Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beautiful culture at heart of martial arts academy

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If your mother ever told you true beauty comes from within, chances are she wasn't referring to Winnipeg's Ching Wu Athletics Association.

But that's exactly what you get from the martial arts academy located on Pacific Avenue in the heart of the city's Chinatown.

On the outside, the chipped-blue-paint downtown building looks commonplace in an area that's not exactly known for architectural brilliance. Step inside, however, and your eyes will feast on the elegance of an ancient artform that dates back thousands of years. On any given weeknight, instructors and their pupils can be seen wielding various weapons or flying through the air in ninja-like fashion.

The Ching Wu Athletics Association is the brainchild of 53-year-old Sigung David Cliffe, the chief instructor of the martial arts club since he opened the doors back in 1991.

"Our involvement in the Chinese community and Chinese culture, that was kind of my vision for it at the start," said Cliffe, whose gym offers classes in wushu, Shaolin kung fu, Chen tai chi and praying mantis kung fu.

For Cliffe, connecting with a community in which he had no real ties wasn't exactly a piece of cake.

"My biggest challenge originally was that I was white," chuckled Cliffe, who also helps run a Ching Wu centre in Portage la Prairie. "But on the other hand, that might have been to my advantage because people say 'Well, if he's doing it, it's not political, it's because he really likes it."

Fast-forward to the present day and the CWAA has earned the respect of the Chinese community, playing a pivotal role in the spread of their culture.

"We're kind of like the guy out front with the sign saying 'Hey, come over here,' " said Cliffe. "There's nothing subtle about what we do. It's just colourful and loud and it gets attention and after we've brought everyone in and woken them up then they can see there's artwork here and there's music and there's literature wrapped in a rich history."

That history has been displayed in a number of events Cliffe and the CWAA have put on, including performances at the Chinese Street Festival every year, a showcase at the 1999 Pan American Games, and most recently at this year's Winnipeg Folk Festival.

"It was a very long and gradual process to get that kind of acceptance," said Cliffe, whose gym also leads the city's lion dance performances. "There was no point where I can say 'We're No. 1 now.' It took a long time to develop and maintain that trust and position."

With an agenda focused on growing the Winnipeg club, Cliffe is always looking to improve his knowledge of mixed martial arts, including a visit to the Shaolin Temple in 1996, making the CWAA a recognized associate school by the temple's monks.

He's also recruited from China, adding in 2008, Master Huang Guo Qing, a ninth-generation lineage holder of the Seven Star Praying Mantis System.

"For me, I always wanted to give the students the best possible in terms of something really authentic," said Cliffe. "I didn't want to have gaps missing and try to fill them in with other stuff that I made up, so I was always learning more, constantly upgrading my own knowledge and my own skill and constantly searching for the most authentic stuff."

Asked where he sees the future of the mixed martial arts club, Cliffe smiled.

"I can see this place getting too small."

But for now, it's a beautiful fit.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 j5

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