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Tony Brown (1949 – 2023) in memoriam

Tony Brown was the man who brought Kung Fu to Norway. He was Sifu, the Kung Fu coach of Grenland Friteater and a close collaborator and dear friend for more than 30 years.

Tony came to Porsgrunn in the mid 1980’s when his then wife Susan had got a position at the industrial research centre at Herøya. They brought their daughters Naomi and Eden.  A third daughter – Bethel – was born during their stay in Norway.

Tony immediately established a local Kung Fu club in Grenland. It quickly became very active and grew branches many places throughout Norway.

In 1989 the family moved to the US, but Tony kept in close contact with the Kung Fu-milieu he had created in Norway – not least in Grenland. He visited regularly, sometimes twice a year, until the pandemic restrictions put a halt to all travel in 2020. Tony was a great friend of Norway. He often expressed his regrets that he had left the country. On his visits here he coached old and new students in the Kung Fu club, but a fishing trip with good friends and a visit to Grenland Friteater was always compulsory.

I am not quite sure what year I met Tony for the first time, but it is not difficult to remember the situation. One quiet Sunday morning I strolled a few blocks down to the main street of Porsgrunn when I became aware of a tiny inconspicuous poster announcing a Kung Fu demonstration and class in a sports hall nearby a little later the very same day. It was hard to believe. Kung Fu in Porsgrunn?

For some years my colleagues and I had been practicing Hung Gar Kung Fu – a Southern style of Chinese martial arts – as our daily training routine. We had learned this practice from Ingemar Lindh, our theatre master in Italy. It was very uncommon in Norway at the time. Bruce Lee’s movies were still prohibited for being too violent. I was quite certain that we had been quite alone in practicing any kind of Kung Fu in the whole country. But now it looked like it had popped up in our own neighborhood! It was crazy!

When I arrived at the huge sports hall later that afternoon, the warming up was already started. The hall was filled with kids and grown-ups alike, who kicked around a kind of ball with feathers attached. It was no problem to understand who was in charge. It was this nice, cheerful, one-armed American who partly directed, partly participated and at the same time greeted the newcomers. After a little while everyone lined up for ceremonially greeting of the master – young and old side by side. Then we went on to work on different forms – sequences of punches, blocks and kicks.

One of the first things I noticed, was the way Tony interacted with the kids and the respect they had for him. It was remarkable. Many must have been at it for some time because they were much better than me, even though they were so much younger. I had to work hard to keep the pace!

After some time, I saw how much Tony and the Kung Fu meant to many of these boys and girls. They literally straightened their backs and grew some inches with the discipline and the hard chores. If some youngster dropped by to learn fighting skills, waving a bowie knife, he soon tired and never came back. But I never heard Tony raise his voice to have respect. It was this unique blend of Chinese tradition and culture, American competitive discipline and Norwegian egalitarian values. Tony personified their happy meeting.

I think Kung Fu brought out the best in Tony and he personified the best of Kung Fu: The value of hard work, the pride of things well done and good art, the respect for knowledge and tradition, good co-operation and friendship. And good spirits!

Tony was immediately invited to the theatre to do Kung Fu with the actors. I still remember his first line when he introduced himself at our kitchen table: – Well, I’m just a one-armed carpenter with weird religious ideas! He was a lot more than that, but from the beginning he had that charming self-ironic and disarming tone that brought out a smile and made him fit in from the first moment.

We understood that prior to his martial arts discipline there were other stories – of youthful gang fights and prison in Florida, of how he lost his right arm and nearly died from blood loss when his friend on drugs drove off the road and tore off Tony’s arm against a telegraph pole. But then he could also escape being drafted to Vietnam…

Maybe it was true that Kung Fu saved Tony. He sometimes said so. Anyway there were no other martial arts that would accept him when he came to learn missing an arm.

Later, Tony not only taught Hung Gar Kung Fu at the theatre, but also the softer Yang style Tai Chi Chuan. He also participated several times as an actor in Stedsans (Sense of Place), a huge outdoor performance project that Grenland Friteater staged for the first time in 2005. The first year he did a beautiful Tai Chi form wearing red silk pajamas on the boardwalk along the river with the spectators passing by. Another year he used an umbrella as a weapon in a fight scene with a group of young break dancers.

In 2015 I directed Geddy Aniksdal’s solo performance 7 Songs of the Refugee with the 8th Century texts of China’s greatest poet Tu Fu. We invited Tony to direct the fight sequences with Chinese broadsword, staff and spear. In the program he wrote: “This performance, depicts an old warrior who’s lost everything in the war and barely has strength to fight but has no choice.”

When we were locked down in 2020 during the pandemic, I contacted Tony in Ohio so we could work together on video-link through the internet. In spite of technical issues, I had many fine moments with Tony refreshing Kung Kung Fu and Tai Chi forms and getting the chance for a chat. I understood that everything was not the way it should be. Tony had got a cancer diagnosis that sounded ominous. One day he could not do the forms because of pain. After some time, he stopped answering my calls.

Luckily, I had contact in the fall of 2022 with Tony’s daughter Naomi Ignas, who had found Tony in a nursing home outside Columbus, Ohio. He was very weak, but it was good to see his face. I came to think of what he had written some years earlier about the old warrior. We got the chance to help moving him to a better facility and we had the chance to say goodbye. 

Tony has asked that his ashes be spread on one of his favourite fishing places in the Langesund fjord.

Tor Arne Ursin