Philip Le is an artist working and living in Philadelphia. Most recently he was selected as the 2014 Chairman of PhillyCHI, a local chapter of academics and professionals interested in human-computer interactions. He is also a practitioner of Kwang Sai Jook Lum, a style of martial arts that has a connection to the city, as well as a personal connection to Phil also. In this interview, Phil discusses practicing martial arts, his interest in storytelling, as well as what currently inspires him. But first, here is a short video Phil created touching on the concept of Heritage Design and how it pertains to martial arts.
So Tell us about your project.
The project I’ll be talking about today is a piece that I made that’s kind of a reflection on the martial art that I study and the legacy that’s carried on through practicing it. The full name of the art is called Kwong Sai Jook Lum. And what that means is Kwong Sai providence. And Jook Lum is bamboo forest temple. And it’s a martial art that’s considered southern Chinese, was carried over to the United States by a man named Lum Sang. And then he taught my teacher’s teacher who was a Philadelphia resident until he passed away two years ago. And his name was Louie Jack-man. So the piece I created was kind of my reflection on why this art, Kung Fu, is still relevant in a day when we have firearms, tasters, and things like that.
When did your interest in Martial Arts come into your life?
It started with the stories I heard about my grandfather. At a young age, being born in the US and being the first generation here, I never got to meet my grandfather. The only way i learned about him was through stories told by my mother. My mother would tell a lot of stories about Vietnam but the one thing that really intrigued me was that my grandfather taught Kung Fu, and it was a style that was very indigenous to the village that he was from. It was a clan based family style. I don’t even know if anybody practices it today, but hearing those stories really got me interested in martial arts and Kung Fu.
Trying to keep such a tradition that you talk about alive in this culture. Do you find it difficult to keep up with, or is it easier as you get older?
I would say it is difficult. We live in an age that’s amazing. I’m not gonna knock it. I am someone that loves the instant gratification of technology. I am a tech geek. I’m constantly on my phone, I’m constantly on my computer. I think there’s a lot of beauty to be had with our technology. Having said that, the term Gung Fu, or Kung Fu, what it really means is a skill earned through hard work over time. So with this particular type of practice, it’s not always easy to see the fruits of your labor. My teacher, John Clark, he always says “focus on adding a drop into your bucket.” Ten years down the line you’re gonna have a bucketful rather than trying to splash everything out of the bucket by dumping it all in at once.
It’s hard to convince people that this is something worth putting your time into. But having said that, there is a trend called heritage design. I talk a little bit about it in my piece, but it’s the idea that everything is designed for obsolescence these days. Your phone is meant to be upgraded every year. Your computer is outdated in two years, if that. And there’s a concept of design called heritage design. It’s when you create something worth passing on. Think about the concept of a pocket watch from your grandfather’s time. It was something that was so well crafted that you wanted to pass it down. It makes me think of an issue of Brian Wood’s “Northlanders”, where one character talks about a sword because the handle was so smooth because the wood had been worn down by generations and generations of use. In that sense, the beauty of martial arts is designed for heritage. It is designed to be passed on, and it can last that way.
What ideas, concepts, and motivation influence you the most? In terms of the aesthetic or the use of design or the gratification you want the user to get out of the experience. The video you made, you make it very clear what you’re trying to accomplish. Is that something you look for in your own work?
Absolutely. I’m very honored and fortunate that this year I was elected as the 2014 chairman of PhillyCHI, which is an organization in Philadelphia that works with user experience and interacting with human computational input. I think my interests and focus revolve around experience and storytelling. My interest in martial arts began from the stories of my grandfather. And his legacy lives on because of these stories and because of his art. I actually went back to Vietnam and pieced together his forms, because i didn’t want them to simply just die with him. So I went back and did quite a bit of research to piece these together.
And also I would say, back during the age of enlightenment and a little bit after that, Descartes came up with this concept of the scientific method, and I would like to say design thinking is no different. It’s a set of methodology you can apply in a creative sense to create an experience. You can see that a lot in martial arts. When you’re teaching it, you have to approach how a person learns in a specific way. Come up with analogies for them to understand, and that’s very much through storytelling. And when you’re moving, you’re communicating with your body. You’re interacting with an individual and you’re talking about this story through your movements, through your feelings. So you’re kind of telling a story that’s hundreds of years old by doing this movement. I get a kick out it. I do a movement and I know that somebody, somewhere in history did the exact movement hundreds of years.
In terms of works that influence me, I am a huge fan of “Avatar the Last Airbender” and “The Legend Of Korra.” I think that they portray the practice of martial arts and the pursuit of martial art in a very honest way. And I think they portray it graphically in a very beautiful, poetic way. Even the styles that I practice, the movements of Jook Lum for example are sporadic, explosive, they’re short. And in my drawings, my lines tend to be that way. I think there’s a lot of overlap.
For those that may only know of martial arts through movies, or youtube videos, what are ideas that you would want to get across to the everyday person? Or even things you might say to your students.
Phil: The first thing I would say is that martial arts is about relating and relationships. You will see this in a lot of action movies, kung fu movies, and a lot of different stories. It’s always about the relationships. It’s about relating in specific moment. I can recall Seraph in The Matrix Reloaded where he says “when you fight someone, you know someone.” As corny as the series can be, that struck me as something philosophically that martial arts is about. When you’re mixing it up with someone, you can do it with friendliness or animosity. In doing it you learn about people’s strategies and how they think. It’s like a chess match.
The second thing is that like any other sport or endeavor, when you have training partners, you create a tribe. In that tribe you get to really know someone and share experiences with them. Also, to a general layperson, martial arts isn’t necessarily about the conflict. The term Wushu means “to end conflict.” It’s about bringing balance. You see that in “Avatar The Last Airbender.” It’s all about bringing balance. You can see it in Street Fighter. And even though it’s a fighting game, you can see that they’re weaving this narrative through. So martial arts is about that balance. You don’t want to go too hard. You don’t want to go too soft. In Jook Lum specifically, you want to use your opponent’s force against them. And you can actually use the way you move to really do that. Really balance things out.
Being a martial arts mentor now, are their difficulties or joys that you’ve experienced that you think your previous teacher had with you as a student?
Absolutely. As a practitioner I hear my teachers say this and I see beginner’s go through this. You walk out of that class and think “I’m never gonna get this.” The nuance is so specific. And to see it on a student’s face is so upsetting and so frustrating. You just have to convince them to focus on what they are getting and give it time. Don’t focus so much on the end destination and think “I want all of this right now.” I know it sounds hokey, but it really is about the journey. It is about the struggle to getting better. It’s about pressure testing yourself.
Video Games and martial arts go hand in hand quite a bit and I think about different video games I’ve played. Ghosts N Goblins, for example. Ridiculously hard game but once you get through it, the feeling is so great. Or think about any type of shoot em up you’re playing. Once you get into that flow and you’re weaving your ship around and dodging bullets and making it past them, that’s glorifying. Martial arts is the same way in that once you are able to hit that point when you feel that flow, and you lose yourself and are just doing the motion out of your inner experience, for lack of a better term. That is absolutely rewarding. And I see it all the time. Students are able to blend into a movement and then they think about it, and they lose it. They’ll go “where did that come from?!” and I’ll tell them to keep practicing. You’ll get it. I went through it, my teacher’s went through it, and I’m seeing students go through it now.
As we wrap up, is there anything you’re reading or video games you’re playing? Are there any upcoming projects you want to talk about?
I’m working a lot on social innovation these days. I’m working on a lot of creative projects, storytelling projects that are trying to leave the world in a slightly better place. I’m lucky enough that kung fu can be one aspect of that. As far as what I’m reading that pertains self improvement, of struggle, of training, the “Hawkeye” series has swept me up. I binge- read that in one sitting up to the current point right now because it is just absolutely amazing. Matt Fraction really gets it. He gets the struggle, and things like that.
Another series that I’m really addicted to, and there’s only been one issue, is “Deadly Class.” The beginning of that, Rick Remender really nails the struggle of a boy who is homeless, and an orphan. And he feels lost in the world. He feels displaced. Of course as you get towards the end of the book, there’s quite a bit of action and probably quite a bit of martial arts involved. So that social struggle, and then the combination of potential betterment through this practice, through this mentorship, really gets me. I’m also really into “Three.” I thinks it’s a pretty nerdy series. It’s a little more realistic historically about the Spartans. That’s really gotten me.
Thank you for your time, Phil!