Chinese New Year: Out with the old

For martial artist Billy Greer and family, Chinese New Year is a time to celebrate the philosophies that changed their lives

  • Head instructor Sean Martial, left, and Billy Greer, institute owner, demonstrate the traditional Chinese lion dance techniques as other kung fu students stretch.
Head instructor Sean Martial, left, and Billy Greer, institute… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
February 12, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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