Feature story by Brittany Caldwell of the University of Central Florida schools of Journalism
“Take It Day by Day”
Chief instructor Mimi Chan (center) demonstrates a kung fu form to a group of students. Photo by Hao Nguyen, Courtesy of Wah Lum Temple
Cars whiz past a yellow brick wall on North Goldenrod Road. After 40 years in Orlando, the Wah Lum Kung Fu & Tai Chi Temple still maintains an air of mystery. Tucked back in a forest of bamboo trees, the Chinese martial arts school stands with cultural pride.
Chief instructor and UCF alumna Mimi Chan begins her day with tea and gratitude. She meditates and takes a moment to reflect on her blessings. At Wah Lum, she lights incense to honor her ancestors, a long-standing tradition of respect. She is an athletic woman of average height, dressed in her uniform of a comfy T-shirt and loose pants with her hair pulled back in a ponytail.
Throughout the day, she juggles technical difficulties and coordinating the business with the help of her MacBook and iPhone. Whereas the school would be full of students preparing for kung fu and tai chi classes, this week it’s just Mimi and a few instructors, who are careful to stay healthy as they livestream classes on Zoom. As the operation manager, Mimi runs the show- even in adversity.
“My day has been tackling and putting out fires and how I’m going to plan and implement for all the things to come,” Mimi said.
Because social distancing is being encouraged as a way to combat the coronavirus pandemic, small businesses are at risk. This has been in the back of Mimi’s mind since news of the outbreak in February. But her main concern was the students- the people that made Wah Lum like a family.
“The more we were hearing as things progressed, about how the disease could be spread from people who don’t show symptoms, the more concerned we were,” Mimi said.
She cancelled in-person classes in early March before the Florida government mandate closed fitness businesses. Even though she was saddened by the closure, she did not want to have the virus endanger the health of the students, especially given the range of ages.
“While all of our students were very mindful and careful, you could just never be too safe,” Mimi said. “I would’ve preferred to make the decision on behalf of the students while having a plan in place.”
Along with two other certified instructors, Mimi is referred to as “sifu,” which means a teacher or a father figure. It’s a symbolic title in Chinese kung fu, where the person guides the student through training but is also like a second family to them.
At 42, Mimi has managed the family business that her father created for the past 21 years. Her father, Grandmaster Pui Chan, and her mother, Simu Suzy, are the owners and influential to decisions. The school is not just a business to Mimi and her family- it’s also a temple rooted in history. She is dedicated to upholding her father’s legacy of authentic Chinese culture and martial arts.
Overseeing a small business amidst the coronavirus is not an easy task but her gratitude for the Wah Lum community motivates her to keep going.
“We run our business like a family,” Mimi said. “All of our students are like family members.”
Some students and instructors are UCF alumni just like Mimi. UCF is not far from the Wah Lum Temple- about 12 minutes away.
Virtual classes don’t mean that the students watch a video at odd times in the day. The schedule is the same as it was pre-coronavirus. If you have a class at 6:30 p.m., you log on to Zoom at 6:30 p.m. The only thing that has changed is the format.
“For us, the priority is keeping our students engaged and active, and helping bring them some normality in a very abnormal time,” Mimi said.
Mimi said they wanted to livestream the class at the school in a familiar place- in front of the martial arts altar.
“It is far better for them to actually feel like they are there with us,” she said. “That way the students can get as traditional of an experience as possible.”
Mimi has been working at least 12 hours each day to organize the virtual classes. When she feels stressed, she uses the breathing exercises they teach in kung fu and tai chi classes. The impacts of the virus on Wah Lum are like math problems that she has to solve, yet she said she enjoys figuring out how to fix them.
“This is very unprecedented so we just have to take it day by day,” Mimi said.
Mimi constantly balances the needs of the business with the concerns she has for her family. Her sister, mother and father fall into the at-risk category for the coronavirus. She said she feels better knowing they are safe while she is working. Her family may be absent from the school but that doesn’t stop them from contributing. Mimi’s mom records tai chi classes from home.
With the Orange County stay-at-home order in effect, Wah Lum will continue with their online classes.
“We will not reopen until it is safe to do so,” Mimi said.
The school depends on students’ membership to support the service-based business. While the virtual classes keep them afloat, it’s unclear what the future may hold.
But even in a pandemic, those closest to Mimi have faith in her coordination behind the scenes.
“We are very lucky that we have someone like Mimi who’s very good at handling problems and looking at solutions,” said Oscar Agramonte, 40, Mimi’s husband and a Wah Lum instructor.
When he is not helping out with kung fu and tai chi classes, Agramonte leads a kickboxing and sparring class. He also has his own associated fitness program called “Control Your Health.”
A UCF graduate, Agramonte got his certification to be a physical trainer while teaching at Wah Lum and realized he could do one-on-one training as a full-time job. He recently made the decision to move his classes online but has found teaching virtually to be a challenge.
“I’m so used to talking to people in person,” Agramonte said. “I feel very relaxed. And when I’m doing it virtually, the energy levels is just different.
“I have to project more. I have to draw the energy out. And I don’t have an instant reaction as to whether they’re giving me that energy back.”
Agramonte is hopeful that with time, the process will get easier.
“It’s harder for me right now because it’s a little bit newer,” he said. “The longer that we get into this quarantine type of situation, the benefit will be that we’ll get better at it.”
The move to online classes poses an obstacle as to how almost 50 students will learn detailed kung fu forms from one screen. In a face-to-face setting, there are separate areas for different classes to take place at once.
“I think you can do [kung fu] on virtual,” said Jeremy Rose, 41, a student for 10 years and a UCF alumnus. “It’s just going to be harder when you’re trying to give so many people something at the same time.”
With one week of virtual classes under her belt, Mimi feels good about the future of online training. There are still some technical things she’d like to improve but she said it was “pretty successful overall.”
She said she appreciates that the students continue to support Wah Lum and how positive they have been with the virtual experience.
“The best thing is that we can still be connected,” Mimi said. “It was a really beautiful thing to see that everyone’s in their home and we’re all still participating in the same kung fu classes.”
After the students say goodbye to the instructors and the Zoom classes sign off, Mimi stays at the school a little longer to work on scheduling and communicating with staff members. After she leaves for home, the temple is truly empty.
Plunged in darkness, the Wah Lum Temple rests, grateful for another day to spread its message of fitness, culture and community.