White Cranes & Drunken Masters

Living and Learning Kung Fu in Rural Taiwan


Mr. Lin was an elderly man wearing only a singlet and casual trousers. His face was dotted with spots of age and his head was topped by a white crew cut.  He indicated his nose.

“He wants you to throw a punch at him,” said Mark.

I stood up and launched a strong punch aimed at a spot a foot in front of the old man’s face. I wanted to impress with my power, but not to hurt the pleasant old man. The old man stayed still, and didn’t even try to evade. He didn’t appear to be a martial artist of note.

He said something and Mark translated

“This time throw a real punch…”

For most of 1991, Phil Davison lived in the town of Lukang in rural Taiwan where he taught English and studied White Crane Kung Fu. White Cranes and Drunken Masters is the record of this time – laced with humour, Chinese philosophy, geomancy, alcohol, unrequited love, spirit possession, and, of course, Kung Fu, this book is a compelling read.

178 pages 6”x9” Trade paperback

International customers should purchase the book through Lulu.com $US 13.08 (printed)  $US 5.00 (Download)
New Zealand customers should use the contact link above to enquire about purchasing


Craig Reynolds (4 Stars)
White Cranes and Drunken Masters is a really fun series of anecdotes and remembrances from the Authors perspective covering a period of life in Taiwan. As a fellow Kiwi who has travelled a bit, I feel the author has really managed to capture the humour of the “fish out of water” situation, and better yet, has managed to imbue a sense of warmth and familiarity to what can be a scary situation (no plan B).  What had presumably started out as an adventure in Martial arts, ends up in being an episode of mutual understanding and love/respect between very different cultures!

Definitely recommend for anyone travelling through Asia as an english only speaker, or anyone with a penchant for the (de?)mystification of ancient Chinese martial arts! Also, if you needed to know anything about chinese black market dentistry!
(Amazon UK)

Stephen Williams (5 Stars)
I NEVER give reviews, but I will make an exception in this case! I loved this book! It leaves the reader wanting more, and makes you wish the author would have spent more time in Taiwan – for the selfish reason that there would be a Part 2! The story-telling, the characters, all of it is written in a way that’s easy to follow along just like you were there, side-by-side with the author. For White Crane Kung Fu followers, it’s a MUST have. BUT, it’s also a MUST have if you love travel, or just like good, short reads about distant lands. At the end, you’ll always be asking yourself: “Whatever became of Amy?”

— Stephen Williams TEXAS, USA

Read an excerpt…
For most of 1991 I had the pleasure of living in the rural Taiwanese town of Lukang where I taught English and studied White Crane Kung Fu. White Cranes and Drunken Masters is an account of that year, part martial arts story, part unrequited love story, and frequently comic, the story leaves me greatly indebted to the wonderful people I met and studied with in Lukang. Eliert Lin, who is mentioned here, was a wonderful employer who also became a friend.

The excerpt presented here opens as I travel from Taipei to take a job in what I am told is a rural seaside town, where I imagine white beaches, clean air and gentle Chinese maidens. I was promised my own apartment with the job.

I expected that the bus trip from Taipei to Lukang would involve a heavily industrial landscape giving way to peaceful countryside and coastline, however this was not so. On the way out of Taipei there was an expressway that cut though some green, but unremarkable, hills, which soon gave way to endless miles of industry.

I assumed that the land near the road was useful to industry for transport reasons, and that I was being driven through a belt of industry with the green hills and gentle coastline just out of sight, just beyond those factories. I was waiting for the industry to thin out and give way to lush tropical vegetation and long beaches of white sand, palm trees and waiting Chinese maidens.

The industry never really disappeared. After a couple of hours, it got a little thinner, but the bus stopped in a built up area. The driver indicated that I should get off. Alighting from the bus with my suitcase in my hand I looked around for Mr. Lin, who was to meet me. Soon the other alighting passengers had gone their various ways and there was only myself and a slightly built young Chinese man who was looking at me. He was wearing a white shirt with dark pants that he had pulled up well over his hips so that his white socks stood out in all their glory. A red baseball cap and thick glasses completed the impression. He walked up to me but it was soon clear that he didn’t speak English, and that we couldn’t understand each other. He looked very frustrated. He indicated that I should get on the back of his motor scooter.

We weaved through the traffic, me clinging with one hand to the bike seat and with the other to my suitcase. Fortunately the trip was only a few minutes long, and we pulled up at the language school. We went inside and he indicated I should sit down.

Very slowly he said to me “do… you… speak… English?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied in English at a normal speed.

He repeated his question even slower, so this time I replied at half speed. This made him seem a little happier.

It transpired that this was Mr. Lin, but although he had a university degree in English, he could not understand me if I spoke in my normal manner. New Zealanders tend to speak in short machine-gun bursts, and this, in addition to my lack of American accent, was making it impossible for him to understand me. He was concerned, as to him it appeared that his new English teacher couldn’t speak the language. After a while we became more used to each other’s accent and started to be able to understand each other.

“What language do you speak in New Zealand?” he asked.


“No, what is the main language in your country?”

“English is the only language I can speak.”

It would take several days for him to get used to the idea that I was a native English speaker. Eventually I learned to speak in a manner that Chinese people could understand, slow and American, like John Wayne with a speech impediment. (When I returned home it took several months to lose this manner of speaking.)

The school, named Biaukan, was part of a franchised chain that was spread across the countryside. It was an unusual triangular building with an office on the ground floor and classrooms on the three floors above. On the second floor (floor 3 in Taiwan) Mr. Lin showed me to a small triangular room. Much of the room was taken up with a stack of folding chairs, a plastic Christmas tree and something else that resembled a torture instrument. It was the largest object in the room, and appeared to be a slab of wood with the ends of a bed.

“This is the apartment for the English teacher,” said Mr Lin.

It looked like a storeroom – presumably I was to be stored here also.

I asked Mr. Lin if it would be OK for me to go out and explore the town, since I had a few hours before there would be any classes, and he said he thought that was a good idea. I asked about the seaside, thinking that I could walk along the sea shore, but learned that it was a short drive out of town.

I decided that if I kept turning left I would eventually arrive back at the Biaukan, but soon it became apparent that there was only one main road with two secondary roads running parallel on either side. Lukang is a very small place, taking about thirty minutes to walk from one end to the other by the longest direction, and less than ten by the shortest. Across the river that runs down one side of town is the neighbouring town of Fu Hsing which is only one tenth the size of Lukang. Only a short stroll across the bridge, it has preserved its own unique identity. As I neared the first crossroads I heard the sound of fireworks.

A parade of palanquins was coming down the road. There were people in bright uniforms, loud cymbals, smoke, and earsplitting fireworks. Some of the people were in ecstatic states, moving in strange ways and bleeding from numerous small injuries. As the palanquins passed I noticed that their occupants were small wooden sculptures.

I watched with curiosity while the parade passed and then noticed another coming from another direction. This parade, however, was much longer, with large pantech trucks that appeared to be advertising discos, smaller utes covered in painted cardboard and plastic flowers, and the worse brass band I have ever heard.

The band was dressed in Sousa style uniforms, and had a good thirty performers. They were playing what sounded a lot like the first eight bars of the New Orleans classic ‘Didn’t He Ramble,’ but only the first eight bars over and over. They were wildly out of tune and out of time, but very loud, and the total effect was nothing short of surreal.

As the first disco truck passed I saw that on the back there was an older woman dressed in white, singing into a PA system, the sound mixing with that of the brass band. The truck was heavily decorated and was complete with mirror ball. Following this was a truck with a huge blown up photo of a man.

However, these were not the only parades. There were at least four parades in Lukang that day, all at the same time. Since Lukang is a small place it was a little hard to tell where one stopped and the next began. Wherever I walked there was soon a parade passing. Eventually the inevitable happened and two parades tried to cross through each other. This provided me with a most bizarre collection of images – the brass band marching on the spot, waiting for the palanquin with the wooden statue, which was waiting for the fireworks. A sort of Taoist gridlock.

Later I was to learn that there were two sorts of parades that were commonplace The most common were funeral parades that featured the brass bands and disco trucks. The important thing about a brass bands for funeral parades is that they be big and loud. Quality of musicianship doesn’t enter into the equation, since the point to be made is that the deceased left an estate big enough for the bereaved to pay for the biggest, loudest band around. Presumably the expense also indicates how much they were loved. I never really figured out why the disco trucks were used for funerals, but on the back of each one there would be a woman in white (the colour of death) singing.

Another feature of most funeral parades was a smaller truck with a traditional ensemble of drums, cymbals or gongs, and a Chinese oboe. Like the brass bands, these instruments seemed to be chosen for their loudness rather than any ability to play music. These were amplified with a small PA system, and had no trouble drowning out the brass bands.

One funeral parade I met had a group of acrobats that stopped at every corner and performed tricks. Traffic had to wait while the acrobats leaped about and contorted themselves.

The other parades were parades of deities. On auspicious days it was appropriate to take the gods for a walk. At the temple, the god’s statue would be put into a palanquin. Then two volunteers would take hold of a small chair. One of the volunteers would be thrown clear, and the god would possess the other. This possessed man would then take one of the front yokes of the palanquin so that he would be able to guide it, and take it in the direction the god wanted.

On astrologically auspicious days there would be more parades. The Gods were usually taken for walks on such days, and when someone dies the relatives will consult with an astrologer to determine the best day that is soon enough for the funeral. This means that every few days, usually more than once a week, the town will burst into life, sometimes with three or four parades crossing the town simultaneously.

Returning to the Biaukan, I found the place open, with a grumpy looking Chinese woman sitting at one of the desks on the ground floor. She spoke to me in rapid Chinese, so I replied by smiling and nodding. I asked her in slow English when Mr. Lin would be back and she replied in rapid Chinese. I went upstairs to my room and took a nap.

The slab of wood was indeed the bed, and was made of chipboard covered in plastic veneer. It was probably called “Maple.” The only bedding visible was a mysterious piece of fabric. I could not tell whether it was a thin mattress or a thick blanket. What was more, the pillow appeared to have springs in it.

Later, I came down and found Mr Lin with an astonishingly beautiful young woman. The weather was hot, and she was wearing clothes that revealed her perfect figure. In Taipei, I had realised that many respectable Chinese women dress in a manner that seems to a westerner to be more fitting to a prostitute, but even so, this woman’s clothing was decidedly revealing.

Mr. Lin went over my duties while I tried to keep my eyes away from the graceful curves of the scantily clad young woman. I was to teach children’s class in the early evening and there was an adults’ class later on. For the first few kids’ classes I would have a Chinese teacher with me, but after that I would be on my own. After a couple of weeks getting used to teaching I would travel by bus to some neighbouring towns where there would be other classes.

“This is Jenny,” he said. “She is the Chinese teacher who will be helping you with your classes tonight. She is an English teacher.”

“How do you do,” said Jenny.

“Fine thankyou” I replied.

“You should call me Eliert.” Said Mr. Lin


“Yes, but I spell it E L I E R T.”

Teaching the kids that evening was fun enough. Jenny translated my questions and they answered them in English. “What is your favourite food?” I asked.

“Toast!” was one kid’s reply. Toast was an avant-garde, high fashion, food. Perhaps this kid was declaring his individuality by announcing that he was prepared to eat such weird food.

I also noticed that the approved reply to “How are you?” was “Fine thankyou.” One reason Eliert had trouble understanding me was that I hadn’t learned English by the rote methods he had, and didn’t use the standard formulas. The dominant method of teaching in China is by rote learning, and this has lead to a very formula-based approach to English. The response to “How are you” is “Fine, thankyou.” If you respond with “Hey, not too bad at all, how’s yourself?” it just doesn’t work.

Moving on to the adults, I was pleased to learn that it was a small class and many of them already spoke good English and had English names. Susie was a middle-aged housewife, with a string of academic achievements behind her. Amy and Maggie were younger women learning English to further their careers.

Mark was an athletic young man who was just out of the army and was preparing to go to university in New York. He had been increasing his vocabulary by watching Schwarzenegger movies. There were also several shy students who, despite my best efforts, hardly spoke the whole time I was there, and their names I have forgotten.

Thinking of my main reason for travelling to Taiwan I asked the group “Is there anywhere that you know of that I might go to learn Kung Fu?”

“Yes,” said Mark, “My cousin teaches Kung Fu every morning in a temple not far from here. I can take you there tomorrow if you like.”

That was easy, I thought.

“I’ll pick you up at 5:30 tomorrow.” Mark continued.

“I’ll have to teach at that time.”

“No, 5:30 in the morning.”

Later that night I experimented with the bed. It was hot, so I tried using the cloth thing as a mattress. As I lay my head on the pillow I could head the gentle metallic sounds of the springs flexing. A gentle draft blew through the open window and the air circulated through the pillow, and I came to understand the benefits of the sprung pillow. As the air was allowed to circulate, in the hot summer months this would be a great advantage.

©2006 Phil Davison, All rights reserved.


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