PETALING JAYA: If Asian martial arts movies are to be believed, martial arts grandmasters dress in flowing robes and sport a long, grey goatee.
Yeow Cheng Watt has no flowing robes or goatee – he looks more like a friendly, elderly gentleman who would spend his afternoons telling the youngsters stories about the good old days.
The 73-year-old also packs a very real punch. The modest Yeow is a gifted Taekwondo grandmaster with over five decades of martial arts experience under his 9th degree black belt.
He coached the Malaysian national Taekwondo team from 1987 to 1994. In 1988, he opened the Traditional Taekwondo Academy in Petaling Jaya.
As witnessed by the sheer number of international accolades and certificates adorning his office, he is widely recognised worldwide to be among the best of his peers.
Taekwondo is a part of Yeow’s life, and he has never lost his passion for the art since he first picked it up in 1967.
“Taekwondo is my life,” he told FMT. “I gave my life to taekwondo.”
It happened somewhat by chance, he said. When he was a young man in his twenties working for a private company, one of the executives started a class at the office in Jalan Ampang.
“We had to go to Ampang New Village to do the training,” he remembered.
While at school, he had been active in sports, so it was no surprise he was not averse to the thought of taking up Taekwondo.
After a few years, Yeow decided to take up Taekwondo professionally. He was taken under the wing of grandmaster Low Koon Lin, one of the country’s highest ranked Taekwondo practitioners, where he further honed his skills.
Later on, he would also train under grandmaster Nam Tae Hi, a pioneering South Korean Taekwondo master.
For those who cannot tell Taekwondo from Karate, Yeow explained that Taekwondo emphasises a combination of attacks with legs and hands while Karate focuses on hand movements.
Affiliated with the International Taekwondo Federation, the traditional Taekwondo that Yeow teaches is less a competitive sport and more a sport for all.
“Now, we focus on children because adults like to go for mixed martial arts (MMA). They go into the ring with no rules, no regulations and they just wallop each other,” said Yeow.
“Anybody can take up Taekwondo,” he said, adding that his youngest student is aged four while the oldest is in his seventies.
For parents concerned that Taekwondo is too rough, Yeow said as long as practitioners take the correct precautions, serious injuries are extremely rare.
Despite Yeow’s advanced age, he is still very much in the pink of health. “I train every day and I teach every day.”
It also helps that he neither smokes nor drinks, though he still enjoys life by eating whatever he wants in healthy moderation.
In addition to private classes and group classes, Yeow is often invited by the authorities and government departments to conduct self-defence courses for them.
He has served as the master to an assortment of people, including soldiers, police, government officials and personal bodyguards.
Yeow said, even though these people are armed, Taekwondo is vital to keep them alive in situations where there is no time for them to draw their guns.
“I focus on self-defence because people can no longer be bothered with all the patterns,” he said. “Some people who want to train come for exactly one lesson before giving up.”
Yeow said anybody can do martial arts, but not everybody has the perseverance to continue learning and honing their skills.
While children are particularly eager students, once they grow up, education and work commitments mean they no longer have the time for Taekwondo.
Asked what is needed of a person who is interested in taking up Taekwondo, Yeow emphasised the need for time to practise and build their skills.
“If you are an engineer, a lawyer or an accountant, you won’t have the time … Time management is very important.”
Not all students forget their Taekwondo master though, Yeow said, and he has a cadre of long-time students who have kept training with him well into adulthood.
Taekwondo not only builds discipline, said Yeow, but also moulds someone’s character to be a better and moral person.
He recalled how one of his students was a real gangster who lost his mean streak as he continued studying Taekwondo.
“People have asked, ‘What if you teach gangsters?’ It won’t last. If they are good, they will change. If not, they will leave in one or two months.”
If anyone is thinking of making a fortune through Taekwondo, Yeow has little issue with shooting that notion down. “There’s no money in it, you won’t be rich. The richness comes in the students you produce.”
In addition to lasting memories with his students, Yeow is also grateful that his profession has allowed him to travel the world to attend championships.
Unfortunately, the current state of the world and his growing aversion to flying means his travels are less frequent now.
Traditional Taekwondo Academy
11, 2nd Floor, Jalan 19/29
46300 Petaling Jaya
Contact: (012) 211 7731