The history of kung fu is littered with stories, probably apocryphal but with some credibility, of old masters, on their deathbeds, lamenting that they hadn’t passed on all they knew to at least one of their disciples. Not all teachers were like that of course: I studied wing chun for five years in the 1980s with a teacher who said he would consider himself a failure if he didn’t have at least one student who turned out to be better than him.
That wasn’t me; I was fairly useless, but I did gain some invaluable insights into one aspect of the Chinese psyche. Many Chinese sifus, while talented as martial artists, are obsessed with their own importance, which is why they expect to be addressed as ‘sifu’ (teacher). My teacher asked his students to address him as ‘Hong Kor’ (Brother Hong), ‘brother’ being the usual form of address between fellow students in the same school. In other ways, however, my teacher was almost the archetype of the traditional Chinese teacher: strict, quick to criticize and slow to praise (although I did work out how to not let that bother me).
I was reminded of all this on a recent visit to an upmarket Chinese restaurant with two friends. I’d only been there once before (not surprising given the prices it charges), and one of its signature dishes is sweet and sour pork, so I was keen to try that. You might think that sweet and sour pork is no big deal; everyone makes it. But you would be mistaken. This dish is a lot harder to make properly than most people realize; it is one of the dishes that is used to test the ability of a chef applying for a job in a top restaurant.
We were informed that the old head chef was no longer with the restaurant, but his former assistant was now in charge of the kitchen. He came round in person to talk to diners during our meal, and we asked him about his old mentor.
“He taught me everything I know,” he answered.
After sampling his sweet and sour pork, which was good but not quite the best, I couldn’t help but wonder whether his teacher had taught him everything he knew.