By Ron Chapél, Ph.D.
The migration and evolution of Kenpo in the Parker Lineage is not a simple direct line as some feel, but one of significant complexities. The assumption that it “started at A, and ends at Z,” ignores some basic realities.
Although the lineage has many eras, diversions, and off-shoots, clearly the most significant in terms of influences on everything that followed it, is the “Chinese Kenpo” era of the sixties.
Initially at its roots, what was called “Kenpo Karate” in Hawaii by Kwai Sun Chow, was like most non-traditional arts of the time. That is, it was a mixture of philosophies, physical methodologies, and diverse cultural influences.
Arguably a mixture of cultural arts, (like Lua), with a heavy infusion of Japanese Cultural Arts, (like Seishiro Okazaki’s Dan Zan Ryu Jiu-jitsu), mixed with the Chinese Arts, and the gutsy street fight savvy of its creator, it defied many labels and its diversity was reflected in its name. Some would suggest that the term “kenpo-karate” is itself a cultural contradiction.
At any rate, the over-riding themes promoted by Chow, and picked up by Ed Parker, was about personal self-defense in the modern culture, and anything that didn’t support that philosophy was jettisoned. Ed Parker always gave his only Kenpo teacher credit for this driving philosophy in all of his many approaches and interpretations of “Kenpo.”
The most important thing however is the acceptance that, where we as individuals stand in our own kenpo evolution is not necessarily a straight line from Chow to what we do, no matter how much we would like it to be so. We all would like to feel that Parker’s evolution culminated at our own feet, (or at least at our teachers), and therefore there is no better “interpretation” of kenpo than our own. This belies the migration of students to other styles to “fill the gaps” in their kenpo teachers knowledge. Those who routinely speak of what kenpo does or does not have, would be better served to speak in personal terms rather than what someone else’s kenpo of whom they have no knowledge, does or does not contain.
But where we stand is influenced by such a plethora of factors. Consider Parker never stood pat at any level or versions of his many kenpo(s) and created off-shoot diversions of his own interpretations every time he taught someone something different from another. This in turn created another lineage branch no less valid than any other philosophically, if not practically.
Parker began in judo and made black belt. He dabbled in western boxing before he found the Chow Brothers, and started Chow’s kenpo-Karate. He was also proficient at elements of, and ultimately received his black belt in jiu-jitsu, and Karate-do.
Once arriving on the mainland, Parker began his own interpretation of Chow’s teaching and began a codification process that Chow never had when he was under his tutelage. This was the original Kenpo-Karate depicted in Parker’s first book on the subject in 1961. Innovative and unlike any of its “karate-do” influence, it was more jiu-jitsu than Karate, but even then the lines were blurred. Most cultural arts contained elements of other arts of the same culture, and some even crossed cultural lines philosophically, (like Kenpo), so this was not at all unusual.
The distinctions made today about elements of various styles virtually didn’t exist then. The martial arts world was more homogenous, and most openly shared with each other with cross-pollination being the rule rather than the exception. Except that is, for the sophisticated aspects of the Chinese Arts. Held culturally close even today, this aspect of the arts always remained shrouded in mystery and skepticism of the effectiveness of its unusual methodologies. Still on American Soil, all methodologies on some level will fall to means testing, or cultural proclivities for artistic sake. Some have chosen to be partially means tested, while ignoring volumes of other information.
Having been a student of one of Mr. Parker’s teachers as well as The Kahuna himself, gives me a unique perspective of some information, and its interpretations from various sources. Obviously I found Ed Parker’s interpretations and teachings for me, invaluable and infinitely informative to this day and continue them religiously, means testing as I go as he mandated.
Mr. Parker’s association with my former teacher, Ark Yuey Wong had a significant influence. So much so that by the time he wrote his second book for publication in 1963 (the year I met him), Parker had completely abandoned the Japanese Influences of his birthplace in favor of the now Chinese Sciences.
Although others such as Lao Bun, and James Wing Woo had an impact, it was to a much lesser extent than many are aware. Lao Bun, based out of Northern California placed him geographically consistently unavailable. Although James Woo was influential, he was out of Ark Wong’s Kwoon as well so his impact was in actuality no greater then Lau Bun’s in practice. What Sifu Woo did do however, is spend time teaching with Parker in Pasadena, bringing Taiji to the school, and contributing the bulk of the historical information for Parker’s book, “Secrets of Chinese Karate.”
This for many was no small matter, and as Parker continued his evolution, Sifu Woo took some of Parker’s early black belts with him when they parted ways. As much as this may sound negative, this was not at all unusual. Everyone bounced around from school-to-school in those days, picking up different philosophies and techniques while still calling kenpo their primary “style.” I know I did, picking up black belts in Japanese and Korean Arts while a Parker student. Parker actually encouraged it, and in the process, sometimes often lost students. Although this may sound somewhat impressive, in those days getting a black belt in a year or so was about average in this country, or for Americans studying in Asian Countries. While in the Chinese Arts, it took about three plus years to gain a black sash from Sifu Wong. That proportionality hasn’t really changed much over the years, even with commercial influences.
Dan Inosanto also studied with Sifu Ark Wong, left to be with Parker, and then left with Bruce Lee. Prior to studying with Ark Wong, Danny studied his own traditional Filipino Arts and came to Sifu Wong to expand on his knowledge.
Over the years most of Parker’s black belts left him. If not in practice, in actuality as he changed things continually and students searched for a more stable atmosphere, and had no desire to revisit “basics” while Parker refined them, or transition to the commercial system he settled on as a business. Those who stayed in business with him and remained loyal were promoted even though they didn’t follow him in his quest. He justified it by saying they got the rank for “.. what they are doing, not for potential.”
But the biggest influence on Ed Parker in my opinion was the little known Haumea Lefiti. A student at Ark Wong’s as well, Parker saw several things in him that he ultimately adopted in some form in all of his own arts.
Sifu Lefiti was Samoan, and culturally that made him Parker’s “island boy cousin.” “Tiny,” as he was affectionately called, was a much bigger version of Ed Parker. At about 6’8”, he was actually faster than Parker at the time. Wrap your mind around that for a moment. Most importantly, Sifu Lefiti brought a methodology to the forefront in the school that had not previously been taught by Sifu Wong. That methodology was “Splashing Hands.”
Sifu Wong was well versed in the method, but had chose to not teach it until “Tiny” Lefiti showed up at the school with a Mok Gar Black Sash, and a written recommendation, after a stint in the Marine Corps and studying in Taiwan.
It’s important you understand why I call it a “methodology” and not a style. Historically, depending on whom you talk to, Splashing Hands was an interpretation of Mok Gar used specifically by especially chosen and trained guards, that was reputed to be “down and dirty,” and taught without the cultural restraints found in the traditional teachings of Mok Gar and the Chinese Arts. Think of it as the “street Kenpo” of its day. Stripped of cultural impediments and whose only purpose was to maim, blind, incapacitate, and literally destroy the adversary as quickly as possible without salutations or useless forms and sets.
Much like my own “SubLevel Four” is American Kenpo, but the methodology is SL-4 Kenpo. Many of Parker’s early Black Belts (pre-motion) teach their own interpretations of Kenpo, but that doesn’t change the style. Identifying the methodology simply identifies the first generation Lineage of what you do.
However, those that were born in the commercial era of the seventies were dictated a singular methodology that allowed for individual interpretations without the necessity of a Lineage Identifier.
This interpretation was and is based on “motion” and had its singular objective adopted by Parker from Mok Gar – Splashing Hands. It contains all of the of the slashing, ripping, gouges, and stomping of downed attackers found in Splashing Hands, taught with a motion-based theme to effect quick self defense skills for commercial viability. It works, and left the morality of its use to the teacher and their students. This is where most of the Parker lineage students reside today, and Splashing Hands is the primary methodology influence on what they have learned.
Discussions about different style influences are valid, but more so outside of the Chinese Arts. Because of the base science aspect, I was always taught the Chinese Arts are “all the same,” and only methodologies differ to reach essentially similar objectives. Other arts are not necessarily based in science, but cultural philosophies and creator personal preferences. I know all of my Chinese Teachers felt this way, and for that reason they usually only made references to methodologies, rather than styles.
The issue of “styles” was promoted by the more traditional arts. Some, created for various reasons other than “fighting,” promoted a particular “way” over practical applications. Others, including the Chinese can be heavily culturally influenced to purposely elongate the process of learning artificially as a life long experience and endeavor. While all arts are a “life long” journey, some artificially withhold effective methods while waiting to build character and show “worthiness” for the knowledge. Today many argue about style sometimes because of personal identity issues, and/or a need to distinguish oneself from others, while in the past it was only to establish methodology parameters in training, not identity. This is why today in the Chinese Arts in particular, some vehemently defend their “style” distinctions as if it really mattered in reality.
The reason the arts are studied will determine where you sit, but from the cat bird seat, means testing is a far more important place to put ones energy.
So in answer to the question, primarily Slashing Hands for most, Mok Gar, Splashing Hands, Five Animal, Hung Gar, for some, plus every practical aspect of every art that Parker ever came into contact with.
Or put another way off the top of my head, “Answer E.” All of the above.