I hold an orange sash, the instructor-level credentials, in Liu Seong Gung Fu. Liu Seong is an umbrella system, itself a hybrid martial art among the many Kuntao/Silat martial arts. It is as much Indonesian as it is Chinese and owes its methods to several different martial arts and martial influences, including Karate, the Filipino martial arts, and various Chinese Kung Fu systems. Some of the Filipino influence was added by my teacher, Sifu Dan Donzella, over the last four decades.
“Liu Seong” is a name taken by Willem A. Reeders (1917-1990), who is said to have been of mixed (and royal) Dutch and Chinese blood. Everything we know about him now comes second-hand, as he has passed and can neither defend himself nor verify what he did or did not claim in life. We must, therefore, sort through a dizzying array of claims made by other people about Willem Reeders, some of whom may be repeating myth, rumor, or partial truths that have become increasingly distorted as they were passed along.
Willem Reeders is said to have begun his training at the age of 4, to have traveled to the Shaolin Temple in China at the age of 12, and to have been taught the Reeders family Kuntao system by an uncle. Accounts claim he had as many as ten silat teachers and that he studied Silat styles that included Tjikalong (Cikalong), Tjimande (Cimande), Harimau, and Serak. Other, possibly apocryphal tallies have him holding a seventh degree black belt in “Budozen Soundje Kempo,” a fifth-degree black belt in Shotokan Karate (some say sixth), and a 10th degree black belt in Kodokan Judo and Jiu Jitsu (I believe this last is quite impossible). He has been described as “adept” at aikido and kendo as well.
Another somewhat incredible account claims that Bruce Lee contacted Reeders (apparently while Reeders was living in New York). Supposedly Lee learned of Reeders through his friend and student Dan Inosanto. Reeders is alleged to have traveled to California to visit Bruce Lee and, while there, to have taken the time to catch in mid-air one of Bruce Lee’s punches. This story may have been told to imply that Jeet Kune Do was somehow influenced by Liu Seong’s martial arts system. I’ve no idea where it may have originated.
You might wonder how such a super-powerful martial arts grandmaster finds one Phil Elmore in his lineage. (I wonder the same thing.) After World War II, Willem Reeders was somehow involved in the Indonesian fight for independence (or, at least, there are those who sayhe was). Of Dutch heritage, he fought on the Dutch government side (if indeed he was involved) and returned to Holland sometime after the Netherlands recognized Indonesia’s independence in 1949.
“Leaving the family wealth behind,” Willem A. Reeders traveled to Toronto, Canada in the late 1950s. Some time after that, he moved to Pennsylvania and then to Western New York, where he taught until the early 1970s. It was while he lived in Western New York that he taught Sifu Gary Galvin, my teacher’s teacher. If I remember correctly, this was between 1967 and 1970.
In the early 1970s, Willem “Liu Seong” Reeders moved to the arid climate of New Mexico seeking relief from chronic sinus problems. He lived and taught there until his death in 1990.
Sifu Gary Galvin, meanwhile, taught the Liu Seong system (in the form of Chuan-fa/Tjimande) to my teacher, Sifu Dan Donzella. I began training in the Liu Seong system under Sifu Donzella around 2003-2004.
Liu Seong Gung Fu, as taught to me, is an infighting system that uses a variety of hand techniques, close-range standing grappling, low kicks, and brutal poking, ripping, gouging, and striking methods. Owing to its Silat heritage, Liu Seong Gung Fu is quite “blade aware,” which means training in the system has also made me competent with a knife. Other weapons that are part of the traditional Liu Seong system include the sai (tjabang), nunchaku (ruyung), and staff.
Traditional forms in Liu Seong include, but are not limited to, basic blocking and striking forms, a Shaolin form, “Four Point,” Kweetang, Hoc Chan (a finger-strike form), and eight forms of a simplified system of Pa Kua.
I don’t teach the traditional forms of Liu Seong Gung Fu or the Liu Seong System. I do, however, teach Liu Seong Combat Applictions, the pragmatic application of force for self-defense.
The lore would have you believe I’m a third-generation student of one of the most accomplished and deadly martial artists who has ever strode the surface of the planet. That may well be true, but there’s a darker side to the Willem Reeders lineage. The man known as Liu Seong was, from most accounts, a harsh taskmaster who taught many students differently and reportedly told several among those students that he was giving them (and them alone) the complete, “real” system. This guaranteed that Reeders’ legacy would be one of politicking, bickering, and strife, forever setting his students and their students at each others’ throats.
In his later years especially, Reeders apparently selected his students primarily for thuggery. At least one or two of his first-generation instructors is said, in turn, to have taught his second-generation pupils with that much more brutality. The result of such a process is extremely deadly human beings, but I would not call the culture so created (or the one for which Willem Reeders may be ultimately responsible) something to laud. You respect a dangerous animal like a fighting dog because you understand how dangerous it is… but you shouldn’t be proud for having made it what it is.
I’m told that Reeders’ oldest son, William Reeders’ Jr., is or was the front man for a goth-punk band called “Cursed Ruin,” whose demo “Goat Urin” was released in New Mexico on cassette. (I’ve no idea to what extent he teaches.) It’s very difficult for me to know what to make of this, but it may, if it is true, be an odd side-note to the life and work of an accomplished and extremely talented fighter who was often — in my estimation — a difficult human being to like.
Please understand that in saying all this, I mean no disrespect to Willem Reeders, his children, or his students. I am interested only in separating fact from fiction and in acknowledging the reality of the Liu Seong lineage. Willem Reeders was an extremely talented fighter and martial artist; there is no denying that, and no account I’ve found to date indicates otherwise. The Liu Seong system as it was taught to me is the most practical and effective martial art I’ve studied, the art I decided to make my own after searching for years to find something that worked for me. Liu Seong has made me a competent martial artist and a capable armed citizen. That is a debt I can only repay by trying to impart to others what I’ve gleaned, but it is also a gift for which I am extremely grateful.
It is very easy to engage in hero-worship within the martial arts, venerating our teachers and holding them to white-washed and unrealistic standards. They were, as we are, human beings. They were neither all good nor all bad. Many of them, as many of us, were deeply flawed as people — yet what they taught can and is powerful, even beautiful, while it is also functional.
Recognizing your lineage for what it is means acknowledging the humanity of your teachers. We must never shrink from the facts. We must never turn away from the truth. Our focus, in all things martial, should be on the only rational goal where learning to fight is concerned: success in self-defense.
Everything else, if not meaningless, is less relevant.