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.

7 Responses

  1. Wow, Justin. What a wonderful summary of what was an amazing life. Such adversary and suffering overcome with such determination and strength of character. And it just goes to show how just one person’s contribution to society can positively affect so many people. Truly magnificent.

  2. What an amazing story. Does your grandfather speak Vietnamese or Chinese?, I didn’t really understand what you wrote in the story about the mini-van.

  3. I enjoy reading this story the most. It reminded me of my grandma (Arma) who passes away in Thailand in the same year. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Jus, thanks for writing this very touching account of gong gong’s life. He taught us a lot about hard work, survival, frugality, and resilience. I remember him taking us to school everyday – a 20 minute walk.

    Yr “non existent reader”

  5. Thank for sharing Justin. It’s a very touching story and it reminds me a lot of my grandfather who passed away when I was a kid.

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