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Chinese New Year: Out with the old

It's not San Francisco, where thousands of people get to see a 250-foot-long golden dragon weaving its way through the streets every year. It's not Washington, where city officials closed down H Street last Sunday to make room for fireworks, kung fu demonstrations and the usual big parade.

But if you want to celebrate the Chinese New Year without leaving Anne Arundel County, your best bet might be a vibrant little martial arts academy in the rear of an otherwise ordinary-looking industrial park in Arnold.

Chinese New Year "is a time for us to share a culture we love with the wider community," says Billy Greer, the kung fu black belt and master who owns and runs Jing Ying Institute of Kung Fu & Tai Chi.

For the 10th consecutive year, Jing Ying (Mandarin for "best of the best") is the only place in the county staging a series of events that span the 15-day holiday, a period in which millions of ethnic Chinese around the world engage in rituals that symbolically put to rest an outgoing year and welcome a better one.

This year, the series has included traditional lion dances, a workshop on calligraphy and a talk on acupressure. It ends this week with a tea Monday, Feb. 14, and three free martial arts classes.

For Greer, a Pasadena husband and father of two, the time of year has a special resonance. It has been seven years, after all, since he left a well-paying corporate job to buy the school and start all over again.

The holiday and the Jing Ying series both touch on principles that have changed his life and his family's since he took that leap of faith.

"Leave something behind, and it does make room for something new," he says.

Good sport

The year 4709 on the Chinese calendar began Feb. 3, the second new moon after the last winter solstice. The holiday lasts through Friday, Feb. 18, the day of the first full moon. During those 15 days, celebrants around the world will travel great distances to visit kin, give their loved ones gifts (usually cash) in the red envelopes known as gung bao and share traditional foods.

By custom dating back 4,000 years, they'll also light plenty of firecrackers, wear lots of red and enjoy spectacles such as Chinese lion dances — all rituals meant to banish evil spirits left from the previous year.

Greer, a shifu or "father teacher," should recognize that dynamic. A slender, bespectacled 51-year-old, he too has found luck by shedding things that no longer matter.

The son of a Navy officer, he was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. He was the very image of the American melting pot: he has Asian, Cherokee and Scottish blood in his veins, and more.

"To this day, people from the Philippines who meet me tend to say, 'You've got some Filipino in you, don't you?'" he says, laughing. "Mexicans usually think I'm part Mexican. I guess people tend to see in me what they want to see."

As a kid, Greer was a reader and a thinker, but he was so small for his age, and his eyesight was so poor, that he shied away from every popular sport. He never pictured doing anything special in athletics. "Not in a million years," he says.

The Greers moved 12 times during his grade-school years, a period of tumult made easier by the closeness he felt to his four siblings. "The moving taught me to be adaptable," he says. Like many a martial artist, he would leverage that asset on and off the mat.

It wasn't until he entered high school, though, that the future master did, in fact, feel drawn to a sport. It was wrestling that captured his eye.

Greer saw that wrestling called for less in the way of size and eyesight than other forms of competition. Here, he thought, was an arena in which he could use his strengths. He read up on nutrition, studied acrobatics and worked at effective holds.

By his senior year in Virginia Beach, Va., he was named captain of his high school wrestling team. He even won a district championship in his weight class. The more baggage he left behind, it seemed, the luckier he got.

Year of the Rabbit

You enter Ying Jing through a metal slab door, an entrance so plain that you think you must be in the wrong place.

Inside, the training area is surprisingly large: 4,000 square feet of space done up in traditional hues of red and black, several of the walls covered floor-to-ceiling with mirrors.

It's an early weeknight, and more than a dozen students are hard at work, snapping out practice kicks and punches. They range in age from 6 to about 60.

"We have about a hundred [students] altogether," says Greer, who employs six instructors in addition to himself. They include chief instructor Sean Marshall of Brooklyn, a black sash holder who has trained regional champions for more than 20 years, as well as Greer's two children, son Glen, 23, and daughter Lane, 19.

At most martial arts academies, enrollment is biggest in the kids' division. Lots of families train together at Jing Ying, Greer says, "but our biggest demographic — maybe a third of the group — is people in their 30s and 40s."

Signs of the Chinese New Year abound.

Every year, of course, has one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac as its symbol and driving force: the Rat (people born in any Year of the Rat are thought to be charming and quick-witted), the Dragon (charismatic, warm-hearted), the Monkey (energetic, lacking in self-control) and more.

This year, 4709, is a Year of the Rabbit. People born in such a year tend to be lucky, sociable and quite popular, astrologers say, if naturally on the shy side. (Among the famous, Leon Trotsky, Albert Einstein, Brad Pitt and Tiger Woods are rabbits.) Posters showing the creatures hang on several walls.

Nearby, a table bedecked in red bears bowls of tangerines, a fruit that symbolizes luck and abundance. Faux firecrackers hang from a pole. "It's a time to celebrate," Greer says.

About half of the free public events have taken place. Jing Ying opened the series, as it does every year, with a ceremonial housecleaning meant to open the building to good luck. An open house featured a school specialty, the lion dance, in which a pair of students don a fancifully scary, two-part costume, bring it to life with kung fu footwork, and symbolically scare away attackers.

An expert from the East-West Tea Emporium in Annapolis spoke of "tribute" teas, which people in ancient Chinese states offered to the emperor in 1,000 A.D.

And upstairs, a licensed feng shui practitioner, a woman named Yarrow, offers a 90-minute talk on that ancient system of aesthetics.

She, too, is an advocate of banning what isn't necessary.

"Clutter is a depressant," she says. "Decluttering and cleaning change the energy in a home to a positive energy. Start with your own stuff and go from there."

Pressure points

In his own way, Greer has been doing that for years. If he hadn't, the academy on Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard wouldn't exist, let alone be marking its 10th celebration of the Chinese New Year.

It all involved seeing what didn't work and letting it go.

Years ago, he says, he had a simple plan. A lover of science, Greer hoped to ride that interest to a career in medicine.

One summer, he took a seemingly inconsequential job: a part-time gig at a materials-testing lab. The work varied from day to day, Greer recalls, and so did the hours.

It suited him. "My summer job lasted 13 years," he says with a laugh.

It led to other things. Because he always had a passing interest in the martial arts, his wife, Nancy, gave him a present for his 28th birthday: a lesson at an Anne Arundel karate studio. With his more flexible schedule, he could go.

Greer didn't like it much — the fighting seemed to have too much brute force, and it lacked the mystique he sought in a martial art — but he had whetted his appetite.

He sought out a lesson in kung fu. That seemed right.

Greer was still the undersized kid who wanted to bring the fight to the realm of skill. Kung fu, he says, emphasized punches and kicks, but with its use of joint locks and pressure points, it favored knowledge equally.

"If someone attacks you with a thousand pounds of force, and you try to resist directly, you need a thousand pounds of force," he says. "What if you don't have that? There's a saying in kung fu: four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds. It's intelligent use of power, not just brawling."

The discipline had other kinds of power. As Glen and Lane got older, Billy and Nancy became home-schooling parents. The decision left them driving all over the county to classrooms and gyms.

The children tried kung fu and enjoyed it, and so did Nancy. They liked the family feel of Jing Ying studio. Before long, all four were regulars at Jing Ying, then the property of another owner. "It really helped bring our family together," Nancy says.

Buying in

Greer seems such a gentleman, it's hard to imagine anybody wishing him harm. Yet here he is, smiling placidly in his black training attire, asking you to take a punch at him.

Go ahead, he says. Your hardest swing. You launch a fist in his direction.

He rotates to his right, encircles your wrist in his fingers and guides you to your knees, where with the slightest twist of his hand he could crack one of your bones in two.

"Kung fu means 'seize and control,'" he says with a grin.

Today, the Greers' life is a bit like that. When the previous owner decided to sell, the notion of buying Jing Ying sounded crazy. None of them had run a school of any kind. Greer would be taking at least a 50 percent cut in pay.

As they discussed it, though, the idea gained power. "We thought, 'We're there all the time, why not just take it over?'" Greer says. They did so in 2004 and haven't regretted their choice.

To celebrate the school's 10th Chinese New Year, Greer says, the students pooled their resources last fall and raised $10,000 for local charities. That, he hopes, will waken the wider community to what kung fu and Chinese culture in general have to offer.

Call it a New Year's resolution. "When you have this kind of passion for something," says Greer, "you just want to share it with others."

If you go

What: Final workshops and celebrations: Chinese New Year 2011.

Free tea, tai chi and chocolate Valentine's Day workshop (11 a.m. to noon Monday, Feb. 14); free self-defense workshop for women (7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15); free introductory kids' kung fu class, 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16.

Where: Jing Ying Institute of Kung Fu & Tai Chi, 1195 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd. No. 6, Arnold

Information: jingying.org or 410-431-5200

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