STEPHEN CHAN’S PIONEERING ROLE IN ZAMBIAN KARATE
Accomplishments and Impact in the Transformation of Martial Arts Culture
- This article is in response to a request by my friend and Martial Arts brother, Raymond Mbazima, Sensei, in June 2016, “Could you do a write-up of Professor Stephen Chan Sensei’s Pioneering Role in Zambia – in particular what he accomplished and his impact in the transformation of martial arts culture?”
- The article is an honest account of events as best as my memory serves me. I must apologize in advance for any inaccuracies, or misunderstandings that might arise. The names of the various people mentioned in the article are done so with but only respect and the fondest of memories. I’ll be failing if I didn’t acknowledge many of them as having helped mould the kind of man I am today, both inside and outside the dojo. None of them is directly responsible for my madness, though.
- Regarding the main subject of the article, Stephen Chan, the tone the article has taken is as it emerged from my heart, without fear or favour. That, in line with how my mind has interpreted the execution of his Martial Arts teacher and Godfather role towards me over the years; in four countries, Zambia, UK, Norway, and South Africa.
I have never felt that Stephen was compelled to work with me, neither have I ever felt that I was unduly expected to feel indebted to him for all that he has done for me. Therefore, I am under no obligation, I have no pressing need to aspire to sanctify, or flatter him. There is nothing egotistical to gain, nor intended to.
All this I shall summarize in Stephen’s own words in a correspondence pertaining to the article, “I do hope it is a lot more to do with mutual respect and camaraderie. I always pitched in with you on the floor – so we all suffered together.”
The article here initially covers the years 1981-85, a period of my first ever direct observation of Stephen’s physical presence, and martial arts work in Zambia. It will partially describe my personal experience of training and studying Karate with him as my Sensei at the UNZA Karate Club (UKC) in Lusaka. Little did I ever think then that thirty-five years on, the special student-master relationship would still be going strong; not only with me, but with many others of my generation the world over.
Following Stephen’s footsteps as a diverse collective spread across many parts of the world, the at least five generations of top-flight Karateka my contemporaries and I have produced continue to grow and benefit from his profound knowledge of, and love for the Martial Arts. Above all, perhaps, his broader love for, and service to humanity through his exemplary professional work and career continue to inspire many of us.
Secondly, the years 1986-88 are, in my opinion and personal experience, the period in which the relevance of Stephen’s impact on me would be tested to the limit. It would also test the unity and commonality of purpose in the then Seidokan Zambia core group he had developed at UKC.
Furthermore, this period would, by extension, define whether Stephen’s legacy in Zambian Karate would live on or not. I dare say that the modern Jindokai Zambia/ Zimbabwe family we have today can trace their roots to specifically that period. Had we at UKC failed to keep it together during those two years, the Zambian martial arts scene would have swallowed up Stephen Chan’s legacy for good, I am convinced.
It may be safe to say that Stephen’s work in the wider martial arts fraternity, within and outside the then Zambia Karate Federation (ZKF)’s framework, raised awareness of, and interest in the arts to unprecedented levels in the country. The man was, after all, the nearest living thing to Bruce Lee the people ever saw, came close to, touched, and spoke to.
Stephen made a striking presence on Television Zambia (TVZ)’s Sports Review shows, speaking, as Dennis Liwewe once said, “… fantabulous, beautiful English, indeed!”
The late Dennis Liwewe became a legend already in his own time as a passionate radio and TV sports commentator. If President Kaunda was Zambia’s football number one fan, Dennis Liwewe was in a class of his own as maestro supremo football commentator.
It is at the height of our success at UKC, under Stephen’s guidance in the 1983-5 seasons, that new martial arts schools and styles emerged and hit the scene in Lusaka. Such that almost immediately after his departure for England in the second quarter of 1985, some of the new schools started coming to recruit his senior Black Belt instructors at UKC. The apparently entrepreneurial owners of some of these new schools flashed a lot of hard cash, US Dollars, to entice some of us. They also made some of us promises of scholarships abroad, especially Japan, closely followed by the Koreas. It didn’t work for me.
Thinking I was crazy to decline the potentially lucrative offers, a then confidant of mine lashed out at me, saying that I was driven by the desire to be boss of Seidokan Zambia. When I told him that it was actually more out of loyalty to my teacher, Stephen Chan, and his work than my own power aspirations, my confidant was not very convinced. At my mentioning further that Stephen had introduced me to a concept called giri, my confidant understood. He was Japanese. Giri translates to devotion, and obligation to duty. In the context of this article, giri develops around, and espouses mutuality of selflessness in a Sensei-student relationship. The latter relationship can last a lifetime.
I like to think that to this day, the concept of what I call his no-strings-attached giri continues to mutually bind Stephen Chan and his students the world over. I know it works for me. To such an extent that to me, he long ceased to be just a kind and generous Sensei. Although he can never be a relative in the real sense, he is as close to family as can be. I am inclined to believe that many others, at least those of African extract and cultural orientation, will more or less share the same sentiment.
The beginning of 1981 was extremely challenging for me. I was commencing the final year at high school, to work towards final examinations at the end of the year. The exams would decide whether I would make university studies or not the following year. At the same time I found myself taking the bull by the horns, briefly becoming de facto leader/ ‘Chief Instructor’ of the then Trinity Karate Club in Lusaka. The club was formerly run by Sensei Bonar Noble, 2nd Dan at the time. I was, then, 1st Kyu Brown Belt myself.
Sometime during the first half of 1978, there had been held, I was told, the biggest Karate Black Belt gradings ever seen in Zambia at the club. My would-be first Black Belt teacher, Tom Banda, graded here. If my memory serves me right, so did some of the biggest names of the time. These included Sensei Noble himself, my other would-be sensei and, later, friend, Anver Bey.
There would also have been Ronnie Sharpe, Eugene Moody, Yousuf Doodia, Che Mubita, and others who may have come from the Copperbelt as well. My other would-be Sensei and friend, Ajit Sam Mangali would grade in South Africa a short while later. At the same time, a new crop of ambitious Brown Belts was graded.
The Black Belt gradings were conducted by another original Japan Karate Association (JKA) legend from the early 1960s, Sensei Hiroshi Shirai, Italy. These were organized and facilitated by Sensei Bonar Noble at great personal expense. It was under the auspices of the then Shotokan Karate oriented Zambia Karate Association (ZKA), which was affiliated to the JKA, if I am not mistaken.
This was a great time to enter the Zambian Karate scene. However, in no time, what I now consider to be a normal organizational growth and development phenomenon bound to occur at some point in time, arose: mutiny and power struggle from some of the new Black Belts towards their teacher, Sensei Noble. The latter’s martial arts competence and leadership-style were suddenly not good enough.
When the new Black Belts began to quarrel amongst themselves, then, things got out of hand for real. Sensei Noble would eventually leave the club, which Sensei Ajit Mangali ably took over in 1979/ 80. When the latter also left Zambia abruptly, the responsibility of leading the club was thrust upon me by my fellow club mates.
But, by the beginning of 1981, the administrative burden was too much to bear for a school boy who couldn’t privately raise enough dojo rent monies when people didn’t pay their own monthly dojo fees. That led to the collapse of Trinity Karate Club. And I became a club-less Rōnin for the first time. The Evelyn Hone College Karate Club would occasionally kindly accommodate me, though; especially during the sessions in which Sensei Noble would be visiting them.
With the collapse of the then elite Trinity Karate Club, the Lusaka Karate scene lost an important competency, resources, and leadership centre. In fact, with Sensei Noble’s disengagement from club activity, the whole milieu was left in disarray because the great Sensei would participate less in ZKA activities. The most striking effect of that was that the high momentum and enthusiasm generated from the 1978 Black Belt gradings got lost within a short space of time. Some of the new Black Belts simply stopped training altogether.
By 1980/ 81 there was, at least in Lusaka, a large number of 1st Kyu Brown Belts hungry for a go at the coveted 1st Dan Black Belt gradings. I was one of them. However, without the deep pockets of a generous patron like Sensei Bonar Noble, the ZKA failed dismally in all efforts to harness sponsorship for tours of Japanese Sensei to come over and conduct clinics, as well as subsequent Black Belt gradings in the country.
A Japanese JKA endorsed Black Belt certificate was everything in those days. That remained true up until 1980/81 when a mad Chinese Sensei called Stephen Chan hit the stage via UKC. He began to ruffle feathers almost from the word go.
When I showed up at UNZA to watch the Zambian Karate Nationals sometime during the first quarter of 1981, I had carried along my Karate gi more out of habit than anything else. I had thought that being at the event would also give me the opportunity to see, and perhaps greet this new Chinese Sensei around whom there was so much positive vibe in town.
Getting in the changing rooms to answer the call of nature, I find this other man with long, dark hair standing there, facing the wall, responding to his own call. Figuring out too late who the man could be, I couldn’t help but proceed, anyway, to stand a respectable distance from him as I relieved myself too. As if on cue, we both simultaneously looked sideways and smiled towards each other.
“Sensei Chan?” I asked uneasily.
“You must be Sammy Chilembo,” he said without hesitation.
We both laughed heartily, bowing to each other with a mutual “Nice to meet you!”
Hand-shaking would be done another time, another place.
Stephen, “I’m looking forward to seeing you in action today. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Unfortunately I’m not participating today, Sir. I’ve just come to watch. I’m in a bad competition shape as I’m giving priority to my school work this year.”
Stephen, “You could win yourself a trip to Zimbabwe!”
I then changed into my gi, went on to fight my way to quarter finals in kumite, and won my first Zambian Karate Nationals kata gold medal. In April 1981, I was part of the Sensei Noble-led and sponsored Zambia National Karate team that met the Zimbabwean side. It was on the occasion of that country’s first year of independence anniversary celebrations. And the team composition was out of Stephen Chan’s first stint as Zambia Karate National Team Coach.
For the first time we are introduced to the concept of nutrition as part of our competition training and winning strategy. There would also be held a series of seminars on modern competition fitness training methods, competition rules, refereeing, and judging, as well as coaching. All this would make Stephen an invaluable asset to Zambian Karate growth and development. It became especially so because, in a climate of chronically hard economic times, Stephen never demanded any payments for the work he did both at UKC and the broader ZKA activities.
Actually, much like Sensei Noble before him, Stephen would sacrifice a lot of his own money and time in his martial arts related work in Zambia. He still does. This kind of selflessness touched, and has influenced many of us ever since. And, almost single-handedly, Stephen gradually helped mainstream Zambian Karate regain its self-confidence, and develop its unique style as would be spearheaded by many of his UKC students and their affiliates in later years, to this day.
By the time I came to UNZA (The University of Zambia) as First Year student in October 1982, Stephen had just done his first ever Black Belt student gradings in Zambia. He had unilaterally awarded, if I recall, Wycliffe Mushipi, Alex Simwanza, Raymond Mbazima, and Papu Siameja their 1st Dan Degrees. This was without the blessings of the ZKA. That act would be considered as a cardinal sin from certain powerful quarters in the then extremely conservative Zambian Karate establishment.
Their contention was that Stephen Chan was not only non-Japanese, but his Karate credentials had no Japanese accreditation either. If Stephen’s Karate was not JKA recognized, then it was not true Karate, they said. Moreover, were Stephen to be allowed to carry on the way he did, no Japanese Sensei would be keen to come to Zambia again, the critics maintained.
But in 1985, a powerful 4-man team of some of the highest ranked Japanese Sensei got to tour Zambia at Stephen’s initiative. The Sensei were:
- Grandmaster Toru Arakawa, 8th Dan, Wadokai,
- Master Toshiatsu Sasaki, 7th Dan Shotokan,
- Master Yokio Yojose, 5th Dan, Shito Ryu, and
- Master Shigeki Uyemura, 4th Dan Uechi Ryu.
By this time, though, Zambian Karate had locally already had a unique first-hand taste of some big time international Karate and other Martial Arts from outside Japan.
In February 1983, Stephen took charge and arranged the first ever all-styles Karate Nationals in Zambia. It was us, Seidokan Zambia, versus the rest of Zambian Shotokan. UNZA took all there were of top prizes, of course. I won my third national Kata gold medal. Awarding me my surprise 1st Dan Black Belt degree on the occasion, Stephen whispered to me, “You shall be recognized, you’ll see!”
The non-orthodox Sensei Stephen Chan’s gradings would eventually be recognized country-wide. Such that by the time he left Zambia in 1985, barely four years since he took everyone by storm, he was a respected and influential Karate master in the country. He had created a legacy that would stand the test of time in the land, and, eventually, beyond the Zambezi, in Zimbabwe.
Stephen first issued grading certificates by the American Jukokai International martial arts organization. It was headed by one of the time’s leading innovative American martial arts Masters called Dr Rodney Sacharnorsky, 9th Dan; and was affiliated to the All Okinawa Seidokan Karate Kobudo Renmei (AOSKKR).
Soon after, another legendary grandmaster linked to the AOSKKR, Jerry Hobbs, 10th Dan, hit the Zambian Karate scene at yet another Stephen Chan’s facilitation, changing the face of Zambian, and subsequently, Zimbabwean Karate forever.
Jerry Hobbs would visit Zambia 2-3 times in the years 1983-86, if I recall. His dynamic training seminars took our understanding of Karate for sport and self-defence to a whole new level. Refining further the Toide/ grappling and throwing techniques, including Kobudo/ weapons training that Stephen had already introduced to us, he worked to make us complete martial artists beyond just rudimentary sport/ self-defence Karate knowledge and practice. The seeds for Dentokan Zambia were sown here during this time. Needless to say, thanks to Stephen Chan.
In early 1985, by bringing in another AOSKKR international affiliated giant from Greece, Grandmaster Bill Zahopoulos, 10th Dan, and his crack team of top-flight 3rd-5th Dan Black Belts, Stephen introduced us to real high-level international Karate competition for the first time. At the UNZA sports hall and the Ridgeway Hotel, the Zambian public were treated to spectacular, unforgettable competition fights, kata, as well as close to reality self-defence demonstrations by the Greeks.
The Zambian National Team Coach, Stephen Chan, had but fielded the crème de la crème of our fighters of the time. These included Raymond Mbazima, Alex Simwanza, Lemmy Ngambi, Paolo Piccinini, Papu Siameja, and yours truly. Later on in December of that year, Stephen sponsored my travel and participation in a Pan-European Karate tournament organized by Grandmaster Zahopoulos. The event was part of the greater celebrations marking the ancient Greek city of Thessaloniki’s 1000th year anniversary.
That first visit to Europe, and first competition experience in front of a large crowd of more than a thousand people would have a lasting impact on me. Ten years since I had left apartheid South Africa, my meeting with, and talking to so many people from all over the world opened my eyes and mind to the reality that, as I would mention in my gratitude speech to our hosts, “We all are one, same universal person!”
I must mention also that the late Bill Zahopoulos and his team brought a lot of joy and pride to the local Greek community in Zambia. As did the Americans, the Japanese, and the North Koreans regarding their own visiting Martial Arts masters respectively.
The official receptions hosted by the various embassies, government representatives, and prominent residents in Lusaka gave some of us, Stephens’s senior students, the first real taste of mingling in diplomatic circles. It was a great extra-mural learning experience I personally value highly to the present day. Through Paolo Piccinini, another Seidokan Zambia Super Star who would leave the country for home in 1984/5, we enjoyed much goodwill from the local Italian community as well.
July 1988 saw Stephen meeting up with Papu Siameja, Steven Kamanga, Stanley Chiwambo, and I in Salamanca, Spain. We were attending a Seidokan Europe international training seminar hosted by another grandmaster in the system at the time, Sensei Boulahfa Mimoun Abdellah, 10th Dan. This provided us the unique opportunity to meet and train under the then head of the AOSKKR, Sensei Shian Toma, 10th Dan.
In attendance from Ireland was also Martin Rice. As a thirteen year old, he had returned home with a Seidokan Zambia 3rd Dan Black Belt degree three years earlier. It was a truly great re-union for all. From London had also come along Jerry Hobbs’ Hakko Ryu Jujitsu student, Angus Watson, a fine Budo gentleman who has afforded me the hospitality of his family home in London on more than one occasion.
I will, therefore, postulate that any talk about Professor Stephen Chan, OBE’s, Accomplishments and Impact in the Transformation of Martial Arts Culture in Zambia (and Zimbabwe) must necessarily take into consideration the internationalists that many of us have become as a result of having grown up under his tutelage.
Through TKD Black Belt, Jim Seeker, then head of the Marines Corps at the American Embassy in Lusaka, Stephen brought home the elegance and power of Tae Kwon Do kicking. An especially tense international relations moment arose when one day in, 1984/5, I think, Stephen arranged for Jim Seeker to do a demonstration of his American-South Korean brand of Tae Kwon Do. He would do this side-by-side with a visiting senior Black Belt Tae Kwon Do team from North Korea; all in the presence of the North Korean Ambassador to Zambia. Jim did his entire part with his back to the Ambassador.
Exposure to TKD further took our Karate kicking technique at UNZA to another level. Developments at UKC would, of course, be passed on to our satellite clubs at the Green Buffaloes Karate Club, Bank of Zambia Karate Club, and Ridgeway Karate Club.
As a martial arts teacher and leader, Stephen Chan embraced everyone who came his way. I often saw him demonstrate extreme tolerance with all kinds of people. He also demonstrated just as extreme levels of endurance and compassion.
In 1983/ 84, by getting the whole available UNZA Black Belt team to do a “1000 push ups Karateka” fundraising exercise for the Zambian Red Cross, he brought to me a new awareness and approach to philanthropy and community service. The same team would also run the first official Lusaka Marathon, drawing sponsorship from various donors in the same spirit of philanthropy and community service.
By these exercises above, I concluded that Stephen was teaching us that, as relatively more privileged and stronger martial arts students and artists, we didn’t want to alienate ourselves from the hard realities of the other side of society not having it so good in life. By extension, it is not uncommon to find Stephen Chan’s students and associates running Karate clubs in some of the poorest parts of the major cities in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
Stephen would unknowingly put to the test the “extreme tolerance with all kinds of people” I thought I had learnt from him, pushing me to “as extreme levels of endurance and compassion” I had observed him do on so many occasions. This was during the years 1986-88, the second phase of his influence in me when he was no longer physically in Zambia.
The leadership vacuum he left upon his departure in 1985 created serious misunderstandings amongst the UNZA Black Belts, as well as the club administration. These two units, in essence, formed the core of Seidokan Zambia. I’ll skip the details, but what I experienced here during this time exposed me for the first time to the real ugly side and intrigues of power and leadership. I made many mistakes, and got burnt severely. Nevertheless, I grew up a lot; although I didn’t quite see it, growing up, at that time.
In the middle of all this, Stephen had ordered me to technically break down and build anew the Green Buffaloes Karate Club. The club had for many years been training a rather special kind of Kung Fu. They had joined the Seidokan Zambia, and, as such, had to demonstrate mainstream Karate qualities all-round if they were to be accommodated in the national, newly-formed Zambia Martial Arts Federation.
It was a daunting but fun task working with raw and tough soldier boys aged between 18-25 years. By the time I left Zambia in 1988, my soldier boys were some of the absolute hottest fighters and kata executors in the country. They kept the fire burning for many years thereafter, I have been told. Some of them are prolific senior Sensei in their own right today. I had passed my test with flying colours; and I am still well pleased with the work to this day.
Parallel to working with the Green Buffaloes Karate Club, I had the hyperactive Jimmy Mavenge to prepare for his special 1st Dan Black Belt grading in the pipeline. He had needed that in order to have a bit of hierarchical and real experience muscle for him to meet his ambition of breaking down the racial barriers in the old Zimbabwe Karate fraternity. Jimmy had a burning desire to “take Karate to the people” in Zimbabwe, come what may.
Although he had originally committed himself to paying me generously for training and helping him to get a genuine Seidokan Zambia Karate Black Belt degree, I declined the offer in view of the greater good that his aspirations my Stephen Chan-trained mind saw. Originally coming from apartheid South Africa, any struggle against racism was, and is, my struggle.
The resistance and animosities that arose against the Chilembo-Mavenge unholy alliance from the then Seidokan Zambia leadership were gross. Despite that, my will of steel determination to go ahead and work with Jimmy the way I did was not only a function of my natural-born madness, stupidity, and pig-headedness; I simply played out, all the way, what and how I believed Stephen Chan would have done under the circumstances.
Although the environment was different, I did exactly the same thing when I first got to Norway with Seidokan Karate. Thoughts of the origins of both modern day Zimbabwe and Norway Jindokai fill me with a lot of joy, hope, and pride anytime.
When in April 1988, with the UNZA Open Karate Tournament of the year, I pulled off, until then the biggest and most successful martial arts competition meet in the country, I had modelled Stephen to the letter, from:
- the administrative groundwork processes,
- event operations management,
- involvement of detractors and supporters alike (Motivation: cause for common good, ultimately),
- sponsorship sourcing involving families and friends,
- showing sensitivity to local political climate and leadership,
- special winning prizes,
- marketing and advertising,
- budget control/ management,
- transparency, to
- media relations. The mutual goodwill that Stephen had built with Television Zambia, Radio Zambia, and the mainstream national print media was taken to even higher levels at this event.
It would be hard to convince me that the massive success of UNZA OPEN 1988 did not contribute significantly to anchoring even deeper the nationally dominant position of the then Seidokan Zambia. This, in turn, would consolidate Stephen Chan’s legacy, thereby legitimizing his continued relevance to Zambian martial arts growth and development to the present day.
From the beginning, the megalomania in me had, indeed, had ambitions of making the tournament “the biggest ever”. This was because my bruised ego wanted to make a strong statement before I too would leave the country, heading for studies in Norway. However, the outcome beat my visions and expectations by far. If I recall, at least two hundred Karateka had participated, showcasing some of the very best Zambian competition Karate fighters and Kata performers of the time.
For the first time in the history of Zambian competition Karate management, we carried out elimination rounds on four competition areas simultaneously. All spread in the entire spacious UNZA sports hall facility. The audience was given a competition Karate feast of a rare kind. And, I can, with confidence, declare that the professionalism, with which the event flowed from start to finish, set a national standard for arranging and managing subsequent events of the same nature. This was documented in a detailed file I had left with the UKC for records. To the best of my knowledge, a report of a similar kind had never been done before. However, because of the unprecedentedly large sponsorship amounts of monies involved, transparency was a major preoccupation of mine in that regard.
Because I chose to do the undertaking at a time when my popularity with Seidokan Zambia was as low as could be, had it been a failure, I most probably would have sunk with the entire group. If they still would have come to being anyway, I think both Dentokan Zambia and Jindokai Zambia would have taken different forms from those we see today.
It was a fascinating process for me, from behind my madness façade, to observe and study quietly how Stephen ever so very elegantly danced his way through forces resisting change and new thinking in the entire Zambian Karate and Martial Arts fraternity.
“Rebellious Diplomacy” is my personal concept that describes and applies my observed and learnt Stephen Chan methods of pushing ahead, against all odds, with that which has to be done towards the attainment of certain predetermined goals. The assumption and conviction being that the outcome will be for the common good.
I know that there are some of my generation who do share the view that we learnt more about human relations than actual Karate training and skills from Professor Stephen Chan, OBE. Karate and the Martial Arts were, and still are, simply a tool, a platform for the unfolding of certain aspects of each our own human potential to the highest levels possible.
In conclusion, I contend, therefore, that it is in the focus on the humane aspects of the Martial Arts that Stephen Chan’s Accomplishments and Impact in the Transformation of Martial Arts Culture may be found. Evidence of this lies in abundance in all parts of the world, including Zambia itself, where many of his most outstanding students and Martial Arts associates are found, and continue to flourish.
Simon Chilembo, 6th Dan
Tel.: +27 81318 5271
June 16, 2016