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Joe Soong dropped by Alhambra Park in 2011 to learn about tai chi from Michael Chan, who taught the martial art to his group of peers. Soong revisited the park recently to see if Chan, now 80, was still doing his routine. “He hasn't stopped his tai-chi. The only interruption was when he was sick for a year and couldn't participate,” Soong wrote in an email. Chan, who used to go to Alhambra Park every day, now goes six days a week, leaving Sundays open for church. Reflecting on the article, Soong said that the story expanded his notion of what exercise was. “I can't run as fast or as far as I used to. In writing the story, it was encouraging to see that there is a pleasant option for the rest of us when we won't quite be able to ‘Just Do It’ anymore.”
The scene reminded me of a kung fu movie at half speed. On a chilly winter morning in Alhambra Park, Michael Chan’s left arm slowly extended up and outward in a blocking motion to deflect an imaginary fist, followed by an equally deliberate front leg kick directed toward an invisible opponent. Five students imitated his motions. Their graceful, rhythmic movements belied their age, which I would guess ranged from the late 50s to the mid 70s. But it wasn’t kung fu, karate, or any other fighting style. It was tai chi, an increasingly popular Chinese form of exercise — and a sport you can find in almost every park in Alhambra if you look at the right hour.
Bespectacled and wearing a white beret with a light blue jacket and dark sweatpants, Chan, 75, has been a constant presence in front of the Alhambra Park band shell every morning from 7:15am until 9:00am, seven days a week — except during inclement weather. “No tai chi in the rain,” said Chan.
Chan was born in Calcutta, India, in 1935 to Chinese parents. His parents, like many of their peers, had relocated to India for employment opportunities. However, the increasingly hostile relations between the two countries as a result of the Sino-India War in 1962 caused his family to return to China. In 1978, Chan left Hong Kong for Los Angeles, where he lived in an apartment until the property was acquired by the local government, demolished and replaced by a new school. He then moved to Alhambra because he liked the weather and his new home would be near a park.
Chan, who looks at least 10 years younger than his age, began practicing tai chi, which means “supreme ultimate,” as a result of an unfortunate circumstance. He was a printing press mechanic at the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, but lost his job in 1989 when the paper closed. Unemployed at 55, he found he suddenly had time on his hands.
Because he had seen the numerous groups in the nearby park and always wanted to learn, Chan thought tai chi would help him keep active, decided to give it a try and found he enjoyed it. As an added benefit, he also likes the social interaction of the tai chi group.
Tai chi, which has been described as “moving meditation,” originated in China and its origins can be traced back as far as 2,500 years. Many movements were originally developed for defensive purposes and derived from the martial arts. More recently, tai chi has been widely adopted in Western countries. Per the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, more than two million U.S. adults had practiced tai chi in the past 12 months.
Mainstream Western medicine has also been taking increasing notice of tai chi. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is some evidence that tai chi has therapeutic benefits. Among them are a reduction in anxiety and depression, improved balance and strength, and lower blood pressure levels. Chan and his students are convinced: “Because of tai chi, I have good health and a few minor sicknesses,” he said.
Chan has been leading the group at Alhambra park for the past two years. When the prior teacher departed, Chan, as the most experienced remaining member, became the de facto instructor, which is how the teaching responsibilities have been inherited through the years. Among his dedicated students is Louis, 74, a retired engineer of Chinese descent, who has attended four to five days a week for more than five years. “He is very patient and repeats steps until you get it right,” said Louis.
The tai chi routines, which are called “forms,” are composed of specific movements and vary in difficulty. Forms can take from four to eight minutes to complete. In choosing each routine, Chan gauges the skill level of those who show up that day and makes his selections accordingly. If more beginners are present, then more basic forms are practiced. However, if the attendees are more experienced, Chan can utilize more difficult selections.
During the first hour, the routines are usually performed to recorded music. A woman who attends regularly brings a portable radio to play her tai chi cassette tapes, which can be purchased at most Chinese bookstores, and stays until about 8 am. Afterwards, they practice silently, with Chan’s soft spoken directions and questions about the routine as the only sounds. Also, on occasion, he may teach the sword or the fan during the last portion of the session.
According to Chan, there are always newcomers who want to learn tai chi, particularly in summer months when the weather is warmer. Although some have stayed as long as seven years, Chan said, “Some stay a few months, most stay one or two years, then they leave to practice themselves.” With one notable exception: his wife doesn’t like tai chi so she stays at home.
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