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SNAPSHOTS : Through Ancient Exercise, Actor Finds Graceful Place on the Screen or in the Garden

November 21, 1985|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

For a lesson in t'ai chi ch'uan, you can turn on the television series "Falcon Crest" and watch a character named Chao-Li Chi tutor a young student.

Or, if you prefer the real thing--same man, same name, same lessons in the ancient, graceful exercise--you can simply walk into the courtyard of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena any Saturday morning.

There, Chao-Li Chi and his students move slowly and rhythmically to the accompaniment of of a babbling brook and chirping birds.

T'ai chi ch'uan, or tai chi, is a rigorous workout that leaves some students limp and others rejuvenated, even though all they have done for an hour and a half is slowly and deliberately shift their weight and move their arms and legs.

Or so it appears.

Chao-Li Chi, actor and teacher, says the art form that is central to his life is anything you want to make it--exercise, meditation, a martial art, philosophy, therapy, body conditioning or stress relief.

It has been practiced in China since it was introduced during the Ming Dynasty more than 300 years ago. It stems from ancient fighting movements, which Chi said become apparent when the exercise is performed faster. Then it looks something like karate. In ancient times, Chi said, tai chi was known for "leading and guiding the flow of energy."

The requisites are early morning, outdoors and quiet.

The embellishments, in Pasadena, are the museum's authentic Chinese garden, a core group of devotees and a teacher who has practiced tai chi for 50 years.

When he was a little boy in China, Chi said, the tai chi he learned from his family physician gave him the skills that he uses today at the age of 59.

When he was 11, the family fled the Japanese invasion of China during World War II and moved to the United States, Chi said. He continued to practice and read about t'ai chi ch'uan as he learned English, went to St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., became an American citizen and "washed dishes and bumped around on my own."

He took graduate courses in philosophy and dance, and earned a master's degree in philosophy from the New School for Social Research in New York.

His acting career evolved, he said, because American television and films offered a steady living for an enterprising Asian after the wars involving Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

"I was a professional enemy. The psychology was that anyone who was lean and Oriental was the enemy. If I had been fat I would have been cast as a friendly Asian. I didn't have to learn to act, I just had to memorize a few grunts. And I got enough work to beat washing dishes."

And he continued to do as he had always done--find quiet moments to do t'ai chi ch'uan, "even on 747s crossing the Pacific. You get very stiff flying 11 hours to Tokyo."

One early morning on the set of "Falcon Crest" a producer noticed him practicing tai chi, and again he was typecast. Chi had been playing the role of Jane Wyman's chauffeur and butler, and that role was enlarged to make him the martial arts tutor of Lorenzo Llamas, who plays her grandson.

"I'm supposed to have mystical qualities--that's not real," he explained.

But the tai chi he performs is the real thing, both on film and in the Chinese museum courtyard on Los Robles Avenue.

Every Saturday morning Chi drives to Pasadena from his home in Granada Hills where he lives with his Dutch wife, Catharina. They have two daughters.

He makes the trip "because this is the only authentic Chinese garden in Southern California," Chi said.

Classes are so informal that anyone who shows up at 8 a.m. and pays $6 becomes a student.

On a recent Saturday, students included Bruce Baptie of Westwood, a student of acupuncture who is Chi's assistant teacher; Wendy Shroyer of Santa Monica, an actress and aspiring script writer, and Bruce McAffee, who was left partially blind and temporarily immobilized after removal of a brain tumor and who is now regaining his balance through tai chi.

There was a woman suffering from Parkinson's disease, a new mother, two women whose doctors recommended the class for relief of stress and arthritis, and a museum maintenance man.

Their only common ground was the courtyard and their smiles.

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