The Legacy of Lim – by John Hanna
I first meet Lim Lai Leong in November of 1997.
I was returning from the world championships in Italy and had elected to stop off in Penang, West Malaysia, for 5 nights of R & R.
It was a strange time. I had been selected to represent my country in Tai Chi and everyone was full of praise but I felt completely empty and inadequate. The movements may have looked ok but the art of Tai Chi was technically beyond me. I didn’t really know what to do about it because my Instructor at the time, despite his high profile, was either unwilling or unable to teach with any depth.
The Penang Esplanade was one place the local Chinese people would gather in the morning to practice Tai Chi. On the 3rd morning I decided to go down and join in. The locals always love it when a Westerner can do Tai Chi and they were almost overwhelming with their adulations. One lady said that I must meet her Master and that he would be amazed to see a white man in Penang who can do such good tai chi.
She asked me to come back the next morning and she would get her Master to come down and meet me.
The next morning I could see him watching me from the shade of a tree. After completing a form I was introduced to Master Lim Lai Leong. He looked stern and aloof. He shook his head.
“There are lots of things not quite properly. You are not very good”, he told me.
I felt like screaming out Hallelujah, tell me something I don’t know. I knew at that moment that this was the start of something. I asked him if he would be willing to teach me.
He told me to come to his house at 9 am and we would start training.
I did and we trained all day until 6 pm in 33 degree heat with 100% humidity. It was wonderful. It was real. I came back for more training the next morning but had to fly out that afternoon. All I thought about on the flight back to Australia was how quickly I could get back to Penang. In 1998 I took Veronica and we went 3 times. Lim methodically deconstructed our empty techniques and replaced them with foundation and knowledge.
For the next ten years we visited Penang as often as possible and we also brought many students from Melbourne to be taught by Master Lim.
We look back over those years with great fondness. Apart from the quality tai chi tuition from Lim, there were some wonderful times we had with fellow students and our tour groups. Of course everything we did was made all the more special by being in one of the most unique and historic cities in Asia – George Town, Penang. Everyday was like walking around on a movie set and we fell hopelessly in love with the place and its people.
We trained in a neglected old Chinese Shophouse on Hutton Lane that Lim rented for a song. The Penang rent act forbid landlords charging more than a pittance, which in turn allowed the local people to live and work in the inner city. I recall the hundreds of hours we spent training barefoot on the 100 year old concrete tiles that graced the shophouse floor. The sweat would pour down our arms and drip off our elbows and wrists onto the tiles. Every half hour we’d take a break to drink a bottle of water and mop the puddles of sweat from the floor.
There are many great memories of Lim too. Some funny, some serious and some sad.
Lim didn’t drink. He believed every man should leave at least one vice alone. He was a fighter and often talked about wiping the floor of several opponents at a time. It would be a brave man to dispute the validity of any of his stories. He mellowed with age and channeled all his fighting knowledge into the internal arts. He approached Tai Chi with a fanatical zeal. He would stand in the Zhan Zhuang stance for hours or sit for half a day in the lotus position. Lim expected his students to have the same dedication. The local Chinese were a big disappointment to him. They wouldn’t train hard enough. It was only the ‘Foreigners’ who were willing to practice for hours on end and pay him a fair wage for his knowledge.
Lim taught with enthusiasm and honesty. He wouldn’t hesitate to tell you that you were lazy or fat. He loved detail. Refining one move could take days. He was inventive too. I remember him grabbing a towel from a wall hook, excitedly wrapping it around Veronica’s neck and pulling both ends tightly while explaining how ‘anything’ could be used as a weapon. Veronica’s look of utter surprise turned to horror as she slowly turned blue. I had to explain to Lim that choking my partner to death was probably not in the best interests of any of us. He realised what he was doing and let go.
Lim smoked. He was typical of the old Chinese Masters. They spend their lives honing their bodies and yet appear oblivious to the horrendous affect smoking will have on them. We were forever berating him for his filthy habit.
One year, after we arrived in Penang, Lim was so proud of himself telling us he had given up smoking. We were delighted and made a huge effort to praise him.
We went back to his place and as we were talking he started packing a pipe. When we tackled him he continued to assert that he had given up smoking, this was only a pipe. He lit it up and puffed away for the whole time we sat there.
Material possessions meant nothing to Lim. He really was a man of simple pleasures. We learned that the hard way.
In 1998 we brought him a gift. It was a souvenir Australian plate with indigenous animals glazed onto the rim. We later heard that he threw it out the window the next day. In 1999 we brought him a cigarette lighter with his name engraved on the side. He opened the box, uttered the words ‘Ronson’ and then tossed it on the floor. He gave it away to a student. In 2000 we brought him an envelope with money in it.
Going out to dinner with Lim was always an anti-social event. He loved Winston Coffee Garden. It was a Chinese hawker area on Anson Rd. where young female singers would wail away on a stage set up in front of the tables. Lim would sit down, pull out a Chinese newspaper and spend the evening catching up on local and foreign events. When he had finished the paper, he would just get up and go.
He was a loveable rat-bag and a rattling good teacher. All of us foreign students accepted him unconditionally. Underneath the tough, often tactless exterior was a man who lived for tai chi and gave all that he knew to his trusted students. We were always grateful to be in his presence.
In 2007, Lim’s years of smoking cigarettes finally caught up with him. He developed throat cancer. He stopped teaching and we watched the disease shake his spirit. He had moved to a dingy dwelling in a side street off Hutton Lane. He refused to be operated on. He coughed a lot and spat the sins of his past into a ceramic spittoon. He breathed through a hole they’d drilled in his neck.
The last time we saw him was standing in his doorway to wave us goodbye. He still looked proud as he gently rotated his naked wiry upper body over solid hips. He never stopped practicing. After all the years we spent with Lim, my most enduring memory of him is watching him still moving like a tai chi Master in that doorway as we rode away.
We never saw him again. He simply disappeared. Nobody knew where he went. There were strong rumours about a long lost son taking him to Singapore for surgery.
Lim Lai Leong had a profound affect upon us and on our school. His style of Tai Chi is our lineage. We want to believe he is still alive somewhere and continuing to perfect the art he loved so much.