Once upon a time in China – part one

Once upon a time in China – part one

May 28, 2022 0 By Rick

It was 1989 or 1990; I can’t say for sure. My older son (actually, my only son at the time) and I were traveling around China to visit a Wushu and Tai Chi coach who had spent time in Sweden coaching us. We had been studying Wushu (a.k.a Kung Fu in the West) for years, but this was our first time in China, which was slowly opening up to the West. Our ultimate destination was Kunming (Yunnan-Fu), the capital of Yunnan province and a bustling city of about six million. We had been invited to visit and train at the Yunnan Sports Institute there and had booked a room at the Kunming Hotel, which sounded pretty good based on the description the travel agent provided. We arrived late and discovered that none of the hotel staff spoke English. Once in our room, we knew we were in trouble. The sheets were dirty, the floor was filthy and the one light in the room didn’t work. This was going to be a problem since we couldn’t communicate with the staff. I went to the reception and drew a picture of a lightbulb glowing and then going dark. They understood and followed us back to the room.

A novel solution
One of the staff tried the light switch, stood on a chair to check the lightbulb and confirmed that the bulb had burned out. We decided not to complain about the general lack of cleanliness in the room until the next day. At least now we have some light in the room. Either the hotel had no more lightbulbs, or the staff didn’t know how to change one or possibly a combination of the two because they came up with a novel solution. They gave us another room! The new room had a working light and was somewhat cleaner than the old room. I guess the hotel didn’t get many visitors back then. The next morning, we decided to find a better hotel. Luckily, my son remembered the name of a hotel he had seen on a billboard on the way from the airport. We booked a room at a hotel much like a Holiday Inn that was very modern and where the staff spoke English. We then returned to the Kunming Hotel to check out and find the Yunnan Sports Institute. 

A secret location
We tried to explain what we were looking for to the friendly staff at the reception, desperately hoping that someone on the day shift could speak a little English. They were very helpful but could not muster up a word of English between the three of them. Luckily, I had asked the coach who invited us to write the name of the sports institute in Chinese characters. I showed them the name and they all shook their heads in unison. We went to a taxi parked in front of the hotel and showed the name to the driver. He shook his head in disbelief and waved us off. Was it hidden away in some secret location? We insisted and got into the taxi anyway and after a bit of shouting back and forth, he started driving. It turned out to be a very short drive. The Yunnan Sports Institute was located directly across the street from the Kunming hotel. The taxi driver had probably been telling us that we didn’t need a taxi. Lazy westerners, he must have thought. When we pulled up, we all laughed. We gave him a good tip, though. Why the hotel staff had no idea what the gigantic building across from the hotel was remains a mystery today.

Impressive
We were finally inside and found our coach, who was delighted to see us. She took us on a personal tour of the entire institute, which was massive. We saw young students practicing just about every sport you could imagine, including a number that China had yet to compete in internationally back then. She explained that coaches toured the province searching for young children that displayed the right physical skills, talent and potential to compete in the different sports. Once selected, the children lived at the sports institute full time, training all day and then doing their schooling at night. Talk about discipline and dedication. They also received new training clothes and shoes. Not too bad if you came from a poor rural village. Now, it was on to the training.

Fantastic experience
The training my son received was fabulous. His fellow students welcomed him with open arms. They practiced, practiced and practiced some more. Wushu is an acrobatic martial art as well as a fighting martial art, so there was much to experience. Punches, kicks and various forms kept my son as busy as could be. And just when he thought they had completed training, they would repeat the things they had just been doing for the past hours. We got the opportunity to watch some of the older, more skilled students perform. It was like watching a Kung Fu movie without the wires and ropes that “assist” the stars in their miraculous jumps and leaps. It was as if they really could fly. It was a fantastic experience for a 10-year-old and for me. Our coach took us to her home and fed us delicious meals each day. And when we mentioned the Kunming Hotel, she immediately exclaimed, “OMG, you didn’t stay there, did you?” We all had a great laugh. Next stop – Guilin, a spectacular city located in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The adventures we had there were unimaginable for me. But that’s for part 2.