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How to Train Pirates: Umeå’s Ye Banished Privateers Swashbuckle Through Pandemic With Kung Fu

☞ AN UMEÅ TODAY SUNDAY MORNING FEATURE

On an August afternoon last year, Jens Choong led a group through tai chi exercises. This is not the typical tai chi group found in your local park. Some of the practitioners are sporting tricorn hats, and most have tattered clothes and thick, dark make-up. This group had also gathered for another purpose: an annual pirate festival (Piratenabentuer) held in the northern Rhineland town of Zülpich. 

Jens Choong, aka Wan Chou Zhong, is in the “crew” of Ye Banished Privateers, one of Umeå’s most beloved bands. Combining historical fiction, musical theatre, folk and punk genres, Ye Banished Privateers has a loyal fan base in Sweden and around Europe, particularly in Germany.

Ye Banished Privateers draws upon pirate lore of the late 1600s and 1700s, or what Umeå maritime historian Annasara Hammar calls the “golden age of piracy.” During that time, “pirates and their lives began to fascinate a wider public” through published memoirs and novels such as Robinson Crusoe and, later, Treasure Island. Yet, pirates had an ambiguous reputation, perceived by some as “enemies of society who plagued the seas with violence and terror” and by others as “rebellious freedom fighters who offered a type of sanctuary from society’s strict hierarchies and many injustices,” Hammar explained. It is the latter image of pirates that captivates modern audiences of Pirates of the Caribbean and bands such as Ye Banished Privateers.

As to why people still enjoy old stories of pirates, Hammar speculated that “it’s about a longing for some of kind adventure that no longer exists. At that time, the world was an unpredictable, dangerous and enchanted place – not yet fully mapped, not yet fully ordered.”  For people who live in an organized welfare society as Sweden, “this dangerous world exerts a certain attraction,” Hammar said. In the old myths of piracy, “we see a kind of freedom that the online, pension-saving and obedient citizen no longer has,” Hammar said. “Pirates simply symbolize freedom.” 

Training and Touring: “An Unholy Marriage”

Although perhaps not as devil-may-care as their eighteenth-century pirate alter-egos, Ye Banished Privateers also indulge in a slightly more abandoned lifestyle while on tour. “The touring and festival life includes a lot of drinking and unhealthy foods,” Choong explained. 

This lifestyle prompted Choong to return to his former martial arts training. 

“I was in terribly bad shape until just a few years ago. We were performing at the Wave Gothic Festival in Leipzig. And in the middle of the show, I totally ran out of breath and could barely stand up at all,” Choong said. 

A meditative posture of Pirate Kung Fu. -Lux Homini

After that, Choong changed his diet and returned to the training that had once been a big part of his life. In the process, he created a new martial arts form that he calls Pirate Kung Fu, which combines various martial arts practices and modern functional fitness workouts. “My way might be considered a bastardized style from the viewpoint of traditional kung fu practitioners,” Choong admitted.

Choong and other band members see a symbiotic relationship between training and performance. Performance can be physically demanding, and Choong noticed the need for a training regimen, not only for himself, but for the rest of the band. While on tour, Choong tries to organize a few workouts for the band members. 

Choong speaks proudly of his fellow privateers and their training potential. “I have some top students in the band who always show up ready to do Pirate Kung Fu. My ambition for the band is to get them all to have a daily workout program and an individual combat style.”

Band member Hampus Holm aka Monkey Boy agreed that “keeping physically fit is vital to my performance on stage.”

“Drumming is exhausting and a 90 minute gig is hard,” Holm said. “After 60 minutes my arms start to hurt which effects focus, tempo and energy.”

-Lux Homini
A tricorned hat graces a buccaneer’s head during Pirate Kung Fu. -Lux Homini

Choong describes touring and training as the “unholy marriage” of his life. However, his relationship to martial arts began much earlier. The son of a kung fu master and tai chi instructor, Choong studied kung fu and tai chi as a child. “Kung fu is my cultural heritage,” Choong explains. In his 20s, Choong studied dance both in Umeå and Gothenburg, eventually working as a kung fu dancer at Norrlandsoperan and The Royal Opera in Stockholm. Choong is still a student of tai chi and has begun practicing a Chinese style of wrestling called touishou. The sport is not very common in Sweden, and Choong often wrestles with athletes who are 10 to 15 kilograms heavier than himself. 

Pirates in Quarantine

Like many other musicians and performers, Ye Banished Privateers have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of having a live concert and party in Umeå as planned, the band released its new album at the end of March online. 12 000 fans watched the release that night, and over 21 000 have seen the recording on YouTube.

The narrative introducing the Youtube video of the online launch touches upon a historical pandemic and quarantine to reflect the current situation: 

In 1719, the sixth year of his majesty’s reign, Nassau fell. Ye Banished Privateers, among other crews, scattered and fled, but was intercepted by pirate hunters like the vile Robert Maynard. Some of them made their escape, but Bellows was dragged in chains into England to stand trial. By elaborate stratagem the pirate cabal turned the trial into open mockery and made their escape into France and the town of Marseilles. Unfortunately, the usual bad timing of said crew made it happen so that their visit coincided with the last major European outbreak of bubonic plague. They ended up being quarantined on one of the harbor islands. 

“A great thing with the streamed medium was that we reached viewers all over the world, something that we, of course, would not have, playing locally in Umeå,” Privateer Holm said.

Ye Banished Privateers are still rehearsing and training, albeit in different forms. While the band still rehearses once a week, they have moved to a larger room in order to keep a greater distance from each other. 

Pirate Kung Fu at Home

Choong had hoped to launch courses for children – “a mix of performing arts, theatre, dance and Kung Fu” – around Södertälje and Järna this summer, “but Covid has put a pin those plans.” However, Choong hopes to continue competing in Chinese wrestling in the autumn with the ultimate goal of becoming the Swedish and Nordic champion. In the meantime, he will continue with Pirate Kung Fu at home.

Choong’s bandmate Holm is also keeping up with Pirate Kung Fu exercises. The pandemic has meant working a lot from home, “sitting on my sofa all day, not even taking my bike to work,” said Holm, who in addition to privateering is a doctoral researcher at Umeå University. “This makes me tired and unfocused and it hurts my back.” However, even as a beginner, Holm says Choong’s exercises have been “helpful to keep healthy” from home. 

As more people are seeking outlets for at-home training, Pirate Kung Fu is an alternative that “can be done by everyone, regardless of age, body type and training background,” Choong said. Some of Choong’s workouts are available on Instagram and Youtube

“My main philosophy is to train a little bit every day just enough so I’m not too sore to workout the next day,” Choong said. He likes to “keep it fun and in a state of flow.” These workouts can last as little as 10 to 20 minutes per session. Choong sums it up: “Do whatever suits you but try to do it everyday.”

A tower of Germany’s Zülpich Castle watches over Pirate Kung Fu. -Lux Homini

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