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About Chee Soo

Chee Soo interviewed on BBC One in 1973.

Posted by Taoist Cultural Arts Association on Wednesday, 10 June 2015


Early years

Chee Soo was born on 19th June 1919 in Marylebone, London. His father Ah Chee Soo who was Chinese was a chef at the Westminster restaurant, his mother who was English was called Beatrice Soo. Chee Soo became an orphan, and in 1926 at the age of 7 entered the care of the Barnardo's orphanage in Stepney. He left school at fourteen and worked as a page boy in a nursing home in Earl's Court, a job he didn't particularly enjoy.

On his day off one Sunday he was playing in Hyde Park when he met an elderly gentleman who was Chinese, an importer-exporter named Chan Kam Lee 李陈金.

Chee Soo gave some insight into these early days when he was interviewed on the Brian Hayes show in 1977:

"It's rather curious, by a very strange coincidence, probably another Chinese fairy tale really. When I left Doctor Barnardo homes at fourteen years of age I became a page boy in Earl's Court in a nursing home, and I used to go over to Hyde Park and have a kick around on my day off on Sundays, and I happened to be playing with my ball when my ball actually hit the back of the head of a gentleman sitting on a park bench....

He was sitting there, just sitting there very quietly, and I went over to retrieve my ball, and I came up to the front of him to apologize, and I saw he was Chinese, and we got talking and he was an importer/exporter, very much alone he had no family, and I was of course actually an orphan and having no family of my own, and the friendship gradually grew and grew, and till eventually in actual fact after many meetings he invited me to his club in Holborn, Red Lion Square, which he had a little club meeting three or four times a week, and from then on I practiced under him almost continuously. "

Chan Lee was a trader who was born in Weihaiwei in Shandong in China and who was trading in gemstones between Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and London. In 1930 he had set up offices in London in Holborn, the centre of the world diamond trade at the time and near the jewellery quarter in London's Hatton Garden.

In the summer of 1934 Chee Soo was invited to train at Chan Lee's class in Holborn which met three or four times a week, it was a private class for a few of his collegues. Chan Lee was without a family so he informally adopted Chee Soo as his nephew, and so Chee Soo began his path of learning the Taoist Arts.

Military career.

Chee Soo was working as a merchant seaman in the Mediterranean when he decided to enlist in the British Army in October 1936 under his mother's maiden name of Gibbs. During leave from his training he would stay with his friend the author Sir Rupert Croft-Cooke at his flat in London, and is mentioned in several of his books, in fact he even wrote a short story about him which was published in a newspaper in India.

Chee joined the second battalion of the Royal Tank regiment and fought in Northern France returning to Britain in 1940 where he was married to his first wife Gwendolyn. His unit was part of the legendary Desert Rats, and in Libya in 1941 as part of Operation Compass, Chee Soo was awarded the military medal for his exploits as a tank commander. During this battle the British tanks were outnumbered ten to one, and through the courage and tenacity of the British troops the Italians were forced to surrender. Soon after this he was posted to Burma, and at the Battle of Yenanyaung - protecting British and Chinese troops who were destoying an oilfield to prevent it falling into the hands of the advancing Japanese - Chee was captured on 19th April 1942. The remainder of the war was spent as a POW on the Burma Death railway as part of a working party. He was to attempt to escape five times and frequently engaged in sabotaging enemy communications. He suffered solitary confinement, torture and beatings, by his own account he was staked out in the sun and eventually sentenced to death by firing squad only to have the sentence postponed due to an Allied air raid. After three years imprisonment he managed to escape with the company of a Gurkha who helped him survive in the jungle for a month until they managed to get behind Allied lines in the Shan mountains of West Burma. At this point he weighed only six stone and had to be put on triple rations, he was discharged from the services and was designated a war crimes witness, eventually he was flown back to England to be reunited with his wife.

Teaching the Taoist Arts.

Chee Soo set up his own club teaching the Taoist Arts in Manor Road school in West Ham. After Chan Lee died, Chee Soo became the head of the Association. In subsequent years Chee Soo went on to teach Feng Shou kung fu, T'ai Chi Ch'uan, K'ai Men qigong, and the Taoist Health Arts in clubs he established around Britain and in Commonwealth countries and throughout the world.

In the 1960's Chee had become well known in London and one of his students was Ray Austin the fight arranger and later director for The Avengers cult TV series. Chee Soo, Ray Austin and Dame Diana Rigg were awarded the Guinness world record as the first people to show kung fu on TV to western audiences, this was seven years before Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu boom of the 1970's. The Avengers was shown in more then eighty countries worldwide, a publicity photo taken in 1967 shows Chee Soo with Diana Rigg and Ray Austin.

A Movietone newsreel documentary film taken in 1970 at the University of Surrey shows Chee Soo giving a demonstration of Chi Shu, a Chinese Martial Art similar to Aikido, which he taught under the auspices of the British Wushu Association. At this point in time Chee Soo's Association had more than 2000 students in Britain. He was one of the few people recognised by the Beijing masters and authorised to teach Wushu outside China.

During the 1970s as well as teaching classes, Chee Soo also ran a herbal clinic in London.

In 1973 Chee Soo and his daughter Lavinia made an appearance on the BBC One television programme Nationwide where he demonstrated Feng Shou Kung Fu to presenter Bob Wellings in the studio giving practical demonstrations of the power of internal energy or Chi. He also talked about the history of Chinese Martial Arts.

In 1974 he wrote "Teach yourself Kung Fu", and in 1976 he wrote his T'ai Chi book followed by Chinese Yoga (1977) and the Tao of Long Life (1979).

In 1977 he was interviewed on the Brian Hayes radio show on LBC and talked about T'ai Chi Ch'uan, his meeting with Chan Lee, and some of the background to Taoist spiritual views such as reincarnation. By this time Chee Soo's Association had grown to be the biggest in the United Kingdom. At this time during the Cultural Revolution in China, Chee Soo's group was one of the most prominent groups teaching Taoist Arts in the world. Today we are more familiar with Chinese Martial Arts and Taoist cultivation techniques but at this time China was not open to the West. Even in China these kinds of techniques were not shown publicly and were only available through joining secret societies and study Associations in mainland China and the Chinese diaspora. Chan Lee and Chee Soo were some of the pioneers in teaching the Taoist Arts openly outside China.

In 1978 Patrick Kelly an author and T'ai Chi teacher from Australia visited Chee Soo's Kai Men Qigong club in London and wrote an account of the meeting in his book Infinite Dao, also published on Patrick's website.

In 1982 Chee Soo moved to Coventry in the West Midlands and established a new group of teachers, it was to be his last. He finished writing his series of training manuals about the Lee style Taoist Arts and visited many of his clubs around the world. He now had five paperbacks - which were updated versions of his earlier hardback books - published by the Aquarian Press (an imprint of HarperCollins) which became best sellers and were published in several languages across the world. There was a new book added to the range "The Taoist Ways of Healing" detailing the Eight strands of the Brocade or the various techniques of Chinese medicine and health care. He also wrote a book about Taoist philosophy called "The Tao of My Thoughts" which was intended as a practical guide to philosophy and living life as a Taoist, but this was never published during his lifetime. (It was eventually published in 2006 by Seahorse Books). In 1990 he married his second wife Marilyn who was the secretary of the Association, he taught a club in the Alderman Callow School in Canley near his home in Charter Avenue and also had a club in Leamington Spa at the Oddfellows Hall in Warwick Street. At the school in Canley he taught weekend courses and also had an Easter and Summer Course each year.

They moved to Ebbw Vale in Wales where Chee Soo died in 1994 aged 75.

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