Learning Discipline and Trust Through Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

By Liani MK

September 2023 FEATURE
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Photos by Arieff Zafir

JESSEN ONG'S wedding day was celebrated with vows, music and love.

He did not know it then as he cycled to his bride’s house as an excited 26-year-old, but that day would also unfold as the prologue to another story—one of combat.

It was during his wedding that Jessen met a martial arts coach who invited him to train. “From there, I was hooked on the martial arts world,” Jessen recalls with a smile.

This seemingly casual decision led him to compete seriously in mixed martial arts (MMA). By 2016, Jessen had redirected his focus to Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), a grappling-based martial art that was only just beginning to gain momentum on the island. Today, he proudly holds a purple belt.

From an amateur fighter in the Malaysian Invasion Mixed Martial Arts (MIMMA) arena to BJJ, Jessen’s martial arts journey echoes a broader narrative of change within Penang’s martial arts community.

Penang’s martial arts have witnessed a surge in popularity, particularly with BJJ. As more jiu-jitsu gyms sprout across the island, it is clear that the spirit of community is what drives this growth behind the art form with practitioners from all walks of life.

Building Momentum

For Jessen Ong, it seemed only natural that he would eventually open a martial arts gym. This he did, co-founding it with like-minded practitioners, Poppy Lee and Chanelle Lim.

His well-lit studio in Tanjung Bungah exudes clarity and calm as practitioners file in. The room gives off an understated elegance, with a background the colour of milk, adorned with lights, plants and hard-earned tournament medals. On the side, there is a coffee machine, uniforms and other martial arts paraphernalia. Everything is curated for the comfort of students and trainers. The attention to detail extends to every facet of the place, including the choice of floor material to reflect the owners’ wish to optimal training conditions.

“We just did whatever we wanted in an ideal gym,” co-founder Poppy says with a laugh.

This being a weekday evening, one can hear the muffled thuds of bodies hitting the mat as practitioners in white gi uniforms engage in a dance of strategy and technique.

“Jiu-jitsu is the fastest-learned martial arts today,” says Chanelle, another co-founder and martial artist.

Renowned for its ground fighting techniques and submission holds, BJJ emphasises strategy, technique and intellect, and is for people of all shapes and sizes. The art form drew countless big names as practitioners, including Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey and the late Anthony Bourdain.

Chanelle also notes that there is a rising interest in BJJ among women. There are currently over 50 active female students at their gym.

“You learn the skills to fight in as fast as one or two weeks. At the same time, there’s so much to learn beyond just one type of move,” she says. “That’s why people get hooked with jiu-jitsu and keep coming back. Once you learn how to fight, you keep wanting to learn new things.”

According to Chanelle, the academy’s appeal not only transcends age and gender, it also attracts enthusiasts from around the world who are eager to train while still enjoying Penang’s cuisine at the same time. “Some would even just fly down to train with us and eat Penang food!” she laughs.

They organise regular open mats on Saturdays which welcome practitioners from various corners of Penang. “From students to lawyers, you meet all sorts of people in jiu-jitsu,” says Poppy. “The dojo is sacred in that way. It’s like a temple; once you step in, whether you’re a barber or an accountant, all of you bow. No one cares if you’re the landlord or CEO of a bank. Everyone’s the same.”

Playing Chess With the Body

“A lot of people think jiu-jitsu has to be hard,” says Poppy. “But in jiu-jitsu you need to have a goal. It’s like storytelling, where you move, or flow, from one to another part. From the head to the feet. It’s not just about brute strength.”

As I watched jiu-jitsu students—as young as 10—grapple on the floor, I was drawn to how BJJ can be both physically demanding and intellectually stimulating.

“It’s more like a gentle art. When you reach a higher level or deeper understanding, you may even encounter some fake moves, or traps, from your opponent. You start to see how players want you to make that move, without even using force. It’s a kind of peeling-the-onion game. It’s human chess.”

“Playing chess with the body”, as Poppy describes it, jiu-jitsu encourages practitioners to manage pressure-cooker scenarios. It shapes character traits like composure, focus and patience.

For Poppy, whose background is in finance, it helps him become more composed in managing a fast-paced work environment. “I don’t have to conduct a seminar with a blue-black eye,” Poppy adds with a chuckle. “Jiu-jitsu is safe if you know what you’re doing.”

This martial art extends to children as well. As Poppy affirms, the art of jiu-jitsu goes beyond physicality; it becomes a vehicle for life lessons.

“When children learn martial arts, they build a natural bond of trust with their peers,” says Poppy; In fact, they plan specific training programmes for children, and ensure that no one gets injured by having a tapping sign to signal stop.

“The belt is also something you earn; it cannot be bought. So children are taught to show respect and be patient,” says Poppy. “Kids who started at 10 are now teaching other youths in classes.”

They have competitions too, and the group attends tournaments throughout the country.

“The main core value is to keep the passion going and to build this community,” says Jessen.

That community proved to be solid during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, when gyms were not allowed to open. They were able to self-sustain through t-shirt sales and other forms of support from their students.

“It was difficult for many gyms across the world. We could not have made it without the strong bond of the community,” shares Poppy. “This is our proudest moment; for having gone through the worst time of our lives and survived through our community’s support.”

“You don’t win every day in life,” Jessen adds. “It’s the same on the mats—you don’t always get to be the best. That’s something that we learn as well.”

Jessen, Poppy and Chanelle’s shared passion gave rise to a space that goes beyond just physical training—and indeed, it has become a sanctuary where BJJ nurtures community spirit. Ultimately, the appeal of Penang’s jiu-jitsu scene lies not only in the techniques performed on the mat, but in this unspoken unity among its practitioners.

Liani MK

is a journalist, writer and artist who focuses on migration, indigenous rights and culture. In addition to her creative pursuits, she trains in capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial arts.