Mr Dieu Ly 1925-2010

My Grandfather

There are many ways in which a great man will be remembered by people. There are many who knew him as Si-Fu (Master) or Si-Yeh (Grandmaster), as the pioneer of Yun Yee Tong Shaolin Chow Ga Kung Fu in Sydney, but to me he was simply known as Guong Guong (Grandpa) and this is about the way I remembered him…

Moments flicker through my mind whenever I bring up my memories of him. I remember every morning and afternoon he would take us to primary school on his bicycle. He managed to fit a school buddy on the backseat while I sat squished between the handlebars and his seat on a wooden contraption he had managed to put together. My grandfather was always in the garage downstairs hammering away at something. He was not trained as a carpenter but he didn’t understand why you would buy something when he could just put together something better with bits of wood lying around he had fetched from stuff people had dumped on the street. He would be building and fixing anything from our doorbell, to shelves, umbrellas and junk we would never think would work again. I also remember every morning, he would cut up the left over and stale bread to feed the birds in our backyard in the morning where by our home suddenly became the neighborhood feasting ground for them. However, he also had to construct a scarecrow on our tree to make sure they don’t eat the fruits on it either.

From an early age I became his disciple in Kung Fu. My Grandfather had learnt and taught martial arts in Vietnam from a master and his grandmaster’s disciple in the Shaolin Chow Ga style. To get the foundations strong, we would spend hours in the sun in a fixed horse stance on our driveway, until our legs trembled, our muscles quivered and sweat broke out. If I complained, he would relate even scarier stories of what his disciples had to go through back home. I was always the dumb student, he would have to patiently teach me the same form over and over again till I got it right. He always gave me the most practical forms and moves, never any flowery stuff for show but something I would use if I’m ever in danger. Grandpa would build some smaller custom size model weapons for me, and then force me to use the real heavier ones once I got the hang of it.

Our driveway always had students training in weapons, koon, and lion dance. Sometimes passer bys would stop and watch curiously. Even though he didnt speak any English, he managed to teach Westerners all the same with me sometimes acting as a poor translator (a month in India with only half the people speaking English showed me how hard it was and its think its amazing how he managed to get by everyday in Australia). But he would never teach students if they wanted to fight, as our Kung Fu was always only for self defense, a strong body and discipline. Funnily, its seemed the police or even the neighbours never seemed to have a problem with us while we would duel each other with double swords, staffs and other weapons in plain view of the neighborhood and as the drums and cymbals rung loudly when we practiced the lion dance routines.

His past I had gathered like patchwork from the stories he told me and what my mum shared about how life was like in Vietnam. He used to scare me with his adventures as a “Ghost catcher” and what the Japanese occupation of Saigon was like. My Grandfather grew up very poor with his father an opium addict, he never got a proper education and his childhood was spent as a hawker on the street taking orders for noodles to fund his father’s habit. He used to find shoes from the garbage and patch them up to use himself. After the death of his father, he and his elder sister went through better times and as the business grew, they were able to open up a noodle restaurant. He started living a lifestyle of the more prosperous and became an excellent bike racer and a great ice skater. Hoping to get him to settle down, his sister married him off at 20 to my grandmother (who was only 14 at the time) through an arranged marriage. Suddenly the better times came to an end one day when he went into a business deal together with a long and trusted friend. Not understanding the terms of the contract written in Vietnamese (he only could read a little Chinese due to his education) he lost his entire fortune when his friend ran off with the money they were supposed to have invested in a mini-van. With a family of three children to feed, my grandfather took to fixing bicycles and mending pots by the roadside and the friends who used to hang out with him were now too ashamed to even associate with him. After he took up the job as a driver to pay for the rent, things slowly became more stable. But now, with his own children he always saw value of education, and he put them all five of them through to 6th grade as this was all the family could afford. After my parents came to Australia as refugees during the Vietnam war, my grandparents were also migrated over in 1985 through the family reunion scheme.

So even in Australia, the habit of survival was the still order of the day and manifesting itself mostly in the form of thrift. We would always get scolded for leaving the lights on or tap dripping, while he managed to get by in the dark. He would even hide food in his room as he didn’t want to throw it away and he would horde the most seemingly useless items. But these eccentricities were not strange to me and my sister, but just part of our normal everyday life as a child. Yet despite his frugality, he would still always generously send money back to the home country to help his children and their families.

Even through his old age, my grandfather’s stoic resolve never wavered. When the nerves on his spinal cord had been worn down, he had an operation and had to be confined to a wheelchair. The doctor said he would never be able to walk again but that never stopped my grandfather. Everyday, he would summon up his strength and train his his legs to move and after weeks of effort, miraculously the old man was able to walk himself. But this was no miracle, as like the rest of his life, it was achieved through hard work and determination. However, after he had contracted severe pneumonia, the family was no longer to take care of his basic needs and as with the unfortunate fate of so many, the last years of my grandfather’s life were confined to a bed in a nursing home.

A Lion paying respect at his funeral

Today his legacy lives on. Through his work, the work of his many disciples and my uncle, the Kwoon has grown into a large community in Canley Vale (near Cabramatta) of many students. Instead of getting involved with gangs and drugs, young people have come to train and learn the values of discipline, moral character, respect and community, all while having an active role in the keeping the traditions of their ancestors. Tonight, tomorrow and for the next few weeks, to welcome in the Chinese New Year, the streets, temples and restaurants will have over 20 lions and dragons from Yun Yee Tong Kwoon performing the martial arts and lion dances that my Grandfather had once taught. I hope that this living form of his work is something that Guong Guong will be proud of and happy to see alive today being passed on to generations to come.

The cricket

During a lazy afternoon, I woke up from the sound of the cricket on the television in the lounge room, broadcasting channel nine’s coverage of the one-dayer between Pakistan and Australia. There was a strange experience of nostaliga hearing the thick Australian accents again with the feeling of familarity washing over me felling almost foreign and out of place. I had been here for so long that seeing home again didnt seem the same, like I was watching it through an outsiders eyes.

I walked into the room and sat on the floor for lunch with eyes fixed on the television. Indians are cricket crazy here, way more than back home: kids play with stick bats and brick wickets in the dirt fields of the slums while teenagers bat against automated bowling machines in the shopping malls. Cricket is everywhere. Ive never been a big fan of cricket, but as I watched the game played out in the clear blue skies, the sunburnt crowd cheering, the familiar logos donning in the stadium … it made me forget for a second the roti and curry I was stuffing in my mouth, the cows roaming outside and the power outages going on all day. But then again not really.

In addition to a little homesickness, the experience made me wonder what its going to be like when I get back home… is it going to just the same again? Will I adjust right back in as if this was but a passing dream.. and life goes on? I hope not. India has so much that repulses as well as attracts you. But once you accept it for all that it is, I think India becomes part of you, as it has become of me. So even when I come back, I dont think I will really leave India.

Slum school


I’ve finally landed in my placement and started at the slum school in Faridbad. It is run by a Christian pastor, Rakesh who is passionate about his work.

On my first day, I was given a tour of the place in the fog, but since it was a public holiday there was no class. Walking into the slum was like being transported to another world, only a block down there were brick houses, markets and street hawkers. The conditions in the slum really felt impoverised, half built mud huts and rubbish salvaged plastic and tin sheets covering their thatched roofs, still donning the advertised logos of their former life. Cows, goats, chickens, pigs and dogs freely roamed around the dirt yards eating garbage. Pastor Rakesh introduced me to the “school”. It was just an small open area, no blackboards or walls for that matter…it was basically the yard. In a disused half hut were wooden writing benches that had been donated, enough to sit lots more kids but it was being damaged as there was no roof to cover them. Plastic sheeting would not cost very much, but there just was not enough funds. We went around the slum and Rahesh found and introduced me to some the children. It was not quite the sad look I’ve seen in the world vision commercials but more of a nervous “Who is this stranger?” bepuzzled expression that donned their faces. However, when I smiled, they smiled back shyly and then ran to hide behind papa.

The next morning at 10am, I had my first day of teaching. The kids, about six to ten years old came to setup the tables. They even found me and Debbie, a fellow volunteer, some chairs to sit on. The rest of the kids arrived, shivering in the cold and stood up when I was introduced by Rahesh as “Something something Justin something something Australia something” and they all clapped. He then took me to the senior students not more than ten years old and who stood up and chanted “Good morning, sir” in unison. Rakesh annouced something to them in Hindi, indicated to me and left.

I gulped. No one had told me what I was supposed to do, I had no clue what was going on. The boy in the front row handed me his book. “The cow is white. It gives me milk” he had neatly writen between the red and blue markings of the pages. He started spelling out each of the words and reading it out aloud. “Err..Hang on, I’ll be right back” I said awkwardly, before I rushed off to ask what I was supposed to be doing. “Check Homework” Rakesh said. “Oh right … of course”, so I went back and started sitting with each kid to see what they had done, slowly going through their work. After I was done with the last kid I went up to Debbie and asked, “Umm what do I do now?”, “Give more homework!” At the time there really wasnt a sylabyss so I had to make up stuff on the spot. I got them to write out shapes, colors, days of the week, animals and anything else I could come up with. They were all at different levels so it was hard to figure out what was going on. Finally school ended with oral recitation of the alphabet, times tables and nursery rhymes in Hindi. I felt as though the kids really knew more than us.

The day after I thought I’ll try something less of a challenge and took on the nursery class. Boy was I wrong, these kids had just learnt to write their ABCs and 123s. I started with a little girl, reciting the ABCs from her homework spending time on each letter till she could recite it better. Ten students later, a million screams of “Sir-Ji! Sir-Ji!” (I believe Ji was supposed to be a title of respect), kids coming up to me with more undecipherable Hindi, confusion over maths vs english, homework vs classwork, which lines and how many lines to write between, eventually drove me insane and I just wanted the whole thing done with. I could make out when they wanted toilet, but most of the time I had no idea what they were saying with their pleading voices and expectant gazes. Some of the kids could barely write, so I would have to hold their hand with their pencil and make dot to dot pictures to join the alphabet letters together.

All the while goats bleated in the yard, chickens ran around, a strange odour smelling distinctly similar to ganja filled the air. Other times other pantless kids came to watch or run around with a big wheel and a crowd of people would gather.

Pastor Rakesh was very strict, carrying around a big stick and all the kids were completely terrified of him … maybe we were here to balance the scariness out. When we had “sport”, which were more like games, the little kids became their giggly selves again. Debbie’s explanation of how to play “red-light, green-light” didnt quite translate well into Hindi, but the kids still seemed to enjoy the lost in translation version of the game. Afterwoods Me and Debbie went with Rakesh to the market and we donated a blackboard to the school which didnt really have anything at all.

I had never really taught before nor had I ever thought I was ever a particularly good teacher. Im sure I’ll get used to this eventually and warm up to the kids as they are all so adorable but so far the whole experience a little confusing..but I’m sure it will turn out to be a more enlightening one later

Heres a tip

I’ve been M.I.A for the past few days as I’ve been a tourist and its hard to be able to find a good connection on the go.

For some strange reason there was always bizarre childhood dream of mine to be able to goto a hotel restroom where theres someone there to hand you towels… it was probably in some of the movies I had watched somewhere. So here I am in India, and I guess you can say … my dream had been fulfilled? And no, its not glamourous at all, its really quite creepy. In India, theres always seems to be someone in the toilet waiting there, paper towels at the ready, from dodgy hotels, the airport and shopping centers. If you do take the offered towel, they will block the exit until a tip is forth coming.

When you are a foreigner, especially as a tourist, you are in a perpetual game involving how to get as much money out of the foreigner as possible.

In Agra, our waiter approached our table four times. First time, “Good food? You happy, me happy” Second time: “Good food, good tip”, Third time: “Please leave good tip sir”. Fourth time: “My job not finished till you leave tip sir” and then stood there next to the table until we opened our wallets to give him a tip. I didn’t really have the chance to discuss with my friend how much to actually pay.

At times I am torn between, should I just pay them, they don’t get paid much anyway and I refuse to get ripped off just for the sake of it. Most tourist sites have a different ticketing price for foreigners and locals, normally a difference of 25 times more.

To be fair, we had probably gotten a crappy experience as we stayed or ate at the wrong places. In most places which are not tourist infested there are no awkward problems, but after being hassled wherever we went for a few days, it made me defensive whenever someone happened to be nice about anything. No, I do not need anyone to help me with my luggage, open the car door, turn on the hot water, and no I do not need those damn hand towels!

Im in Faridbad at the moment, I’ll be blogging about what its like there soon enough as well as about the places Ive visited.