I’ve had the privilege of doing this interview with Master Colin Wee, 6th Dan, who has his own unique and practical approach to Taekwondo. He first come to my attention as a fellow blogger and has organised some blogging carnivals that I’ve taken part in. As well as being a great martial artist, he’s a natural leader and communicator; co-ordinating projects and organisations around the world.
He’s also opened minded to other styles and like the best martial artists is happy to learn from anybody who has something to teach, not just ring-fencing his style and shutting the others out. He’s equally happy to share his knowledge in an open and friendly manner without any ego. So I was very happy when he accepted my invitation to do an interview with me. His answers are quite detailed as Colin typically likes to give his best to whoever he is dealing with, be it a reader or student and it makes very interesting reading.
I was also able to find out more about his new book due to come out at the end of next year, which I’ll be looking forward to having a good read of. It’ll certainly be something to put on your 2018 Christmas list for Santa!
When I do interviews, I usually use my initials by my questions and the interviewees initials by their answers, but as by chance Colin and I share the same initials, I’ve used our first names instead. With that said, I hope you enjoy the interview and here we go:-
Charlie: Colin, you earned your first black belt in what you describe as a eclectic Chinese/Korean system whilst living in South East Asia. Can you tell us a bit more about this system, who created it and which country you where living in the time?
Colin: As a young teen, my head was filled with Wuxia and Kato, and learning the martial arts excited me. I’m not sure exactly what I wanted from joining a martial art. Perhaps to become a person that was stronger than myself? At the end of Year 7, a school mate said he would be happy to introduce me to his master; and that was all it took. I now describe this as an ‘eclectic’ system because the name still manages to embarrass me. However – Ninjado – as it is called, gave me the fitness, and body awareness I needed. From what I was told, the system was put together by Carter Wong – the actor, and taught by his friend Tony Tan, my teacher – who I believe trained primarily in Chinese arts. The system was kick-heavy, its patterns were extremely Chinese, we did a smattering of weapon patterns which included the Chinese long staff and escrima double sticks, did a few locks and throws, and sparred full contact. The training challenged me, and spurred me to practise every day. I would also search for as much information as I could get my hands on – from other school mates who were practicing, to buying exorbitant books from Black Belt Communications. In a way I have left this system far behind, but in truth, the fluid body mechanics from its Korean kicking training and the hand movements from its Chinese influence has stayed with me through to what I do now.
Charlie: You obviously later went on to Traditional Taekwondo, how much did Ninjado prepare you for that, or was there very much difference to your training methods and techniques?
Colin: I earned my black belt when I was 17 years old and was firmly convinced I had become ‘hot stuff’. My current assessment of my skill set at the time? I could perform kicks and upper body strikes beautifully, but had dangerously no clue how to apply them or use them tactically. You wouldn’t be too far off to say I could perhaps only fight my way to the end of a line drill. But, the training was appropriate for a junior black, I remain grateful of my Master’s time, and I don’t regret it one bit. In fact, my first Black was an excellent foil for the hard style training I received through Traditional Taekwondo. Like Shotokan, Taekwondo training methodology required kime or focus on all end point strikes. This ‘focus’ meant that there was a pulse of energy, a staccato beat, a tight frame for every move. There was no fluid Chinese-styled movements reminiscent of my first Black. Eventually, I came to realize that resolving these seemingly different approaches was one of the more important things I would do for the understanding of Taekwondo.
Charlie: You took up Taekwondo when you moved to the USA; but before we talk about that, what led you to move to the USA?
Colin: I left Asia to the US for my college education. I always knew that was where I was headed. I enrolled in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, a small private and well-respected Midwestern college. The SMU Martial Arts Club was run by tenured professor Sensei Bryan Robbins – my primary teacher, who taught me both Taekwondo and Aikido.
Charlie: So you joined the American Karate And Taekwondo Organization (AKATO) in 1991, in Dallas, Texas. As well as Sensei Bryan Robins, I believe you also trained with Grand Master Keith Yates of the Nam Seo Kwan Taekwondo lineage. Can you tell us how this lineage compares and differs from other Taekwondo lineages, and what in particular you like about it?
Colin: I need to clarify that there was no real ‘grand scheme of things’ in my martial arts training. I waltzed into SMU Martial Arts Club because it was conveniently located. And it was just pure luck to have stepped into one of the best non-commercial schools around, and to meet a group of very committed, really welcoming black belts. Additionally, black belts trained for free at SMU – meaning I never really paid for any of my training. What I never expected was that AKATO would continue to support me for the next several decades as I moved countries and traipsed around the world. It’s not difficult to understand my immense loyalty to my teachers and for AKATO. In fact, my Taekwondo journey is an excellent story which is devoid of the politicking and money grubbing commonly associated with this sport.
My continuing journey is an extension of a lineage which started when GM Jhoon Rhee left Korea in 1956 to move to the United States. GM Jhoon Rhee is recognised as the ‘Father of American Tae Kwon Do,’ and his first black belt GM Allen Steen opened the first of their schools not 5 minutes from my University. They initially practiced Tang Soo Do, replete with Shotokan kata; vestiges of which are still present in my Black Belt syllabus here in Perth. Gen Choi encouraged GM Jhoon Rhee to adopt ‘Taekwondo’ as a name for his practice in the late 1960s, and then convinced him to convert to the Chang Hon pattern system in 1967.
How this system of Taekwondo differs from other lineages may be mirrored by the training environment at SMU Martial Arts Club whilst I was there. Saturday morning training sees at least a dozen black belts lined up at the head of the room. A handful would have been trained in GM Keith Yates’ Nam Seo Kwan Taekwon Do, others would belong to AKATO but would have come from various Karate styles. We would all practice basics together, work ‘self defence’ collaboratively, break into groups based on our different patterns, and then semi-contact spar with everyone who was there. You could say every session was a cross training mosh pit.
The immediate and most superficial difference would be that the Taekwondo I learned was a spitting image of classical Shotokan Karate. The not so obvious difference arose from the philosophy of training – to find whatever works, to operate at different distances, and to stay strong in a contact sports environment that Texans carved their reputation in. One lesson in particular stuck where one of my teachers said that the traditional fundamentals teach us parameters of how techniques work. Within that framework, it was then up to us to apply these techniques tactically. You could say the last 15 years I’ve attempted to take this to the nth degree in my search for what my system can really do.
Charlie: Being a Shotokan Karateka myself, it’s interesting to hear about that link back to Shotokan. Can you tell us more about your training at that time and any particular experiences which shaped your martial career during this time in America?
Colin: I started SMU fresh out of the army, still thought of myself as ‘hot stuff’, couldn’t be fitter, and yet I was outgunned and out manoeuvred by every single black belt there. Worst yet, it seemed the older my opponents were, the more pain they could inflict, and the less able I was to figure out how they did it. So while I initially thought the patterns were ridiculous, I plunged myself into their practise. I asked myself what I could do better, what had to be done different. I started reading the Art of War. And I started to open my mind up to the why’s and the how’s of their fighting ability.
Aside from the gimmicky kicks which I became known for, I struggled with a technique that one of my instructors used on me. The first time I squared up with him, I thought I could beat him on pure speed, and as we began, he had magically crossed the distance and his fist appeared one inch from my nose. Thinking it had been a fluke, I repeated what I did and again his fist appeared at the end of my nose – impossibly crossing a distance more suited for a mid to long range kick.
The interesting thing was I wasn’t instructed on how exactly to do the technique. Just shown how it was done, and then left hanging. After class one day, I returned home, went to the backyard, deconstructed the move, and kept working at it. I worked on it until I figured out how to generate the acceleration. It was not that I was transformed into Usain Bolt, it was that I was not using the requisite body dynamics for the lunging step. I was doing the move previously using a walking gait – as opposed to pumping my legs like a sprinter for this acceleration to occur.
I took this insight and wreaked havoc on the coloured belts. And over the next year to two years, I would get the odd tip on how to finesse the tactic. Do this so your opponent can’t judge distance well. Do this to freeze the opponent in place. Do this to hide the punch from the opponent. Do this so your opponent can’t block the striking limb. In the end the technique was so good I had to refrain from using it because it just couldn’t be stopped.
Charlie: Did you have many other martial arts influences outside of the AKATO? And if so, what in particular did they bring to your own martial arts development?
Colin: My teacher taught both the Taekwondo class upstairs, and the Aikido class downstairs. I assumed early on both of these were affiliated with AKATO. But as he’s aged and grown he has gravitated more towards his Aikido and Aikijujutsu practice; both of which unsurprisingly find less affiliation with Karate and Taekwondo.
Learning Aikido was exciting, different, and incredibly difficult for me. I had been practicing a hard style system for 8 years, and this soft style took a lot of getting used to. Fortunately I had time, and determination. I enrolled in the Aikido for PE class my instructor taught, and learning it step by step was exactly what I needed to wrap my head around the fundamentals of Aikido.
I have continued to practice what I was taught, and have updated my understanding with subsequent visits after graduation. While it can be said that I have really only a rudimentary understanding of Aikido, I have subsumed this experience into my Taekwondo practice. However, this was not a simple plug and play. For many years, Aikido remained a module of training, that while transmitting basic soft style practice, was unable to improve our tactical functionality. Meaning I could demo a lock or takedown, but I couldn’t see how we would get to that lock or takedown aside from setting up the most contrived of scenarios.
It was only when we started understanding our tactical combat philosophy could we then integrate Aikido fundamentals into Taekwondo techniques. These soft techniques would be modified to consider our gap closing skills, and complementary striking techniques. In other words, we retrofitted them into a hard style system, and made them work seamlessly within the framework of Taekwondo. Eventually while we still teach the same Aikido fundamentals in tandem, our takedown and locking techniques would evolve a distinctiveness to fit our particular needs.
Charlie: You later moved to Perth, Australia, where you founded your own school, Joong Do Kwan in 2000. You say this translates to “the school of the middle way”. Can you please elaborate on this and does it differ at all from the how the AKATO teach?
Colin: I was searching for something that would describe the value from our rich heritage linking us to Japan, to Okinawa, and to China, plus also celebrate modern advances that would improve our practice and our wellbeing. I got help from a Korean translator, and was fairly happy with what he came up with. At once, the ‘Joong’ in the name is related to the mandarin characters for China or zhongguo中国, to Chung Do Kwan – the first and most prominent of the original Korean Kwans, and to a lovely Buddhist philosophy of keeping on the ‘Middle Path’ and avoiding extremes.
Joong Do Kwan celebrates everything I was taught in AKATO – adhering very closely with fundamentals, and preserving the essence of the Chang Hon patterns as I came to receive them. Where we go from there, however, is on a trajectory set out by all the concepts my teachers have shared with me. If I were to estimate, of the patterns, the basic techniques, one steps, and ‘self defence’ lessons I have learned, all that would probably amount to 5% or less of what we would eventually transmit in JDK. But I would also say that whatever we practice comes direct from our patterns or at least is an extrapolation based on our practice of the patterns.
I have returned to AKATO several times, have shared some of what we do – training which has been received quite favourably. The main difference of course is the training methodology. We can perform a singular technique similarly, but the way we string them together whilst fending off attack is influenced by our training methodology, which is in turn influenced by our tactical philosophy. How well this overlaps or finds similarity in AKATO schools depends on the individual instructor – there are some who practice more similarly to me, and others who enjoy a more sportive style that differs from what we do.
Charlie: You also say on your website that the search for the meaning of Hyung (Kata/forms) has been your quest for the Holy Grail! This side of Taekwondo (and Karate) had been neglected for a long time, but is now receiving a revival. You are obviously ahead of the curve compared to most people, but who are your main influences in this area?
Colin: That quest is a search for a chalice. You have no idea what it really looks like nor its location. You know if you’re true of heart and pure of purpose, you have faith you will find it, you will remain steadfast in the face of challenges, and you will make the right choice to identify this sacred object.
My quest is a continuing search for insight into my heritage. I had a hint of what I was looking for but really had no clue what that wellspring would be like when I hit it. I just knew I had to keep going, and was compelled to research, to innovate, and to test what I found without ego.
When you say I’m “obviously ahead of the curve,” this does not really reflect my thinking. I’m not in competition with others. Even if they seem to be on same journey of exploration, each of us are on our own personal quest. And, like a good book, the story unfolds differently based on who is reading.
My influences in the area? Some may just be a bit of inspiration from the web. Some may represent a much deeper connection. Please note, there are a few on this list I have not met. They are listed in alphabetical order for you to come to your own conclusions: Iain Abernethy, Stuart Anslow, Bruce Clayton, Dan Djurdjevic, Paul Hinkley, Onaga Yoshimitsu, Troy Price, Taira Masaji, Tony Tan Suan Hee, Motobu Choki, Michael Proctor, Bryan Robbins, Tim White, Kelly Worden, and Keith Yates.
Charlie: There’s a couple of names there that have influenced me too! What do you think of the emphasis that many Taekwondo schools and associations put on the sporting side, and in particular Olympic Taekwondo?
Colin: What’s wrong with sport or Olympic Taekwondo? Absolutely nothing. It’s a wholesome activity which gives you opportunity to seek fulfilment, health, and wellbeing. Not only for you, but something which can also cater for your friends and family. I like that it is clearly badged and well packaged.
No, I can’t bash it for doing something different from me. If I were to be critical, I’d only point at issues of governance to prevent corruption, transparency to promote fairness, and making sure the right people head these organisations to ensure clear representation of its constituencies.
Not everyone wants to do what I do. Some people find an outlet through sports. Some want more of an emphasis on reality based self defence. And of course my school pursues and promotes a traditional heritage.
Charlie: I believe that you were instrumental in setting up the International Alliance Of Martial Arts Schools (IAOMAS). Can you tell us what the IAOMAS does and what is your particular role within it?
Colin: IAOMAS was founded by Stuart Anslow in 2002 with Tim Posynick (Canada) and Dave Melton (USA) as founding members. I happened to have connected online early on, and organised to meet up with Stuart Anslow the next year.
IAOMAS was conceived to be a student support organisation linking travelling member students to international schools so they could train for free when they were on holiday. When I eventually took over the organisation I saw most of the value IAOMAS created was enjoyed by instructors rather than their students. Mostly it was the instructors who would network with other like-minded instructors. So my preamble of IAOMAS evolved to market it as a networking organisation.
My role within IAOMAS for many years was as Coordinator. The original members were deathly afraid to diverge from having an egalitarian structure. They were worried that ego-stroking would lead to political machinations and that would be the downfall of this organisation. So I created that position and then took over the organisation, and sought to protect its values and its direction. Eventually, I moved to vote in another Coordinator so IAOMAS to grow beyond myself, and created a Chairman’s role to ensure strategic direction and an organisational continuity.
While it has great ideals, IAOMAS is run by volunteers. Actually it’s run by one volunteer – me, and how many real hours I throw at it greatly depends on how busy my own schedule is. While I’m sad to say I have dropped the ball more than once in the last 15 years, I can also be proud of the major accomplishments of IAOMAS and its sterling reputation to date.
Charlie: What other martial art organizations are you involved with and in what capacity?
American Karate and Taekwondo Organization
I’m a member of AKATO. Situated where I am, I don’t really get the most benefit from events and from the other members. But I still have many friends there, and do network with many other members online. I’d like to believe that my loyalty and support counts. After all this time, I still dedicate whatever I do to GM Keith Yates’ lineage.
Study of Taekwondo/ 태권도의 공부FaceBook Group
Study of Taekwondo FB Group is a secret online social media group of more than 600 instructors worldwide. If you can’t find it, it’s ‘secret’ but only so to prevent marketing spam. I am one of a handful of admins who moderate this forum, zealously guarding it to keep it welcoming, apolitical, on subject, and to encourage our denizens to be pleasant and courteous. Having a great discussion forum like this is a rarity in the world of martial arts.
Kidokwan Taekwondo Perth
Senior Master Peter Wong invited me to be an Associate Master Instructor with his organisation this year. His vision was to see networking and joint training amongst all Taekwondo groups here in Western Australia, with ‘all’ being an emphasis to pull in different lineages of TKD. It is not so dissimilar to IAOMAS, and wasn’t difficult for me to share his vision. We cross train frequently, and I share what I know to the best of my ability.
Molum Combat Arts Association
Tim White, Director of Molum Combat Arts Association and Police Services International has been mentoring me since 2004 as a senior instructor, and is responsible for my promotion to 6th dan black belt. My involvement in Molum is limited to the occasional high-level discussion on organisation strategy, training and grading methodology, and a continued friendship with Sifu.
International Taekwondo Council
The ITC founded by John McNally seems to have the same ideals and values as we have for IAOMAS. I support it at the moment through my presence, and am looking for additional ways to help establish the organisation.
Charlie: You’re soon to publish your own book, The Martial Heart Of Taekwon Do Hyung. When is it due to be available to the public?
Colin: Thank you for asking and giving me the opportunity to talk about it. 🙂 I’d like to think this book will ready before the end of 2018.
Charlie: Please tell about this book and what inspired you to write it?
Colin: There are many clever people out there.
You can see this in the renaissance that hard style martial arts has been experiencing in the last 20 years. Where previously hard style instructors would delight in heading brutal training camps, some now talk concepts. Show applications. Discuss meridian lines. Fueled by the internet and social media, there are hard style instructors blurring the lines between hard and soft arts.
In my view of the world, however clever people can also be misguided. Applications while bringing excitement to practice, isn’t the purview of the internet age. Applications are part of a living system, which practitioners tap into to gain functional skills. The operative description at play here is ‘part of.’ If the practitioner is only busying himself collecting a plethora of applications, this does not make for better functional ability.
My inspiration was to share insight into how traditional systems work for the practitioner. I present applications, but they’re there only so we can discuss expertise. Expertise that was there before someone concocted the hyung we centre our practice on, and expertise we are seeking to gain from the material at hand.
While the book will be released after the fact, I wanted it to commemorate a special event for AKATO – its 40th anniversary in 2016. I was honoured at this event in more ways than one, but am very grateful to simply having been invited as a seminar instructor.
Charlie: Is your book only aimed at Taekwondo practitioners, or is it suitable for the whole martial arts community?
Colin: What is Taekwondo … in fact, what is any martial art but a training methodology? If you hold onto the definition of ‘style’ as how you look like when you do your thing, then you should go no further than the doors of your own school. But when you think of your martial art as a syllabus to gain functional skill – all necessary functional skill – then labels stop becoming so important, don’t they? So, yes, I would say those interested in understanding their heritage should have a peek.
Charlie: I like that answer. Funakoshi himself was not happy when the style of Shotokan was attributed to his teachings; as he felt that martial arts should be a living breathing thing, not restricted in the form of a style! With so many other martial arts books available, what is unique about The Martial Heart Of Taekwon Do Hyung and what will it offer that is different to all the others?
Colin: I wrote the book to communicate insight, not as a directory of clever applications. Those wanting a step-by-step book should look somewhere else. Those who go looking somewhere else then get disappointed because the myriad of amazing applications don’t work for you might then want to consider why that is so. If you then want to tap into the source of what makes us and our system tick, this was written with you in mind.
Charlie: Great, I’ll look forward to reading it myself. Do you have any plans for any further books in the future?
Colin: JDK has inspiration for several other titles, surprisingly not dissimilar to this book. I think the reason why my black belts and I are so keen to share is we’ve seen the more we verbalise our understanding – or the more we share what we have, the easier it is to manipulate that understanding to create or consolidate knowledge. Of course I’d be pleased if JDK came out with a series of books with a rainbow of book covers, but I don’t want to overly pre-empt or anticipate.
Charlie: What are your future plans for your own martial arts development and is there anybody you’d particularly like to train with?
Colin: I have been blessed with an amazing network of martial art colleagues and friends.
In my immediate vicinity, I often socialise or train with high-level practitioners from Taekwondo, Bujinkan, Savate, Shotokan, Combatives, Okinawan Karate, Chinese Tai Chi and Kung Fu, and Jujutsu systems.
Internationally, I often meet up with a wide range of instructors, practice and share knowledge freely with them and their students. Additionally, I am online with many switched on practitioners who help me to expand my world and inspire my training.
My expectations for my own growth remain humble, though of course I want to continue to grow as I have grown in the last decade and a half. How did I get to this stage? By asking the right questions, by deliberately testing techniques out, and by filtering them through the users’ experience.
Of course, I wouldn’t say no to taking quantum leaps in my ability or knowledge. If there were people I could train with that could make this happen – whom I don’t already know, it might be Datu Kelly Worden a Filipino Martial Arts instructor from Natural Spirit International, or Taira Masaji a Goju Ryu instructor from Okinawan Jundokan Dojo. Both of these gentlemen don’t practice the same system as I do, but from what I have seen show a genius understanding of how to tactically apply traditional principles against a resisting opponent. Datu Worden in particular has a unparalleled gift of verbalising concepts – so much so he leaves even the most eloquent instructor looking like they have some speech impediment.
Charlie: Apart from running your own school, you also run a blog at www.JoongDoKwan.com. Please tell us about the this blog and who is your target reader?
Colin: In 2007, I thought a blog could allow me to talk about things we practiced in class but didn’t have enough time to elaborate on. Most of the early posts were written immediately after class ended – and were more or less a brain dump of information with little or no editing. As I grew it as an online resource, the blog took on a life of its own, became known as Traditional Taekwondo Techniques, and enjoyed some interest from the online martial arts community. Recently, starting a YouTube channel has made me rethink the way I’ve used the blog. Visitors to the blog will now see many more articles relating to The Tenets of Taekwondo and commentary on the human condition. In my opinion, this represents the most significant benefit that traditional martial arts can bring to practitioners in the 21st century.
Charlie: Are you available for seminars? And if so, how should people contact you to find out more information?
Colin: I am very happy to gift everything I know to people who share the same passion as I do, and who are interested in what we do at Joong Do Kwan.
Charlie: Thank you very much Master Colin Wee for doing this interview and for the depth of insight and detail you’ve given us. I sincerely wish you success with your book and look forward to reading it next year.
Anybody wanting to know more about Colin, his teachings, or his approach; can check him out at:-
- his blog – www.joongdokwan.com.
- his Youtube channel – www.youtube.com/channel/UCTtxmXu7V442mzExnRSfg6AI
If you have enjoyed this interview, please leave your comments below.