Master Kevin Earle: My Martial Arts Mentor
Some Personal Memories Of My Early Days At Earle's Academy
By Anthony Revill
In late March 2000, after two years at the Dunedin club, I moved to Christchurch with the express purpose of training under Master Kevin.
On my first night at Earle’s Academy, Kevin got everyone to gather around, and he formally welcomed me into the club. This was in the kwoon (training hall) at Kevin’s place on Randolph Street, and I felt at home right away.
In fact, the kwoon became my home away from home in many ways, more than just a place where I trained in Ving Chun Kuen (wing chun).
Clay Earle (Kevin’s eldest son) is a wing chun master in his own right, and he was very active in the club during my first couple of years there. We got on well and I really enjoyed training with him.
It was Clay who helped me unlock the potential power in my chi sau, virtually overnight. I had been at the club only a short time, but long enough for him to gain an insight into my sticking hands practice.
I was training with a partner, and Clay was watching us; then Clay said four words to me that proved to be the exact thing I needed to hear. Those words won’t mean much to anyone else, so there’s no point in repeating them here. But even in that session, things began to change quickly for me. I began to dominate my training partner, and my chi sau was on its way to another level.
After that, Clay and I did a lot of chi sau together, and I had to learn the hard way that using my strength to make up for a disparity in skill was of very little use against Clay’s phenomenal structure and forward force.
Some time afterwards, following an aggressive chi sau session with a bigger, heavier partner, Master Kevin told me, "You’re fighting yourself." A few days later, during chi sau with Kevin himself, he said my chi sau should not be a struggle, but at the same time he did not want to curb or discourage my natural strength and power.
He pointed out that in chi sau between the two of us, I was using a lot of strength and energy, while he was making a small physical effort by comparison.
He gave me an analogy of a big spring and to imagine the spring set against the wall. In pressing on the spring, the spring will seem like it’s pushing back. The harder we press against it, the harder we work, and the harder it seems to push. Now I really began to understand what he had said a few days before, that I was fighting myself.
However, one of the great things about Kevin as a teacher was that he often gave me encouragement along with indicating where I needed improvement. That same day he pointed out I was just powering through and crushing the structure of some of the other wing chun students. He said, "You have a lot of short-range power."
Not wanting to discourage me from using such power, he suggested ways I could work on applying this more skilfully, and he warned me that if I continued to rely on my power to crush a structure, the other students whom I now dominated would learn how to deal with me as their skills increased; in effect, that I would be left behind.
I said to him, "I have no intention of staying where I am." He chuckled and said he did not doubt that for a minute. He said he was pleased with my wing chun and that I was making good progress.
This was in the winter of 2000, and in a lot of ways I look back on it as the time my advancement in wing chun truly began. Nothing Kevin ever showed me or said to me was wasted.
Master Kevin’s school was open every day but Sunday, and this suited me well. I usually attended the two-hour class four nights a week, plus the Saturday afternoon as well. Generally speaking, the numbers of those training on any given day could rise and fall. Sometimes the kwoon was fit to bursting, and other times there would be two, three, or four people training.
On very rare occasions, like on a rainy night in the middle of winter, I was the only one in attendance. Although I much preferred having training partners, being the only one who turned up could work to my advantage.
One night, in early spring of 2000, I was training by myself, doing punch training, the Form, and various other things, when Clay came out from the house and taught me Chum Kiu. At the end of class, Kevin came in and we sat around for a while talking about kung fu.
Also around this time, Master Kevin demonstrated the knives and the pole, and we had a discussion about them. This was really my first introduction to the weapons, and Kevin explained their use and gave us some of his theories on their origin and development as part of the wing chun system.
Kevin had me instructing within the first few months I was with him, taking newer students through the Form and teaching them some of the drills that help introduce the concepts of the art, as well as working with others on their chi sau. One of the first students I helped teach was Jacim T., who joined Earle’s Academy not long after I arrived.
Jacim was one of those wing chun students who are a pleasure to teach: turns up regularly; intelligent; eyes and ears open; has enthusiasm and puts the work in. He came with a friend who dropped out after a while, as many do. But Jacim stayed on, and I remember his progress being quite steady.
I always enjoyed training with him. Like me, he loved the art and became slightly obsessive through the years. Once he had become an instructor himself, he turned out to be particularly good at greeting new or prospective students at the door of the kwoon, and taking them through the Form and introductory drills.
Something I always admired about Jacim was the punching power he developed. He was not big, and I would watch this slimly-built guy, with his slender arms, pounding the heavy bag barehanded, with the sort of impact that only comes from good technique.
Training in punching and striking was, and still is, part of a royal trinity for me, along with the Form and chi sau. My favourite training equipment is a pair of focus mitts (hand-held punching pads with a small target area in the centre). Another great training partner of mine, Trevor J., also joined the club during my early days at Earle’s Academy, and as the years went on, we did a lot of punch training together.
When Trev started wing chun at Earle’s, he began driving down from somewhere in the vicinity of Kaikoura several times every week to train. He kept this up for some time, until he finally moved down to Christchurch. I admired his dedication and his love for the art, and he’s always the first person I think of when someone says, "I’d like to come to training, but I live across town," or, "I couldn’t make it to training because I felt tired."
Trev could really hit hard. We slammed sets of focus mitts in training till the stitching started unravelling. We trained for accuracy first, quickness and power second. Straight blast, jabs, crosses, open hands with their variations, slaps and elbows. We insisted on knock-down power with either hand, from a ready guard position and hands down.
And always in the background was Master Kevin. The training environment he provided, and his special style of teaching, allowed us to be creative, to develop the things that we wanted to develop, the things that worked for us.
This is part of Kevin’s particular gift as a wing chun instructor. He never had a dictatorial or regimental style. He never seemed to have a desire to turn out clones of himself. He had a way of being there but not being overbearing, and this is why so many of his students are self-reliant to a certain degree.
On any given day, he might set the lesson and get everyone working hard on something, or he might just be a presence, ever watchful, as students got on with what they wanted to work on. Underlying all this was Master Kevin’s strictness about the proper execution of the ideas and principles behind wing chun.
Never once did he say to me, "You’re doing that wrong." Often he would just be there, observing, sometimes participating so as to feel what was happening, then he would say something like, "Have you thought about doing it this way?" and proceed to demonstrate. Of the many times he asked me to practice chi sau with him over the years, he would usually have some valuable observation or adjustment that he suggested I make, always geared to me personally.
Kevin was always generous with his experience and knowledge of fighting. It’s true that wing chun training is enjoyable, and good for the health, but one of Kevin’s greatest gifts to his students is a sharp, efficient, pared-down method of self-defence that practically anyone can use effectively, regardless of age and build.
More often than not, a class would be incomplete without a conversation with Master Kevin. Most students would leave to go home right after class, but two or three of us would stay behind, usually me and Trev, and partake of Kevin’s colourful opinions on all manner of things, while lounging around the kwoon in our sweaty T-shirts.
Discussions weren’t reserved for the end of class, though. Kevin would often call for everyone’s attention and give generously of his insights into the art, explaining and demonstrating techniques and ideas. Unlike our rambling talks after class, his subject during training time was invariably wing chun.
Sometimes he would tell a story from his own experience of violence and self-defence to help illustrate a point. He is actually a very good story-teller. Occasionally, during a moment in class when the two of us were having a breather from practicing chi sau together, he would relate a tale to me from out of his past.
Over the years, like a beloved grandfather or great uncle, he would sometimes start telling me a story I’d heard from him at least once, or maybe three times before, and it would be so familiar I could almost anticipate it and tell it myself. But that is half the charm of such a story.
Especially interesting to me was when he would speak of his childhood and early family life, and his teenage years working as a fully-fledged bouncer, although he didn’t bring this up very often.
In 2002 he gave me print-outs of his article, "Wing Chun’s Chi Sau Stands Up!" which was to be published, in two parts, in Fight Times magazine. The article, appearing across two issues that year, is a very interesting read, not only for the wing chun practitioner by any means. I got a lot out of it back then, and still do today.
But it’s another piece of Kevin’s writing that takes first place for me: "Legend of Ving Chun." I had a copy of this poem taped to my fridge door for many years. Its verse, "iron draped in coats of silk" is still the best line I have ever read about Ving Chun Kuen.
Sometime around late 2006, Earle’s Academy closed its public doors, then in early 2007 I left for Melbourne. While there I spent six months in private instruction with wing chun master Chan Chun Tat (Joe Chan). Upon my return to New Zealand in 2008, I found that the public Earle’s Academy class was still closed, and remains so at the time of this writing.
Fortunately, Master Kevin continues to teach on a private basis.
Kevin used to say to us, "You have three teachers in here. Me, your eyes, and your ears." That has proven to be good advice. And, despite the fact that each of us is ultimately responsible for our own progress, Kevin was, and in many respects will always be, my martial arts mentor.
January, 2010 Copyright ©2010 Anthony RevillAR