Public Places : A Gentler Life In the <i> Tai Chi </i> Lane

For The Times

Barnes Park comes alive at dawn. Throngs of senior citizens fill pathways, moving slowly together, while teen-agers nearby kick and leap in the air. Many come to this gently sloping green in Monterey Park, often called the new Chinatown, for tai chi chuan, the centuries-old Chinese practice that promotes health through movement and meditation.

Tai chi evolved from a type of self-defense based on centering and balance. It can look like a slow-motion dance--its connection to nature emphasized by the the names of various forms such as Wave Hands Like Clouds and Part Wilds Horses’ Manes. It is done outdoors because awareness of seasonal change is said to put one in touch with the energy, known as chi , that is important for health.

HAWKINS CHEUNG, 55, is an instructor and writer on martial arts. He grew up in Hong Kong, where he was Bruce Lee’s kung fu partner, and later learned tai chi. Cheung talked with Voices:

Question: What is it that brings you to Barnes Park?

Answer: I come to the park to release. I live in Santa Monica. Monterey Park is where most new immigrants like to live. At Barnes park I can talk to people, practice my Chinese and just be myself.

All over Hong Kong, Taiwan and China parks are where people meet. Their apartments are small so they use the park as a gathering place. They go early when the air is freshest and do their (tai chi) movements.

The purpose of tai chi is to slow down your rhythm and release your muscles so you can receive oxygen, the universal energy, and increase your health. To slow down every day means you’re calm.


The rhythm is yin and yang. That means day and night, good and bad, life and death. In Chinese medicine you have to have balance for health.

Q: Are there other reasons the people in this park practice tai chi?

A: Tai chi is also used for personal development. I used it to change my character.

Growing up in Hong Kong after World War II, there was a lot of crime. I had to learn self-defense to protect myself. When I trained with Bruce Lee, we used the high-speed fighting style. I was aggressive and had a killing attitude. Later, I wanted to slow down and become a soft person, smiling, without a highly emotional character.

Young people can’t do tai chi because it’s a mental art, and they can’t be that slow. They are emotionally not ready. They have a lot of energy and the flame is so strong they have to use it. That’s why young people start with the gymnastic movements.

As you get older, tai chi can slow down your breathing. How many millions of breaths do you have? If you slow down, you might save 10 years.

Q: Your friend Bruce Lee died as a young man. What happened?

A: From my tai chi point of view, I think Bruce Lee didn’t know how to slow down. He was an emotional character. People in the movies work 16, 18 hours. He lived in a fast lane. If he had known tai chi chuan, it might have slowed him down.

Public Places columnist Jane Spiller welcomes suggestions for places that are publicly accessible and free. Contact her c/o Voices.