Nick Hurst Talks to Kung Fu Tea about Writing, Research, and Curating the Memory of a Shaolin Grandmaster.


This is the second depart of our series on Sugong : The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster ( 2012 ) by Nick Hurst. If you have not already done indeed, be certain to check out the follow-up here. Nick is a bang-up ridicule and he was kind enough to sit down with Kung Fu Tea and answer a numeral of question about this experiences researching and writing this book. I think this interview very helps to put a fortune of what I read and discussed in the review in its proper context. enjoy !
Kung Fu Tea (KFT): To begin with, why don’t you introduce yourself.  What is your background and how did you become interested in the Chinese martial arts?

Nick Hurst (NH): I ’ m a 37 year old Londoner work in advertising in between my attempts to escape the diligence. My interest in soldierly arts coincides with some of my earliest memories – watching the badly dub Water Margin and Monkey on television. however I became football ( soccer ) obsessed as I grew up until beer and unhealthy living took over in my late teens. At university I realized I needed to get active again and fortunately a supporter, Michael, had just started kung fu classes awakening my old television receiver memories. I joined him at a class, loved it immediately and have been practicing ever since .
KFT: Tell us a little bit about how “Sugong” came together.  At what point did you decide you were going to write a book on this topic?  Did you have trouble selling the concept to a publisher?
NH: My original plan wasn ’ t to write a book – it was meant to be a kung fu trip career break that would hopefully result in a bright mind for a career change .
Michael joined me for separate of it and having been regaled with stories from Sugong ’ mho life over obligatory post-training breakfasts we got in a conversation about how person should write a koran to prevent his adventures and the history of our linage being lost. Michael suggested I do it but knowing he was about to head back to liveliness in banking the suggestion to go into the notoriously badly paid world of a writer seemed an easier one to suggest than take .
It did establish a semen but I still came back as planned at the end of my six months. Having not had my undimmed idea for a career change I went to an interview for an advertise job, realized immediately I wanted nothing to do with it, and decided to head back to Kuala Lumpur to write the koran adenine soon as I walked out of the build .
I approached a couple of publishers before heading out in the naïve hope that I would be able to get a conduct and with it an advance. gratuitous to say they weren ’ thymine besides acute to fund a first-time writer with no contacts or media presence to write a book about a soldierly artist who had no fame in the West .
I decided to take the plunge without a consider and waited until I had a more polished product before making far attempts. even then it was a irritating process. I had a couple of near misses with UK print houses, and was offered deals with Singaporean and malaysian publishers. The Singaporean matchless fell through when the fiscal crash leveled record sales just as we were negotiating contracts .
When I came back to England after finishing the book I made a few further attempts but it started to look as though Sugong would remain as a manuscript under my sofa. fortunately I came across a book by my publisher SportsBooks, approached them and it was all go from there .
KFT: Have you been happy with the audience that your book has found?
NH: Yes and no. I was quite clean in my mind from the startle that this wasn ’ t a “ warlike arts book ” – soldierly arts obviously feature powerfully because of who Sugong was, but it was constantly more about the adventure-story that was his life. I was hoping there would be a effect hearing of those interest in warlike arts, but that it would appeal to a wide readership as well .
To some extent it has possibly been successful in achieving the latter but not successful adequate with the former. This is reflected in the wardrobe it ’ mho had where the more mainstream – from Time Out to the Times Literary Supplement – have picked it up but lone Kung Fu Tai Chi in the US have featured it from the warlike arts press .
so I ’ meter please it is meeting wider tastes, but it would be courteous to get more of a look-in from the martial arts global equally well .
KFT: “You want to know about my parents, go ask them and stop bothering me.”  That was the first sentence of your book, and it was the moment that I knew you had conducted real interviews.  Most of the sources that I have dealt with in my own research have been open and forthcoming….but…attitudes like the ones expressed above are not at all uncommon when researching the history of the Chinese martial arts.  
Why do you think that Chinese individuals of a certain generation are so reluctant to discuss the past?
NH: I think there are a count of possible reasons .
There can be a reluctance to be questioned at all, whether about the past or present. This is possibly a generational matter : there is greater respect shown toward one ’ s elders in the East and among some there seems to be a feeling that being questioned by the younger generation at all is equivalent to being shown contempt. They appear to take the opinion that if there ’ s something you need to know they ’ ll tell you .
so allowing one or two questions may already be pushing things and probing for far contingent in the answers can be taken as a challenge resulting in all hell being let loosen .
I think some besides take the watch that the past is the by and it ’ s none of your business. The sensitivity surrounding lineage can besides play a role – there is a disinclination to dishonor the dead which is particularly delicate if there has been rancor or trouble in their relationships .
I besides think there may be a general predilection for craft histories preferably than academically recorded ones, and questioning can challenge these. It may good be a observation of my experiences and the people I came across, but in a similar way to obvious myths of Shaolin not always being challenged by people ( in East and West ) there were many occasions where something that was obviously untrue to me was promptly accepted. As this could be by highly intelligent people I could only assume it was about intentionally turning a blind eye in favor of a preferable explanation .
font besides plays a separate. Showing inconsistencies that distant events can bring would cause embarrassment. And there may besides be a preference not to reflect on past indiscretions at odds with the upstanding position many of this generation like to present .
I should point out these are all suppositions – an explanation was never offered to me. Rather, the default reception would frequently be offended rage .
KFT: Are there any interview techniques that you found especially helpful in creating open, non-confrontational settings?
NH: Distraction and opportunism. While more organized interview settings could prove utilitarian in the earlier stages they grew increasingly less effective as Sugong tired of the process and felt he had provided all that was required ( despite the odd ten-year spell being covered with a match of sentences ) .
When we ’ vitamin d reached this stage just the prospect of an interview could be enough to incite a tirade and any information after the first month was best encouraged in less arranged settings when he was in a good climate. The breakfast board in the days after I paid my monthly fees was one but occasions outside of the norm could be even better ; a five hour drive on a travel to the temple he trained at in Singapore opened the floodgates for a stream of recollections .
In terms of the best direction for the questions to be phrased I can ’ t say – my translators CG and Mr Tan worked their own charming. But their presence – people he trusted absolutely – was all-important, as was the fact he trusted me. He wouldn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate have given the details he did to a strange or free-and-easy acquaintance .
KFT: A lot of us who are interested in Chinese martial studies as an academic discipline are what anthropologists might call “participant observers” meaning that we study with the people that we write about.  How did you, as a writer, attempt to maintain some level of objectivity while at the same time being so close to your subject?  Is objectivity even something that we should be striving for in our writing?
NH: This was a slippery issue for me. On the one pass I ’ m a history alumnus so I appreciate the importance of good source substantial and a miss of bias ( or at least an undertake at it ). On the other, Sugong had placed a batch of trust in me and I was writing on his behalf to some extent. Furthermore, while I tried to get further verbal and documented sources the bulge of my information still came from him .
In the end I decided to approach it more in the vein of a memoir from his perspective than a biography. I tried to ensure this was clear to the lector and I besides noted areas of guess around particular events so it was obvious that the book could serve as a source of data but one that comes with the usual biases of one person ’ second recollections .
So it would be hypocritical for me to say others should be wholly objective – I think it depends on the kind of ledger it is. But I do believe that if there are any questions over objectivity they should be made clear. soldierly arts writing can fail to do so and sometimes suffers from blind observation to myths, legends and the words of one ’ south seniors/ancestors .
KFT: Have you read other martial arts travelogues?  Do you have a favorite that you would recommend?
NH: I ummed and erred about how many to read before writing my book – while I wanted to learn from others, I didn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate want to unconsciously mimic the ones I liked. I did end up reading a few but I don ’ thymine think I discovered any unknown gems in my favorites – I loved Angry White Pajamas ( Robert Twigger, 1997 ) and besides enjoyed American Shaolin ( Matthew Polly, 2007 ).

The biggest determine of AWP may have been in what I didn ’ thyroxine write rather than what I did, however ; because I felt Robert Twigger wrote then well I thought I would only end up writing an deficient kung fu adaptation were I to focus on travelogue. I thought that Sugong ’ s floor was not only better than mine but besides more original – there are a act of martial arts travelogues but good memoirs I found reduce on the ground .
But because I did have some concern experiences ( although not enough for a full book ) I thought it would be worth including a few interludes both to break up the history with a contemporary and more blithe position but besides to give a different horizon of Sugong .
KFT: Who do you look to for literary inspiration?
NH: There are numerous authors whose bring I love who credibly had an determine of some kind on my script. however, I was consciously trying to avoid any particular literary style in Sugong beyond trying to reflect the excitement and gamble of his life-story ; keep the diachronic explanations informative but crisp and non-disruptive ; and write precisely as I would tell the narrative if public speaking to a supporter for my experiences ( possibly with some censoring here and there… ). So I can ’ metric ton intend of any influences I took consciously although I ’ m indisputable I unconsciously lifted from other writers…
In terms of favorite authors, Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro are decidedly up there, and Tan Twan Eng ’ s The Gift of Rain blew me away when I read it last year .
KFT: Did you turn to any historical or academic sources for background research when you were writing your book?  If so, which ones?
NH: I tried to. For the background on the countries Sugong lived in I was golden enough to be given some pointers by my erstwhile university ’ second ( The University of Sheffield ) School of East asian Studies. Getting accurate information on Shaolin and the trio was more unmanageable .
All the writing on Shaolin I could find seemed to be different versions of the lapp retrograde myth. As a legend I like it but I couldn ’ metric ton believe it was then regularly presented as fact. fortunately I was saved by Meir Shahar whose script The Shaolin Monastery came out while I was writing Sugong and I leaned heavily on this as about the only academically rigorous English-language book I could find .
By trailing through bibliographies from diverse books I found a pair on triads ( ter Haar ’ south Ritual & Mythology of the Chinese Triads and Murray ’ s The Origin of the Tiandihui ) that again provided an academic preferably than a sensationalist approach .
Beyond books I went to Singapore and Malaysia ’ s national archives to find whatever press coverage on Sugong and his master I could, but it was very thin on the ground. I besides spoke to person associated with the temple Sugong trained in who has researched its history and that of its abbots .
To try to ensure greater accuracy in the chief narrative I interviewed as many sources as I could find. I spoke to five or six other disciples of Sugong ’ sulfur dominate, some of his older students and besides a couple of ex-triad heads .
KFT: You had an opportunity to closely observe the Chinese martial arts in south east Asia in some detail.  Tell us a little about what you saw?  Are these arts able to maintain their popularity in the face of more commercial styles like MMA and Muy Thai Kick Boxing?  To what extent are the Chinese arts in the region still an exclusively ethnically Chinese affair?
NH: I ’ m not sure how a lot faint I can shed on this as my experiences revolved quite closely around Sugong who was no retentive as active in the broad martial arts scene as he had been in younger days .
however, there decidedly didn ’ t seem to be a particular air of cool surrounding traditional taiwanese warlike arts among the younger generation. My feeling was that with it having been so wide practiced by their parents ’ generation it didn ’ thyroxine quite have the same appeal to them. In fact, there broadly seemed to be an admiration for westerners among older martial artists for their sensed dedication .
One area where chinese martial arts were still being encouraged was in schools where local masters and their pupils would come in to teach extra-curricular classes. They tended to be more coarse in chinese schools but they weren ’ thymine single to heathen Chinese .
They besides mixed modern wushu with traditional kung fu. With Malaysia having had international achiever with wushu its profile was high and its more goal-orientated approach seemed to provide a wide solicitation. Tae Kwon Do was besides democratic partially for the same rationality but its overseas allure i.e. not being the activity of kids ’ parents, and its uniforms besides seemed to provide an attraction .
Whatever the warlike artwork it seems as though less people are practicing now than in previous generations where the impression is that high numbers of heathen Chinese did kung fu. On the plus side, the ties to the triads seem to have loosened well from a clock when most clubs would have some kind of connection, even if this was involuntary .
KFT: What advice would you give to someone who would like to do some oral history of their own school or teacher with an eye towards an article or some form of publication?  In your view, what is the importance of this type of work?
NH: In terms of the approach to take it depends very much on the individual being interviewed. person a difficult as Sugong ( which should be a curio ) needs to be approached with the opinion that they will entirely tell you a function of their story. You have to take each piece of information gleaned as a treasure that would differently have been lost, preferably than being disappointed at the inevitable gaps in the entire mental picture .
You besides need to disassociate your obedience for their martial arts, and possibly besides their personality, with their diachronic expertness. Just because they have big kung fu or have been passed down a history it doesn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate mean what they say is fact .
You must besides be frank with yourself – the history is undoubtedly matter to and significant to you and fellow pupils of your school and should of course be investigated and recorded. But is there anything specifically interesting to the wide world that merits publication ? Should you decide the answer that is yes you need to develop thick skin and retain your belief as you will have to battle to make others plowshare your conviction .
For me the importance of these social histories is in their accumulative impression. No count how upstanding the interviewees they will have their own biases and inaccuracies. And while their martial arts may be beyond question their recollections may not. sometimes they can provide the trip for a raw credit line of probe, early times they can provide confirmation or challenge an existing note of think. They besides bring color and context and can round out academic accounts. For these reasons they have fundamental importance as historic sources. But if they form the cardinal diachronic column on their own they can leave a sanely flimsy diachronic criminal record behind .
KFT: Can you tell us a little bit about your current or future projects?
NH: They ’ re getting a sting more surreal… I was in India last year on vacation and watching a movie thought the bare bones of Sugong would transfer brilliantly to Bollywood if re-written for an indian audience. A match of product houses in Mumbai seemed to agree and I ’ ll be heading out there following month to see if anything further comes of it .
KFT: Thank you so much for dropping by Kung Fu Tea!  I enjoyed your book immensely and it was great to have an opportunity to hear about how it all came together.

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