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Marking its 20th anniversary, Fall City Kung Fu Club mixes wisdom with warfare, real swords with real pumpkins | Photo Gallery
A long-haired white person, Johann Sasynuik pays daily tribute to his Chinese heritage. He belongs in two ancient tribes, plus a new one of his own making, and with classic Chinese sensibilities, he sees no problem with that.
“The Chinese are very practical,” Sasynuik explains.
“The nice thing about the Chinese religion is that it’s kind of a smorgasbord,” said Sasynuik, as he gives a quick tour of both his kung fu school in Fall City, and the history of the martial art. “I want a little bit of that and a little bit of this one and a little bit of this, because I like them, and I don’t care that they’re different.”
So his world view can hold the ancient Chinese tribe of tall red-haired warriors that he probably descended from by way of the Scythians — “They really refer to these people as long-haired white people, not barbarians,” he says — as well as the tribe of “one or two following a goat path,” Daoist priests that he has joined on his exploration of martial arts. His current tribe, where he is “sifu,” or “teacher,” is of Xiong Jiang Wing Chun, named for the Raging River that borders his compound, and for a rebellious Chinese girl called Wing Chun.
She was, Sasynuik says, “the daughter of a tofu maker,” and it had been arranged that she would marry a Chinese warlord she hated. Instead, she sought help from a group of Daoist nuns, who promised that she wouldn’t have to marry the warlord if she trained really hard and, a year from then, she could beat him in a fight. “And that’s exactly what happened,” Sasynuik says. “So this warlord guy loses to this little girl, and she marries who she wants to and that whole thing gets passed on for hundreds years, and so Bruce Lee comes to Seattle in 1957, and meets a bunch of local boys…” and kung fu is born in the U.S.
20 years of practice
He doesn’t try to be inscrutable; sometimes it just comes naturally. A conversation with Sasynuik about his practice and his school, now celebrating its 20th year, is a lot like a walk through the garden maze that is part of the school; you may get lost at some point, but keep following the path, and you’ll be rewarded.
“The apples are over there,” says Austin Tiernan, just before plunging into the maze and surprising a pair of deer grazing. About a minute’s walk in, and “this is the bamboo forest,” he says, passing through the grove of some 27 varieties of bamboo. The maze has a variety of edible plants, benches for more sedentary activities, and lots of prickly things, too.
“In the maze what we do is sometimes we play games,” Tiernan said, and, pointing at a thorny bush, “If you’re going at a really high speed, you want to take the turns slow, because these will get you.”
Sifu Johann, who calls his teaching “a path of, not so much of self-discovery, but learning how to discover things,” would have appreciated that comment, but he wasn’t there. He was with the rest of the class, killing pumpkins with swords.
In honor of Halloween, Sasynuik annually breaks out some of his swords, which his young students can use to hack away at pumpkins to their kung-fu-movie-imitating hearts’ content.
To the relief of several watching moms, the combination of kids, swords and gourds is no free-for-all, but structured like any other time with Sifu Johann.
“We have to do the class first,” he tells the excited group of five boys and a girl, and wrangles them into a circle — “a round circle!” he has to remind them. Warmups consist of a few wide arm movements, a short meditation, and a few repetitions of the safety lessons. Then, each student got a try with each sword to slay the pumpkin, while all the rest were reminded to stay safely back.
“There’s a reason I want you to be afraid,” Sifu tells his students. “It’s called wisdom.”
The cool factor probably drowned out that lesson toward the end of class, though, when Sifu Johann used a wickedly sharp blade — most of the swords before this had been fairly safe for students — to slice off the top half of a pumpkin with a one-handed swing. It was a memorable illustration that there’s a balance in all things, including what someone can learn from a sifu, and what they can learn from themselves.
“There’s internal kung fu, and there’s external kung fu,” says Sasynuik. “External kung fu is dealing with other people, internal kung fu is dealing with your worst enemy, which is yourself. So how do you live longer, carry less stress, be happy, keep a smile in your heart, tell jokes… all those things that help keep you young.
“I don’t just teach punching and kicking, I want you to learn how to tell when the apple on the tree is ripe, and by the way, it’s springtime and the flowers are blooming and that’s when the bees are making them pollinated….” he says. “It’s that interconnection of all the things that are around you…. You lose track of all that when you’re trying to do the 9 to 5 thing, or the 8 to 8 thing that people do these days.”
Sifu Sasynuik laughs as he watches the messy carnage. Recently, the Fall City-based school observed its 20th anniversary, and was visited by a television camera crew from China.
In August, Johann Sasynuik's school celebrated its 20th anniversary, and was featured in a Chinese television travel show about the descendants of Bruce Lee's Wing Chun kung fu, Daoist philosophy and Sasynuik's classical Chinese scholar's garden. Students were filmed training and Sasynuik was interviewed about "the differences between traditional Wing Chun and what Bruce's legacy left behind. I spoke about his refinements to the footwork such as the lunging he developed from his sword fencing training."
Johann Sasynuik explains to a group of students the virtues -- and dangers -- of various weapons, including an axe. This is his children's class, but when they reach 13 or 14, he'll move them to his adult class, because "at that point, they are at the best opportunity to become the best martial artist they can be, because they're young, they heal fast, their brain is still squishy, and they have all the time in the world."
Imitating a martial arts movie hero, Adam Tiernan chops through the remains of several pumpkins.
Nine year-old Austin Tiernan carries in a pumpkin for massacre at a special Halloween event at his kung fu school in Fall City.
With the choice of going over or through, Austin Tiernan, 9, goes through ravine in Sifu Johann's garden maze at his kung fu school.
Martial-arts student Austin Tiernan sends pumpkin pieces flying with a determined swing of his sword, Thursday, Oct. 31, at the Kung Fu Club school of Sifu Johann Sasynuik.
Swinging with all his strength, Adam Tiernan takes a chop at a Halloween pumpkin.
Sifu Johann watches as one of his newer students, Jazzy Hanson, 8, makes a tentative cut at her first pumpkin.
Anxious to start the massacre, Jaden Donaldson, followed by Adam Tiernan, carry pumpkins out to the riverside spot where Sifu Johann is holding class today.
Jaden Donaldson, 9, neatly halves a pumpkin, already topped by his sifu, in a special Halloween class at the Kung Fu Club school.
Jaden Donaldson slices through a huge pumpkin.
Sifu Johann starts the pumpkin massacre class with warmups. Pictured with him are Austin and Adam Tiernan, left, and Jazzy Hanson and Daniel Terrett, right.