Rigel Ng is the president of the Pan Historical European Martial Arts Society (PHEMAS) in Singapore. In this conversation we cover a lot of ground, from military service to establishing your training goals. The Society was founded in 2005 by Greg Galistan and Chris Blakey, who spent a month training 24/7 in my salle in Helsinki, and I've taught there many times since, so it's especially gratifying to me to see the next generation pick up the torch and run with it.
GW: Hello, everyone. This is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I'm here today with Rigel Ng of the Pan Historical European Martial Arts Society in Singapore, which I have a longstanding relationship with. And without further ado, let's get on with the interview, so Rigel to welcome to the show.
RN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
GW: You're very welcome. Now, you are in Singapore at the moment.
RN: Yes, so like every other part of the world it's still locked down, we can’t really go anywhere else. I’m pretty much stuck here for the time being.
GW: Well, there are many worse places in the world to be stuck.
RN: Oh, yeah.
GW: Okay. So what made you want to start historical martial arts and how did that actually happen?
RN: From a young age I was already pretty interested in any kind of fighting arts. Usually the custom in Singapore is that most parents would send their kids to a martial arts class like taekwondo, karate, more of the wushu martial arts, because it builds character, like other things. But I wasn't really an outdoors kid. I was pretty much very sheltered. I rarely went outdoors. I'd go to school, hang out for a while, and then I'd go home. But I was always very fascinated with the fighting arts, mainly due to television, film, pop culture. And I grew up with those kind of films. And I always had this dream, or more correctly a fantasy, that I would one day wield a sword as formidably and as well as the characters that I admired.
GW: What characters? Who were your role models?
RN: Well, I grew up with Star Wars. So definitely Luke Skywalker was one. I grew up with Lord of the Rings as well. So there was a lot of fantasy influence. As well as anime, but anime was relatively brief, but it released the feel and the esoteric qualities of learning some ancient art that, you know, no one is familiar with today. But, you know, with all that, I was very into the philosophy and the ethos of how you learn the martial art and what kind of implication it has on our daily life in our society. So I was very much interested in martial arts in that aspect, not so much the actual physical training, because back then I wasn't really a physical kid. And I knew what I wanted. I wanted to learn sportsmanship specifically. I wasn't really keen on the unarmed stuff or any of the more mainstream sports, martial arts. I wanted to learn how would you use a weapon in a situation where you have to survive. And so I could not find anything that appealed to me. The closest was Kendo. My father also encouraged me very much to pursue Kendo, but the moment I kind of delved into it, the moment I found out how hard the sport was being practiced, it kind of turned me off because it wasn't about the physical or tactical advantage, it was more of the spirit and the principles of the of the swordsmanship. Which is a great thing, but it wasn’t what I was interested in. I was very interested in film, I was very interested in the film and fight choreography. So that's what I did. I just basically took a few of my favorite films and I analyzed the choreography. I tried to do a choreography of my own. I roped a few friends into it. Usually we tried with sticks, if not stick-like objects or sword-like objects, and then we try to find out why we would move in a certain way, whether we had it, whether it be at an aesthetic factor or whether it be a functional factor. And it was really interesting because what we did back then was that every Saturday afternoon we'd go to a nearby park or something and we would do something called “stick bashing”. Basically we didn't have any martial arts training at that time, so we were just basically playing around with sticks. And we called this stick bashing because we would not choreograph anything and we would try to experiment how would someone try to offend someone or try to defend someone without any prior martial arts knowledge.
GW: The reason I'm laughing is because that's exactly what I was doing when I was twelve.
RN: Right, exactly. Because there isn't a lot of material. Well, there wasn't a lot of material in the first place that you can find out about swordsmanship, apart from the catalogues and stuff about the actual artefacts, but not very much about how they used them or how did they hold it, all those king of things. So we carried this on for a few years. We also experimented in some films, where we would to get the most aesthetic movements or aesthetic angles in which these moves were done. And then I went on to study visual effects in film. And that was when the same friend that I was doing this with, he came across this club, basically the club that I run now. And he came across this club and he told me it's pretty much what we do, except that it has a historical context. So I immediately was like, okay, there's an actual thing going on right now. And it's not like Kendo or it's not like the very mainstream, very popular stuff. So at first, being the being the sheltered kid that I am, my first thought was, is it safe? Because it sounds like a deadly martial art. And it is. Because you are instructed to, by all means try to maim, kill or disable your opponent in the quickest and most efficient way. And even though you are doing it in a very controlled environment and in a very safe environment, accidents do happen as anyone who practices martial arts can tell you. I had heard a lot of myths and misconceptions on martial training, for example, especially in Kendo in training, you hold a sword that is twice the weight of a normal sword to practice, you know, and all sorts of really interesting in-depth questions like that. And basically, he was very systematic in telling me that pretty much almost practically all of them are not true to a certain extent, and this is the way we do things. You know, we don't really use swords that are heavier.
GW: So who was this you were talking to?
RN: So this is my good friend, Jonathan Lo. He got me into HEMA. Unfortunately, he's not practicing now. He's more of a collector than a practitioner now. So that's pretty much how I got into it. I went for the first lesson and the first lesson was Fiore longsword. So a lot of the preconceptions of martial arts were broken. And then when I went for my first lesson, a lot of the preconceptions of movement in martial arts was broken because, as you know, Fiore is extremely physical. And he doesn't try to put focus on the aesthetic of what you're doing. He just says this is what you want to do, do it.
GW: He doesn't discuss the display aspect. It’s still present, but he doesn't discuss it.
RN: It is present. And even though it's present, it's also very different from anything that we see in popular culture, or in film and television. It was like stepping into a dream, you know, it was like, OK, this is what this guy who lived six hundred years before says to do with the sword. And you look at the text, you interpret the text, and then you come up with a good interpretation of the movements and the principles that he was trying to convey. And I think that was that was it for me. The rest is pretty much history after that. Literally. I could not think of anything else because it is quite literally what I imagine if I would have trained as, I don't know, a Jedi, or someone who was training as a martial artist or a fighter, because not only he discusses the physical movements of the hurt, he discusses how you should deal with an opponent, what the psychology of it is. What the ethos of it is, whether you should subject this kind of art to someone unjustly in any sense. And he also doesn't shy away from the from the reality of it. One of the things he says is if you do this thing, you'll just immediately knock out four teeth of your opponent. And it's just so matter of fact that it's so different from any other any other martial art I've so far come across because it's just practical. It's just a professional use of violence. There's nothing mystical about it. You know, you are just trying to get away from anyone who offends you or you're just trying to stop them from offending you. And I felt that was extremely attractive. It was attractive in a sense that you're not showing off. There is no evangelism of violence. It’s just, OK, he's going to offend you. You do what you can to not be offended or you do what you can to stop that. And that was something that resonated with me because usually it’s very common in people who want to be in martial arts there is this perception of this art being superior or this art being better than other contemporary arts of its time. And of course, you do have that in Fiore. He tells you that this is superior. And, you know, if you are inept in this, then you will surely be the victim.
But it's just some something about it was very appealing to me. And it also showed the virtue that he held in reverence. And I feel that it is something that usually all martial arts have - this approach of discovering a thing, discovering how to move, how to act, how to behave, what the thought process is and the moment you catch yourself acting on ego or you're acting in pride or acting in any other way that does not reflect your true nature, then you have to do some introspection on yourself. And usually this is not really touched in our society, in modern society, because you know who is fighting for their lives in such a situation anyway? So it just really interested me in the way that I can explore these ideas and I can explore these implications without being in a life or death situation. Because I wouldn't know what it is to fight for my life. There are very few people who would know what would that feel like. And, you know, what would you be thinking? Whether you do the right thing, whether in that moment of desperation, would you run? Will you fight? Would you commit murder? And all these things are very central to what we practice, because if we just pick upon the preconception that we're just doing this for fun, which is generally what we're doing. There’s nothing wrong with doing it for fun. But I feel like there is a certain sense of responsibility we should take that these techniques are meant to kill. They're meant to harm. And if you just do it for fun, that's great. But you need to know that you're doing it for fun. You can’t just say that, oh, yeah, I'm just doing it for fun so it doesn't really matter. You need to be conscious about that. You need to make sure that you're conscious about the fact that you're doing it for fun. Or be conscious about the fact that you're learning this because of another reason, you know, to be educational.
GW: It helps to be very clear about your motivations for practice. You must be you must be familiar with Greg Galistan, who founded the club back in 2005. Greg is one of those students and friends who has a whole lot of experience in real world violence because he was a police officer. So, you know, many times I’ve been teaching something, I just quietly look out of the corner of my eye at Greg, I look at the expression on his face because if it was bullshit, I could see on his face. So it is very useful to have a kind of cross reference to someone who actually has done proper violence in the real world.
RN: Oh, yeah, definitely. I think Greg is one of the very few people that has been in those situations that has been in the line of operational duty where he has to defend himself or he has to act in some way in some physical sense, where he has to either defend himself or he needs to subdue someone else. And you rarely get that kind of person in any kind of society nowadays because we live in a very peaceful time. And it's great. There's no violence, well, relatively little violence.
GW: And Greg himself is now producing absolutely world class ice cream. He’s gone from being a police officer to an ice cream maker. Talk about leaving the weapons behind and moving on to a more peaceful field, what could be more peaceful than making ice cream?
RN: Exactly right. And I feel especially in Singapore, although I'm sure in other parts of the world, you do have some sort of conflict going on anywhere in every part of the world. In Singapore, the males here, basically it is compulsory for us to do our national service, which is to enlist in the army, basically defend the nation. In the course of two years we do get involved in real life operations, although most of the time these operations are meant to deter other security operations. So we do not see the kind of frontline violence.
GW: So you’ve done your military service?
RN: Yeah, I've done my military service. I was lucky enough to be pretty much in the equivalent of the SAS in Singapore. So what we do is that, if it ever comes to war, we basically have the same mission profile as the SAS or in America, the Marines, I think, because we a heliborne and we are a seaborne infantry regiment. So in that sense, we are also put into a situation where the tension is high, the stress is high. The only difference is that it's an exercise. You know, it's still an exercise, you know, even up to that point where you're at the border of a very high stress situation, it's still an exercise. So, you know that there is always that little bit of you that tells you that you know what? Your life is not really in danger. It's OK. So even then, even in such a stressful situation, we are not able to understand what it is really like to fire a weapon, a live weapon, and to take someone's life, or to defend your life from someone. So I feel with martial arts it's a question that definitely comes up to every serious martial artist. Apart from doing it for fun or doing it for the lifestyle, doing it for the fitness, why not just, you know, jog? Or why not take up a sport? Because it's the same thing. You do it for the fitness, you do it for the movement. You know, it's good for your health.
GW: There are a lot more efficient ways of getting fit and strong than doing martial arts. You can just do the fitness training and the strength training and not bother with all the fighty stuff.
RN: Yeah. Like the techniques and the history. It’s really what appeals to you and you have to understand why that appeals to you. So if I have a student who comes up to me and if I ask him, you know, why are you doing martial arts? And he says, oh, it's really fun, I saw Game of Thrones and I thought that wielding a sword would be fun. And it’s great if he was conscious about it. I say, great. Have fun, because that's your goal. But if someone tells me that, OK. I really like the historical aspects and I wonder how would they use these weapons and what was the mindset of people who use these weapons? And I tell them that you'd have to you'd have to go through your own introspection and see how well you react when you are in the middle of using these weapons, even in a situation where it's purely an exercise or whether it’s friendly sparring, but try to figure out or try to be conscious about the mindset that you are in. Because that shows a lot on your intentions or on where your mind is in that moment itself. And I feel like it's such a joy of discovery. Because when I felt that I figured it out, (or rather I'm still figuring it out) I felt that, hey, wait a minute, this is different. You know, I wouldn't be in this situation if I had done this or if I was thinking that or if I had chosen an alternative. And if you think about it enough, you start to have the sudden realization that it's very sincere. I wouldn't say serious, because I think most people confuse sincere with serious. You can practice something sincerely, joyfully and still be sincere about practicing it. And you can be serious about something. And, you know, you can be serious about practicing an art and you'd get nowhere or you wouldn't be in the intended place that you'd want to be in. So I felt that was a very interesting thing for people like us who do HEMA to think about, because it's not just about martial arts, it’s about the ethos, it’s about the ethics. What would you do if you had someone at your mercy? How would that affect you as a person? If you had, I don't know, in the crazy, fantastical situation where you have your sword on some guy's neck, what would your action be? Would you show mercy? Would you take the kill? Why would you take the kill? Why would you show mercy? Is it because of a failure to act or is it because, you know that this is going to be something very grave for you to do. In martial arts this is a question that comes up very, very much, because you do get training incidents. You do get training incidents or accidents where two combatants either get a little bit too hot at each other, or tempers get lost. So things get out of control. And especially, you know, it's dangerous just with unarmed martial arts. We’re talking about armed martial arts where you're fighting with steel or wooden swords, it's still pretty, pretty dangerous. When these things happen, you just have to confront yourself with the fact that why did it happen? Were you really out of control or were you just letting go of your control, you know? And it's a difficult question to ask because we rarely encounter these situations ourselves. And even when we do, it's in a situation or it's in a moment where we are most likely not ourselves. It's in a moment where you suddenly lost your temper. This is obviously friendly sparring, but if, for some reason, the anger just gets the better of you and then you start going at it without even realizing that you're going at it until someone steps in to say, hey, what are you doing? And when you realize you snap out of it. And then you find out that the guy in the mask is my friend. In fact, he's one of my best friends. He's my training partner. And here I am with the intention to actually do some harm to him, right?
RN: The situation suddenly becomes very dense, because then you're trying to unpack all these kind of very heavy, very intense feelings. Then you wonder, why did this happen in the first place? We have all these safety rules. We have all these safety precautions in practice, but it's still happened. And every time it happens, we have to take a review of it. To understand potentially what could happen? Why did it happen? Is it because of the interpersonal relationship? Is it just a situation where you just lose control? And if you lose control, then how do you make sure that the next time you do this, you don't lose control? And all this is pretty much what you learn in martial arts. Now, the next thing to consider when you talk about all of this kind of training, all this kind of self-control training, is that most of the time when you join a club, a martial arts club, these kinds of these kinds of trainings and this kind of advice would be what it is. It would be advice. It wouldn't be something that would be drilled into you. The things that would be drilled into you are the drills itself, the physical aspect, the technical aspects. Very rarely you would see someone or you'd see an instructor drilling the aspect of, hey, you need to make sure that you take your self-control very seriously, because we are in a situation where most of us are decent people. The moment we start to speed up, the moment we start to hit harder, you're hyper aware of the moment. Oh, I'm hitting someone harder or speeding up, OK, slow down, slow down. And training usually does this. That's my primary experience as an instructor. You do get very decent, very hyper-aware students that are aware the moment they are about to step over the line. And you can see in the face because they go, okay, hey, I should calm down. Let's try it again slowly. But when it translates to sparring, that inhibition becomes a little bit less in the sense that they are in the mindset of, “Ok this is full contact sparring, we are wearing safety gear, we should be able to hit a bit harder, we should be able to hit harder without damaging or without bringing harm to you.” And it's a very fine line because, you know, the moment you go off the cuff, something bad happens and then you'll have to talk about it. So I just find it really interesting. This is something that has always has been central to my martial arts training. I don't deny that it has been sometimes counterproductive to my martial arts training because generally most people aren’t violent people and if you do encounter a situation or a feeling like this, my personal initial reaction would be to just stop. Would be to just let go. Stop movement, find out what's wrong. And it's that kind of fear that keeps you in check. But at the same time, it’s that kind of fear that inhibits your training as well. Because as you know, you don't want a student to intentionally miss a strike.
GW: It’s very common, but it's counterproductive.
RN: And you do see this mostly in the new students.
GW: They're socialized not to hit people. You’re brought up and told not to hit people, and then suddenly you are allowed to hit people.
RN: It is something that you got to unlearn, right. It's a very, very fine balance between someone who loses it and someone who is hyper aware of doing any kind of violence, even though the violence is in this sense in terms of martial arts, it's warranted.
GW: It's consensual.
RN: When someone is supposed to offend you and you're supposed to defend.
GW: If you don’t swing your sword at my head, I don’t get to practice.
RN: Yeah, exactly. And the fact is, it's not just detrimental for your training, it’s detrimental for the other guy’s training as well. Because then he's not going to expect a threat. He's not going to expect a blow to his head, or wherever you striking from. So I find myself at times trying to bring together my students, trying to explain to them, hey, I get it, we're not violent people. We don't want to harm our training partners. And I do get it that, you know, sometimes in sparring we do get a little bit carried away, but especially in training, we don't want to have halfhearted intents. If you intend to hit, you need to hit it. And I think that's where that issue of HEMA is, because we are basically trying to get as close as we can to actual fighting without doing any actual fighting. And it's a very, very difficult thing because you have multiple things to consider in multiple aspects and multiple factors which come together in the combination of a life and death duel or in any situation where you have to defend yourself. And I think most people, including me, don't understand that what we do in training is one facet of the whole of, let's say, 10 other facets of the aspect of what we need to do in a situation like that. So it's an extremely complicated thing which makes it fun to do. Which makes it fun to research and explore.
GW: What do you mean about the other facets?
RN: So let's take the physical facets of fighting. So we have drill training, which is technique training. We have form training, which is how you should hold a certain position. Why do you hold it like that, what the body mechanics of it is. And then we have obviously live cutting. So something that something that was made aware to me in my practice in the years that I've been practicing HEMA, we have only dealt with blunt weapons or steel weapons. So it is only in my fourth year that I started to practice with sharps. So relatively recently.
GW: I know that in Singapore, when I was there about 10 years ago, we did sharp cutting demonstrations for a school. So, it’s been part of the club culture before. I'm surprised that you got through four years without coming across some sharps.
RN: I think the reason is when Greg was in charge, I think there was still some manner of live cutting. When I joined it, the club was kind of on a semi hiatus. So Chris was still teaching. I think Greg had retired already, but by that time we were predominantly focusing on formwork and source interpretation. So the question of how sharps would feel, how the cut should feel, what the cutting mechanics is, didn't really come up in those years. And I, as you know, as a new guy or as a practitioner with not a lot of experience, there wouldn't be a point where you say, hey, what would be the mechanics of this sharp thing going through something? Because you know that at least when you see a sword, the edge alignment is there, your form is, well, relatively correct. You think that, OK, this should at least do some damage. And that was the extent of it.
GW: But until you do it with a sharp sword, you don’t really know.
RN: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, in my fifth year, we finally decided, OK, cool, let's try to incorporate some cutting into our training. And that was when everything started to come together, because then I realized that when some sources say that when you strike at someone, it's almost as if someone is pulling the tip of your sword with a string to go to the point of the strike. And that's what we based our interpretation on, the fact that we have to make it like we're leading with the sword. The point goes first and everything. The first time we tried it on a cutting target practice, oh boy. There was a lot of failure. Naturally.
GW: Right. A strike that's optimized for cutting through tatami is not optimized for being untelegraphed to a live opponent.
RN: Exactly. So that was the first clue in our training that we realized that this martial art, well, we're not practicing to the highest extent, the highest extent of the holistic art itself. We are just practising an aspect of it, which is the form training, which is the technique training, or the technical study of the movements. So that was when I really started to think, if such an oversight in my training has led to such a big reform in my entire training, what other things am I not thinking of that could change the entire paradigm? So then I really begin to seriously consider what else would someone in that serious situation be thinking, how would he be acting? What would be his criteria to survive a situation like that, to successfully offend someone in a criteria like that? And it was a myriad of things, because after the initial practice, we realized the way that we bind on the sword, the impulses that we get from binding with blunt swords is entirely different. So then I started to look at multiple sources, multiple interpretations of the sources, where most people have been doing this, with steel blunts or wooden training weapons. And you look very closely on what the methodology is. And you see whether would it fit if you had replaced your sword with a real sharp sword.
GW: I test every interpretation with sharps. Always. It's a necessary step.
RN: It is so necessary. And basically, that's what we learn. So I have been, maybe erroneously, I have endorsed the use of steel swords as much as possible. The moment a student shows that they can relatively control and be in good form with a steel blunt or a wooden blunt I tell them tried to tried to practice with at least a steel feder or a steel sword, because it is much closer to a sharp sword than it is with a wooden sword. And it goes in increments.
GW: I put a blunt steel sword in a beginner’s hands on their first day in class.
RN: Same, same. I think now that I think about it, I think what would be better is if I had let them practice solo forms with the steel swords but kept the wooden swords as pair drills, because I need to be sure they can safely handle a steel sword without any accidents happening first. So, I think in retrospect that's what I would have changed in my teaching methods if I could go back. But going forward, it just gets even more complicated because then you realize the bind impulses are vastly different. The steps are vastly different. The entire mechanics of the strike is vastly different. So then how do you reconcile the form that is described in the text with good cutting form. And that was one of the most time consuming part of my research, because we have so little evidence of description of cuts, description of how you should move the body, description of how the cut should feel like.
GW: Sure, but then there's no reason to believe that Fiore was particularly interested in the most effective cut for cutting a big stationary thing in half, like having a great big tatami, what is the best way of cutting that in half? He was exclusively, I think, concerned with cuts in a tactical context, which is different. If you look at tatami cutting competitions from Japan, for instance, every single person steps up with a sword held back and with both feet planted, then strikes with the body because that's better. But if you do that in a sword fight, as you step in with the sword held back someone is going to poke you in the face. So you have to lead with the blade. I wouldn't expect to find optimal cutting mechanics for cutting in Fiore.
RN: Yeah, that's absolutely true. And I was wondering, the same question was surely he knows what he's talking about and surely the focus of his subject matter was the technical aspect of the art. Because most of it deals with the how to subdue an opponent in the most efficient movement possible. He doesn't really tell you how to cut the opponent in two. He just tells you how to throw a cut at him to offend him or to harm him.
GW: If you smack somebody in the head with a steel sword, even if your technique’s a bit crap, it might very well kill him even with very bad technique.
RN: So it's something worth considering. Because how I feel about the text is that, these are treatises, right, so it is implied that the person he was writing this for already had some form of martial training.
GW: Well, Niccolò d’Este was a military commander. Fiore knew what he was doing.
RN: In terms of like if I, on my first day, picked up a treatise by Fiore and I tried to read through and I tried to reproduce the things that were in it, I would be terribly wrong or I might make terrible mistakes.
GW: Which what we did back in the 90s. I can confirm that from practical experience.
RN: So, it's a learning experience from there and it's so exciting when you find out something new. Because I remember recently, I think it was last year we had Colin Richards from Germany come down to teach a seminar on longsword. And he told me something that he was just thinking about the other day was that I think in one of the plates in Fiore where he was holding the sword with his left hand that was obstructed like this. And he said to me, what if he was actually positioning the false edge instead of the true edge to the defense line? And I thought that was really, really curious that he considered it at all because it just looked like it was supposed to be the false edge that is behind. But the more I think about it, there is a possibility that either the artist got it really wrong in terms of the perspective of how he should hold the sword, or that was what Fiore intended, which we may never know.
GW: What illustration is this?
RN: Hold on, let me try to find the treatise.
GW: Is it the Getty Manuscript?
RN: Yes, it’s the Getty Manuscript. Which sheet was it? He was discussing this with another colleague of his, I can't remember, but I think one of the guard positions. I think it was frontale, I’m not so sure. But he said that the thumb position is a little bit weird. Because I think he was talking about the German sources as well and how the thumb plays a prominent role. It was an offhand remark, but it was something very curious because, you know, even in such a small detail, we can see that this might be a possibility that it might be perhaps an error on the artist's part or it might be something that he intended. We may never know until more information comes to light. But it is just one of the great joys of HEMA. You know, you look at a 600 year old manuscript and then you suddenly find something different about it. And I think it is surely one of the reasons why we do HEMA because of these kind of discoveries. And it's also very humbling to see.
GW: We've been talking for quite a while now, and I’m still on my first question.
RN: Oh, yes, of course. Oh, dear!
GW: This is great, Rigel. The point of the question is just to get you talking. But there are a couple of questions that I would like to get to. Because it just maybe sheds some interesting light on how you think and the culture you're coming from and all that sort of thing. So the first one is, what is what is the best idea you've never acted on?
RN: I think the best idea I never acted on is in terms of training preparation. I think it’s the idea that when you want a training regimen that holistically deals with all the things that you can do in HEMA… I wouldn't say someone who's been practicing for maybe one year or two years should do it. But I think it's a good way of discovering things that you might not have discovered in the treatise or any specific treatises that you've been studying exclusively. I think something to think about for a person practicing would be to look at other contemporary treatises of their time and then see how the context is different, how the movement is different, and then see if there is any kind of overlap in terms of principles that are trying to come across.
GW: The idea that you've never acted on is you haven't looked outside Fiore?
RN: Well, not necessarily. OK, in terms of looking outside of a similar frame of reference. Right. Of course, if you want to go down right to the minute details is, let's see, for example, Fiore alongside versus Liechtenauer longsword, Fiore longsword versus any other form of longsword. If we take it on a bigger scale it becomes longsword versus a different type of sword. Maybe taking it to bigger scale it becomes sword versus another type of weapon. So there are various ways you can act on this idea where you look at a treatise or you look at a bunch of treatises, or you look at a weapon system and then you look at a totally different weapon system and then you see what kind of similar principles they have. I think Fiore did this very well because, well, all of his treatise deals not just with swords, with the pollaxe, with the spear, with the lance, with mounted combat as well. I think that would be a better way for new students to try to see how they should be learning this art. Because I'm not sure whether it's a Singaporean thing or whether it's a modern society thing where when you teach someone something, they almost always learn it by rote, which is to say they're almost always learning by memorization, by constant drilling. Not to say that it's bad, but you can clearly tell from the sources that after a certain point, the rote learning might not be...
GW: Fiore himself calls his actions plays. So, you're supposed to know the plays, but you're supposed to play with the plays.
RN: Exactly. But the thing is, in my experience at least, I'm not sure whether you've encountered this, but Singapore has an educational emphasis on rote learning. I mean, pretty much any big educational institution has an emphasis on rote learning because it just gets the result that they want. It might not benefit the person as much as if he or she was to learn it in a more dynamic fashion. But I think in terms of martial arts or in terms of any art for that matter, I think that's the more easy in the long run way to go. Because if you start to look at these plays, in the Asian martial arts they call them katas, the set forms, then you run the risk of not understanding what the plays are trying to teach you in the first place, which is the principle of the movements, instead of just the action. So I think that would pretty much be the best idea I never acted on because I just personally felt that they would not be ready for such an undertaking because I know how hard it is. My students are not the kind of students that would practice every day of the week. And it's hard enough. It's already hard enough for a practitioner that practices seven days a week for at least two hours. It's hard enough then to try to get any kind of actual progress, you know, actual natural progress.
GW: Well play is the best learning environment.
RN: Yeah, it is. It is the best learning environment, but it takes more time than most of my students are used to. So I feel like if I had a mandate and if suddenly this HEMA club becomes something equivalent of a more serious academic institution, I think it could be implemented. But even then it is extremely hard to try to get the students to that standard of learning because I don't think anyone would take as this seriously.
GW: You know, there are definitely people out there who do.
RN: Oh, yeah, definitely. But especially in Singapore they are few and far between. We don’t really have a society that allows people to delve into their hobbies in that kind of depth. So I feel like it's a great idea, but in the context of the society I don't think they're ready for it. I would be more than happy for it to be implemented. But I think we have a long way to go yet.
GW: OK. Now, my last question. Somebody gave you a million pounds or dollars or whatever else. A huge big chunk of money to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. How would you spend the money?
RN: OK, there is an interesting answer to this and there is a very boring but effective answer to this. And I think the boring, effective answer to this is spend it in the museums, spend it in the libraries and get them to catalogue their stuff. First and foremost, you need to organize it before you can try to get anything done. It is kind of sad when I talk to practitioners when we're discussing wild theories about a Southern master and you say, who knows, maybe in the near future we'll find a lost manual that he wrote that sheds light on this particular subject. And, you know, the idea and the fantasy is there and it's a very tantalizing fantasy, but it's just really sad to think that that's the only way that we can progress in our study of the thing. So I feel the most boring answer, but the most effective is invest in the housekeeping of these museums, in these libraries, get them to catalogue their stuff and get them to maintain the stuff.
GW: You might need more than a million dollars for that.
RN: Yeah. Exactly right. It's really a serious undertaking.
GW: So what’s the exciting answer?
RN: So the exciting answer is of course, to put that in the research and to put that in, number one, the improvement of the facilities, all the training devices that we have, impressment of the technology, the training technology that we have.
GW: Can you be more specific? What specifically would you put the money into?
RN: Well, just 10 years ago in 2010 we, at least in PHEMAS, were only about to transition to better fitting, better protective gear, better quality masks and all those kind of things. In the big picture we need to find more efficient ways to basically develop and design equipment that is better suited for our purposes.
GW: Yeah. Sport fencing masks are not a good solution.
RN: Right. Yeah, exactly. So I'm pretty sure in your days as well, in the olden days where you just rely on…
GW: Haha! Did you say, “In your days, in the olden days”?! Oh my God.
RN: Well I've heard the stories. To be frank, I'm a little bit scared if we did not improve at all, because I hear stories of people getting reproduction swords that were not very well made, they were getting reproductions that were of the wrong gauge of steel, of the wrong thickness, of the wrong everything, except the look. So as a safety issue that just raises a lot of alarms, especially when we're dealing with life.
GW: We've come a long way in equipment in the last 20 years. A long way.
RN: I mean, you know, from the gloves to the pro gauntlet, there's a lot of R&D money that is being pushed into those kind of aspects and I think it's great. But I think we can do better because there are definitely still limitations there. And not just physical limitations, not just safety limitations. The more we streamline the process of getting these kind of technologies much more efficient for us, the less likely we will run in to things like training artefacts. So, for example, the more gear you put on, the less mobility you have. That's the most common thing that you have, right? You know, I've seen fighters that say in terms of sparring, you don't really need to raise your hand all the way to the German ochs because, you know, obviously your equipment would get in the way. You'd lose your visibility and everything. So they adapt. They're basically creating their own branch of fencing that is modern, modernized, based on modern equipment. And it's not right or is not wrong. It's not even detrimental to the historical aspect. But I feel like if new people come in and that's the first thing they see it’s going to be the same cycle of, oh, why didn’t I think of this before? And then it becomes a training artefact that we don't know about. So I think that's the more exciting thing to put my money in, because that's where people would be looking at, you know, they'll be looking at the next miracle glove that doesn't get your thumb smashed when you fight with a longsword, that kind of thing. So there are definitely a lot of things to improve that I think a million pounds is way too little.
GW: But it’s a good start.
RN: Yeah. It's a good start to kind of galvanize the one percent to try to invest into this kind of development.
GW: OK. All right, Rigel. Do you have any requests, anywhere you would like listeners to go online to maybe come and find you on the internet?
RN: I think the best encouragement and something that has been on my mind ever since I started is that how can someone, wherever they are, tried to get into a martial arts such as HEMA where it is, well, I wouldn't say not well-known, but I wouldn't say that it's you know, it's like a household name, where if you say “HEMA” everyone would say, oh, I've heard of this before.
GW: Yeah. Everyone’s heard of karate.
RN: Yeah. Everyone's heard of karate, everyone’s heard of tae kwon do, everyone’s heard of Wushu and stuff, but it's still kind of in like a niche area. And I don't want that to be the main source of discouragement for anyone who tries to get into it. Because, you know, definitely I have been searching for this my entire life. And if it wasn't for that chance, I would inevitably probably just, you know, become a very boring person just doing boring stuff, trying to fill my time, trying to fill my days, trying to fill my hobbies. So I want the reputation of HEMA to get bigger. It doesn't even have to be called HEMA. It doesn’t even have to be called any kind of name that we have previously called it. It just has to be identified enough.
GW: It should be common knowledge that you can practice historical swordsmanship and historical martial arts from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and people should know that that’s a thing you can do.
RN: Yeah, exactly. And I just want to tell anyone who's out there who's maybe listening to this podcast perhaps, don't be discouraged by the perceived amount of work that you have to put in because it's such a niche thing. You have to do your own research. You have to do your own physical training. You have to think about all the things that you would normally not think about in an established martial art.
GW: But that's what makes it fun.
RN: Exactly, that's what makes it fun, but I do have people coming up to me saying, “Oh, it’s such a hassle. I just want to learn the techniques and that's it. Can you just teach me the techniques?” You don't have to learn the other aspects. And I just want to say that that's OK. You can do that. Provided that that is exactly what you want to do. Basically, what I'm trying to say is I don't want you to be cheated by the intentions that you can’t specify yourself. It has to be your intention to do this. And don't try to fool yourself in thinking that, “Oh, yeah, I'm just doing this because of some other reason.”
GW: So be clear about your motivations.
RN: Yes, be clear about your motivations and don’t be discouraged. Don't let anyone tell you that you shouldn't just do this for fun, it's something more than fun, you know, because at the end of it, no one is going to war with swords anymore. No one is killing people with swords. If you are the very unlucky person to have to defend yourself with a sword, I hope you have success in defending yourself. I hope that that situation never comes to you in real life.
GW: It’s very unlikely.
RN: Don't let anyone tell you that martial arts should be a serious thing and you should implement more time and money into it. If you want to do this for fun, great. That's fine.
GW: That’s a brilliant point to finish on. Excellent, well, thank you very much Rigel, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I look forward to my next trip to Singapore where we shall definitely cross swords again in person.
Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed my conversation today with Rigel Ng. And remember to go along to www.guywindsor.net/podcast-2 for the episode show notes and for your free copy of Sword Fighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. Now, tune in next week when I'll be talking to author and swordswoman Alina Boyden about all sorts of things, including aerial combat, of all things. So subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from, and I will see you next week. Cheerio!