Otto R. VanDerGroen was born in Bandung Indonesia November 16 1940. He was the son of the legendary fighter, Edgar VanDerGroen, known to the KunTao community as Mr. Lie Gai. Mr Lie Gai was a master in KunTao, but also had attained ranks in some Silat styles. The biographies of both are very intertwined since they shared a love for KunTao and contributed to each others efforts in a very significant way. More than a formal father and son relationship, these two shared a special friendship. Tai Sifu Otto begun his training from his father when he was only but 5 years old. At the early age of 12 he was considered to be specially gifted. By the age of 16 he was already teaching. Besides the great fortune of having such a legendary fighter as his father and teacher, the young VanDerGroen benefitted from the respect and trust his father commanded. Because of this, many of the great KunTao teachers of the area taught him without reserve. Another of his outstanding teachers was uncle, known as the Indonesian “Tarzan”, because of the prowess he demonstrated during the second world war Japanese occupation of Indonesia. He is known to have taken the lives of many Japanese, hidden in the jungle, alone and armed only with a knife. It is from men like these that Otto VanDerGroen received his lessons. Young VanDerGroen left Indonesia and went to the United States of America in 1956. He trained with police officers in the area at that young age, along with his father. At the age of 18, he joined the Army. He was a true martial artist and believed that, in order for him to be true to his understanding of the art, he would have to find a way to live it in the extreme environment of war.
In 1959, while station in Korea, he receives his black belt in HapKiDo. He accomplishes this in less than one year training, with advancement up to the fourth degree by 1963 which is even more unusual. This is of course consequence to the fact that he has been training for more than 12 years by the time he begins with his Korean training. He becomes very fond of one of his Korean instructors, Mr Kwon Jae Hwa. What intrigued him mainly about Tae Kwon Do was the way large open organizations function and grow. He saw that the future of much of what is real in KunTao was being lost due the secrecy and strictness of the systems. He expressed this understanding by claiming that “The future belongs to the arts that become highly sophisticated”. With this, he wanted to find a way to broaden the practice of KunTao, but not loose its tradition and identity to the degeneration of it principles by the careless and the uncommitted. During his stay in the army in Germany, he opens a school. This school is open to the public but is mostly composed of men in the military. He names his studio “Kun Tao Kai Karate Dojo”. The group has many Hawaiian members. The word Imua, which is a Hawaiian word meaning “To go forward with Spirit” becomes part of the name of his school.
In 1964 he takes part in the efforts of the Korean Arts to open Tae Kwon Do to the world, the “Good Will Mission”. He wins the International European Championship three years in a row, undefeated. He receives the title of “Karate Grand Master of the Year”.
In 1967 he holds the rank of 4th Degree in Hapkido. The proofs for the front of the original and first book on Tae Kwon Do are of him, but the Koreans decide to change it because he was not Korean. His skill in KunTao had given him such an advantage. Tai Sifu believed that, in order to have KunTao survive modern times and environments, the best idea was to begin teaching an art like Karate or Tae Kwon Do and then teach KunTao to those students who showed loyalty and the right attitude towards their training would be taught the true KunTao. In other words, he used other arts as basic training and as filters since these arts where already open systems. This does not mean that he held no respect for Tae Kwon Do. Indeed, he loved the art. He made many deep friendships with practitioners of the art, some of which became his students. As many teachers of Tae Kwon Do will agree, the art, in becoming a sport, lost some of its edge. KunTao has never been a sport. True KunTao can not be and VanDerGroen was not going to be the one to make it into one either. In the same year of 1967 he is commissioned to re-write the hand to hand combat manual for the armed forces of the United States. In understanding the demands of effective and lethal skills needed for close encounters, the importance of “reality” training becomes foremost in his teaching. “True self defense is one movement that brings your opponent to defeat”. With this, the new ideology behind attack and counter drills shifts from the “many strike” system to the “adversary management” system. Further into his Army career, he is accepted into the Army Special forces. He serves 3 tours of duty in Vietnam, he is wounded 4 times. One of the wounds is to his left arm. The army physician who attends him decides to amputate the arm. His suggestion is rejected by VanDerGroen and the surgeon is persuaded to not amputate.
As a result of the wound, Otto VanDerGroen looses partial use of his arm. Strangely enough, it is during this time that he re discovers part of his teachings and polishes his training. Part of the lessons that the young VanDerGroen has received from his father come from the traditional teachings of a man called Radem Pak Serak (of course, indirectly), who was actually a one armed man.
He shifts his focus onto techniques which emphasize the ability to block, to strike simultaneously, grab and disable opponents with one arm. He thought the injury to his arm would limit him greatly, but this altered focus revives his interests. He often sparred with his left hand at his waist, or even tucked under his belt, with the right arm elevated to the level of the forehead, parallel to the ground.
KunTao families and tradition are strict. Tradition is jealously guarded and no thoughtless changes are admitted into the practice. Secrecy, loyalty, honor, and total devotion are paramount to the study of true KunTao styles. In this unusually closed and strict environment, something even more unusual happens. The heads of the Shantung KunTao organization in Indonesia ask and give honor to Otto VanDerGroen by accepting his system as unique and worthy of a name. He found the VanDerGroen system and refuses the greater control by recognizes his father’s efforts, contributions and influence and placing his father as the head of the new system. His father, a 7th Rank teacher, equivalent of Pendekar in the Silat Systems, agrees to be the head of his family system, but Otto VanDerGroen, as Tai Sifu, is the pioneer of the system. The system truly is made of the influences of both men.
Tai Sifu Otto never pushed his own name in the system, even though he had been authorized and had the credentials. To the end, his father remained his leader and his closest friend. He never took equal ranking to that of his father, even when offered. The relationship between this two was very powerful and is indeed unique. Later in life Mr. Lie Gai would live a totally different life after the passing of his son. This was a devastating event for him and his family. For many years he retired completely from the practice and teaching of KunTao. He only returned to help those who loved his son’s system, as an ode and compelled by the love he felt for his son which was never ending.
It is important here to note here that there is a major misconception regarding Mr Lie Gai’s training lineage. Many practitioners classify him as a Cimande and Cicalong teacher. He was that, but his main roots and allegiance where to Kuntao. This misconception is one easy to arrive to, since his visible or open practice was that of the practice of Silat. Secondly, Mr. Edgar VanDerGroen belonged to the deep secret societies of KunTao in Indonesia. Chinese secrets are so to the point where they don’t exist. Later in life, he reveals in the west his KunTao associations and lineage but only to his closest students. Still, one has only to add up the facts to see how this is clear even in hiding. His martial arts name, and signature for diplomas is Lie Gai “lightning” and not an indonesian title or personal name. His rank and title is not that of Pendekar, as should be for Silat practitioners, but instead follows Kuntao grading. Still the greatest indication comes from the fact that his son becomes an expert in Shantung Kuntao under his tutelage, and not Silat. Mr Edgar VanDerGroen is a Dutch indonesian, not of Malay descent, but of Chinese descent. The strictest of the old kuntao teachers only instructed to the chinese. The even stricter teachers only taught to pure chinese. As for Tai Sifu Otto, his career in the military expands. in 1976 he is awarded the rank of Commanding officer of company C 3rd battalion, 7th special forces Airborne, 1st Special Forces in Panama. He has now accomplished what he set to do. His understanding and execution of KunTao are not only tradition but also modern, not only aesthetic but deadly effective. He has created a method to teach KunTao and not loose KunTao to the careless. He continues in his army career, teaching and opening KunTao schools around the world. His strongest efforts are in Germany, Colombia, Argentina, Holland, Indonesia, Mexico and the United States teaching military recruits hoping that they will open kuntao schools themselves. His organization, under the wing of the traditional Shantung KunTao leaders in Indonesia, takes hold and begins growing formally. His father who is also his teacher, leader, advisor and his best friend helps him.
He invites people of the caliber of Mr. Willem DeThouars to be part of his organization. As early as 1975 Mr. Willem DeThouars appears listed as Secretary in his organization. The KunTao community in the United States is small, and as loyal and strict to their origins and teachers as if they had never left Indonesia. His KunTao family lineage is related to the Chinese Indonesian community in Indonesia and in his writings it is clear he never abandons his roots and aims his efforts at enhancing and augmenting what his KunTao family has been doing for centuries. In 1979 Tai Sifu Otto died in a tragic accident. He died to spare the life of his brothers in a work accident. He had retired from the army, rejecting the rank of Major. He was to engage in one more duty for the army when this occurred. The rest of his life, he had planned to devote to the spread of Imua Kun (Kuon) Tao, the art and way he molded so masterfully into becoming. He has been gone now for more than 20 years. Still, his way was so powerful and true, he continues to guide us today. No one has mastered his way to date, but many continue to reach unexpected levels of personal achievement because of his guidance and principles. He is here with us today indeed, as part of our own better becoming.
I believe that his was the greatest promise for KunTao for the west. He was a great translator. In his translation none of the meaning of the original verses of this precious lifestyle where lost. We, his students, are left with the memories and the few pearls that he granted us. In trying to preserve his dream and not pervert it, we find a worthy task. Worthy because of the man who gave us the vision, worthy because it makes of us greater men, and worthy most of all, because any and all who knew him came to love him and honor him.