When I was 20 years old, I had an experience that changed my life. I was out with a group of friends one night, when a fight broke out over a misunderstanding, and a close friend was murdered. I resolved that I would never allow anything like that to happen to anyone else around me, and decided to travel to China to train at the Northern China Shaolin Martial Arts Academy.
How I chose my Chinese martial arts school
I researched martial arts schools in China and found the academy's webpage, which described what you would study, who the masters were, and how to apply.
Unlike some more touristy schools, it was in a rural area: perfect as a study retreat. The academy, which is also a Buddhist temple, sits on top of a large hill, looking onto a lake, cornfields, and ginseng-rich forests. It was the ideal place to learn shaolin-based, traditional kung fu. Aggressive behaviour, skipping class without good reason, alcohol, and smoking were strictly forbidden.
They recommended some prior martial training, or at least a sports background, but there were teachers and classes to suit all levels of ability. I had trained in the UK in various martial arts since I was 15, starting with the Japanese martial art of jujutsu back in Brighton. Then, influenced by Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen movies, I became more interested in Chinese martial arts.
Life at the Chinese martial arts school
I was used to training twice a week for two hours, in an indoor gym. It was a level of commitment that paled in comparison to the gruelling 50-hour-a-week training schedule at the temple. We were living martial arts - not just taking a class at the end of the day in a room, but training out in the elements, away from civilisation.
We’d wake up at 05.00 and run three miles around the lake and into the forest. On our way back to the temple, we’d run up 300 steps cut into the hillside. Then we crawled back down while doing a press-up on each step. When we got to the top again, it was time for power training and qi gong, a moving meditation practice. At 08.00, following an hour of the graceful martial art tai chi, we could finally have breakfast. For the rest of the day, I trained in san da (Chinese kickboxing), Shaolin kung fu (different ritualised poses and movements that you practise repeatedly), and how to use various weapons.
One of the toughest times was during the bitter winter months, where temperatures went below -20 Celsius. We trained as usual in this weather, outdoors, but were afforded an extra hour in the morning - a 06:00 'lie-in'.
I made some life-long friends at the temple, a mix of nationalities; Dutch, American, British, New Zealand. Many of the students there just wanted to dedicate themselves to intense kung fu training, and the healthy lifestyle that goes with it, but some had deeper motivations. One student had recently had a motorbike crash and lost his arm. As a result of his injury, he had gained weight, and so he chose to study martial arts to combat this. I remember feeling humbled by his commitment, as he did press-ups on one arm, attempted complex body movements and sparred with others. It was deeply inspiring.
The results of martial arts training
My time at the temple was one of the most significant experiences of my life. It was my first sight of China, and sparked a life-long interest and connection with the country.
When I returned to the UK, I had to stand up in court at the murder trial for my friend, and testify against the criminals who had so brutally killed him. People told me that they couldn't believe how focused and calm I was. My training at the temple had done far more than just give me more muscle. My mental strength had grown, as well. Training and meditation taught me to find inner peace. The discipline at the school was a great example of the very meaning of kung fu, which can be translated as 'great skill' and implies tremendous discipline and hard work to achieve that skill - or as we would say, 'no pain, no gain'.
How I got into martial arts acting
When I left the temple, I moved to Beijing and worked in financial services, while saving money and learning Chinese. I had always wanted to be an actor: my parents actually met dressed in period costumes on the set of a television show. As a child, I had appeared in various UK TV dramas and commercials, including Inspector Poirot and Casualty. I had also been involved in many theatre productions throughout my early years. I was thrilled when, after two and a half years working in sales and finance, I got a lucky break: a job with a Beijing film production company, which led into another position as a production assistant on film and media projects.
We began working on the pre-production of the Jackie Chan and Jet Li film The Forbidden Kingdom. I started out being a kind of bridge between the production crew in Hollywood and our team in China, sharing information, solving logistical problems and generally assisting in various production-related duties. I then started assisting a well-known casting director on Hollywood film projects related to China. This experience gave me a chance to read through scripts and audition with many established actors and actresses. The position taught me more about the creative side of the industry, the casting process and, of course, acting.
What it is like being a martial arts actor
Over the next few years, my career as an actor took off. My biggest role was as one of the leads in the TV series The Legend of Bruce Lee. Aired during the 2008 Olympics and produced by Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, it became the most popular Chinese TV series ever, with more than 400 million viewers in China. The series was shown at prime time on CCTV1, and the next day I was recognised in the street at least five times. I could not believe how popular the series became.
We shot in and around Lee’s ancestral home, Shun De in Guang Dong Province, and in Hong Kong, Seattle, Thailand and Italy. Shooting was exhausting: some days, we’d film dialogue and action scenes from 05.00 to 02.00 the next day. I remember doing this for four days in a row, getting only two or three hours sleep a night. But the fight scenes were even tougher.
How Chinese martial arts films are produced differently
Computer-generated imagery (CGI) and special effects are rarely used in China for fight scenes. Of course, they may be used to add blood or supernatural effects, or for background environments. But the actors and stunt people are so proficient that CGI is simply not necessary.
As a result, Chinese martial arts film directors use a lot of wide shots to show the amazing ability of the actors and stunt people, rather than cutting to close-up shots of facial reactions and of each blow. Filming action this way takes more time, because you have to shoot long takes, so it requires more rehearsals and patience.