I had some sad news yesterday when a former taiji colleague phoned to let me know that she had recently learned that our first taiji teacher, Shirley Choi, died in April of this year. While I had lost touch with the deceased since the late 1980s, I owe her and her late husband, Steven, a great debt as my first serious instructors in the Yang style. I had first learned rudimentary taiji at a three-month course in 1975; however the instructor didn't offer another session after the first one finished. I learned about Shirley's classes from a couple who had been in that course with me and who were more in tune with the local taiji world, and went to watch one of Shirley’s classes. I was hooked even though Shirley focused on Yang style for health and I was looking for a more martial approach.
At that time, she was teaching long form and sword [In later years she added shorter sequences to her curriculum, which she learned during her summer visits to her old home in Hong Kong.] and most of the students were older and/or had zero interest in the interactive side of taiji. I had been doing hard-style martial arts for several years by then and was keen to learn the mysteries of push-hands and other taiji two-person techniques. While Shirley did teach basic push-hands and da-lu as sensitivity exercises once you knew the long form; they weren't the focus of her classes.
However, her husband Steven used to attend her sessions at that time and he was liable to show a few of us all sorts of traditional martial stuff if he thought you were interested, serious and had a good character. Unfortunately, Shirley took a dim view of this and if he started to get too much of an audience during what she saw as HER sessions, she would come over and lecture him in Chinese in a serious voice and the impromptu martial lesson would usually end. He would get a sheepish look and go back to supervising people working in little groups on whatever part of the form they were struggling with.
I hadn't known until recently that that Shirley had been a school teacher and later a principal in Hong Kong before coming to Canada in 1973. In those days, it was unusual for a woman to be the head of a school and the personality that made that possible explains her no-nonsense approach with us. She didn’t smile a lot in her classes but she was patient with our efforts and mistakes as long as we worked during class.
I still have lots of fond memories of the time that I studied with her at the old Pestalozzi College gym on Rideau Street. This photo of her doing sword with two of her long-term students was taken sometime during my last year with her.
As she generously did with others who she found to be serious about their taiji, Shirley eventually asked me to teach on her behalf as the demand for instructors locally had started to outstrip her ability to be in more than one community centre at a time. A number of other people went on to teach her forms and, for many years, it was rare to find any other approach to the Yang style in the Ottawa area. I taught several such classes at Jack Purcell Community Center as well as at Le Patro Community Centre in downtown Ottawa at her behest.
Sadly, Shirley and I lost touch after I started studying with another taiji school that emphasized the martial side and I eventually stopped practising and teaching her forms as I got deeper into the new material.
When Shirley finally retired from teaching a few years after Steven's death in the mid-1980s, she moved to British Columbia to be near her remaining family. She lived to a ripe old age and was active in her church till the end. Shirley was a devout Christian and I trust that she has gone to her spiritual reward and that there is a little corner of Heaven devoted to those like her who practised and loved taiji.
Thank you, Shirley, for giving me a decent grounding on the solo form work that is so important in Yang style taijiquan and for having faith in my interest by encouraging me to teach. Those early courses I led as your representative taught me a lot about the joys and frustrations of teaching.If I have fallen short as a practitioner and/or teacher all these decades later it certainly isn’t the fault of those, like Shirley and Steven, who taught me to the best of their abilities.
Copyright, Michael A. Babin ©2018
43+ Years of Experience Training in the Chinese martial arts; 33+ years experience teaching taijiquan and 24+ years experience teaching baguazhang