Man at His Best

Say Wushu, Not Kung Fu

How to boss the 'hood: Lim Yew Fai, Malaysian National Wushu Team coach

BY jason tan | Aug 10, 2017 | Fitness & Health

Photograph by Danny Lim

You’re thinking Pat Morita, but Karate Kid turns up.

Karate Kid is Pat Morita.

Lim Yew Fai coaches the Malaysian National Wushu Team. The ex-world champion has coached two other world champions since 2013. He’s 33. Students of Chinese face reading might tell you that the fire burning bright in his eyes is fuelled by a decisive, irreproachable character represented by the wood element of his well-etched eyebrows.   

Lim’s father, a small business owner, was a traditional wushu practitioner. Before Lim Jr was 10, Lim Sr had brought the kids to “all the kung fu-kung fu movies: Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen, more Bruce Lee”. It was a short hop from there to wushu classes every Sunday.

Movies are the chosen medium for the projection of soft power. Before China’s cash crunch, Wang Jianlin, the Dalian Wanda boss who alternates with Jack Ma as his country’s richest man, was hoovering up the crown jewels of Hollywood’s production studios. Wushu is another great cultural export that threads through the Chinese diaspora.

After two years of Sunday lessons, Lim was practising in the architecturally fine Chin Woo stadium in Kuala Lumpur when he was talent spotted by a visiting coach from Tianjin. His weekly training sessions turned nightly immediately, setting him up to compete at the national championships a year later.

When the first full-time, professional Malaysian wushu team assembled in 2000, he joined them for nine years, becoming captain of a 20-strong squad from 2003. Then he quit to study hairstyling in Bukit Bintang, working for himself, only to once again heed wushu’s clarion call to help his brother prep the Kedah state team for the 2010 Sukma Games. He rejoined the national team as coach in 2011, and will not leave them again.

“When I started with wushu, most Malaysians didn’t know what wushu was. Even when I was training with the professional team at Bukit Jalil Sports School, other athletes would ask us, ‘What is wushu, actually?’ I would say, ‘Very easy. You know Bruce Lee? You know Chinese kung fu? Ah, that’s wushu.’

“But after 17 years of good results, starting from zero until now, the Malaysian team has produced 12 world champions and an Asian Games champion. My first coach in the national team was from Shanghai. He was very experienced and a very, very good coach.”

Where previously the national team would be “quite strong” in some disciplines, it is now strong overall as a unified entity, says Lim. It will be competing in three disciplines at Kuala Lumpur 2017: Tai Chi, Chang Quan and Nan Quan, which have a total of 10 events.

“When I started wushu, I wanted to be champion. First, national champion, to represent Malaysia; then Sea Games or Asian Wushu Championships or World Wushu Championships. At the 2008 Olympics, wushu was only an exhibition sport but I got lucky and won a silver medal. That was my last tournament; I stopped because of injuries. By then, I had already been a world champion, an Asian champion, and now I had an Olympic medal. So, it was time to take out the screws, rest and be a normal person.”

Lim has had four operations on his spine. Twice on his lower back, for a bone fracture, to insert, and then remove screws and wires. His first operation was when he was 17, and the last one was after Beijing 2008, when he really did have the metal supports removed.

“But until now, still not normal,” he says of himself. He’s devoted himself to wushu for 10 years as a full-time athlete, but now he wants to apply what he’s learned to the team: “How to respect people and bring them to the top. This is my dream... So many people don’t know that Malaysia has a wushu team of world champions.”

The Southeast Asian Games will take place between 19th and 30th August, 2017. The ASEAN Para Games will be held from 17th to 23rd September, 2017. This article was first published in Esquire Malaysia, August 2017.