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What Would You Do?

February 8, 2012

We are spending the week in Hong Kong this week, which i can best describe to you as the biggest shopping centre on earth. Oh I’m sure people will tell you there’s other stuff too, but they’re lying.

OK fair enough we did see lots if other cool stuff i suppose; we walked up the mountain, visited museums, went to Macau, wandered the markets and even saw some impressive Kung Fu displays in Kowloon Park, and I did go to a Wng Chun class run ba bona fide Chinese master I suppose.

But when all is said and done, Hong Kong is a really, really big shopping mall. I’m sorry if you live there or you disagree, and I still love it here, but there it is. You literally don’t have to look at the sky through the entire districts of Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui (which contains what i like to call the ‘You Can’t Afford This’ street, massive designer shops with a queue outside as only five people are let in at a time, designed i think specifically to make lowly proletariat like me feel small and insignificant).

Here’s that picture of the view by the way. I have to admit, it’s pretty good and almost makes the humiliation of walking down You Can’t Afford This Street to get there worth the while …

On the way to take this pic we saw – well, heard first really – an enormous screaming match between a couple under the eaves of the Hong Kong Art Museum. Hardly a match really, it was more just a subdued young Chinese lady being screamed at by an enraged man. I mean really screaming. Violently so. Not an easy thing to watch, but you have to remember that this is not your country and you could end up making things worse if you try to get involved. So we walked on by, to get some more pretty pictures, feeling guilty but unable to intervene.

And then, from behind me, I heard a slap. I don’t know, it could have been him hitting the wall, but he looked every bit angry enough to have hit her – even likely to. Guest in the country or not, i didn’t feel able to turn a blind eye to an assault, and we turned back. He was still inches from her face, still screaming, but i couldn’t see any signs he had hit her – although it still looked like he would at any moment. And i hadn’t actually seen him slap her, if he had at all.

What to do? Here was a blatant sign of violence, physical or not, against someone incapable of defending themselves, when i felt confident that I was in a position to do something about it. Should I approach him, potentially making things worse or turning it in to a fight? I was a guest, him a local.  Who’s to say I wouldn’t be the one to get in to trouble? I decided that I would wait, and watch, to see what he would do next; standing close enough that he knew I was watching, but not close enough to become an active participant yet.

As i stepped closer, about ten feet from them, he paused and looked up at me and held my gaze for a few seconds. I stayed still, just watching quietly. What I felt I was saying was ‘I see you, you know I see you, and I am not leaving’. Who knows, maybe he thought i was just  there for the street theatre but in any case, I hoped that my presence alone would act as a barrier against any real violence.

I began to wonder what I would do if he did hit her. Hit him? No, not my country and not my place – I’m no arbiter of justice or vigilante enforcer. Pull him away? No, no better really and would probably end up in a scuffle on the floor – the woman might even take his side, as can happen, and put the boot in herself. I decided I would simply walk between the two, and stand in his way; the only physical contact would be holding him at arms reach and making him understand that I wouldn’t allow him any closer. Words wouldn’t be necessary. If he then decided to attack me then so be it, rather me than her, at least I was in some position to  maybe do something about it where she was not.

As i watched though, it became clear that this would not be necessary. My instructor Marc once told me a story about a death threat made to him by some IRA gangsters in east London (for that full story, pick up a copy of How Not to Get Hit for a full interview with Marc). Eventually these gangsters, as Marc told it, had to do one of two things – carry through the threat, or back down. They couldn’t just carry on threatening death, every Friday night. It’d get samey. So they climbed down, and eventually ended up becoming ‘pals’. I saw the same thing happen here. A point had been reached where the guy could not sustain this level of rage – he either had to snap, or climb down. I watched as he gradually reduced the pointing, his screams got quieter and were no longer inches from the girls face. He lit a cigarette. Looked at me again (I hadn’t moved) and went and sat on the kerb.

I knew at that point that all his rage and aggression had ebbed away. It takes a lot to work yourself up in to that kind of fury, and once it has gone, without a catalyst it’s very difficult to build it back up again. I decided that at that point my continued presence could be seen as antagonistic and serve to get him going again, and confident that his elastic band had snapped, we left them where they were and went back to taking pictures of the pretty view.

Afterwards, in the pub, Jess asked me what I would have done, and whether I wasn’t a little bit curious as to what I could have done.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wonder this myself, as anyone who practices martial arts does at some point or other in their journey.  Does it work, all this stuff we do?  No matter how much you spar in the Dojo, no matter how much you pressure test things, it is never, can be never, anything like the real thing.  Would I forget it all and just start trying to exchange blows?  Would I be able to control him as I’ve learnt to do?  Manipulate the space between us to neutralize, rather than get in to a scrap? I guess the answer will have to wait for another day.

Nothing actually happened, as is the way in most encounters like this, but nonetheless i felt it interesting enough to include here as a ponder on violence, intervention and to ask a question – what would you do? Dive in? Walk by? Wait? Hard to say unless you’ve found yourself in that situation (tell me about it in the comments if you have) but I think, I hope, I got it right.

Self defence and martial arts aren’t always about fighting.  In fact they’re rarely about fighting.  The battle lies behind the eyes, before the first fist is thrown, and one of the greatest ironies of martial arts, to me, is that the more train the less likely you are to use what you learn, as your understanding of people, and violence, increases.

  1. Stuart permalink

    Great article Nat, and to the heart of what the book it about, i think.

    sounds like a crazy situation, especially in a different country, but sounds like it was well handled. I expect there was a heart in mouth adrenalin dump going on like a mexican stand off.

  2. You dun good like what I wooda.

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