Virginia Mayhew, was my first Aikido teacher who introduced me to this beautiful martial art.
Virginia was a very special American woman. She was a gifted aikido teacher who first brought this gentle, near-magical, defensive martial art to Hong Kong.
The year was 1967, and I was then a very immature 19-year-old who was working as a photographer on a local English-language newspaper, The Star.
I had done a little Judo at the Chinese YMCA, in Waterloo Road, Kowloon, when I was at school, and one of my friends suggested I might wish to photograph this Aikido teacher and her class for my newspaper.
First Aikido demonstration
I went round to the class, and was most impressed to learn about the joint locks and throws that Aikido uses to immobilize the person who attacks you. I took dozens of photographs and wrote about this in my story.
When the pictures were published, the newspapers sub-editors had added the horrifying headline, “Aikido, The Painful Art”. Virginia was less than impressed by this, but she never said a word to me about it (after her initial grimace).
She was very low-key about most things, but in the two years I got to know her a little I realized that she was “on a mission” to spread peace and non-violence through her beautiful martial art.
People would find her because they wanted to learn to fight, and Virginia Mayhew would teach them how to ‘not fight’. That was her life’s mission.
Virginia was one of only two women who ever learned directly from Master Morihei Ueshiba. (The other woman aikido student of O’Sensei’s was a Japanese national. I don’t know her name.)
Morihei Ueshiba is the founder of modern Aikido, and was affectionately known as O-Sensei (which means “Great Teacher”) by his Aikido students.
She was also taught by Koichi Tohei Sensei, the man who later founded the Ki Society. At that time he was the manager of O-‘Sensei’s Hombu Dojo.
Virginia was taught by O-Sensei that violence is a sort of “temporary insanity”, and is best neutralized without more violence. Otherwise it is just one insanity creating another insanity, and no peace comes from it. (Just look at places like the Middle East to see how this insanity keeps on and on.)
Virginia opened up the Hong Kong Aikikai in Tsimshtsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong, and also ran classes at two YMCAs and a chain of local schools, where it was taught as part of the school childrens physical education.
Two other now well-known Aikido personalities who passed through Hong Kong at that time and helped out at the Hong Kong Aikikai dojo were Henry Kono and Alan Ruddock. The last I heard, Henry Kono was teaching Aikido in Canada, and Alan Ruddock was teaching in the Isle of Man and in Ireland.
There was an occasion where Virginia Mayhew gave a demonstration in a commercial gymnasium on Hong Kong Island to recruit new students.
She demonstrated an Aikido kote-gaeshi wrist throw on her training partner, and then she slowed it down so we in the audience could see how it was done.
“Always keep your partner’s wrist close to their shoulder”, Virginia explained. “That way they can be thrown without being injured.” Then she changed the grip slightly and lowered he arm… “If you do it like this, the wrist and the arm will break, here, here and here.” She pointed to the wrist, the elbow and the shoulder joints.
A thin, small European man in the audience stood up and clapped with obvious delight at the mention of arm-breaking.
Virginia stared at him and said, “Your attitude is wrong. I will not have you as a student. Kindly leave my class.”
The man stood up and left the gymnasium without a word.
Now in 1967, Hong Kong was being racked by street riots and terrorist bombings. These were a by-product of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution, happening just 40 miles away, across the border from the then-British Colony.
There were many street battles between communist sympathizers and the British authorities, and quite a number of people on both sides were killed in the violence, together with many innocents, including children, being killed when they touched these booby-trapped bombs.
Some weeks after Virginia’s aikido demonstration, she walked around a street corner straight into a street riot in Shamshuipo district, Kowloon. The man she had thrown out of her class was a uniformed Police Inspector, and she saw him on his own, cut off from his riot squad, with his back against a wall.
The mob of rioters was trying to reach him and snatch his .38 service revolver from its Sam Browne holster. He had lost his long wooden riot baton, and he was fending his attackers off by hitting at them with the edge of his disc-shaped wickerwork riot shield.
Virginia Mayhew danced into the crowd, smiling serenely and confidently. As the woman aikido teacher spun round, bodies were hurled away from her in all directions as the attackers discovered the power of “Ki”. Reaching the shaken Police Inspector, she took him by the arm and led him back down the street to rejoin his riot platoon.
The rest of the mob stood respectfully clear and allowed them both to pass through.
Once they were safe, Virginia said to him, “I am sorry. I was mistaken. I did not understand that violence has to be a part of your life. I will teach you.” And for the next two years this remarkable woman instructed the policeman as a private student.
The cop was from Glasgow, Scotland. At that time he was attached to the Royal Hong Kong Police Emergency Unit, where he headed a platoon of crack Chinese riot police.
He was the one who told me what happened, and he and I became great friends. But he was always mindful what he said to me because I worked as a journalist back then.
The Aikido techniques that Virginia taught him saved his life many times both in the riots and later on in his career after he returned to the United Kingdom, where he married and settled down.
Virginia Mayhew learned her aikido at Morihei Ueshiba’s original Aikikai Hombu dojo during the 1960s, when Koichi Tohei Sensei was chief instructor and dojo manager there. She was the only non-Japanese female to have learned Aikido directly from O-Sensei. I am told there was a Japanese woman student as well, but I do not have any details about her.
She was also one of the founders of the New York Aikikai, and I know she trained in Hawaii – possibly with Koichi Tohei Sensei again, but I’m not 100% sure they were both there at the same time.
O-Sensei died in 1969, and I remember Virginia telling us all that the great master was dead.
She travelled back to Honbu Dojo in Japan soon afterwards to ask for a replacement instructor for her schools. She wanted again visit India where she had a spiritual guru she wished to continue learning from.
When Virginia was unable to reach an agreement with the Aikikai management she came back to Hong Kong, closed up the dojo and the other clubs and schools where she taught Aikido.
Then she went off to India to learn from her guru there. I know she took the married an Indian businessman, and took on the family name of Patel. Later she bore a daughter named Shankari.
Some years ago I managed to find an address for Virginia and I wrote to her. I received a reply from Shankari telling me that Virginia had suffered a stroke. But when I wrote again my letters were returned, ‘address unknown’.
Virginia Mayhew was a perfect example of the best qualities that Aikido has to offer. She lived Aikido. Those of us who knew her have had our lives enriched as a result.
Virginia Mayhew died on 27th October 2006. She is survived by her daughter, Shankari.
Further info about the Hong Kong Police and the 1967 riots.