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Profs in the fast lane

No professors in an ivory tower, these four NTU profs could have been sports champs in another life, as Derek Rodriguez discovers

Crouching professor, hidden dragon

Asst Prof James Kwan

Martial arts has been a part of Asst Prof Kwan’s life since he was born. The New York native grew up in a kung fu school run by his father, a master of Fu Jow Pai (Tiger Claw system). The biomedical scientist at the School of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering later added Brazilian jiu-jitsu to his armoury, and picked up awards in tournaments in Colorado, where he did his postdoctoral studies, as well as in the UK during his stint as a researcher at University of Oxford.

The road to combat

I became interested in Brazilian jiu-jitsu around the ’90s and early 2000s when its practitioners won Ultimate Fighting Championship titles. At that time, I’d been doing kung fu for most of my life and felt that Brazilian jiu-jitsu would improve my ground game.

A nerdy pastime

Many people think Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a very aggressive sport with testosterone-filled wrestlers, but it’s quite the opposite. The nerdy types, like myself, tend to take to this sport because it’s very much about execution. Of course, your physical attributes do play a role, but if your technique is good and you master the different nuances of the sport, you can be successful without being particularly strong.

The gentle art

I’ve dislocated both knees, and the recovery took six months per knee! This was when I first started doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I was clueless about my moves and tended to flail around. Now I only get bruises, cuts and scrapes. Still, I don’t consider this a dangerous sport. In fact, we call it the gentle art. If you take the sport seriously, the likelihood of getting injured is quite low.

Sports vs science

Martial arts is an escape for me. It’s a great way of releasing stress, especially on work days. I get a zen-like feeling when I’m on the mat and focused on my training. I think if I had to do it for a living, I would lose that enjoyment.

Mind my move

I’m involved in the NTU Mixed Martial Arts Club, and enjoy being a part of this close-knit group. When you spend this much time on the mats with students, you get to know them well. Martial arts helps students develop their critical thinking skills in an unconventional way. Often, when you’re learning different grappling positions, it feels like a puzzle you’re trying to solve. So it’s a great way to keep fit while working your brain at the same time.

  • Asst Prof Kwan (left), with his brother and Ng Wai Hong, the current grandmaster of Fu Jow Pai, in his father’s kung fu school in New York.