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City People

Keepin' it real

The Tampa instructor is devoted to teaching traditions in Chinese martial arts. He regularly travels to China and is one of a few of Westerners admitted to the Shaolin Temple in the southern Chinese city of Henan.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2003

PALMA CEIA -- Tom Haase does the praying mantis. He does the dancing lion. But there's one thing the 46-year-old kung fu instructor doesn't do: belts.

"Belts are for people who want to make martial arts more American," he said.

For the past 20 years, Haase has made a business out of keeping kung fu purely Chinese. His unique approach to Chinese traditions has helped set the Wah Lum Kung Fu school apart from the pack.

Unlike most martial arts instructors, Haase doesn't reward skills with different-colored belts. In fact, he gives every student a black belt at their first class.

The belt color isn't going to make you a better student, he insists. Besides, kung fu is about humility, not ego.

"You should be a student your whole life," he said.

Haase's 6,000-square-foot studio on S MacDill Avenue is a veritable shrine to all things Chinese and kung fu. Walking up to the threshold of the school, called a kwoon, is like walking up to the gates of the imperial palace at Beijing's Forbidden City.

Just beyond the pagoda-style archway, a menacing menage of swords, spears and staffs hangs along one wall. The 50-foot-long gold and green dragon Haase used in last weekend's Gasparilla Children's Parade rests regally against the opposite wall.

"I wanted to make it feel like you've entered a different world," Haase said. "I've seen other schools where it's just a desk in the corner and a heavy bag, and you don't know if they're going to be there next week."

Haase plans on being there for his students the next week and beyond. He and his wife, Cynthia, 49, moved the school to Tampa six years ago from Merritt Island near Cape Canaveral. Haase's original studio was on Kennedy Boulevard, but he moved to the larger space on MacDill Avenue in June 2001 to accommodate the school's growing membership.

The space is especially key when Haase and his troupe of performers practice the lion dances, which hava become fixtures in the Gasparilla Children's Parade. The troupe is a diverse mix of folks. Military men, salespeople, retirees and elementary school students work in concert to make the fanciful 10-foot-long beasts come alive.

"It's supposed to be animated," he explained. "You want to imitate the movements, to give it life like at cat."

It's not as easy as it looks. Richie Kiley, 51, has studied with Haase for about four years and breaks out in a sweat just thinking about the heavy dragon. But his respect for his instructor, or sifu, runs deep.

"When Sifu (Haase) asks, it's hard to resist," Kiley said. "It's a good workout. I've got arms like Popeye."

The years of tough workouts have paid off for Haase and his students. The troupe has performed at weddings, grand openings and dozens of Chinese New Year's parties all over Tampa Bay area, including Saturday's celebration of the Year of the Goat. They regularly perform at a gathering of southern-style kung fu schools in Orlando organized by Haase's teacher, Grandmaster Chan Pui.

Haase first met the Chinese kung fu master in 1982. Though he had been studying kung fu for years, Haase made a full-time commitment to the ancient martial art not long after meeting Pui.

"When I met him I could tell that he was the one that was for real," Haase said.

Pui's kung fu prowess was instrumental in helping to bring the famed monks of China's Shaolin Temple to the United States in 1992 for the first time. The 3,000-year-old temple was the mythical home of David Carradine when he starred in the '70s TV series Kung Fu.

Back then, the Wisconsin-born Haase was a construction worker. The middle child of 10 brothers and sisters, he grew up on a dairy farm outside of Milwaukee. The only member of his family to practice martial arts, he had taken up kung fu after seeing it while in high school.

His devotion has set him apart and sent him far. Haase regularly travels to China with Pui and is one of a handful of Westerners admitted to the Shaolin Temple in the southern Chinese city of Henan. The first trip, he said, changed his life.

"For some people, it's a martial art that's for health. For others, it's a way of life," Haase said. "For me, it fits with my life."

Tom Haase

  • AGE: 46.
  • VOCATION: Kung fu instructor, owner of the Wah Lum Kung Fu school.
  • SCHOOL'S NAMESAKE: A temple in China.
  • PARTNER: Wife, Cynthia Swann Haase, massage therapist.
  • HOMETOWN: Dairy farm in Juneau, Wis.
  • 15 MINUTES OF FAME: Kung fu demonstration on national TV station in China.
  • MOMENT OF GLORY: Visiting kung fu's birthplace at Shaolin Temple in Henan, China.
  • FUTURE MOMENT OF GLORY: Publishing a book about martial arts.
  • OTHER INTERESTS: Golf, cabinetmaking and construction.
  • EXERCISE: Kung fu covers it all. "It's a workout that gets everything," he said.
  • DIET: Nothing extreme. He likes Chinese food and avoids fat.
  • PETS: One cat, Pumpkin.

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