Bruce Lee & Silat: Truth v.s. Myth

March 3 2017 at 9:22 AM
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Silat – A Southeast Asian Nusantara’s Martial Art
Bruce Lee used to investigate various kinds of martial arts from different parts of the world and absorbed what he thought were essentially useful. Based on the martial art notes he left behind, he did explore Silat in the late 60s to early 70s. Like Muay Thai, Silat is a kind of Southeast Asia’s martial art that was originated from the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay Peninsula. Besides Indonesia and Malaysia, Silat is also traditionally practiced in Nusantara (i.e. Malay world) which encompasses southern Thailand, Brunei, central Vietnam and the southern Philippines where Muslims reside. Silat is formed from headhunting skills by native inhabitants with influences from Indian, Chinese and later Japanese martial arts. It has a very mixed history of over 1000 years. Like Chinese martial arts, there are hundreds of various Silat’s styles (aliran) and Silat’s schools (perMasteran). Actually, Silat is a collective word of the abovementioned indigenous martial arts and generally, they tend to focus either on strikes, joint manipulation, throws, weaponry, or some combination thereof.

In Indonesia, the art is officially called Pencak Silat, primarily a Javanese term. Other names include Silek, Penca, Maen Po and Gayung. As for the term Silat Melayu ("Malay Silat"), it was originally used in reference to Riau but is commonly used today for referring to systems created on the Southeast Asian mainland. Generally, Silat Melayu is often associated with fixed hand positions, low stances, and slow dance-like movements though it may not necessarily reflect its actual fighting style. As for Pencak Silat, the techniques are very difficult; styles and movements are as diverse as the Indonesian archipelago itself. Individual disciplines can be offensive as in Aceh, defensive as in Bali, or somewhere in between. They may focus on strikes (pukulan), kicks (tendangan), locks (kuncian), weapons (senjata), grabs, or even on spiritual development rather than physical fighting techniques. Most styles specialize in one or two of these, but still make use of them to some degree. Today, Silat has been popularized not only in the Southeast Asian’s region but also in the U.S., Europe, South America, South Africa and Middle East.

Did Dan Inosanto introduce Bruce to Willem Reeders? Had Bruce ever practice Silat?
Bruce Lee’s JKD is a street-fighting art that is geared towards practicality, adaptability, flexibility, speed, precision and efficiency. The base for his JKD founded in 1967 was mainly Chinese Kung Fu, boxing, fencing etc. Bruce had always immersed himself in all forms of global fighting arts. He adapted what could be utilized, and improvised them before transforming them into his own art. For instance, he adapted the centerline theory in Wing Chun, the power generation techniques in Internal arts, the intercepting theory and the side stance in fencing, the scientific punches and agile footwork in boxing, the grappling locks and take downs in Judo and Wrestling, and the execution of side kick in Taekwondo etc.

Did Dan Inosanto introduce Bruce to Silat’s Master - Willem Reeders? Had Bruce learn Kuntao Silat from Reeders? Although Inosanto did introduce Bruce to many martial artists at the beginning of their friendship but according to Inosanto, the fact is Bruce did research Silat but he never practice or learnt Silat officially from any Silat master. Thus, it was just a rumor speculated in the Silat’s world. Also, Bruce didn’t introduce Silat to Inosanto but on the contrary, Inosanto who is an accomplished martial artist in his own right had led Bruce to Silat. It was Inosanto himself who actually acquired this skill through his own connections. Both Bruce and Inosanto used to explore various martial arts together including Silat. They might have gotten some books on Silat from the Chinatown bookshops. Besides JKD, Inosanto now teaches Filipino’s Escrima, Kali, and Kuntao Silat in his academy.

Like Bruce, Inosanto also explores many martial arts’ styles and both Kali and Silat are his main focus besides JKD. Silat is also a style indigenous to his family roots in the Philippines. Inosanto has always been very conscientious on his studies of the Southeast Asian fighting arts, especially the various systems of Silat. If Bruce had learnt any Silat, then Inosanto would have been glad to share and publicize this to help promote an art form that is close to his heart. But so far, Inosanto has never released any statement that Bruce learnt a particular style of Silat. A poster in the Internet that claims Inosanto said Bruce learnt Silat and incorporated many elements into his JKD is a scam. Inosanto denied saying those things to promote Silat. It is believed some Pesilats (Silat practitioners) have put those things up.

Did Bruce ever meet Master Willem Reeders in person?
Master Willem Reeders was born in East Java in 1917 and later brought his art to the U.S. after World War II. Being half Chinese and half Dutch, Master Reeders was an enthusiastic Pesilat who began training at the age of 4 and went to China to learn Kung Fu in the Shaolin temple. Like Bruce Lee, Master Reeders was thirst for all kinds of martial arts knowledge. Thus, he learnt from various masters and was proficient in Tai Chi, Akidio, Ju-Jitsu, Judo, Kendo, Karate, Kung fu and different styles of Pencak Silat. Later, his uncle taught him Kuntao, a Chinese form of martial arts. Master Reeders was so good at it that he eventually combined Kuntao and Silat to form a new way of fighting art – Kuntao Silat.

There is a speculation in the Silat’s world that Bruce once invited Master Willem Reeders to California and upon their first meeting, they did some sparring. Bruce was seen throwing a punch at Reeders and that this Silat Master easily caught Bruce’s punch with his hand in mid movement. Bruce was said to be amazed and wanted to study Kuntao Silat under Reeders. A fact to note is that Master Reeders would be in his 50s if he had met Bruce, say in the late 60s, and it was almost unbelievable that he could be faster than the younger Bruce who was in his 20s. Bruce struck as fast as a flash and if Master Reeders was indeed even faster, then, it would be almost unimaginable. The rumor continued that there are a number of similar aspects in JKD to Kuntao. Due to the secretive nature of Silat, Bruce might have been taught Kuntao by Master Reeders following the secrecy honor that is a part of the adat (cultural laws) which is continued today in all Silat systems. Nevertheless, if we look at Bruce’s past experience with traditional Kung Fu and how vocal he was about teaching it to all cultures and going against the pedantic Kung Fu’s old rules of restricting teaching non-Chinese, then it’s absolutely untrue that Bruce would have followed this protocol in Silat. More significantly is that he wouldn’t have kept silent about his learning of Silat if he really did.

The origin of this rumor is that Master Vic de Thouars, a student of Master Willem Reeders claimed that in his last conversation with Master Reeders back in 1989 (a year before Master Reeder’s death), he asked Master Reeders whether he had ever taught Serak Silat to Bruce Lee. Master Reeders mentioned teaching Bruce on and off for over three years (when? Why Bruce’s closed students never mentioned anything about it?). There is, however, no concrete evidence to confirm this conversation. On the other hand, Inosanto did learn Serak Silat from Master Vic for 8 years. Inosanto later continued to train with Vic's brother Master Pak Paul de Thouars. Moreover, despite this allegation, Inosanto denied that Bruce had ever studied in any Pencak Silat style.

Is there really a photo of Silat Master - Willem Reeders and Bruce Lee?
According to Inosanto, Taky Kimura, Ted Wong, Wally Jay, and Jhoon Rhee and other JKD students who knew Bruce Lee well, all said they have no idea about this photo and believed this was just a rumor that was originated from people who wanted to promote themselves and their arts using the rumored connections with Bruce. Bruce’s Tuttle series books author, John Little once consulted Bruce’s daytime diaries from 1966-1973 for the name of this Silat instructor and found no mention of this person. No photo of Bruce standing next to Master Reeders was ever found. Even assuming this photo does exist, there apparently is no evidence that this man was Bruce’s instructor in anything. Bruce, being a celebrity and in the public eye, had this photo taken with plenty of individuals, martial artists and otherwise.

When the issue of “Bruce Lee’s instructor” comes up – and the martial arts being also a business for many people these days, the issue comes up frequently. However, Bruce had declared publicly that his only formal martial art instructor was Ip Man whom he studied with for 5 years. In fact, Bruce Lee’s best instructor was himself, and it was only when he reached the state of stopped seeking out “masters” and “teachers,” and started to seek out the truth for himself that his talent as a martial artist hit full bloom. This led him to revolutionize martial arts ultimately. Therefore, the Silat’s world and anyone who makes such claims that Bruce learnt Silat from Reeders is obviously looking to attach himself to Bruce’s accomplishments or to use Bruce’s credibility to prop up his own particular approach to martial art. In other words, these people are trying to ride the coattails of Bruce’s success and his global phenomenon to publicize their own martial arts, i.e. their ulterior motive. Who wouldn’t want to be linked to the martial arts icon? Even MMA, boxing and other modern fighting arts instructors do, Silat is no exception.

Serek Silat, Kuntao Silat, Pencak Silat v.s. JKD
Serek Silat is originated from the Badui tribe in Java and its concepts of this style are based on angles and leverage. These concepts might likely appeal to Bruce as his JKD’s philosophy was all about gaining the edge in a fight and moving at angles oppose to the linear approach as seen in many martial arts systems. The hammer punches and back fist used in Serek Silat could relate to Bruce’s fast hand attacks seen in his home videos and movie action choreography. However Bruce never stayed static and the Serak Pesilats tend to move off the center line of attack and then counter from an almost fixed position. It was said that the founder of the Serak system - Pak Serak, created this style of Silat to work with his physical disabilities as he was said to have an underdeveloped short arm and a club foot. These limitations are perhaps the genius element behind this style as it works on the simplicity of combat, moving when only necessarily, preserving energy whenever possible which again would appeal to Bruce’s teachings of keeping the fight basic and economical. However, the JKD philosophy is about striking the nearest target from a distance, utilizing your physical long range weapons e.g. kick to disable your attacker before they can enter your zone. So, if Bruce did study Silat Serak, then not much influence within his JKD style can be found. As for the rumor that Master Willem Reeders taught Bruce Kuntao Silat, then we have to check out Kuntao applications and see whether there are any traces of them in JKD.

As the name implies, Kuntao or Kune Do (in Cantonese) literally means ‘Way of the fist’. It was first known as the Chinese Kuntao because the art was created by the Chinese community of Southeast Asia particularly in the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay Peninsula. Kuntao Silat is a successful combination of Chinese Kung Fu and Malay Silat aka ‘Chinese Hands’ and “Indonesian Feet’. There are two basic elements in Kuntao Silat which are essential in combat: i.e. the entry and the body manipulation to throw. Although Bruce was all about manipulating opponent to gain the upper hand in conflict, he certainly was not known for his throws or pushing techniques. Kuntao does teach long range offensive attacks, to attack what is attacking, using kicks to close the gap to close range. This ideology to combat is very much Bruce’s principals and can be seen in his demo footage and movies. Once a Kuntao Pesilat has closed the distance, he works on loose traps to follow up with elbows and knees. Similar to Muay Thai, almost all Silat forms make heavy use of their elbows and knees because these tools are short based power strikes that are compact enough to deliver damage on the inside. But Bruce seldom displayed many elbow or knee strike’s techniques. Although his teaching in his Tao of JKD book does touch upon these applications, he was rarely seen using these parts of the body to strike.

How about Pencak Silat? Isn’t its footwork similar to JKD in some ways? This is another incorrect view that needs to be rectified. Bruce Lee admitted to mimicking Ali’s dancing shuffle leg tactics and by keeping the movement fluid and loose. Bruce was much like a boxer striking from a distance and rarely closing the gap (except for trapping), even Wing Chun elements worked at a mid-distance, using arms length so he could utilize his power to travel some distance before reaching its target. Whereas most Pencak Silat styles use the template of the triangle and zigzagged for their footwork; the ‘L’ is used to dodge the attack while closing the distance. Pesilat flanks on either side of their opponent's body, allowing them to strike and control their attacker's body from an angle, astounding their opponents and creating vital opening targets for them to hit. The ‘L’ step technique is very common in almost all Silat styles. Frankly, there are little traces of this footwork technique found in Bruce’s JKD.

Did Bruce Lee fight and lose to the Malaysian’s Silat Master – Datuk Meor Abdul Rahman?
This is another notorious Bruce Lee’s Silat related myth that needs to be addressed and cleared up. The speculation of Bruce fighting and lost to a Malay Silat Master which eventually led to his untimely death has now made more and more irrational Malaysians believe to be true after they see this rumored fight over the Internet repeatedly and keep hearing it from the mouth of the Pesilats. Nevertheless, this is just a fake story made up by the Silat’s world.

Datuk Meor Abdul Rahman (1915-1991) is a Malaysian Grand Silat master that was said to have founded the Seni Gayong Silat style which is synonymous with Malaysia. He was a decent from the Sumatran Bugis tribe. Datuk Rahman was noted as starting his Silat training at the age of 12, learning family systems that had been passed down from generation to generation. There is a very interesting and incredible story about Datuk Rahman of receiving his authorization ritual by none other than the Malay legendary warrior, Hang Tuah from the 16th century. Datuk Rahman claimed that in 1936, when he was 21, Hang Tuah came to him in a meta-physical (spiritual) state that he describes like a dream whereby Datuk Rahman was given all the secrets and knowledge of Silat by Hang Tuah. This event even notes a location, on a large black rock by the river Hutan Menam which is now Southern Thailand where many Thai Muslims reside.

Datuk Meor Abdul Rahman became very famous in Malaysia for his Seni Gayong Silat style and so the story goes, during a stop over flight from London to HK on 13th July 1973, Datuk Rahman met and fought Bruce Lee. Apparently Master Rahman was on his way back to Malaysia after visiting family members in England. While waiting for his following flight back to Kuala Lumpur, Bruce Lee suddenly appeared and greeted him. The story then notes Bruce Lee arrogantly challenged Datuk Rahman and during the fight, Datuk Rahman (age 56) hit Bruce (age 32) to the side of his head with a move known as ‘Kipas Senandung’ that was noted as being some kind of ‘death touch strike’. Then the story goes on to say that Bruce fell down and conceded. The end to this myth is that 7 days after this encounter, Bruce Lee mysteriously died in HK.

First of all, this so-called myth was actually a rumor started many years after the death of both Bruce Lee and Datuk Rahman. Even the dead Datuk Rahman wouldn’t have expected such a silly tale could be speculated by the Silat masters themselves. Secondly, one may wonder if such an incident occurred in the airport then security camera footage would have been made available by now. (Note: HK security cameras were installed in its original Kai Tak airport on 5th January 1973). Thirdly, what was the security doing? Why these martial artists were fighting like nobody business in the busy airport? And why there are no witnesses that have come forward to support this claim with valid evidences? One thing is for sure, Bruce was already the biggest star in Asia by 1973, so, if he had made an appearance at the Kai Tek airport he would definitely cause a stir and be mobbed by the fans. Lastly, another big hole in this story is how Bruce got to know that Datuk Rahman would be on a flight transit and stop over in HK on that day? From what we know about Bruce during his 2 years stay in HK (’71-’73) he was not a guy that would go around challenging martial artists at random. Bruce had become more matured and was too busy with his filming that he could even hardly find time to rest, let alone looking to challenge other people. As a matter of fact, it was others that were continuously challenging him and wanting to stake their claim as the person who beat Bruce Lee. When asked about this incident, the HK stuntmen and stars who worked and knew Bruce well all laughed about the ridiculousness of this rumor.

So, fans should get a very clear picture of this myth by now.

Success is measured by own feats rather than who you know
Despite the incredible details in this myth, the global Silat instructors probably will continue to re-tell a version of this story with absolutely no evidence to support this incident that had ever taken place. Yet, this wild accusation will continues to thrive amongst Malaysian Silat practitioners since myth always make people feel psychologically better than the truth in real life. Many martial artists may have their own story about Bruce linking him to either their teachers or styles of combat. It is really outrageously shameless to use this great martial arts visionary in such a cheap and exploitive way. Bruce was simply a dedicated and gifted innovator that helped the martial arts community become what it is today. Perhaps he did pick up some Pencak Silat through self-learning or he might have been reworking some of these techniques into his JKD as this was an ongoing project that he was continuing to develop even till the last day of his life.

As rational fans, we don’t really need to know how much Silat has a great impact on Bruce’s JKD as it will not make any significant change to the man and his fighting art. But there will always be those that will want to associate themselves or their arts to something historic, but Silat in itself is of great historical worth. As for martial arts practitioner, the value of success is measured by one’s own feats rather than who you know.

Silat or Not Silat?
Having known the both parts of the world and personally experienced with most of the Western and Oriental fighting arts style including Silat (especially its origin in S.E.Asia where I grew up), I hold respect for each art as it’s not the art itself but rather the person himself matters. It’s the person who makes the art different. To be frank, general Pesilat is no where near JKD, Karate, Kung Fu, Kickboxing or even Muay Thai fighters even though Silat has its great historical value and some Silat forms seem to be quite aggressive and brutal. Their real life fighting records and experiences with other styles have proved otherwise. Many old S.E.Asia BL’s fans could still clearly remembered when Bruce Lee’s whirlwind hit the cinema screen back in the 70s, many martial arts learners including the Pesilat were all crazy about Bruce Lee. Bruce indeed inspired many of them. Many Silat masters later improvised their systems by incorporating high side kicks, rear kicks, roundhouse sweep kicks, various punches and more nimble footsteps etc. They became a new kind of Silat which was different from the traditional ones.

Friends who have actually practiced both Muay Thai and Silat frankly stated that Silat though has quite unique attacks but it is comparatively slower and this allows the opponent have time to react and launch another attack. Nevertheless, Pencak Silat, for instance, is known for practical self-defense motion, which includes highly refined and effective blade work, brutally precise striking, and joint manipulation. This is the aspect most commonly associated with Silat, reflected also in the movies ‘Merantau’, ‘The Raid’, and ‘The Raid 2’ directed by Gareth Evans. As compared to Silat, the more popular martial art among the youngsters in Southeast Asia currently is Muay Thai, a combat sport from Thailand and is similar to other Indochinese styles of kickboxing. Comparing the two seems inappropriate as each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The result and effectiveness will ultimately speak for itself. If looking for a sport art, Muay Thai or MMA would be a good choice. If looking for systematically complete self-defense arts, Silat is not a bad choice.

Bruce Lee & Silat:

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  • Re: Bruce Lee & Silat: Truth v.s. Myth - JKD Streetfighter on Mar 4, 2017, 12:56 AM
  • Re: Bruce Lee & Silat: Truth v.s. Myth - JACKY on Mar 4, 2017, 3:55 AM
  • Re: Bruce Lee & Silat: Truth v.s. Myth - jkdragon on Mar 10, 2017, 9:56 AM
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