Doc Journal: March 2007 (Discovery Channel scout trip)
March 13, 2007

"He's back..."

Yes, the comment referred to me, as I have just returned to China for the seventeenth time. And no, it wasn't spoken by the FengYuan hotel massage girls, the Shaolin monks, Shi Decheng's students, or the waitresses at the nearby restaurants that I have terrorized in the past.

It was spoken by Yongxin's "eyes". And, the big guy wasn't even here in Dengfeng. He's in Beijing, at a national representative meeting.

It was during a long conversation, with a very good and close friend of mine, a senior Shaolin monk who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons, that I discovered that the Yongxin gang knew I had arrived in Dengfeng. And surprisingly, it seems, within an hour of my entrance into the beloved Fengyuan hotel, where I have spent the better part of over a year, during the previous decade. And those "eyes", those people that Yongxin has throughout Dengfeng, notified him in Beijing that I was back. As if any of these people should really care. I found it quite comical, as did my long term friend. As we sat shivering in the office of his gong fu school, we both laughed at the thought of it.

Imagine. Yongxin has a network, a veritable slew of people, who watch. They're put in a position, to watch. And, even today, when I was greeted at the entrance to the new Shaolin temple grounds, escorted through the Disneyesque pass and ticket areas by some young monk who claimed to have known me but whom I couldn't remember, commenting that I have gotten bigger and stronger over the past few years, I was being watched. As was my well known and long term monk friend. Little did I know at the time, that that young monk, was a spy, placed not to watch me, but also, to keep an eye on my dear friend. He told me later that there were a few of Yongxin's disciples, who were planted in his school as his assistants and pretend to be disciples, to help keep an eye on what was going on in the temple area and beyond. We had our discussion away from the temple grounds, after getting rid of my monk friend's faux assistant.

So it was his school office that we sat, shivering against the cold, drinking tea, and talking not only about his life, the things that were happening locally, but also about this project that I got involved in. For it was only three weeks ago or so, that a production studio for the Discovery Channel contacted me about a documentary that they were planning on doing in Shaolin. And, they needed help. They found me after doing research on the internet, and after contacting some of the various major players in the field. They thought I could help them best, with this second of a series of martial arts documentaries, this one, on Shaolin gong fu. I knew the place, knew the people, and more importantly, had contacts. But, one thing had also become obvious in this process.

I had enemies. And they were enemies, because of this very website.

It was made clear to me via my contacts in Shaolin, that it would be important that Yongxin not know I was involved in this video production. The senior monk I was speaking to had informed me through friends that I had to keep a low profile during the scout trip here to Dengfeng; had Yongxin discovered that I was in any way associated with this television event, he would find a way to kabash it. So, I had made it clear to the production team that more than likely, I would end up being a liability to them. They wanted me anyway.

So, here I am. In Dengfeng. And, Shi Yongxin knew about it, relatively soon after I entered the beloved, remodeled, and still smelly, FengYuan.

But, it's been three days, we're almost done, I've used my fairly small but powerful network of people here to set up their show, and all seems to be on track, with nary a burp. Navigating the political minefields has been interesting, dealing with Chinese culture, methods, mentality, and procedures has been a little agonizing, but I've directed the team through it. One more day and I'm back to Beijing, and thereafter, onward to Thailand, to a girlfriend who doesn't understand why I showed up for three days, and then left again.

A lot has changed. Shaolin has really evolved. As I've discussed before, the entire place is organized to funnel people to the tourist attractions within. In much the same way Disney organizes their theme parks, so has the local Chinese government done here. The new highway, from Zhengzhou to the Shaolin area that few people use, because of the exorbitant ten dollar toll fee. The new roads from Dengfeng to the Shaolin area. The large outdoor parking lot, which then funnels people into a well organized shopping center / ticket area, eventually dumps them out to the thankfully non dragon designed tram cars. A road then drifts down through the old village which has been largely removed, to the main gateway of the Shaolin area and the wushu guan. Well manicured and disgustingly perfect landscaping adorn the entire area.

It's created to move as many people as possible in and out of the temple. It's horribly commercialized. It's expensive, at 100 Yuan (twelve USD) per admission. It appears to be remotely associated with anything religious. Performance teams give gaudy gong fu shows three times a day at the wushu guan, which, itself has been completely renovated.

And, it's all beautiful.

I have to admit, the big guy ended up doing something decent here. Even though it has lost its original flavor, which, in the past, had its good and bad points.

The temple itself has been finished, with the front pavillion buildings redone to pre 1928 specifications, or, so they say. There are a few more stone tablets erected here and there, and the museum area now has a medicine pavillion, in place of the gaudy gong fu show area that I talked viciously about in journals about two years back. They most certainly have gotten away from the gong fu exhibition nonsense of two years ago, moving the temple back towards a more Buddhist approach, which works much better. Yongxin still owns some gong fu school in neighboring Dengfeng, so he's not out of the business so to speak; he pulls his best students from those schools and creates the traveling "monk" tours that travel the world. The Bamboo garden area is still under renovation, and they've torn down all the housing that was on the east side of the temple area, including Decheng's (and Su Yuan's) old rooms. By the way, Decheng is not too happy about that, and, for some reason, I got the sense that he's become "persona non grata" at Shaolin. Even he has to pay to enter the area. My senior monk friend, who still lives in the temple, and at his school, had me merrily whisked through all the ticket areas, without any problem. My shifu, Decheng, had to wait outside. I thought it all, a little bizarre.

The politics of the area seemed to have changed a bit. Yongxin is still in control, but, from my impressions with people, he is not the supreme commander of the area that we all once thought him to be. It seems that there are people above, in the Zhengzhou government, that are now pulling the strings. They have an incredible cash cow at Shaolin, with a few million visitors a year (at twelve bucks a head), so you can imagine the monies being shifted around. In fact, the Zhengzhou airport has been completely renovated; it is now one incredibly beautiful and effective structure that puts any of our airports in the US to complete and utter shame. I'm really overwhelmed by the amount of money that I see being spent in this area. And to think, that a mere twelve years ago, when I first came, the Zhengzhou airport had dirt floors located within it. That small non-descript building, which I had wished I had taken photos of, has turned into a facility that LAX would be envious of. It seems to be pretty clear, from the constant evolution, and, rapidly increasing prices in the area, that Zhengzhou / Dengfeng is evolving rapidly into a large commercial center.

The nearby schools in Dengfeng are becoming far too numerous to count. And, they're all expanding. New buildings are everywhere; Tagou, the largest most monstrous facility I've ever seen, is still expanding. With over ten thousand students, if they can even count them at this time, and the use of the huge old facility still in Shaolin village, it is an overwhelming place. Sending students to train there is anathema to me, as all I can imagine is a few little white guys getting drowned in this sea of sweat suited domestic Chinese students. It's all just too incredible. Having risen through some large and prestigious US university systems does not prepare me for what I see at Tagou and Epo.

More to come. I'm exhausted, after traveling from the US, to Bangkok, to Phuket, to Beijing, and now, to Dengfeng. A place that was once referred to as my "second home".