Reverend William H. Foster Shihan

SHIHAN FOSTER REFLECTING ON FIFTY YEARS IN KARATE

BY AL GOMEZ, JUNE 1987


I didn’t start school until I was nine years old. I could already read and write when I started school because I learned at home.  And, being weak and little, I had been bullied quite a bit.  I figured I had to use my brain in order to fight my way through. I didn’t have enough sense of diplomacy to get around it where I could have.  But then I began to study, and I remember I took Farmer Burn’s correspondence course in wrestling.  I thought this was going to be “it” So, I did this and dynamic tension and so forth.  When I started these exercises my health changed. I changed from a very weak person into a person who was very wiry.


At that time, boxing was the big thing. So I boxed quite a bit.  I wish now that I had given more time to Karate, but I didn’t know it. There was a period of time when my father was pretty much an invalid. We had moved from the city out to a farm, and I was the oldest one in a big family.  I had to take care of the cows and the farm in general, so I wasn’t able to play baseball, football or basketball because I didn’t have the time. But, if you boxed then, this was during the Depression, you could get ten dollars if you won and seven and a half if you lost. So I did a lot of boxing.


The way I did my training was at noon at school; I would put boxing gloves on and take on anybody. I didn’t eat- I might grab a sandwich, and I must not have smelled too good for the afternoon school session. I knew a Richard Whitmore, who was one of the boys I got started with and he was a professional for some time. I don’t know what ever happened to him.


I actually did some amateur wrestling, too. I found out after I wrestled for quite awhile that in my fights I would knock people out. Evidently, I gained more muscle or strength or perhaps maturity.


I had not known about karate, tai chi, or any of these things, but I had heard of jujitsu. So, I began to learn some hand grips and things like that, I think coming out of this terrible feeling of being unable to help myself. None of us want to feel that way. Later, I went to California to box, and after joining the Marines, I was transferred to the Far East right out of boot camp on January 1, 1935.  I went to the Philippines and did some boxing and took on everybody I could.


After being there for fifteen months, I was transferred to Shanghai in the fall of 1937. Shanghai was a center of this part of my life. There, I was first introduced to what was called Chinese Art.  Sometimes people here call it Gung Fu or something of that kind. Anything Chinese style was referred to as Gung Fu Tze, which the Jesuits called Confucius. So, I think that is probably how the name Gung Fu Tze, came about. Chinese art, with the people I knew, called it Gung Fu.


In 1938, Mr. Lo Wei Doun took me to Wing On Hotel in Shanghai and let me see, for the first time, Chinese boxing.  I don’t know how they could afford to take a beating like that to make a living. They would do two or three shows a day and they really hit one another. But at that time, people were starving and would do anything to get by. They had trained from very young boys and I was very impressed by it. Then Mr. Lo kind-of smiled at me and said, “Well, this is the externals of the art. It goes much deeper."


He had been working for the International Police, he was an educated man, an official, and at one time worked for the Fire Department at the International Settlement in Shanghai. He was a master of the Chinese Art and did some marvelous things that were almost unbelievable at the time. I was interested in boxing, and so was Mr. Lo. He was also interested in cowboys and I know he wanted to be a cowboy.


He wouldn’t teach me the hatchet, even though he was a great hatchet man. In almost complete darkness he could throw these hatchets about 100 feet and hit a target, like a man’s head, with great accuracy. He had them under a quilted shirt. He could really whip them out. He would not teach me because he said, “You don’t want to spend all this time learning obsolete weapons. You have your trusty six shooter, what do you want to fool around with a little hatchet for?”


He could jump and grab, climb right up the sides of buildings. He could go over walls that had broken glass set in concrete on the top of them. I asked him what about dogs down there? He said, “If a dog attacks me, that’s his bad fortune.” He was a Chinese gentleman who was very humble and very deadly.


He also had a sense of humor that we could understand. This was one of the unique things about him. He was a broad-minded man. He said he believed there was one point where Christianity was superior to Buddhism, and that was that God should not expect a man to endure more than one wife at a time. Then, I met another Chinese Master that was quite different from Master Lo. We think of Chinese Art as being like soft karate, very evasive, and much of it is, but this man had hands which were so beaten up that they were nothing but clubs. He evidently worked with a concrete makiwara or something. He was a knot of muscle. I know he had a great reputation there in Shanghai. I didn’t do much studying with him. I probably should have, but I was still after the money I could get from boxing.


Actually, at that time, I did a little bit of judo at the downtown YMCA in Shanghai. I remember I met the great tennis player, Bill Tilton, and some other athletes who would travel through at the time. We trained in the racecourse. If you talk about Shanghai of the day, that’s where society met. The YMCA was right across from it. So, we would do our roadwork at the racecourse.


Now the Chinese boxers were the ones that caused what we call the Boxer Rebellion, in response to their nation being overrun. Europeans and Japanese had taken over the country. The Chinese didn’t have any modern weapons, but they had courage. It was almost miraculous how they, practically unarmed, could hold off the most modern armies in the world at the time.

So, I tried to study as much as I could, then I left China. I sought for a long time, kept practicing self defense arts. I began to find out my health was better, my courage was better, I wasn’t scared. There was something going on in me besides the physical things that I had learned. I began to grasp something we try to find and know we can find in the arts: serenity. There is something that happens to the character and personality.

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