A few weeks ago, during his regular morning walk in the park area of Alpine Recreation Center in Chinatown, Chew Szeto spotted a group of people performing some intriguing calisthenics.
So he joined them and quickly learned 36 movements with names like "Mount a Horse and Beat a Drum," "A Beautiful Person Looks in the Mirror" and "The Golden Pheasant Stands Alone."
Each exercise has a purpose, Szeto, 73, said after a recent morning workout.
He referred to an exercise outline sheet that explains that "Hands Open the Door"--which looks to the casual observer like a hand and arm exercise but also involves clenching one's jaw--is good for the nerves of the teeth. The "Eye Area Exercise," which involves patting one's face, is meant to help the nerves of the eyes.
To perform "The Golden Pheasant Stands Alone," participants stand on one leg and hold their other leg bent up behind them. This is to "loosen the muscles and bones and strengthen the legs," the instructions sheet says.
The system, called "Fists of the Six Passages," aims at encouraging the proper circulation of body fluids, proponents say. Understanding just how it works gets complicated, for it is based on traditional Chinese medical concepts.
"They have six main points of the body you have to keep strong all the time. The exercise keeps them open," said a man who said he had learned about the system in Hong Kong.
"Actually," he added after a thoughtful pause, "there are 12 points. But the six points bring it to the rest of them."
Early morning group calisthenics is a Chinese tradition especially beloved by those advancing in age. Like many parks in Hong Kong, China or Taiwan, the Alpine Recreation Center has long been used by practitioners of the highly disciplined slow-motion martial art Tai Chi Chuan .
"Fists of the Six Passages," or Liu Tung Chuan, was brought to Chinatown only in mid-September, however, when Ha Kinh--a woman who learned the system 40 years ago from its creator, a Malaysian doctor--began teaching a small group of friends.
Onlookers like Szeto soon joined, and the daily crowd now averages about 120.
"When I was young, I was paralyzed on one side," said Ha, 70. "When I was sick, the doctor helped me and I was healthy. So I would like to help people who have sickness and pain."
Ha, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Hong Kong six years ago, said the six key parts of the body are the head, heart, arms and legs.
"When people get older, you get heart attacks," she said. "Or sometimes senile. Or you get arthritis and problems with your arms and legs. (But) if in those six places everything is all right, then you're OK."
Ha, who has previously taught the system in Hong Kong and during visits to London and Paris, said she began teaching in Los Angeles at the urging of friends.
"This looks very simple, but actually it's effective," said Lisa Lung, 62, a participant who came to the United States from Peking four years ago.
Lung added, however, that she feels the system is still in the "middle stages of development."
"It needs to be made more scientific, and then it will be even more effective," she said. "But it's very good."