Sifu Cheng Imm Tan is the founder and director of the Gunk Kwok Asian Women’s Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe. She started the troupe to give Asian women a chance to learn and perform an art that was once forbidden to women. She has been teaching and performing Lion and Dragon dance for nearly 20 years.
As a young girl growing up in Penang, Malaysia, Sifu Tan was inspired by the martial artists that she saw in Kung Fu films. She was especially inspired by the kung fu heroines, who were a model of women’s empowerment. They were kind, smart, skilled, strong and beat up the bad guys. She wanted to learn Kung Fu but her parents would not let her because girls were not supposed to strong or physically that active. Besides, her family did not have the money to pay for Kung Fu lessons.
In 1978, Sifu Tan came to the U.S for her undergraduate studies. In 1986, she graduated with a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School, after spending a year at the Women’s Theological Center. She was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1991. She worked at the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry and started the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, the only shelter program with culturally and linguistically appropriate services for Asian families facing domestic violence. She also started Rice Sticks and Tea, the only Asian Food Pantry program that distributes culturally appropriate foods to Asian families in need.
In 1998, she was asked by the then Mayor of Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino, to start a city program to address the needs of the growing and diverse immigrant communities in Boston. She joined Mayor Menino’s administration as the founding director of the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians, establishing the first city program for immigrants in the U.S, which has become a national model. She also started the English for New Bostonians program to meet the needs of the immigrant communities for English classes.
Sometime in the 1990s, Sifu Tan finally had the opportunity to learn martial arts, taking Tai Chi and then Pushing Hands classes. While viewing a Lion Dance close up at a community event in Chinatown one evening, the idea of starting an Asian Women’s Lion Dance Troupe occurred to her. Traditionally women were not allowed to learn or perform the lion dance. In many instances, women were not even allowed to touch the lion heads because women were seen as inferior, “dirty” and weak. Sifu Tan saw starting an Asian women’s lion dance troupe as an opportunity for Asian women to learn and perform this forbidden art, showcase Asian women’s strength and discipline, break stereotypes and give Asian women a supportive space to push themselves beyond their comfort zones to live a “bigger life” of no limits.
In February of 1998, Gund Kwok was born. Sifu Tan gathered 10 of her Asian women friends and convinced them to learn lion dance with her. Her husband, Ken Morin, helped to recruit a teacher, Eddie Lau, a former chief instructor of the Wah Lum Kung Fu Academy to teach the group the basics of lion dance. SIfu Eddie Lau taught the team for about a year and a half. Sifu Tan and Ken continued to study lion dance and learned from many Troupes and Sifus in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, including Master Lum Jong Jyh and Richard Chua of Singapore’s National Wushu Federation and Singapore Wong Loo Choh See Shee Choong Association. They also completed a lion dance research and training course with Master Siow Ho Phiew . Most notably, Sifu Tan studied under the warm and loving tutelage and guidance of Master Mah Yoke Seng of Penang for several years. Master Mah passed away in 2007. Taking everything she has learned from the masters and from 20 years of teaching, Sifu Tan has developed her own unique style of lion dancing.
Sifu Tan is a certified US National Level Judge for lion and dragon dance by the United States; she is also a certified aerobics instructor and a certified parent and life coach.
Under Sifu Tan’s leadership, Gund Kwok has become an inspiration to many women, pushing and inspiring Asian women to reach for their full potential and to live bigger lives.