out a howl, Chan Siu Dek
helped him to his
feet, and simply laughed out loud at his
cry of pain and sent him limping back to practice.
It's probably safe to say that most of those that stayed with him for years often became pretty good