It’s late at night and I am excited to talk to a local legend in the Martial world, and fellow lover of Bacon Sandwiches, Neil Genge, Bristol Shaolin Kung Fu Instructor. He has a list as long as your arm of awe inspiring names that he has trained with and has been training martial arts longer than I have been alive (that’s a loooong time now). I’ve come to his personal training space and it’s the best training space I’ve ever had the pleasure to enter (I’ve not been to China, but it feels like I just walked into Shaolin itself). The sheer number of weapons in this room is incredible and I’d love to find out the story behind each and every one but I doubt there will ever be time. (check out the video on YouTube once its up, sadly the camera did not love the lighting but you get an idea of how amazing this room is and that’s only one corner).
So where did your martial arts journey Begin?
Well I first started in Karate, when I was 13 years of age, Shotokan Karate, I got up to Purple and White Belt and then the Big Bruce Lee boom happened. The Lau Gar demonstration team came down to Bristol in Old Market, I went to see that and that was it then I was in hooked on Kung Fu.
Did you go straight into Lau Gar?
I did a bit of Karate and Lau Gar for about 3 years but then decided I really preferred the Kung Fu.
Is that where you started with the weapons, like the ones behind us here?
Well not in Karate in the Kung Fu but obviously they won’t teach you them until you get to a certain level but that’s where they started.
Did you end up going out to China with Lau Gar, how did that come about?
What happened was I saw the film Shaolin Temple, I’m not sure what year, I think around 1977….
….I think it was, its as old as me that movie…..
…..the local cinema brought it over from China for one night to show it, all the local Martial artists were there. When I saw that I thought WOW, those guys can MOVE! That was the business that is where I am going. So I thought right got to get there, of course back then China was shut….
…the Shaolin Temple was Shut then even to the Chinese I believe?
Yes, things were very different back then, it was derelict and the people in the area were very poor mostly starving, they were repairing the buildings and the roof. But I saw a advert in Fighters Magazine in 1989 for the First Trip to China with Derek Frearson and I got on that….
….How many people were on that Trip?
I think it was about 7 or 8.
Had he got connections out there?
He had gone out in 1988 and set up a big centre out there, as I said it was a barren area then not like all the trees and schools like it is now. But they were getting thousands of tourists off the back of the film.
So is that really where the Shaolin Tourism industry started off?
Yes, from that movie. The Film MADE Shaolin. There was a couple of schools then, but not a lot.
I hear now there is many schools some of them very large?
Yes, I can remember schools with a few thousand students now they have around 30-40,000…..(my jaw drops)
WOW, do they all train together!?
Yes, they have huge fields I am sure you can see some of it on YouTube.
Do you envision Bristol shaolin Kung Fu Acadamy having that many students?
I’m not sure I can fit them all in (He Smiles).
What was the first forms you learnt out there?
The first form I learnt was Damo Cane, he reaches over and picks it up from the huge array of weaponry that surrounds us. Very Traditional, its like a walking stick and an ice axe and to protect yourself against Tigers.
TIGERS, I don’t think I fancy taking on a tiger with a walking stick!
Not really, No. That was the first form I learnt and I was hooked, from then on I have been back every year.
Then, from that, I believe you they granted you the honour of being able to train people back here, one of the first I believe?
Yes, in 1994 after I had been there quite a few times. They asked me to join the Shaolin Boxers association, it’s a lifetime membership, all the people in the association were instructors of all the various schools, and they said You may now promote kung fu in the west, Myself, Derek Frearson and Leslie from South Africa, three of us. I’ve still got the book, with my name and the stamp.
That is a very impressive artefact to have! (I’m slightly stunned with Awe at this point and start to muddle my words! This is not an easy thing to obtain, especially in those days!)
Yes, I do not want to lose it
When you returned was it hard to get people interested?
Yup, my first class had about 3 people in it and it took years and years and years to get people in and build it up. When we first started we had Scott Adkins in, you may know him, a big star now. He came down when he was a young lad he wanted to learn Wushu for the movies and he was at a master level Kicking in Tae Kwon Do, we taught him the 360 Butterfly, one legged Tornado kicks, he went around and trained with loads of people but he came down for quite a few Saturdays and now of course he is an A list celebrity.
Does he still give you a call for tips?
No (laughs) not anymore.
Did I see that you have done some other stunt / Movie work too?
Yeah I’ve done a few things and a little bit for BBC and we’ve done a music video recently too with some of my students.
So the performance side of things obviously has led you into the lion dances like the one between us right now, is the club all about performance?
No, we do the lion dances and shows at Chinese New Year and weddings and things but I let people do what they want, they can do the shows but if they don’t want to do all the kicking, jumping around they don’t have to. They can learn to their level. Work on what they want to work on. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it, as long as they are happy. There is a lot of fitness and flexibility of course but its up to them. We want them to be happy and to improve and get better.
If they want to do kickboxing or fighting , we do some pad work but usually I point them in the direction of MMA gyms or Thai boxing because that’s the ultimate to fight, or BJJ of course.
How do you feel about MMA, being a very traditional guy?
Yeah, they are professional athletes they’re fit, strong, tough, if they weren’t doing that they would probably be down the pub punching people. Some people just like to fight and that’s fine they get a referee, less likely someone is going to get hurt or killed. I love watching UFC on TV.
I heard a quote from an old master saying that now there has never been such a great time for Kung Fu, is that true?
Oooh, it’s big. You know years ago if someone was a Brown Belt in Karate it was like “oooooh”. I remember years ago there was probably about 50 people in a valley. There were people on each side squaring up to fight and this one guy takes his shoes and socks off, wanders out and gets into a karate stance (demonstrates a fighting pose) and that was it, people left him alone, that was enough. But these days that mystique has gone really.
It’s not just Shaolin arts that you train I believe you are also a teacher of Wing Chun, how did that come about?
Well on one of my trips to China we were training in Hong Kong with Ip Chun (Ip Man’s son, says this so casually, like we all get the chance to do that). The following year we went to Foshan trained with quite a few different instructors but then we found Lun Kai (hope I spelt this right) the last known student of Ip Man and its quite a different style to what they teach in Hong Kong, he uses the Phoenix eye fist (one knuckle sticking out of the fist to target points?) He used these for pressure points on the shoulder, chest, neck , throat etc. I was impressed as Wing Chun had seemed a little bit, umm, slappy up until then but if he hit you, you knew about it! Powerful sharp and fast BANG! We trained with him for about 4 years and I loved it. I said to Derek I’d really love to teach this, Derek said ask him, so I did and he said yes you can promote this back in the west.
It’s so amazing that you have got so much respect from so many people in China its an honour…
….well I have the utmost respect for them, I love martial arts.
You are always going and learning more and more and keeping it fresh also…
….Always learn more, never get stale.
Do you ever feel your head is too full of stuff?
I’ve probably forgotten more than I remember, I’ve got notes or videos of everything I ever learn, either me or my Masters doing it when I learn it, I’ve got hundreds of tapes so I can never forget, I can just watch it for an hour and then I’ve got it back.
You also do Yoga, is that martial art based or entirely separate?
It’s a mixture, I call it Damo Yoga, Tong Zi Gong so all the splits and flexibility exercises and the yoga I studied in India so the basic postures and the kicks its got it all. I had 40 students in the class tonight and they love it.
You are also going back to India to learn martial arts?
Yeah, something completely new for me, going back there to learn some traditional Indian martial arts and look back into the heritage of Damo, the founder of Shaolin.
With such a wide scope of arts you’ve learnt do you have a favourite at all?
The Shaolin skills, people call them tricks, but they are not a trick, they are an art and they take a lot of time and dedication to learn so the two finger zen handstands and the needle through the glass. (Neil was the first non Asian person to be taught these two skills, despite being told he wouldn’t be able to do them, he proved the monks wrong and achieved the goal he had set in his mind, this is no easy feat by any means, even if he humbly slips them into his incredibly long list of impressive skills. I only wish I had brought a pane of glass with me to see this in person….next time perhaps). I also like the softer stuff now as I am getting older, I’ve trained with the top masters in the temple, the Qi Gong forms and I practice those all the time and the basic forms every day.
How long does that take?
I can get all the main ones into about an hour each day.
That is quite a list of styles and skills….
…I do Tai Chi as well. I trained Chen and Yang style Tai Chi. I started teaching Yang at first and then a couple of years ago I went back to do the original Chen style and I am hoping to go back to that in the next couple of years, Chen village is fantastic anyone who does Tai Chi should go there and experience it.
So if people were to come down to you at Bristol Wushu Acadamy what can they expect?
They can expect definitely to get fitter, more flexible, stronger and they are going to learn other skills they probably would never learn, like rolling techniques, cartwheels, jumps, spins and kicks. The basic forms, getting people together and helping them learn and remember them all, its all about movement. Also the forms, the basic forms is the back bone of it. Some people say, oh Neil you do too much, there is so much to do but its all about movement and control. I’ve taught Dancers entire forms in an hour and they can just pick it up and remember it and do it well.
Yes, some people use to call Kung Fu the Chinese Ballet and the two cross over quite well, even Bruce Lee was Hong Kong Cha Cha champion I believe.
If you fancy seeing Neil and his students perform some of their skills check out our events section for where they are doing Chinese New Year shows, Lion Dances and Kung Fu demonstrations. Check out our clubs section if you want to go and train with Neil and learn at least a few of his impressive talents.
Thank you so much Neil for your time, especially this late at night, I could continue for hours with questions, we haven’t even touched on the Seven Star Preying Mantis training or any of the fantastic weapons and artefacts I am surrounded by in his incredible personal Gym. It’s truly been an honour and I’ll be back to steal some knowledge and skills without doubt.