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    Adept at aikido
2005-07-11 06:44

Bai Nan, a 26-year-old office employee, looks slim and delicate. But she can bring down a man much taller and stronger with one blow.

It was on a winter evening - on her way home after regular aikido training in Wuyuan Aikido Club - that a robber attempted to snatch Bai's bag and the gritty woman used the techniques learnt in the club to subdue the robber in one fell swoop.

"Our club members are quite capable of dealing with such attacks," Zhang Xun, general manager of Wuyuan Aikido Club, tells China Business Weekly.

Founded by Japanese martial artist Morihei Ueshiba in the 1940s, aikido is a martial art focusing on the integration of soul, energy and body with the universe; and is used as a form of exercise and self-defence.

"Aikido forbids the practitioners to attack or fight with other people aggressively," stresses Zhang.

The unique characteristics, such as moderation and the technique of defeating the enemy in one go make aikido suitable for men and women of any age, says Zhang, in his 30s, who is the first to introduce it on the mainland.

Zhang and his partner Gai Zhen, a close friend from childhood, operate five outlets in Beijing. The number of Wuyuan's members in Beijing is more than 3,000, ranging from four-year-old kids to grandparents over 60.

They also have franchises in South China's Guangzhou and Central China's Taiyuan.

Development track

Zhang, who used to be a professional wrestler, is a keen exponent of traditional Chinese martial arts - kung fu, taekwondo and shadow boxing, which are similar to aikido to some extent.

"I happened to meet a senior Russian aikido practitioner in 2000, and fell in love with the martial art. At the beginning, I practised it with my friend occasionally just for fun," says Zhang.

It is also by accident that the hobby was translated into a career: When Zhang and his friends practiced aikido in a yard of Beijing Working People's Cultural Palace a large temple of the Ming and the Qing dynasties designated a historic treasure more and more people started joining in.

"The administrative committee required us to get a business licence, so we had to register a club in 2002," recalls Zhang. "The first Wuyuan outlet opened in Beijing Youth Palace and the website was launched simultaneously."

Zhang soon contacted the International Aikido Federation and registered Wuyuan as a member of the professional association.

"I feel I am very lucky, for I can support my living by my hobby and spread aikido culture with little worry about money," Zhang admits.

Wuyuan's operation conforms to the rules of the federation.

Enthusiasts should first register as a member of the club, which ensures he/she will obey the principles and cherish the ethics of aikido.

Monthly, semiannual and yearly cards cost 190 yuan (US$23), 880 yuan (US$106) and 1,600 yuan (US$193) respectively.

"A set of aikido clothing is priced at 220 yuan (US$27) and professional VCDs and DVDs about aikido have been promoted in the market," says Zhang.

In Wuyuan, teachers are divided into two groups, the full-time staff and international-exchange coaches.

The club pays salaries to the full-time teachers and only covers transportation and accommodation of the international coaches, who are sent by the International Aikido Federation on a voluntary basis.

Business expansion

To speed up expansion, Zhang and Gai decided to adopt the franchise model, with the first club set up in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, last February. Wuyuan offers teachers or trains coaches for qualified applicants.

Franchisees are allowed to use the Wuyuan brand and should hand in 80,000 yuan (US$9,639), 90,000 yuan (US$10,843) and 100,000 yuan (US$12,048) to Wuyuan during the first three years of operation.

The franchise operation is going smoothly Zhang and Gai are in negotiations with applicants from Kunming of Yunnan Province, Changzhou in Jiangsu, Chengde in Hebei and Huludao of Liaoning.

However, along with the business boom, there is a shortage of professionals, especially senior coaches, which inspired Zhang and Gai to set up a training centre to meet the ever-increasing demand.

A training base was set up in southern rural Beijing on February 28; and tuition is 5,000 yuan (US$602) for a student at the primary stage and 10,000 yuan (US$1,204) for the senior training course.

Though Zhang and Gai decline to elaborate on their business performance, they acknowledge Wuyuan is still making a loss.

Fan Zheng, director with Market Administration Office of the Beijing Sports Bureau, tells China Business Weekly it will take time for Wuyuan to get in the black.

But, "the prospects are promising and benefits will come from scale," says Fan.

(China Daily 07/11/2005 page1)


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