Mark Wiley began Tambuli Media with the purpose of providing the public with mind-body practices, including martial arts. Additionally, he has spent many years in the martial arts, authoring fifteen books, including five on Filipino martial arts. Today, Wiley took some time to talk about Tambuli Media and the publishing house’s first feature film, Made in Chinatown. All images by Mark Wiley.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for taking the time to talk and welcome, Dr. Wiley!
Mark Wiley: Thank you; it’s great to be here!
MAYTT: What influenced or inspired you to begin Tambuli Media in 2013, especially in a time when physical book sales have been on the decline? Was it born out of a need to produce material you weren’t seeing and felt it would benefit the martial arts community?
MAYTT: When Tambuli Media came together, what was the company’s initial goal for impacting the martial arts community? Seven years later, do you feel that goal was achieved, or has it changed a bit?
MW: I had a vision and a mission for Tambuli. The Vision is to see mind-body practices once again playing an integral role in the lives of people who pursue a journey of personal development through the transmission of traditional knowledge in modern times. The Mission is to partner with the highest caliber subject-matter experts to bring you quality content that is in-depth, professional, actionable, and comprehensive in nature. We’ve achieved both, but sales certainly have declined even in the past seven years we’ve been active.
Decades ago, the publisher would handle all the marketing and promotions and set up interviews and book signings, etc. These days there is not enough profit in these niche markets to do that. So, the author must get involved. It is their work, after all. Unfortunately, some feel it is beneath them to promote their own work.
The goal now has to be to partner with authors who have strong content and are willing to do the work of promotion, marketing, blogging, et cetera to help push sales. Without the author on board, there is no point publishing. I mean, if the author isn’t proud of their own work, isn’t the biggest advocate for their work… Why should anyone else care?
MAYTT: Absolutely. How have you utilized and adapted your experiences in the publishing world, from Tuttle Publishing to the now-defunct Journal of Asian Martial Arts, for Tambuli Media? Did this prior experience prepare you for running your own media outlet?
MW: Back in 1991 I began writing for Black Belt Magazine, Karate-Kung-Fu Illustrated, Inside Kung-Fu, and others. Then in the mid-Nineties I worked as an editor for JAMA and then moved to Japan in 1995 to work as editor at Tuttle. After that, I worked for CFW Enterprises and Unique Publications, Agora Publishing, and The Catalyst Group Resources. Not to forget all the websites I’ve helped manage content for. Each of these experiences has provided unique exposure and developed in me different skill sets. All are needed for Tambuli.
MAYTT: As a prolific writer, you have authored a plethora of books and articles on Eskrima and other martial arts styles and health subjects. What first interested you to research Filipino martial arts in a historical context? Were you trying to fill a void in the art’s lineage and legacy for future practitioners to be better informed? Or was this a way for you to further your own training and knowledge?
MW: I was not good at writing or grammar in school. Writing was always a deep struggle. I would stare at a blank page forever. So, I never thought of writing or publishing, but I did “wish” I could write books like Donn Draeger. It wasn’t until the Angel Cabales asked me to write a series of books on his serrada escrima system, that I felt obligated to try. My first efforts were a disaster and seven publishers turned down the manuscript. Then I decided to take it upon myself to learn how to do it. In between classes in college I would go to the library and read every book they had on writing, editing, printing, marketing books, etc. I studied the process well. Then I looked at the collection of martial arts books on my shelf and started noting what I liked and didn’t like about them. After a year, I was ready to rewrite the material for my late master, and sent two chapters to Black Belt Magazine, and they published them. I knew I was on my way, and then wrote my first book: Filipino Martial Arts: Cabales Serrada Escrima. This book, though not my best work, has gone through three editions. For sure, Angel Cabales is the reason I became a writer, editor, and then publisher.
After this book, I had so many questions as FMA. The basic ones were: 1) What’s the difference between kali, arnis, and escrima? No one could tell or show it. 2) How can a single art, “Kali,” be the “mother art” of an entire island chain, as written and espoused by FMA leaders, when there isn’t even a common religion or language or cooking style among the Philippines? 3) Were “death matches” still going on in the Philippines? If so, how is everyone still alive? 4) Does FMA comes from Malaysia or Spain or are they indigenous to the Philippines? And so on… I wanted to know so much more than this, too. So, I looked to Draeger’s three books on Indonesia as a guide and began researching and writing. I have since written five FMA books, with a few more coming in 2021.
MAYTT: Last year, Tambuli Media finished production of a movie you wrote and produced, Made in Chinatown; the company’s first feature production. Has movie making always been a dream of yours and was the undertaking anything like you dreamt? Do you foresee Tambuli Media venturing into another film in the near future?
MW: I have always wanted to write a kung-fu movie. Growing up watching Shaw Brothers films on weekends and reading books all week and training, I had so many ideas. But I couldn’t write until much later. After I saw a film called The Crying Game and another called Shanghai Express, I knew for sure I wanted to write a film and it didn’t have to be martial arts, but show a side of human nature. I had an idea in 1999, and it wasn’t until eighteen years later that Made in Chinatown was filmed.
What a long road and tough ride it was. I worked with three professional script editors and coverage readers and then could not find an agent to represent it or a studio to look at it. Finally, I was able to raise money and cast a bunch of actors, who loved the film. Making this film was one of the dreams of my life, and also one of the worst experiences I have ever had. But in the end, I made great new friends, we won seven awards, and it has opened the door to more projects.
I wrote another kung-fu script set in 1904 called Dragon Letters, which is going into production in the Spring. It stars Lo Meng and Lu Feng, Charng Shan, and a bunch of newer actors. It will shoot in Malaysia and in Chinese, with subtitles for the West.
I am also in development with two more feature films and two television series for 2021. Long story short, yes Tambuli will remain active in film! But also keep publishing books.
MAYTT: It is amazing how you expanded Tambuli Media into different industries! What initially drew you to Eskrima opposed to other martial arts? Was Eskrima your first martial art or did you have prior experience in other styles?
MW: I actually began in Taekwondo. I was a big fan of martial arts movies and thus in all kinds of martial arts, and used to save my allowance as a kid and do odd jobs and wash dishes at restaurants to earn money to buy martial arts magazines and books. This has been my passion for forty-two years! When I saw a photograph of Angel Cabales in Dan Inosanto’s book The Filipino Martial Arts, I knew I wanted to learn FMA.
In addition to Eskrima, I also trained heavily in Ngo Cho Kun, Wing Chun, Savate, Wrestling, Jeet Kune Do, Silat, and others. But over time, you realize too many arts makes for a Jack of All Trades. So, I decided to focus on just FMA and Ngo Cho (Fujian Five Ancestor Boxing).
MAYTT: In your many years of training Eskrima and other Filipino martial arts, you have had the chance to train under many respective masters. Who would you say had the most impact on you and why?
MW: I have been fortunate to study directly under about thirty FMA teachers in the US and in the Philippines. My personal method is based on the influence of seven specific teachers, more than any others.
- The fundamental strikes, blocks, and locks of Remy Presas
- The tight maneuvering and reflex training of Angel Cabales
- The stroke training and disarming concepts of Herminio Binas
- The progressive joint locks and strikes of Florendo Visitacion
- The double sticks and merging methods of Ramiro Estalilla
- The power strikes and limb control of Benjamin Luna Lema
- The timing and sword techniques of Antonio Ilustrisimo
MAYTT: I see. You are the founder of the system Integrated Eskrima. What motivated you to form your own method of training Eskrima? What do you feel sets your system apart from other styles and forms of Eskrima?
MAYTT: When creating your own training system, were you confronted with any opposition from peer practitioners or even from masters you personally worked with?
MW: The master encouraged it. After all, they all did the same thing. It is always one’s contemporaries that take issue with change, and believing a White Boy could create a new Asian art. Well, again, I created nothing new, only developed a way to look at the art, train and teach it. All the techniques can be found in other FMA.
MAYTT: What were some of the most valuable or most memorable lessons you recall from your mentorship under so many great masters? Were all those lessons learned specific to the mat or have several overflowed into your daily life?
MW: The greatest lesson I learned early on from my Taekwondo master, Byung Yul Kwak and his assistant Jim Strong, was to keep practicing, that repetition was needed to perfect every kick and form. This concept of not giving up, of going again and again, has been the driving force in my life: in writing books, publishing, movies, everything. You can achieve your dreams even with less talent than others, by persisting, practicing, revising, doing again and again.
From Angel Cabales I learned the necessity of proper form. His Eskrima is very precise because his weapon is shorter than most FMA weapons, and his blocks and counters are tighter. So, there is less room for error. One time, he trained me again and again in “cross block” against “angle six” for two hours until it was perfect. Do it again, again, again. He was getting so tired and so was I, but he instilled in me the need for precision in movement.
Alex Co taught me the essence of internal training in kung-fu. That is, the importance of timing breath and movement with intention. How to remain relaxed while your movements are rooted and strong. And how to self-correct by understanding the proper body mechanic behind every movement and posture. He was also a scholar, historian, and wrote many books and articles. He was my mentor and master but also like a big brother. I miss him dearly.
Antonio Ilustrisimo taught me how not to fear a sharp sword coming at me. He said fear is why the art fails. He would have me stand back against a tree or wall and swing his rusty, nicked-up pinute sword at my body and face. He would say, “Don’t move or you’ll get cut and die.” I knew if his blade didn’t penetrate my body the rust would give me tetanus! I learned how to walk into the blade, around the blade, to touch the blade and not fear it. Respect it and know it. I have never feared it again and my FMA improved a thousand-fold for that experience.
There are other mentors that have left their mark, too, including my dear friends GMs Robert Chu, Rene Navarro, and Russ Smith also inspires me all the time. They continue learning new arts, new skills, reading, researching, testing, practicing. It truly is a life work. I try always to be open minded and humble on my journey and I am grateful for everyone and all they share with me.
MAYTT: That is amazing how many have influenced you on your journey. Given such major shifts in the martial arts over the last twenty years, those that have an interest to train are gravitating more towards modern sports and combat arts such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts, especially within the American traditional martial art communities. Where do you see Ekrima fitting into the bigger picture?
MW: Honestly, I don’t really think about it. We are talking about marketing and perception. These have nothing to do with training and developing. Back in the day, there were very few schools, and most of the rare arts were so hard to find, like FMA and Ngo Cho. These past twenty years the commercial schools have flourished, which barely resemble traditional martial arts, and many traditional schools closed. Now MMA is big, like Taekwondo and JKD were in the past. What we clearly learn from MMA is that practitioners need to stop living in fantasy land, must practice hard, and they must be athletic (especially if they want to compete against MMA). The difference is MMA guys are athletes who train hard, can take a shot, and strike hard, and have endurance. Before MMA, there was JKD, and Kyokushin-kai, then Sabaki… all styles that hit hard and trained hard. Now there is MMA. What they are doing is not new, they are just in your face about it.
Look, most traditional arts were not meant for the masses. They were taught in small clubs to limited students. I am glad to see them returning to this. You can see so much has been lost over the decades of mass instruction and seminars.
MAYTT: Do you see MMA and BJJ as the catalyst that so many practitioners claim as the reason for the decline in people’s interest towards traditional martial arts? Could it be something else that is affecting this interest?
MW: I don’t see this as the case at all. Boxing and kickboxing are viewed as more ‘real’ than traditional arts, through their full contact ring competition. But neither reduced the interest in traditional arts. MMA and BJJ don’t either simply, because most people work and don’t want to get beat up in the ring all the time for training. And the body can’t last into old age with so much punishment. These are spectator sports, and trained by those who would be athletes and fighters, nonetheless.
I think traditional martial arts declined with the change of schools from traditional (where kids and adults trained together), to the new generic kid class clubs, where almost no adults care to be. The discipline, hardship, training, failing of exams, is no longer there in many of the commercial schools, and so there are few places to find traditional arts. They are back to home gyms and backyard training. I think this is good to reassess.
MAYTT: I see. Is there anything we can do about it? Are there things – obvious things – we as practitioners are overlooking that would allow such styles and systems to begin to thrive again? Can traditional martial arts survive long-term with such low numbers in your opinion?
MW: I have the same vision for traditional martial arts as I do for Tambuli. Find a few authors/students and train them well/develop their work, to then become the new standard for the arts to influence the next generation. My late Sifu Alex Co only had a few disciples, and I have six, and each of them will have a few and in thirty years the art is solid again. Build the foundation, forget about commercializing, not all students are dedicated to becoming a disciple, and things take time. It’s not about numbers, but quality. Don’t give up.
MAYTT: Final question. We as a society continue to journey further and further into a digital existence, where do you see Tambuli Media ten to fifteen years from now? How do you see it flowing with the times?
MW: I am not sure. I struggle with the nature of eBooks. I prefer printed books because you can see them on your shelf, read in bed, underline, and bend pages. Digital books are ok, but you have to remember you have them and need the electronic device to read them. All the EMF (electro-smog) in your hands at all times via phones and tablets is unhealthy.
The real reason the martial art books have slipped is because of YouTube. Everyone is giving their arts away, for free 24/7, so now no one needs to pay to see them or learn about them. I am not sure where we will be, but perhaps a resurgence in traditional arts will bring about more sales in another two decades. In the meantime, perhaps a film will become a blockbuster and make it so we can publish books without counting sales.
Time will tell, but we’ve made an impact already.
MAYTT: Thank you again, Dr. Wiley, for talking about Tambuli Media and your martial arts journey!
MW: Thank you for inviting me; it was fun!