The legend continues

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Hollywood stuntman and local movie star Johnny Tri Nguyen spreads his love for martial arts like the wind

Johnny Tri Nguyen (L) spends all day practicing in Ho Chi Minh City's District 7. Photo: Lien Phong Training Center

It was not until Johnny Tri Nguyen opened the Lien Phong Training Center last March that his many Vietnamese fans began to understand what always separated him from other martial arts movie stars.

Like Thai action star Tony Jaa, whose Muay boran (precursor to Muay Thai) background distinguishes him from the kung fu and karate stars that tend to dominate the movie industry, the type of martial arts practiced by Tri Nguyen also come directly from his homeland.

So while local fans were aware that Tri Nguyen's onscreen fighting style was distinctly Vietnamese, few knew that his techniques came directly from his own family tree.

Lien phong quyen (Wind connection fist) was founded by Tri Nguyen's grandfather, Nguyen Chanh Minh, and combines the quintessence of several martial arts.

After spending 25 years in the US, where he became a successful Hollywood stuntman (Spiderman 2), Tri Nguyen returned to Vietnam in 2008 where he became famous as the lead actor in Vietnamese blockbusters like Dong Mau Anh Hung (The Rebel) and Bay Rong (Clash); and as the martial arts director for Thien Menh Anh Hung (Hero's Destiny).

A large factor contributing to the huge success of these films was that Vietnamese audiences were given the chance to watch spectacular Vietnamese martial arts that they had not seen on screen before - Lien Phong in action.

After conquering the movie world together with his brother, noted director Charlie Nguyen and his sister, producer Tawny Truc Nguyen, Tri Nguyen turned his attention to creating a martial arts training center. The dream came to fruition earlier this year on his parent's land located at Ho Chi Minh City's Nha Be District.

Sharing knowledge

"Formerly, martial artists did not tend to diffuse their ability and knowledge. Time has changed that," Tri Nguyen told Vietweek. "There is nothing to keep secret or hide when it has become a popular sport and physical exercise. It is not about winning or losing but the morality and lifestyle of those who involve themselves in the art," he explained.

Tri Nguyen said that he opened the Lien Phong Training Center to carry on the tradition started by his grandfather and "honor the forebears," as well as provide a suitable location for training the martial arts actors and stuntmen.

The dojo currently has nearly 50 students enrolled in a range of different classes. As opposed to other martial arts training centers in Vietnam, which impart the wisdom of one specific lineage, Lien Phong offers many, including Katori Shinto Ryu (one of the oldest extant Japanese martial arts) with a certificated instructor; and a special course designed for those aspiring for careers as actors and stuntmen in the martial arts movie industry.

Tri Nguyen, who has practiced a myriad of martial arts for over 30 years, teaches the course himself and plans to provide the best students opportunities to appear major local film projects.

Courses at Lien Phong are affordable, from VND1 million (US$50) per month and the school also offers free courses for poor children who show promise.

At present, Tri Nguyen's dojo is filled with the cast members of his upcoming film, Chuoc toi (Atonement), an action epic about a criminal who seeks to redeem his sins to win the love of a pure girl. The film will star Tri Nguyen and be directed by his brother Charlie Nguyen.

Martial arts as a manifestation of nature

Tri Nguyen said that the eco-friendly decorations of his training center, surrounded by bamboo, with a large veranda and wooden furniture, are inspired by his family's martial arts philosophy.

"Martial arts do not belong to any one individual, tradition or sect. It is the property of nature and those who love it," he said.

It was with that attitude that Tri Nguyen's grandfather Nguyen Chanh Minh became a folk hero in the Mekong Delta in the 1930s. Reverently known as Nhan trang Ca Mau (the White Swallow of Ca Mau Province), Minh, dressed in the white ba ba (southern Vietnamese loose fitting pajamas,) traveled throughout southern Vietnam in search of martial arts masters.

Although Minh did not intend to use his talent in street fights, he often was forced to protect his small business from thugs and challengers, who sought to make a name for themselves by defeating the man who had become known as one of the most brilliant martial arts masters of southern Vietnam.

According to legend, Minh became a folk hero for using his skills in the revolutionary cause against the French.

Minh's willingness to connect elements of several different martial arts led to his creation of Lien Phong. He viewed the competing sects within the martial arts realm as "winds," all originating from the same source. And like the wind, the love for martial arts spreads easily.

Tri Nguyen's father, Nguyen Chanh Su, told Tuoi Tre newspaper in April that martial arts, as Minh taught him, is not about speed, but precise timing, the way a bear catches fish.

Tri Nguyen added that Lien Phong focuses on quick instincts and fluid movements. "It also stresses the ability to dodge blows to protect the practitioner and nonstop fighting methods aimed at overwhelming opponents," Tri Nguyen told the newspaper.

Like his grandfather, Tri Nguyen is now a master teacher, sharing his 30 years of experience studying a vast array of martial arts styles with his students.

He says he never gets bored inside the family dojo. "Martial arts are fun and allow us to return to our basic nature, regardless of age."

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