Earl Blijd: A life devoted to Kung Fu

“Forget about all the big things,” he tells me, “work on the small things”.

Chinese ideograms are hanging on the four walls of the wide rectangular gym. Above my head, framed shots of martial art poses alternate with a collection of prizes and trophies. On the opposite side, Chinese lion heads sit on a shelf in an ordered line. Their empty eyes face the door from which Earl Blijd comes in, holding a folding chair. Before positioning it at a socially safe distance, he leaves on the cushion in front of me a Kung Fu magazine, his name clearly readable on the cover. Without a word, he sits down and smiles. From the speakers, the great classic Stand by Me spreads, but in Prince Royce bachata version.

On the outside, a pagoda-like roof marks the entrance to the Bao Trieu Sportcentrum in Groningen, in the northern part of the Netherlands, and a wall-sized graffiti shows the bust of Earl Blijd performing a Kung Fu pose.

Bao Trieu Sportcentrum gym, Groningen. Photograph: Margherita Capacci

Blijd is around 1.6 meters tall, has a short beard and mustache, and meets me in a grey jumpsuit. He has just turned 60 but moves with flexibility and precision.
Last year, he celebrated the 40th anniversary of practicing Kung Fu. However, agility is not the only physical mark left by Blijd’s life. His head is crossed horizontally by a linear scar and he limps slightly while walking. He still goes to the physiotherapist every week for his hip, he says, and when tired, he sees things double, due to the effort of his brain to adjust to his now further away eyes.
In 1995, Blijd almost lost his life in a car accident. After 6 days of coma, a 17-hour surgery and months of rehabilitation, he was back in the gym, remarkably.

“What kept you going?”

“My martial arts, Chinese philosophy”.

What is so special about Kung Fu? Earl Blijd remains silent for a moment and says, “because it’s so, so much, not only fighting, it’s with weapons, it’s with your body, it’s with your mind, it’s everything”. “But I didn’t know from the beginning, I just liked it,” he smiles. No further explanations can be taken out of Blijd, who seems to have always acted rather than talked. During his life-long career in Kung Fu, he has received the attention of international media, done competitions and demonstrations around the world, from Canada to China, won several prizes, including a world title, and trained the German national team and many athletes.
But 40 years do not feel long, he says, and adds without hesitation that he is not planning to stop with martial arts any time soon.

Earl Blijd was born in the tropical island of Curaçao in 1960. “Everywhere music and sun, good food, lot of people,” he says with shining eyes, recalling his childhood and adolescence on the island. His parents were originally from Suriname, at the time under the Dutch control, and he grew up speaking Dutch, surrounded by the mix of cultures typical of Curaçao’s colonial past. During the 17th and 18th century, the Dutch organized a very profitable slave trade in the island, transporting people from Africa to sell them elsewhere. Then, Curaçao officially became a Dutch colony, until it joined the Dutch Antilles. From 2010, it has gained autonomy, even though some areas of politics are still controlled by the Dutch Kingdom.

Like Curaçao, Blijd’s family was also a mix of different cultural backgrounds. He became mostly fascinated by his grandfather’s origins, despite never meeting him.
“When I was at the secondary school, every morning, early in the morning I woke up and I looked it up in the encyclopedia about China, about Confucius, about Taoism,” he says.
Blijd’s grandfather was one of the Hakka Chinese people, mostly men, that from 1853 onwards, around the time slavery was abolished, were brought to Suriname to work on plantations.

Then, when Blijd was a teenager, the TV series Kung Fu by David Carradine came out, and he remained mesmerized. He lays the DVD in front of me. “Every night I had to water the plants outside,” he recalls, “I put the song and I practiced for myself”.

In 1978, Blijd moved to Europe to study chemistry at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. He received a scholarship and embarked on a plane organized for all the young people seeking higher education in the Netherlands. Like many others, he never went back.

In Groningen, Blijd followed a friend to a Kung Fu session of the Vietnamese teacher Sifu Trieu. From that day, he never missed a training. He traveled to the UK, Germany, and Belgium to practice with the best Kung Fu teachers, learnt through books and videos, and eventually became Trieu’s assistant. When sitting in the chemistry lab or in the library during the day, his attention was on planning the evening trainings, he says. He quitted his studies and his career as a Kung Fu champion and trainer took off. In 1984, when Sifu Trieu left the activity, he took over the gym.

Then, on a foggy day of 1995, soon after stopping with competitions, Earl Blijd was driving to Belgium, together with three of his students, to give a Kung Fu demonstration. The low visibility led them into a chain collision that involved 20 cars and caused the death of three people. Blijd says he does not remember that day, so he offers to show me a video of it.
He inserts a VHS into an old-style television, and, while the recorded news of the time unfolds, he points at his crashed car. “I was half an hour in, they had to take me out,” he says.
The students with him reported minor injuries, but he had a severe concussion, and his skull was fractured. He cuts short when asked about how he experienced it.
Instead, he shows me a picture that a German Kung Fu clothing brand took of him, before stopping the sponsoring when he got injured. “They used it to put my face back again,” he says.

“Kung fu helped me to recover,” says Earl Blijd, “mentally but also my body”.

“Kung fu helped me to recover,” says Earl Blijd, “mentally but also my body”. He has no clear memory of waking up after the coma or the surgery, but he remembers the months spent in the Beatrixoord rehabilitation center, near Groningen. When asked about his feelings during that period, he only recalls the day-to-day effort he put into the recovery.
The first time he walked through the corridors holding a cup of tea, he was shaking, he says.
So, he decided to practice every morning, until he improved. The doctors were initially skeptical about his chances to go back into Kung Fu, “but I put it in my mind ‘I have to do it,’” he says, “like I want to do the technique good again”.

Earl Blijd’s collection of Curaçao and Chinese objects, Bao Trieu Sportcentrum, Groningen. Photograph: Margherita Capacci

Now, Blijd spends most of his time in the gym. “I’m more here than at my home,” he laughs.
He is there “36 hours a day,” jokes the Tai Chi instructor, one of the few Earl Blijd has surrounded himself with to teach the different martial arts to students of all ages.  

But despite devoting most of his life to Kung Fu, Blijd never questioned his origins. He has always remained catholic and visits his family in Curaçao regularly. He also shows me his “Curaçao part”, where colorful car plates are right beside Chinese porcelains. When asked about possible common points between the two cultures, he simply says “they are different, very different”.

While Earl Blijd welcomes the students of the beginner Kung Fu lesson, he sets up a camera for those training from home. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese philosophy has been helping him. “Forget about all the big things,” he tells me, “work on the small things”.

– Margherita Capacci

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