Except for when she was sleeping, 9-year-old Mimi Chan did not spend a lot of time in her house in Orlando. After school, she would find herself inside the iron gates of the Wah Lum Temple, hands and feet at ready stance as her father ran through a series of kung fu drills. The Wah Lum Temple is a kung fu and tai chi school founded by her father Pui Chan and mother Suzy Chan. In the early 1980s, the temple was still considered a “small family business.” Now with hundreds of practitioners, Wah Lum Temple tours internationally. In 2020, the Chans celebrated the temple’s 50th anniversary in the United States.
At 44 years old, Mimi is the current chief instructor at the Wah Lum Temple. Her husband, Oscar Agramonte, helps her run the business. Before Mimi, her father Pui Chan led the temple. In 2012, Mimi produced and directed a documentary on Pui, called “Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer,” during what she calls her “brief” foray into Hollywood. Pui was the first to bring the wah lum system of kung fu to America — in Boston — 50 years ago. The documentary tells the story of Pui, from the time he apprenticed under Grandmaster Lee Kwan Shan in Canton at age four, his move to America in his early twenties, his marriage to Suzy in Boston and the establishment of the Wah Lum Temple in Orlando, Florida in 1980.
Mimi started kung fu at the age of 3. Growing up, Mimi wouldn’t get home until after the adult kung fu classes were done at 9 p.m., when her parents could drive her home. After her own classes for children, she lolled about the temple, exploring the developing compound. “By no means did I spend my time wisely!” she said, despite the fact that she practiced the kung fu foundations for 10,000 days — the number of days needed for mastery of the moves according to her father’s Wah Lum Handbook.
These kung fu foundations were the backbone for her roles in Disney’s 1998 “Mulan” and “Mortal Kombat Conquest.” At 16, she walked into the office of Mark Henn, a Disney animator who drew the princesses Ariel, Belle, Jasmin, Pocahontas and Mulan. Henn, with the Disney Mulan team, was in Orlando looking for martial artists to use as inspiration for their illustrations for “Mulan.” When Mimi walked in, Mark Henn said, “It was like Mulan had walked into the room.” Even Mimi found the similarities uncanny: “I do kung fu, she does kung fu. Her father did kung fu, my father did kung fu,” she said.
With her background, it’s not difficult to see how “Mulan” was modeled after her. In the movie’s finale, when Mulan fights an invading Hun on the roof of the imperial palace, she strikes a series of poses — the sweep, the straight sword and fan moves — all part of the kung fu foundations. Mimi choreographed the fight. On her podcast, The Sifu Mimi Chan Show, she talks about how surreal it was seeing her movements — the twist of the paper fan, the spinning of the sword — captured in animation.
Mimi started The Sifu Mimi Chan Show in 2017. The show was originally called “Culture Chat,” and Mimi would bring on “interesting people” to chat about their journeys, lifestyles, professions and cultural backgrounds. The people included a consulting producer on Marvel’s “Hawkeye,” a comics writer and artist on “Wonder Woman,” and a U.S. Secret Service agent. In response to popular demand, Mimi eventually recorded an episode talking about her own life and modeling for “Mulan.” In the episode, Mimi says that a common question she gets is which aspects of Mulan’s character bear the most resemblance to Mimi. Oscar points to the scene where Mulan is under the cherry blossom tree after the matchmaker rejects her. When Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou, joins her on the stone bench, she turns away. Fa Zhou points to an unopened cherry blossom. “This one’s late, but I’ll bet, when it blooms, it will be the most beautiful of them all,” he says. Mimi said she was a terrible student when she was little. She didn’t take kung fu seriously, so it took longer for her to improve. Like the cherry blossom, she was kind of a “late bloomer.”
“I know we are fighting for not having stereotypes with Asian Americans, but I will say some of them do exist for a reason. I was in a strict household,” she said. Her father was her sifu, which roughly translates to “teacher.”
A little more than half a century ago, Pui Chan gave a watchman a bottle of whiskey in exchange for rope and a promise to turn a blind eye when he slid down the side of the ship and into the murky New York Harbor. If he had jumped into the water, the noise would have alerted the ship captain and immigration officers, who had forbidden him to set foot into Chinatown without a visa. He told two friends who’d left with him from Hong Kong to pull up the rope afterwards. The ship departed the next day.
Pui wasn’t from Hong Kong. He was born in Shajing village in Canton in 1938, now known as Guangzhou — southern China. When Pui was 9, communists imprisoned his parents. In 1956, when he was 18, Pui swam from Communist China to Hong Kong and boarded a merchant ship bound for America. His ship reached New York, but his application was denied without a visa. So Pui slid down the ship, with only $24 in a plastic bag. He told himself he would not stop swimming until he saw shore. By the time he could make out the Newark Liberty International Airport, he’d swum close to a mile.
“I take a taxi go to Chinatown. First time, he go to 42nd Street. I told them this is not Chinatown!” he says in the documentary.
Eventually, Pui reached Manhattan. He found his way to Boston, where he took on a job as a cook for a few years. In the 1970s, Pui opened a kung fu school near Boston’s North Station. Pui had trained under Grandmaster Lee Kwan Shan — the fifth generation disciple of the Wah Lum System — in Guangzhou. Pui was the last and youngest — at 4 years old — of Shan’s disciples. Pui recalls that there was no electricity at the school, so they would have to use kerosene lights. Now, in his 80s, Pui responds with energy to Mimi’s interview questions in “Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer.” “One time, Lee Kwan Shan kicked above the light, and it blew out. Everyone thought his kung fu was very powerful because of this one kick!” he says.
Pui’s kung fu school in Boston was open to all, not just the Chinese, which made it controversial in the kung fu community. Not everyone thought that kung fu should be taught to “foreigners.” But one event in the early 1970s changed the mindset of the Chinese community. A close friend of Pui’s, also a grandmaster, had taken on a Caucasian student by the name of Paul Vizzio. Vizzio was set to fight against a Taiwanese martial artist. The night of the fight, hundreds crowded into a gym in New York’s Chinatown. Bets were made. There was a stark divide in the audience, exacerbated by newspaper headlines which framed the fight in terms of race: white versus Chinese.
“At the time, it was a real fight. You had to sign a contract that if you died, [you] wouldn’t sue,” Pui says. By the end, the Taiwanese fighter was bloodied and had been knocked out so many times that he was struggling to stay upright. Vizzio was declared the winner. Members of the kung fu community reconsidered the place of “foreigners” in kung fu; they saw how well Vizzio, a white man, had learned the art. Pui’s decision to open his school to people outside of the Chinese community was suddenly becoming normalized in America. What was more, Pui’s kung fu school was becoming well-established in Boston North Station.
During this time, Pui also met Suzy, Mimi’s mother. She was the lead singer at a restaurant Pui and his friends often frequented. Pui, whose English was not good, would request for her to sing “Guantanamera” again and again, hoping she would remember him. It worked. Pui and Suzy married in Boston in 1977, not far from Pui’s kung fu school.
But Pui and Suzy didn’t stay long in Boston. Snowstorms were frequent in the Northeast. “When Mimi was born, she was born between two snowstorms,” Suzy says in the documentary. That year — 1978 — the snow came down hard, covering even the tops of the Chan house’s doors. The roads were blocked. Pui and Suzy were able to make it to the hospital in time, but no friends could come visit.
The weeks following Mimi’s birth, the family cuddled by the fireplace. The snow had gotten into the house through the cracks between the windows. There was no electricity. “It was so cold that I thought we could die in Boston if we continued like this,” Suzy recalls. A few years later, Mimi’s younger sister Tina was born 26 weeks early. She was small enough to fit in the palm of Suzy’s hand. The family decided to move to Orlando. In Orlando, there would be no cold, no snow and the roads would never be closed if Tina had a medical emergency.
“There were definitely times that I felt like the path that was laid out for me was not necessarily my own. I made a decision though, in my teen years, that this was what I was meant to do. But even today, as a forty plus year old, there’s a pressure to carry on my father’s legacy,” said Mimi.
In “Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer,” Oscar calls Mimi the “scion” of Pui Chan. “If you think about a lot of family owned companies, the next generation sometimes doesn’t take care of it as well as the first one because they’re not as invested in it. But Mimi’s been doing kung fu her whole life. It’s who she is,” he says.
Mimi remembered one rare occasion when both Mimi and her father were at home as opposed to at the temple. Her father ran into the house, waving his arms. He had planted a starfruit tree. “You are going to be so happy, this tree will have a lot of fruit. You really likey,” he said. Outside, Mimi stared at the stick dug into the ground, the feeble branches and the one leaf dangling from them.
“Where’s the fruit?” she said.
“In 10 years, you are going to be really happy. You 100 percent have a lot of fruit,” he responded.
Mimi would have preferred if Pui had just gone to the grocery store like her friends’ parents to get her some fruit. She also would have preferred to play with the neighborhood children or hang out with her friends at a party she’d had to decline yet again because she had temple duties.
“As a young child, it’s kind of one of those things that you don’t know anything different, so you just do it,” she said of kung fu classes. “I’m not saying I had this oppressed childhood — my parents found a balance — but I was at the temple a lot.”
Mimi is now in her 40s, and Pui, in his 80s. Mimi doubts Pui will ever retire. “I think for him, retiring means he’ll get to the school at 7 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m.,” Mimi says in the documentary.
Pui gives the impression that he is always in motion. Although he sits still during Mimi’s interview in the documentary, his face, his eyebrows, and even the way he widens his mouth and lifts his head when he exclaims, “Ayah!” makes him appear intensely alive.
He and Mimi share this characteristic. “My father is very charismatic,” Mimi said. “A social butterfly.”
Oscar adds that Pui works tirelessly to maintain the temple. “If you had never met him or never known Master Chan, and you would have come here on a typical early morning, you’d think he was like the hired help, some kind of janitor or something because he comes here, cleans, does yard work,” Oscar says in his interview with Mimi in the film. After his morning of building bamboo fences, clearing leaves from the temple grounds, planting new trees and clearing the gutters on the roof, Pui also likes to tend his fish in the pond at the temple.
“I would say I really enjoy being out by the fish pond. And having some solitude there,” Mimi said, laughing. “If I wasn’t in charge of running everything. Maybe I just like the idea of peace.”
The Wah Lum Temple in Orlando, Florida is still a family business, Mimi said. Its leadership has passed to Mimi and her husband, Oscar, although Pui and Suzy are never too far from the temple. But it is no longer a “small” family business. In 2017, the Chan family went on a 24-day cruise from Rio de Janeiro to Orlando to study kung fu and philosophy. On the way, they stopped in Brazil for a Wah Lum Grand Opening Tour with Sifu Antonio, who leads the Wah Lum school in Rio. In the same year, the family took another cruise to Germany where they had their second grand opening. Moreover, the annual Chinese New Year lion dance shows have taken Mimi and the Wah Lum Demo Team to perform at Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Epcot Center.
Most recently, the temple held its Wah Lum Kung Fu of USA’s 50th Anniversary Virtual Exhibition. Production took place between 2019 and 2020 and was made public in late 2020. The exhibition was lively and theatrical.
It started with drums. And then the stage turned black. Flickering white lights appeared, illuminating white-clothed bodies that flowed through kung fu forms. They stopped, then gathered together, closing fists over the balls of lights until, one by one, they disappeared into the darkness. Then, drums again. As the light flashed on, lion dancers swathed in yellow and red costumes swayed to the beat of the drums and cymbals and cackling firecrackers.
“I was not a natural performer like my father,” Mimi said. She asked me if I remembered seeing her father perform his solo routine in the documentary. I said I did, and she said, “I feel like he has a certain charisma and a natural showmanship. Me, I use technology and choreography and musical timing and then hopefully make something beautiful out of it.”
“Individually, I still think my father is the better performer,” Mimi said. She paused, considering. “We’re different. I guess that’s not really fair to myself, right? I found my own way in Wah Lum.”