Shaolin Master Tan Soh Tin
Present Head Master of the Nam Yang Pugilistic Association
Master Tan is one of the world’s leading authorities on old style Shaolin kung fu and one of the very few old Chinese kung fu masters to speak fluent English. He has been training in Shaolin kung fu for 59 years now. He was born in Singapore to Chinese parents during the second world war and has seen great changes during his lifetime.
Master Tan’s knowledge is an encyclopedia of kung fu. More than this, he has the depth of wisdom which is always expected of an old school kung fu master but is seldom found.
The life story of Master Tan Soh Tin
When Master Tan was born in Singapore during the Second World War, much of Singapore was still plantations and swamps. Master Tan lived in a rural area with no amenities. As a boy, one of his tasks was to fetch water from the well. He would hold the buckets out either side of him with straight arms as he climbed the hill to his house. This was a way of building strength in his arms and shoulders.
When he first took up training in the martial arts, Master Tan was eight years old. He learned from his uncle whose name was Teo Choon Bee.
Master Teo was famous as a bone setter. In those days, of course, there would not have been modern hospitals in Singapore. Chinese doctors were often also masters of the martial arts. Master Teo taught the Tiger-Crane Combination. Most Singaporean Chinese are of Fukienese descent, so Fukienese arts such as Tiger-Crane are commonly taught there. Master Teo's classes usually contained about fifteen students. They would begin by practicing basic moves then split off to be taught their routines individually. The style of Tiger-Crane which Master Teo taught was similar to what we practise now.
Master Tan trained with Master Teo until he was about thirteen years old, but then stopped his Kung Fu training to concentrate on his school work. While he was a teenager he liked to go to parties and ride motorbikes. The scars which you can see on his shins today came from crashing old British bikes while racing them through the plantations and the swamps.
After he had left school, Master Tan again wished to concentrate on Kung Fu training. This time he went to a master named Tan Heng Han. This master was quite old and Master Tan describes him as having a "huge belly". Master Tan Heng Han had no club house. In fact he used to train his students near a chicken coup, the smell of which was often very strong. He was there all day and students would come and go as it suited them. They paid a monthly training fee but would often also bring their master gifts such as tobacco and pigs trotter cooked in soy sauce - which he particularly enjoyed.
Master Tan Heng Han is said to have been quite rough and uneducated. In his youth he lived as a rebel and a bandit in China. These were the days before guns were common in China. Most men still fought with hand to hand weapons such as swords and spears. For men for whom killing was a way of life, sound knowledge of fighting techniques meant the difference between life and death. This is why our art is so practical and so deadly - because if it was not, the old masters would not have lived long enough to pass it on.
At the time when he taught Master Tan, Master Tan Heng Han was nearing the end of his days. Whilst watching Master Tan do his Sum Chien, he would sit smoking unfiltered 'roll-ups' until they crumbled between his fingers. Sometimes he would doze. For all this, though, he was very strict on the training of the basic principles of Kung Fu. The style of the Tiger-Crane Combination which he taught was more rigid than that taught by Master Ang. He taught the rigid 'thousand pound' stance and squeezed the body very tight when drawing the arms in. The arms were drawn back very close to the body. For all this though, his style was very relaxed when throwing the arms out - making use of the 'springy strength'.
Master Tan Heng Han put great emphasis on the training of the basics, as embodied by the Sum Chien form. He was a good teacher and drilled his students very strictly. They practiced mostly the Sum Chien but also some fixed sparring, arm toughening exercises and few fighting moves.
Master Tan trained every evening of the week and also Sunday mornings. Every session he would do his Sum Chien over and over again - perhaps about twenty times. His master would correct him and gradually improve his Sum Chien to higher and higher levels. He developed the springy strength to a remarkably high degree - not only in his arms and legs but through his whole body. By constantly practicing the breathing of the Sum Chien, he developed the remarkably flexible stomach which is one of his hallmarks today. He was able to hang from a tree whilst people took it in turns to punch his stomach. By retracting the stomach and then throwing it out using his springy strength he was able to send the people punching him flying backwards. To test Master Tan's development his master used to tell people to wait until he was not expecting it then hit him in the stomach. Even when surprised he would still send them flying. The culminated in an incident when he was climbing a ladder to put something on a high shelf. A close friend of his sent a hard punch into his stomach but was sent flying across the room and hit the wall so hard that he was lucky to escape serious injury. After this, Master Tan's master never told people to hit him in the stomach again.
After some time, Master Tan also began to train in the Tiger-Crane art with Master Ang. He was still running his own club, but Master Tan Heng Han was not very interested in it. Master Tan, wishing to further his knowledge of the Tiger-Crane art and feeling that he was not yet ready to take on the burden of instructing his own club, asked to be taken as a student of Master Ang. He was accepted and he told his students to join Nam Yang Pugilistic Association and follow Master Ang's teachings. Some of them rose to become instructors of the association.
The style of Tiger-Crane which Master Ang taught is, of course, the style we learn today. Compared to that taught by Master Tan Heng Han, it is more subtle and sophisticated; the stance is more springy and the power is generated more internally. Master Ang was an expert at the 'touch system' - sticky hands etc.
Master Ang was renowned for his wide knowledge of Kung Fu - he knew many styles and literally hundreds of routines. He still emphasised the importance of the basics and of the Sum Chien, however. He would not teach his students the higher routines until he was satisfied with their Sum Chien. Even Master Tan, who had already been recognised as a master, had to go back to practicing the Sum Chien for four years before Master Ang would teach him further. Having also spent four years learning the Sum Chien with his previous master, this meant that Master Tan did a total of eight years training just on the Sum Chien. This explains his remarkable standard and why, in his teaching, he puts so much emphasis on the basics.
Once Master Ang was happy with Master Tan's Sum Chien, he taught him the whole of the Tiger-Crane style as well as the Shuang Yang style and many of the Shaolin weapons. In all, Master Tan learned about fifty routines. When training him, Master Ang would make him repeat them one after another, including the weapons. This is an exhausting form of training! Master Tan was famous for his lethal kicks. He is unbelievably flexible which enables him to kick very high, although he always recommends not to use high kicks when fighting - they are too risky.
When he was thirty-three years old, Master Tan entered the Singaporean Kung Fu Championships. He had no competition experience and was unsure what to expect. He found himself fighting with a head/face guard which blocked his view against an experienced competition fighter who did not get close to him but kept picking off points. He often tells the tale of how he was waiting to land one good shot. Near the end of the fight, the chance presented itself and he applied one of his famous kicks to his opponents tan tien. Master Tan was disqualified for injuring his opponent - who had to be carried off the mat and rushed to hospital. The moral of this story is that the real winner of a fight is not necessarily the one who wins a medal but the one who goes home unscathed.
Master Tan performed in many demonstrations and became a very well respected martial artist in Singapore. In time, he became accepted as Master Ang's senior student. He was (and still is) the secretary of Nam Yang Pugilistic Association and during Master Ang's lifetime turned down instructorship so that he could concentrate on the administration of the club.
For four years, the only routine which Master Tan was taught was the Sum Chien. During this time he practiced so diligently that he achieved a remarkably high level of skill. When his master was finally satisfied that he had mastered the Sum Chien form, he was happy to teach him many more routines; in fact he taught them so fast that Master Tan had a hard job to keep up. In less than two years, Master Tan was taught all the eleven basic routines of the Tiger-Crane art, a long staff routine, a tiger fork routine and a routine with two short iron rods. Eventually his master told him "I have taught you all I can teach, now it is up to you to practise and perfect your art - you do not need to come for lessons anymore".
Master Tan was not satisfied simply to practise what he had already learned - he still wished to further his study of Kung Fu. He offered to start a club, teaching in his masters name and also looked around to find a master who could teach him even more. The club was quite successful and Master Tan attracted a number of students. At this time, Master Ang Lian Huat was acknowledged by all the masters of the Tiger-Crane art in Singapore as being the highest authority. Master Tan began to study the Shuang Yang Pei Ho (Sun/Frost White Crane soft art) form of Chi Kung with Master Ang.