End of Watch: Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine 1999-2020

What a sad way to go. In the Kung Fu movies, people die heroically, fighting off hordes of Manchus or Triad gangs, in a glorious sanguineous splatter splash. But Kung Fu Tai Chi died because the world got sick.

The demise of Kung Fu Tai Chi had been coming for over a decade. Print magazine publishing, especially for niche mags like ours, is a dying art. Now, it is completely dead to me. I’ve been involved with print publishing since I was a teenager. But even twenty years ago, soon after I began publishing full-time for a living, I could already see that the end was inevitable. I began saying ‘print publishing is like making dinosaur saddles.’ In the world of social media and smart phones, the harsh reality is that publishing a print magazine sits well within my arsenal of obsolete skills, right up there with knowing how to sword fight.

1997 December+January featured my first article in Kung Fu Tai Chi (then Kungfu Wushu Qigong). The article was ‘Radical Taiji’ on Sun Style.

I started freelance writing back in 1991 and took a full-time position with Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine in 1999. I had written several articles for the magazine before taking the position, starting from 1997, and continued freelancing until I accepted the position there. Back then, the newsstands were still fat. The internet was just beginning (KungFuMagazine.com was launched in 2001). When I joined the team, Kung Fu Tai Chi went monthly through the duration of 2000, distributing some 60,000 copies per issue. But even then, the writing was on the wall. The mega-bookstores were crushing out the indie newsstands and everyone in the industry knew that they would inevitably only to fold themselves. The profit margin for booksellers is low, so to discount it even more for a big box store was doomed to failure. It was slash-and-burn capitalism, designed for a quick profit with no forethought of the future, leaving a burnt out wasteland in its wake.

I accepted the position with Kungfu Wushu Qigong for the December 1999 issue but it was not announced at first. It was covert – ninja style.

After killing all the indie bookstores, the mega-bookstores collapsed under their own bloat, reducing literacy in America to whatever online store offering the search engines spit up. Gone are the hours spent perusing potential reads within the quiet sanctity of a good bookstore. Kids today, they just don’t know. For niche mags like Kung Fu Tai Chi, those mega-bookstores offered mega-newsstands for a few years, but then came that slash-and-burn that obliterated them completely, leaving nothing but an illiterate scarred earth.

My position was announced in a special issue, the 2000 Shaolin Temple Special.

On top of that, the internet was taking over. In the year 2009, some three hundred magazines folded. Distributors were consolidating. Newsstands were dwindling. The industry was collapsing. Our print orders decreased with every issue – sometimes just by a dozen or so, other times by a few hundred. It was the death of a thousand cuts. And each one hurt.

The 10 Year Anniversary issue in 2002 was unique. It documented the progression of the magazine and the history of the advancement of Martial Arts in America. I worked closely with Senior Graphic Designer Patrick Lugo to bring this issue to life. His work on the layout of this issue was spectacular. It remains one of my favorites for content (and extraordinary snapshot of martial arts progress at the time) and design.

The pandemic shut down the remaining newsstand sales across the nation. Grocery stores stayed open, but those newsstands aren’t big enough to support niche mags, and everyone was hunting for toilet paper anyway (magazine paper stock makes terrible toilet paper because it’s not absorbent or soft, just in case you’re wondering). Barnes & Noble, one of the largest surviving distributors of niche magazines in the nation, closed over 500 of their 600 stores. And by April, they announced that they would no longer be ordering new magazines and would cease carrying them altogether. It was the last nail in the Kung Fu Tai Chi coffin.

All of the Shaolin Specials were favorites of mine. The 2004 July+August was especially cherished because I was able to place my master Shi Decheng on the cover.

It was a great run. I’m enormously proud of what we achieved over the years. And it was one of the best mediums I’ve ever had to express myself. I am forever grateful to Tiger Claw for affording the opportunity and honored to have served the martial arts community in this capacity. What saddens me (aside from me and my team losing our jobs) is that I’m leaving a ton of backburner projects at Kung Fu Tai Chi – articles and videos in development, products I was designing, so many projects that may never see the light of day now.

Another favorite issue was the 2005 January+February – the Sword Collector’s Issue. It distilled my love of swords and showcased some magnificent aspects of Chinese ancient cold arms. The Chinese Martial Arts has an extraordinary arsenal, and yet few knew about the historic and archaeologic weaponry that remains.

Despite its decline, I will always love print magazines. After twenty years of print publishing, I cannot look at a magazine like a normal person. I examine at the binding and layout. I analyze the overall composition, the juxtaposition of content and advertising, the flow of articles into one another, so many factors that people outside the publishing industry overlook. There can be art to every aspect of a magazine. This publisher’s eye will probably never leave me. I’ll always look at magazines for innovations I might poach out of reflex, even though it’s useless to me now, again, just like my sword fighting skills.

The 2016 January+February showcased Into the Badlands, which I covered extensively on KungFuMagazine.com. AMC took me on the set near Dublin twice and I became personal friends with the lead, Daniel Wu. Daniel graciously attended our 25th Anniversary Gala in 2017.

And while I respect the immediacy, economy, plasticity and democracy of web publishing, there’s just something tangible about a magazine. You can hold in your hands and leaf through it at your leisure. It reminds me of when digital playlists supplanted cassette tapes. I used to mix cassette tapes for friends (particularly girlfriends) and I composed those with a specific underlying structure. There’s an order to analog. You have to get through each song to get to the next, either by listening to it or fast forwarding through it. With a digital playlist, you can just skip to whatever track you want. That eviscerates any effort to program intentionally. Print magazines have this same quality. You must leaf through the pages to get where you’re going. You can’t just click ‘find’. It’s a journey and often, the little side trips are the best part.

Another favorite cover was Ray Park on our 2016 July+August issue. We met for drinks at a Comic-con, and what was meant to be an hour-long interview went late into the night. I got to show off my Star Wars nerd fandom in the Cover Story with my knowledge of Darth Maul.

Make no mistake. Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine is done. Fans have been asking if there is any way to save it, but that opportunity is long past. We did everything in our power to try to keep it going. It was our full-time job so all those offhand suggestions I’ve been getting, while with the best intentions, have already been explored. We kept Kung Fu Tai Chi going long after it was financially viable. Over the last few years, my only hope was that some entrepreneur like Jack Ma would finance it as a personal project. But that was just a dream, like winning the lottery.

At this writing, I’m not sure what I’ll do next. I’ve picked up a few freelance gigs here and there and am exploring a few offers. It’s like returning to being a Ronin after two decades of serving a lord as a Samurai. Many friends, colleagues and even strangers who call themselves my friends on social media, have offered suggestions, and a few have even brought me some promising leads. I’m grateful of that outpouring of grief but it is already fading into memory, like everything on the news cycle nowadays. Things are so fleeting and there are plenty of other topics to fill the newsfeeds, especially now with the pandemic and riots. The death of Kung Fu Tai Chi feels inconsequential when compared to the big picture.

One of my more recent favorites was our 2019 Fall cover feature. This was the first American magazine to put Iko Uwais on the cover. We had many first American covers like Jet Li, Donnie Yen, the Abbot of Shaolin Temple Venerable Shi Yongxin. I’m proud that we were able to continue that tradition up until the very end.

Some suggestions that I’ve been receiving for future endeavors have been dumb. That sounds critical – people are just trying to help and I am grateful for the gesture. However being in the martial world for so long has made me jaded, but some of the suggestions were absurdly tone deaf. As I know I’m not the only one out of work, I offer these examples as advice to those advisors. Often, it’s better to just be present with the suffering of others. Don’t offer solutions when you don’t have a decent grasp of the problems.

Apparently a lot of people think I should become an internet influencer, as if anyone can just start making a living doing that so easily. I’m told I should make YouTube videos or a podcast, but that takes so much time and effort to get off the ground. It’s in part why I launched this blog. Now I don’t have any delusions that this blog will blow up into my living. On the day I launched it, I instantly picked up about 50 subscribers. Now, I have over a 100. I’ll just need about 19,900 more to become that influencer. Seriously, to become enough of an influencer to make a living off it isn’t as simple as so many make it out to be or we’d all do it. So many of the people that have suggested this only have a few dozen followers to their own social media. It’s like those armchair critics of MMA fighters, as if they knew anything about what it takes to step in the cage. Internet influencer indeed. It won’t matter how many injections I get in my butt, I’ll never be a Kardashian. Honestly if I had that kind of popularity, the magazine might have had a bigger following, enough to survive the pandemic. I worked Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, even MySpace under the KungFuMagazine.com banner for years. And even though we built up sizable followings across all those platforms, it’s still wasn’t enough to cover the bills to keep the print magazine alive.

Someone suggested that I start a non-profit magazine. A old friend even suggested I found a non-profit museum. Having worked for several non-profits, plus all of the aforementioned magazine publishing work, that was one of the suggestions where the suggester was sincere, but had no idea whatsoever. No, I’m done with print publishing. Like I said at the start, it’s an obsolete skill and it’s long past time for me to let that go. After twenty years, launching a new job search during the highest unemployment since the Great Depression is very daunting, but at least I’m not alone.

Another suggestion is that I should write another book. I published my first book Shaolin Trips in 2010 and it took me years to write. It’s really a compilation of my Shaolin research – I wanted to index my work so I could reference it easily. Shaolin Trips was published through TC Media International, and while I did make some money on it, it wasn’t enough to make a living.

Shaolin Trips – my first book.

Although when the Shelter-in-Place hit, I did start working on two other book ideas that have been on my backburner for ages. One of the book ideas hit a wall quickly. It’s a thinly-disguised fictional work that would allow me to recount my adventures in Psychedelic Crisis response within the music industry, one that skirted HIPPA because it would be fantasy. The names would be changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty). But it needs a lot of work before it might be something that I could submit to a publisher.

The other book is a collection of martial essays. I didn’t get that far into it before I got laid off. At that point, I lost a lot of momentum for it. Maybe I’ll keep working on it as I look for work. Maybe I’ll cut it up and just publish it here. Right now, I’m too distracted by my search for a new source of income in the wake of the pandemic to invest in working on writing another book. Both projects went back to the backburner.

There’s a nagging inclination to leave the martial world professionally. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll always practice martial arts. That’s my life and my passion. If I don’t punch, kick or swing a sword regularly, I get irritable. When I took my vows as a Shaolin Disciple, some monks charged me with the task of bringing Shaolin to America. And while I may continue with that mission, I feel I’ve met that commitment well enough already. No other Shaolin disciple can claim what I achieved for the cause.

It’s quite different when you make your entire living in the martial arts like I have for the last 30+ years. It’s hard to explain to those who haven’t been here. Sometimes I just want to practice Kung Fu, and not have to be thinking about reporting on it or monetizing it. I live in a seaside town in a century-old beach bungalow. There’s a part of me that yearns for a simpler life as a beach bum. Time will tell.

Our final newsstand issue, the Spring 2020. This was a strong issue and I am happy that we were able to end on a solid one.

For now, I’ve agreed to help Tiger Claw perpetuate KungFuMagazine.com, and plan to still publish there. But at this point, this won’t be enough to support my family. KungFuMagazine.com relies solely upon the financial success of MartialArtSmart.com because that funds the website, the forum and the associated social media. KungFuMagazine.com has an archive of over 800 exclusive articles and nearly 170 cover stories, so if you want continued free access to all of that (as well as me writing there) support MartialArtSmart.com. Kung Fu Tai Chi would have survived a little longer if MartialArtSmart.com had more financial support. Please don’t let KungFuMagazine.com go the same way.

Maybe I’ll reemerge with when the martial arts tournaments reopen. I truly hope another Tiger Claw Elite KungFuMagazine.com Championship happens, but who knows what the state of large gatherings will be on the other side of the pandemic? I made so many friends through my career in the Martial Arts, many very dear friends, and tournaments served as major social gatherings for all of us. I really look forward to when we can reunite.

Until that time

Be well.

3 thoughts on “End of Watch: Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine 1999-2020

  1. Thank you Gene for all you have done to bring the true kung fu and tai chi to the public, and preserve the tradition, while striking out to see and report on the trials and tribulations of bringing things into the 21st century. Like one of my three teachers, Master Jeff Bolt, you are a pioneer. As someone who truly has loved and practiced the Chinese martial arts for 43 years, I sincerely thank you. I was out of work for 14 months, as a management consultant since at my age most energy firms will not perm hire anyone over 60, but found a contract in February for a few months. Teaching martial arts virtually, and practicing after two knee replacements, has made me realize again the love for martial arts. It is a constant, always. Please be well, your next great adventure will come, and I am sure we will here again how you changed the world in your own way. Thank you again, with honor, peace, and respect.

    Liked by 2 people

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