William John Christopher Wetzel was born 23 January, 1921 in Loemadjang, Java, Indonesia. He was half Dutch and his father was a military man in the empty of the Dutch; his mother was Indonesian. Some say Willy began studying the martial arts when he was about nine years old, but according to my teacher, Willy was about fourteen when his father told him that he was a man, and as a man, he would need to become acquainted with two things: war and women (clearly, there was a bit of old school manhood in the senior Mr. Wetzel). To this end, Willy’s father took him around to various martial arts schools and told him to pick one. So, Willy related later, he found that some schools stood high and some schools rolled around on the ground and still other schools leapt into the air and threw kicks, but there was one school where they did all these things and more, and so he chose that one; then, once he had chosen his school, his father took him to a prostitute, and in the eyes of his father, his son was thus well on the way to becoming a man. Thus, Willy became the student of a Chinese master of gongfu who had shared his knowledge with an Indonesian master of pencak silat name Mas Jut; together, they created a fusion martial system, which we will refer to here loosely as Cimande Pencak Silat. Sadly, the original Chinese transliteration of Willy’s master’s name cannot be known because we only know of the Dutch transliteration Oei Kim Boen. However, we try to use the original Chinese and Indonesian terms as often as possible, so we have attempted to re-Mandarinize his name as Hui Kim Bon (and yes, we are well aware that there is no such word as “re-Mandarinize”).
Now, according to my teacher, the heritage of the art referred to here as Cimande Pencak Silat (or Tjimindi Pentjak Silat, as it would be written in Dutch) is of both Chinese and Indonesian heritage, and that its gongfu heritage is rooted in both the Southern martial family- loosely referred to as neijia or Wudanquan- and the Southern martial family- loosely referred to as waijia or Shaolinquan. Having studied martial arts from both China and Indonesia- and having spent time in both countries-, I can attest to the truth of this. Because there is without doubt a very strong Chinese influence in Cimande Pencak Silat, which accounts for much of its exoticism. Moreover, it accounts for many of the differences between this family of martial arts and others of similar nature that originated on the island of Java, for instance those of the DeThouars family (more on that later).
This is obvious when looking not only at the art, but at how Willy himself described it, for he had an odd way of marketing his martial art by using a variety of terms from different countries, such that the patch he used for his school included not only the term poekoelan, a generic Indonesian term meaning "to strike" something; but also Judo, Kenpo, and Karate, Japanese terms that have absolutely nothing to do with Cimande Pencak Silat, although Willy may have been familiar with Japanese terms for the martial arts considering the Japanese had occupied Indonesia for a number of years, and that he had even been a POW of the Japanese during World War II; and finally, the Chinese term chuan fa (a Wade-Giles transliteration of the Pinyin quanfa), the meaning of which is something like "the fist method." The word chuan is commonly used in other Chinese martial arts, for instance, Tai Chi Chuan, or, as it is rendered in Pinyin, Taijiquan, or Hsing I Chuan, or as it is rendered in Pinyin, Xingyiquan. So for our purposes, we will refer to quanfa / chuan fa as though it were a generic term for the martial arts of China, and thus, the Chinese side of Cimande Pencak Silat.
[Willy Wetzel’s original school patch, which includes the non-Indonesian terms judo, kenpo, karate, and chuanfa, and a new version of the patch- sans all the non-Indonesian terms- used by the Five Dragons School of Pencak Silat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.]
Now, sifting through the various stories about Willy is like trying to disentangle the Gordian knot, but we must at least try. Some of these stories are fantastic; they sound mad to the modern mind. However, it must be remembered that Willy lived during a time of war, chaos, and suffering- during the Indonesian revolution against the Dutch in the 1940s (Indonesia gained its independence in 1945). Furthermore, it must be remembered that virtually none of the following information is agreed upon by everyone, so keep in mind that I am organizing it to the best of my ability, knowing what I do about the art.
Cimande Pencak Silat was, according to most sources, created by two men, one Chinese and one Indonesian. Their names were Hui Kem Bon and Mas Djut, the Dutch transliteration of the first being Oei Kem Boen. Tragically, any faithful reconstruction of the Chinese name rendered here as Hui Kem Bon is questionable at best, but his name in Mandarin may have been Huang Wu Wen. Now, some argue that Mas Djut was Willy's teacher, but I have only ever heard this claim from students that never knew Willy (grand-students or great-grand-students, etc.); every direct student of Willy's I ever met said his teacher of the Chinese master Hui Kem Bon, including a number of friends and fellow students of mine, not to mention my teacher Gale Shotsinger.
The history of Hui Kem Bon is mysterious, to say the least. He may have been a monk, or he may not have been a monk, and if he had indeed been a monk, it is unclear from which tradition; it is said that he was "a master of both northern gongfu and southern gongfu." Now, "northern gongfu" and "southern gongfu" are likely intended to reference, respectively, waijia / Shaolinquan and neijia / Wudanquan. These terms are not entirely well understood by the martial arts community, and so a bit of explanation is in order.
My teacher Gale Shotsinger- who did not speak Mandarin and appeared to have little interest in studying the cultural or historical aspect of the art- often referred to "the internal" arts and "the external" arts, and referred to them almost as synonymous with "soft" arts (such as Taijiquan) and "hard" arts (such as Shaolinquan). This is a common misunderstanding. Many years later, when studying Xingyiquan- a decidedly not-"soft" neijia art- with Mike Patterson, I learned that what the terms actually refer to are the neijia "internal house"- that is, those martial arts having originated in China, and thus native to the people and culture of China-, and the waijia "external house"- that is, those martial arts having originated external of China and brought to China via the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. However, I have never once heard these terms used in other systems of pencak silat, either in America or in Indonesia.
It is the Chinese that are obsessed with dichotomous terminology- a consequence of the ubiquity of yin-yang relationships in Buddho-Taoism-, and Chinese-influenced terms are similarly ubiquitous in Cimande Pencak Silat: kuntau, chuanfa, chi sau, chung block...the list goes on. I remember the first time I ever saw Xingyiquan, and thought to myself, "My God, Gale did that!" Then I saw Baguachung, and thought to myself, "My God, Gale did that too!" And so the more I studied the internal arts, the more I became convinced that Willy's teacher was indeed the Chinese master Hui Kem Bon, and in addition, that he was most likely a master of neijia / Wudangquan who then traveled to the Shaolin temple to become a master of waijia / Shaolinquan. This tendency to wander about has never been uncommon among monks; historically, Chinese monks have often traveled between holy sites, either due to weather or simply for the purpose of pilgrimage- for instance, the five sacred mountains of China, which include Tai Shan, Song Shan, Huang Shan, Heng Shan (Hunan), & Heng Shan (Shanxi); not to mention the four sacred mountains of Taoism, which include Wudang Shan, Longhu Shan, Qiyun Shan, & Qingcheng Shan; & finally, the four sacred mountains of Buddhism, which include Wutai Shan, Emei Shan, Putuo Shan, & Juijua Shan.
There is even a common phrase in China, which describes the perfect condition according to Taoism: "To wander like a cloud."
Whatever his origin, Hui Kem Bon appears to have mastered arts from both northern & souther traditions of China. Logically, it would make more sense that, if he were a monk at all, he was most likely of the tradition of Wudang, as the Wudang tradition is a Taoist tradition, and Taoism has a much more forgiving attitude towards hand-to-hand combat than Buddhism. By contrast, the Shaolin tradition is deeply rooted in Buddhism, and has a strong tendency towards pacifism, as Shaolin monks are required to take an oath of ahimsa (non-violence). So if Hui Kem Bon was a monk at all, he was probably a Taoist monk.
It is said Hui Kem Bon left China immediately following the Boxer Rebellion. Some sources, including those close to Willy, claim that Hui Kem Bon was a spy for a Dutch, and that his job was to extract intelligence for them about leaders of the revolution against the Dutch. This is, according to some, how he met Willy who, at the age of nine, was recruited in order to locate rebel training camps in return for being a student. And as crazy as this sounds, it is not entirely implausible; children are often used for military purposes in the third world.
Nonetheless, the details are tricky to pin down because according to my teacher, Willy began studying not at the age of nine but at the age of about fourteen, and so if Willy began studying at the age of nine, he would have started training around 1935; if Willy began studying at the age of fourteen, he would have started training around 1940. Now, although the war began in 1945 and lasted for four years until 1949 when the Dutch recognized their independence in 1949, the independence movement itself began in 1908. And so it is entirely plausible that Willy would have been "recruited" (through his father, most likely) to keep an eye on the natives for the Dutch prior to the Indonesian National Revolution. Personally, there are enough stories of Willy as a young boy with Hui Kem Bon for me to believe that my teacher Gale had the age wrong on this point, and that Willy did indeed begin his training at the age of nine. His lessons were "paid for" with information, and by the time the war kicked off in full display, he was old enough and skilled enough to begin assassinating rebels for the Dutch.
This would also explain the violent response of the Indonesians towards Willy after the war was over (Willy was essentially a spy and a traitor in the eyes of his fellow Indonesians)- but more on that later...
There are many, many problems with tracing back the origin of Cimande Pencak Silat. Many of these problems are rooted in the fact that there are more than a few bullshitters in the martial arts community, a community characterized by not a small amount of deceitful bitchiness. This is a sad fact of reality, but it is what it is. But let us discuss what we do know with a relative level of certainty.
Hui Kem Bon collaborated with an Indonesian master of pencak silat named Mas Djut in the town of Cimande, near Bandung, Java. Mas Djut was, for his part, a student of Bepak Serak, a man my teacher Gale described as having two "withered" limbs. Whatever the nature of his disease, which is once again a subject of disagreement, everyone seems to agree that Bepak Serak was at least partially crippled, and in spite of this, became a brutal fighter. Furthermore, his infirmity explains why the serak system of pencak silat has such an odd manner of doing things, and why its movement tends to be very one-sided in orientation.
There is, incidentally, quite a lot of confusion about the term serak, which refers to a very specific art when included under the banner of Cimande Pencak Silat. My teacher had always claimed that what was often referred to as serak in the martial arts world was nothing at all like the serak used by Willy Wetzel. Gale had always displayed contempt for the serak of the De Thouars, for instance, saying that it was not serak at all, and although I would not go so far as to say it is "not serak," it is certainly not the serak of Cimande Pencak Silat. Clearly, there are very serious differences between the two types of serak, and although they may often use similar terms, what they are referring to is not at all similar.
This would make sense, of course, if it is true that Willy's teacher was the Chinaman Hui Kem Bon. Because that would mean that the serak he had been taught- and later transmitted to my teacher Gale- would have been serak as understood through the lens of the martial arts of China. Therefore, the serak of the Cimande tradition is not pure-form serak at all; rather, it is an evolution and adaptation of serak of Mas Djut as understood by Hui Kem Bon. Thus, the Cimande Pencak Silat system of Willy Wetzel should rightly be viewed not so much a balanced union of Chinese and Indonesian martial arts, but rather a primary fusion of northern and southern Chinese martial arts accompanied by a second and subsequent fusion of this with Indonesian martial arts- but viewed through a Chinese lens, and thus, conformed to a Chinese way of doing things via the master Hui Kem Bon. This is why the silat of Willy Wetzel looks so atypical, so exotic, while the serak of the De Thouars looks so immediately identifiable as Indonesian.
Now, there are many, many, many stories about Willy's training. For instance, there is a wonderful tale about him having to fight four men to the death in order to receive his "black belt" (ranking in Indonesia varies from island to island, and from art to art, so the term "black belt" is used loosely), and that he was required to kill one but successfully killed three of the four. This is probably nonsense, as it is completely devoid of reason. Consider a martial arts school where for every one student who attains a black belt, between one and four must be killed in the process! Such a school would not last long.
We were told another, much more plausible story about this test, which I will now recount.
The black belt test consisted not of a fight to the death against four assailants, but rather a room in which there were four assailants- with no command to fight to the death. This room had a door at one side and a door at the other side, and there were no windows, only total darkness, with a man waiting at each corner with a stick. Willy's task was to pass through the room, but he failed three times, and three times wound up in the hospital. Because of this, Willy's father, who quite reasonably feared for the life of his son, went to Hui Kem Bon to ask if there was any advice the master could give him, to which the master replied, "I never said he had to fight them." So the next time Willy took the test, he closed the door behind him, tiger-rolled through the center of the room, and as the men mistakenly struck one another in the dark, walked out the other side where he was given his black belt.
Now, when Willy was about 17, he joined the Royal Dutch Indonesian Army. We have discussed the fact that one theory about Willy's training is that he located rebel training camps for his martial arts teacher in return for training. Whether he did this as a boy or not, it certainly seems likely that this is what he did later in life once he became a member of the military, as most of the stories told to me about Willy involved assassination-style attacks on rebel camps in the jungles of Indonesia. For instance, once Willy was directed to take out a guard tower, but there was a young girl walking the perimeter. Now, Willy knew if she saw him, she would cry out, and so he snuck up behind her and snapped her neck, dumping her body in a ditch. Before moving on, he took a photograph of her body, then proceeded to the camp, where he threw a couple of grenades into the guard tower, then left.
Incidentally, we were told Willy kept a photo collection of various kills, which was confiscated at customs when he fled Indonesia. This really reveals quite a lot about the world that created him. Years later, his wife would wake him up from sleep with a broom stick because he would still roll out of bed into combat, ready to kill. At the time, there was no word for such a condition; today, we might call it post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Now, according to my teacher, Willy went on fifty-some missions for the Dutch government, killing one, two, or three people on every mission. But at that time, there was no law; there were no police. Trucks would drive the streets daily, throwing bodies into the back, no questions asked. And so we should not be surprised that Willy killed men in civilian life as well. For instance, there is a story about a man with a scar down his face who was walking down the street with his girlfriend. She smiled at Willy, and Willy smiled back. The man became enraged, and attacked Willy with a knife that had a blade coming out both sides of the hand, like a crescent moon, and he was very, very good with the knife. Several minutes passed, and Willy could not get in on his opponent, until finally the man slipped in the sand; Willy took advantage of the opportunity, and broke the man's knee, which caused him to buckle, then collapse to one side, at which point, Willy re-chambered his kick, then snapped the man's neck as he fell. Finally, Willy took the man's woman to bed.
But back to the war...
The Dutch, in spite of their attempts to reassert control, failed to keep the colony, and the rebels gained victory and secured the independence of Indonesia. This was bad news for Willy who, in the minds of his enemies, was a half-breed who sided with foreigners against his own people. Death threats became a problem, and so he and his family fled the country. First, they went to Holland in 1949, then continued on to America in 1956.
This is how Willy came to live in the United States.
Willy's first two sons were born in Holland; his youngest son and only daughter, however, were born in America after the family had finally moved to Vanport, Pennsylvania. Having no real skills, he found work at Westinghouse, where he became somewhat famous around the mill for his fighting ability, and appears to have enjoyed winning money making bets with his coworkers. According to stories, Willy could leap straight up in the air and kick an eight foot ceiling with his foot. My own teacher told me once that Willy would do a demo where a student was given an escrima-style stick of bamboo with half of it colored red and half of it colored blue, and he would throw this stick at Willy, then a student would call out a color, and Willy would snatch the stick out of the air by grabbing only that colored half.
Willy was, according to each and everyone, "the real deal."
Up until this point, some masters from the old country had tried to force him to return- by chopping up his mother and sending him photos by mail. This failed; Willy understood, and stayed in America. Finally, Willy was paid a visit by some Indonesian masters in the United States. During this meeting, a master handed him a white flower, so that he would know that whatever contracts were out on him and his family were closed- in effect, that the war was over, both personally and politically.
Before long, Willy was training men at Westinghouse. My teacher claims this was the first wave of students to have studied under Willy, but that these men only received their black belt in kuntao, which was, according to Gale, only the beginning of the training. So these men became proficient in some rudimentary skill sets, but never went much further. Later, when Willy opened up his own school, Gale became his primary student- one of three "Golden Boys"- and the only student to receive the totality of the teaching. Moreover, he helped to teach the third waves of students, which included Willy's own sons.
This is of critical importance, because there are many students who claim to have studied under Willy, but according to my teacher, Willy really had three eras of instruction:
1) The first class of students were fellow mill workers at Westinghouse who studied kuntao but never went beyond black belt. They worked hard, and they could fight, but many of the skills that made Willy the killer he was were never taught to them, and for this reason, their movement sometimes looks more like typical pencak silat.
2) The second wave of students included my teacher, and these spent many years training under him until his death. They had a full understanding of not only the fundamentals, but also the deeper secret arts, which were not taught to either of the two other waves, but only to the very few, which is not at all uncommon in the traditional martial arts community, especially in Asia.
3) The third wave of students, which includes Willy's own children, were being taught during a very small window of time before his death. They never received the secrets of the art because they quite simply arrived too late in the day, which is not at all to imply that they lacked talent or capability, for many of these men were admittedly lethal, even if only due to fanatical training.
Now, most of the controversy involving Willy Wetzel pertains specifically to his death. My teacher always gave the highest respect to Willy, and always claimed that his kids never received the art in its entirety because they were simply too young. He also stated that most who claim Willy as their forebear have only a very small fraction of Willy's art, which Willy himself often referred to as a "broken mirror system." And so it is difficult to piece together the old art; its transmission has been fractured over the years.
Having seen Gale move, and having seen the movements of students of Roy and Jim, Willy's sons, I can attest that there are very stark differences between them. Many of these differences in technique Gale always attributed to Willy, and I believe him, because Gale was never one to be demure about his own contributions to the art. He was always more than willing to take credit for being the greatest fighter to ever walk this Earth- humility never having been his strong suit-, so I can only assume that if he gave credit for the secret teachings to Willy, then they must have come from Willy.
He was, after all, "the real deal," a force of nature with years of combat experience, and perhaps in the realm of a hundred or so kills, many of them by hand. So we will move on to his death.
Willy was murdered on 17 March, 1975 by his son Roy.
Dead men tell no tales, and history is written by the survivor. Roy claimed that he and Willy were working on the taxes for the school when Willy became enraged over something or other, so he threw the pen across the room, grabbed a Hawaiian ceremonial sword, and yelled out a "Kiai!" Supposedly, Roy got behind him, and prevented him from drawing the sword by "bending the scabbard." There was a violent fight that included a "rigger's knife" and a "seppuku sword," not to mention nunchucks, which Roy claims to have strangled his father with after Willy slashed him over and over again with the knife. Then Roy claimed that his father was a Satanist, because voodoo dolls were found in the house, along with rivers of blood.
First, let us ignore the fact that this hypothetical fight seems to be like something out of the mind of a sixteen year old boy who just happens to be listing everything he can think of all at once: Hawaiian ceremonial sword, rigger's knife, seppuku sword, nunchucks, voodoo dolls...none of which were in any way related to Willy, his cultural background, or his style of fighting, Cimande Pencak Silat. And let us also ignore the fact that Roy supposedly prevented him from drawing a sword by "bending the scabbard," whatever the hell that means. Instead, let us only look at the fact that Willy Wetzel, a lifelong martial artist and professional killer of soldiers, was somehow bested by his own twenty-something year old son, with weapons, in hand to hand combat, and that somehow, someway, none of this master's strikes landed successfully. My teacher always made it absolutely clear that any story involving Roy besting his father in hand to hand combat was an absurdity; he argued that there were numerous inconsistencies.
First, Willy called his art "silent death" specifically because he would never use a kiai in combat as it would alert others to his presence, and he was an assassin whose survival depended upon not being detected. And none of the weapons listed were Indonesian weapons, and even so, there is no preventing the drawing of a sword by "bending the scabbard" because logically, if the sword is undrawn, then "bending the scabbard" means also "bending the sword in the scabbard." But what kind of weak-ass sword are we to believe Willy kept in his possession? This is clearly ridiculous. Finally, the idea that Willy was able to physically cut Roy but was somehow unable to kill him is laughable to the point of being preposterous; dozens- and possibly hundreds- had been killed by Willy.
He was an assassin who survived a brutal revolution. Willy did not miss, and he certainly never failed to kill his target when his blows actually landed, which was Roy's claim. Yet Roy claimed that his father had indeed cut him repeatedly, but that he was unable to deliver a killing blow. But it certainly makes for a good story.
Now, I remember once meeting a man who came by the school who either knew my teacher or knew of him. He was involved in the investigation into Willy's death, and he said it was clear that Willy was killed by blunt force trauma to the back of the head, and that all other injuries on his body were post-mortem- but in 1975, people in western Pennsylvania knew very little about the martial arts, and even less about forensic science, and so Roy went free. Moreover, he said they always knew Roy murdered his father, but proving it to a jury was difficult. Perhaps the mystique of the fight to the death between man and son was too enchanting to abandon.
Whatever the case, Roy went on to build his entire reputation on his father's name.
So this is the life of Willy Wetzel, recounted here to the best of my knowledge and memory. Do with it what you will. Many of these stories are, admittedly, difficult to swallow, but Willy's was a very different world, with a very different set of rules.
Like my teacher always said, "I wasn't in his back pocket, but this is what he told me. All I ever cared about was whether or not it worked." And it worked.
[This photo was taken during a martial arts demonstration by Ten Dragons School of Pencak Silat in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, circa 1996-7. Top row, from left to right: Joshua van Asakinda, Rob Crown, Paul Morack, our teacher Gale Shotsinger, Jim Richner, & Gale's best friend Scottie, who died quite suddenly in 2002; bottom row, from left to right: Jason Deppenbrook, Paul Deppenbrook, some lady I never knew, and Paul Deppenbrook's wife.]