Tabak Toyok - A Flexible Friend

  By Lakhivnder S. Madahar




My introduction to the Filipino martial arts was not with a rattan stick or with a knife; but with a weapon called the Tabak Toyok (nunchakus, rice frails) from Kali. The Tabak Toyok is from the flexible weapons category, along with many others such as: the chain, the rope, the whip, the handkerchief, etc. It was the most popular martial arts weapon at the time (mid 70’s).This was mainly due to Bruce Lee pulling them out every time he needed to even up the odds a little in his movies. Although the more practical Kali double sticks (Siniwali method) were also used, it was the Tabak Toyok (nunchakus) that received all the attention. The media and the Dojos (martial art school) all over the world were caught up in its magic, but both reaching for an opposite out come. The martial arts schools were adding them to their curriculums, as no martial arts system would be complete without them. On the other hand the media was hearing tales of football hooligans fighting with them or the odd individual tried using them and ending up in causality; and so the media wanted the flexible friend from the 70’s banned.   


What is the Tabak Toyok?


Tabak Toyok is two pieces of tapered wood (round or hexagonal), of equal length, joined with a chain or a thin rope.


There is also a less popular version of the weapon, where one is a standard length, the other being a much shorter of the two being just 4 inches in length. Both versions are used in a similar fashion, but the later lacks most of the hand changing techniques.


Since its introduction into the main stream, many modern versions have appeared, such as the metal telescopic pairs, the safety foam/plastic pairs, and even glowing ones with flashing lights. I’ve also come across a pair with blades attached to them, obviously with a more sinister motive.


The Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians, Indians, Indonesians, Okinawa’s all have this weapon in their fighting arts or at least their own version of it. They practice it under different names, their technique and training methods, obviously are very different. The origins of this weapon is unclear, its earliest mention can be found in the Chinese history, where two pieces of wood tied together by horse hair or piece of straw used as horse bridles by mounted soldiers. In the later centuries it was used as a farm tool used in many of the countries mentioned above, to thresh rice, which separated beans from their shells.


The First Impressions


My first impression was that of confusion. I used to wonder with almost a puzzled look at the “Enter the Dragon” posters that had been plastered all over the place. The movie had just been released in the country. What puzzled me was Bruce Lee holding this unique weapon. And I would say to myself, why was there a chain between the two sticks? If the chain was there to increase the length of the sticks, why did he not just get a longer stick to begin with? Or was the chain there to hit with, perhaps a like a whip. Well, if that’s the case, then why was there another stick at the end of the chain?


What you expect from a bored thirteen year old kid, on his paper round delivering newspapers. It gave me something to think about.


I was not old enough to see his movies, but like a lot of other kids I got to sneak into a cinema, as soon as I looked old enough. And I saw for myself the techniques and the speed he used to create the magic, which left audiences, breathless. Some thirty five years later, the effect is still there.


By then I had already been studying martial arts for a couple of years. The stick before the chain or the chain before stick puzzle had been solved, as the odd student would bring a pair into the training hall. Looking back on it, it was quite amusing to see a neatly folded pair being pulled out from their training bag. They would exchange a few techniques between themselves; and put them back into their training bags and very innocently they made sure it was left at the top of their training kit for quick access. You couldn’t be to careful in those days!


What really inspired me to train with them more seriously, was this 15 year old kid, who was showing off his skill to a small group of lads outside one of a Kung Fu classes I was attending at the time. He wasn’t a member there or anything; he just happened to be hanging around, but his skill and speed had a little sparkle, he was really impressive.


Making of the Nunchakus


By the weekend; I dusted down my own pair of nunchakus, which I had made at school earlier on in the year.  The dimensions for the nunchakus were from an old issue of the Kung fu monthly (Bruce Lee poster magazine in the 70’s/80’s) magazine. I eagerly worked on them in my lunch breaks, with the hope of becoming the proud owner of top quality nunchakus. To my disappointment, the finished pair turned out to be really heavy and awkward to use.  Partly, because I made them out off mahogany, and yes, everyone pointed out afterwards that it was the wrong wood. As always it could have been worse; I could have used Oak wood. Anyway, I think the dimensions in the magazine were meant for someone, a lot taller then me.

The Tabak Toyok I use now is two twelve inch sticks, one and quarter inches in diameter tapering down to one inch, linked together with nine inches of chain.


The Training Begins


The training began with safety in mind, so I got my woolly hat on to protect my head. I practiced an underarm swing to over hand catch for about eight hours. It was something I picked up after watching my new mate’s excellent performances just a few days earlier. I got it in the end, as it is a very difficult technique and yes, I did crack my head a few times. Thanks to my woolly hat I survived my first practice session. After that I kept my daily practice down to a modest two hours. The sources of knowledge were books by Fumio Demura, magazines and Guro Dan’s 8mm cine film. My Kung Fu (Sholin Mak – Ka) club had two nunchakus forms in the syllabus. In one of the annual tournaments held by the Sholin Mak - Ka Gung Fu; Geoff Thompson performed his form with them and won the weapons title for that year.

I must admit, I was a little hooked on them, progressing to a double pair. We even tried some sparring with the nunchakus after watching a pirate version of an 8mm cine film of the Lee and Inosanto nunchakus fight  from the Game of Death movie. It was okay because, by then the plastic nunchakus were available, so we used them for our sparring sessions. It was a lot of fun sparring against the Kali sticks, the nunchakus or the rubber knives.


 The nunchaukus is a very dangerous weapon, as all other weapons are. Then there are some weapons (the Balisong, the Whip, Tabak Toyok, etc); without their fundamental knowledge can be extremely dangerous to the user. These weapons demand complete mastery of their basic handling skills, before the user can free play or spar with them. In the beginning stages, it’s best to invest in a pair of safety Tabak Toyok. Rather than a woolly hat, we wore it as a necessity, not a fashion statement. The 1970’s had enough fashion problems without our own additions to it.

 Regrettably; I did witness a number of incidents, due to much speed and not enough control. A friend of mine almost knocked himself out by hitting the side of his own head. Another incident accrued for the same reason, only this time the individual was still wearing his regular pair of glasses. One of the handles over extended from under the arm and so he hit him self in the eye. Smashing his glasses and as a result he couldn’t see through one of his eye for a fortnight.

These incidents could have easily been avoided with a safety pair and a little common sense.


Learn the drills with a safety pair, as soon as they are mastered, start some slow training with the wooden nunchakus, as the feel will be different. Keep in mind it’s a weapon your training with not a plastic/foam toy.


People injuring themselves; while trying to use the nunchakus and ending up in casualties also contributed, to the fight scenes involving the nunchakus being censored from the Bruce Lee movies.


Guro Dan Inosanto’s visits


As mentioned in the interview last month, in 1979, Guro Dan Inosanto came to a martial arts shop in Birmingham (Cimac), where he signed autographs and gave a 25/30-minute instructional/demonstration on the Filipino martial arts. Guro Dan gave us a brief introduction to a lot of the major Kali weapons. It surprised us a little when Guro Dan tried to just skip over the nuchakus. When every one asked to show just a little, he gave us little display and then continued to explain that it was considered as one of the worst weapons of the Filipino martial arts. The only reason they trained with them and later used them in the movies was because it was the prettiest. And Bruce Lee said something along the lines of that, it was a worthless peace of s***. Speaking to Guru Dan more recently at seminar, he said; given the choice he would prefer a stick. Tabak Toyok lacked defence so he would stay at long range with them and hit.


The Characteristics of the Tabak Toyok


If we were to compare the Tabak Toyok to a standard 26” rattan Kali stick, then the Characteristics of the Tabak Toyok are as follows:




The Tabak Toyok can be easily folded and makes it easier to conceal. You would not be able to do this with the rattan stick, but it has a modern day equivalent the telescopic stick.


Ease of Handling


Tabak Toyok demands a complete mastery of the basic techniques, for them to be safe to the user. Where as the rattan stick is virtually safe to use from the word go.


Danger to the user


The Tabak Toyok is definitely more dangerous to the user then the rattan stick; as mentioned earlier.



In most cases Tabak Toyok has the same reach as the rattan Stick.



            Both are great in all three basic ranges of long, medium and close ranges. The Tabak Toyok at times may experience difficulty in switching from one range to another.


Attacking abilities – pretty much equal, in the hands of an expert both can move in the access speed of over one hundred miles per hour. The Tabak Toyok has these confusing attacking angles. In my opinion; purely from an attacking point of view then I think the scales do tilt towards the Tabak Toyok.


Defence ability – From a defensive point of view the rattan stick would be my first choice out of the two.

With the Tabak Toyok there are two modes of defence, the long range (Largo Mano) and the close range (Corto).


Long Range - the Tabak Toyok man/woman has to rely on his/her countering techniques, as the defences. Trying to out move the opponent by using good footwork, zoning, spatial relationship and counter striking the hand; “de - fanging the snake”; an important concept from the Filipino martial arts. Counter striking to the head, the knees, and the shins brings another important concept into play; “attacking the nearest target with the longest weapon”. In weapons sparring; there are only good targets and better targets, as all targets are valid.

Corto – In corto both the handles are folded and held in one hand as a short stick and basically using it just as a short rattan stick. It works really well allowing the Alive Hand to come into play, but loses it reach by more than fifty percent


Switching modes


The rattan stick can be used for attacking and defending with equal ease and loses no time in switching from one mode to another.

The Tabak Toyok greatly lacks the ability to switch from long range attacking mode to defence mode.

There aren’t any real problems from switching close range defence mode to long range attacking mode. 


Flexibility vs. Leverage


The rattan stick has the leverage advantage which can be used for chokes, strangle, arm locking, leg locking and take downs.

The flexibility of the Tabak Toyok allows it to bend over or around the opponent’s block to hit. It also allows the chokes and strangulations techniques, but not to hot on the leverage techniques.




Thank you for reading my article on the Tabak Toyok, hope you enjoyed it. Each month I will be covering a topic, on various weapons, empty hands, concepts and principals that govern the Filipino martial arts and some actual techniques will also be discussed. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to drop us a line.


There is also a 2 DVD set on the Tabak Toyok available.  For more information on the DVD’s; Personal one on one session, group sessions or training at the Total Martial Arts Academy in Coventry.


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