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Time Out for a Different Kind of Daily Ritual--T'ai Chi

L.A. STORIES. A slice of life in Southern California.


The rosy flush of dawn has just begun to backlight the scruffy rooftops and television antennas on the hillside that overlooks Alpine Recreation Center in Chinatown. Already, dozens of mostly elderly Chinese in Nikes and brightly colored sweat suits are lining up around the park's periphery, waiting for morning exercises to begin.

As their leader, a spry woman in a bright yellow warm-up suit, calls out the first command in Cantonese, the group breaks into a flurry of stylized kicks, punches and stretching exercises.

No longer L. A.'s sole residential center for its Chinese immigrants, Chinatown in many ways remains the community's cultural point of reference. This is especially apparent on early mornings at Alpine when, depending on the weather, as many as 100 people gather for group exercises and the practice of t'ai chi ch'uan--a Chinese system of movements that combines fitness, self-defense and meditation. Some, such as James Chan, 84, exercise infrequently and come mainly to socialize and enjoy the outdoors. At the crack of each dawn, he takes the bus from his home in Santa Ana and spends the early part of the day in the park.

"I studied all the martial arts at the athletic club in Shanghai," Chan says proudly, pulling his cap down farther over his forehead against the rising sun. "But now I like to come and talk to friends. I get the Chinese papers and have lunch at one of the restaurants nearby, then go back home on the bus."

Mabel Lee, 58, who immigrated from mainland China in 1981, has a different reason for making it a daily ritual. "I have a bad back," she says, "and this helps strengthen it." So most mornings, she drives to the park from her home in Glendale, then goes back home to change before returning to Chinatown where she works as an English teacher.

Although most of the exercisers are Chinese, newcomers are not only welcome but likely to be given an enthusiastic greeting at either the 6:45 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. group sessions.

In addition, several splinter groups fan out along the basketball court, the recreation center's patio or the corners of the lawn, practicing the more demanding t'ai chi ch'uan. Among them are a handful of non-Asians pursuing the ancient discipline. Instruction at the park may be catch-as-catch-can, but it's free--although certain masters are known to accept an occasional monetary gift.

T'ai chi ch'uan is a slow form of martial art that focuses less on defense than exercising internal organs. In the long form, there are 128 movements; an abbreviated form has 37. For a beginner, trying to put them together is like working a Rubik's Cube.

"This started out spontaneously about 15 years ago, with one little group joined by another and then another," says Alpine manager Jan Landrum, who's worked at the park for 24 years. "Between 6 a.m. and the time they leave, there's probably up to 300 people passing through, doing one thing or another."

There are several t'ai chi masters leading small groups. Among them is a dapper man known to his followers as Mr. Yu.

Mr. Yu speaks no English and is fairly loath to answer questions even when there's someone around to translate. He dresses nattily in gray slacks, a white cable-knit sweater and sporty warm-up jacket. He has silvery hair and serene eyes that can radiate fierceness.

Asked how long he's practiced t'ai chi, Mr. Yu answers "a very long time." Asked his age, he smiles distantly and turns away. He is said to be in his late 70s.

To behold Mr. Yu in action is like watching poetry in motion. In contrast to the pow-boom-crash bombast of other martial arts, t'ai chi is a study in sweeping, graceful movement, having more in common with yoga than karate. Performed by such a master as Mr. Yu, it is torrential force--in slow motion.

The problem is replicating this.

"He doesn't give you much help--you watch and you imitate him," says Linda Farmer, a devoted member of Mr. Yu's loosely organized troupe. She doesn't "feel quite right," Farmer says, unless she starts her morning with t'ai chi. "The exercises are energizing, and being among all these people gives you a sense of community."

Not all the teachers are Chinese. Codee Colbert, for example, has won the respect and admiration of many native practitioners. He's a professional instructor of t'ai chi and physical fitness who gives informal lessons at the park. His approach is more casual.

"The (t'ai chi groups) are very open here, but you have to feel your way," says Colbert, who looks a good 10 years younger than his 50 years. "My philosophy is not to worry too much whether you're doing it perfectly, because you're still getting the benefits of the exercise."

Says Glen Grossman, a longtime student who practices at the park each morning before going to work downtown: "There's probably better t'ai chi being practiced here than in China. More people are leaving China, and Los Angeles is getting the benefit of a lot of wonderful knowledge."

Meanwhile, Mr. Yu tests a student's sensitivity to chi , which in Chinese philosophy is the equivalent of the life force.

A middle-aged Chinese man in sweat pants and a Dodgers cap stands with his eyes closed several feet in front of Mr. Yu. He sways to and fro, backward and forward, in sync with Mr. Yu 's gestures, as if the two of them are connected by invisible strings.

Extending a forefinger that quivers like a divining rod, Mr. Yu sends the man trotting backward. As Mr. Yu pushes his arm out farther, the man's pace quickens. He trots backward at a brisk pace for a good 30 feet.

Then he crashes into a concrete wall and falls.

Mr. Yu lets out a mischievous laugh.

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