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Featherston’s queen of tai chi

Keiko Schoenbrunn-Nojima leading a tai chi class. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Lisa Urbani

For Keiko Schoenbrunn-Nojima, who had a nomadic childhood, Featherston, represents the first community she has lived in for a long time and where she feels she belongs.

Keiko Schoenbrunn-Nojima accepting her Rotary award.

In recognition of her long-standing commitment to sharing her love of tai chi with local participants – no matter what their age or physical ability – The Rotary Club of South Wairarapa honoured her with the Pride of Workmanship and Community Service Awards 2020.

Known affectionately as the ‘Tai Chi Queen’, Keiko was born in Japan, in Kanazawa city.

At university, she specialised in non-verbal communication in different cultures, including social distance, body movements, sign language, and facial expressions, all of which are very relevant to the art of tai chi.

According to Keiko, “people laughed at me studying those, but I found it’s very useful and helped me a lot in my life”.

She came to New Zealand for a working holiday in 1996, after spending several years working in Tokyo in a big office surrounded by many computers, feeling mentally and physically exhausted, and wanting to change her life.

“When I arrived in New Zealand, I simply fell in love, enjoyed everything, then I met my future husband – two years later we were married.”

Her husband, Reiner worked for Peter Jackson, and being in the movie industry, often had to work late.

Keiko was taking care of their two children, her daughter, Mei, now 17, and her son, Andy, now 21.

She found that time of her life lonely, not really knowing anyone yet, and not having any family to offer support.

After living in Kahutara for five years, 16 years ago, the family moved to Featherston, and Keiko tried a tai chi class in the community centre.

She remembers clearly how welcome she felt, and how some of the older women were happy to help look after her daughter.

Toi Walker, the tai chi instructor, was retiring and, knowing how keen Keiko was to be an instructor, he suggested she take over.

She followed him during classes, attended workshops, and had training from Chinese masters in New Zealand.

The Accident Compensation Corporation supported classes at that time as part of the “fall prevention campaign”, so participants only paid a gold coin koha.

Keiko taught tai chi in Martinborough, Carterton, and Featherston, transferring her skill in this tranquil pursuit to her students, bringing them peace of mind.

She taught at many rest homes, but after the Christchurch earthquake, ACC no longer funded the classes.

Undeterred, Keiko continued her teaching at cost, as she could see the benefits for many of her elderly followers, and up until the covid-19 lockdown she was teaching four classes in Greytown at the St John’s Hall – including line dancing.

“Tai chi-loving people are naturally gentle and kind, so they demanded that I put the price up so I could pay the hall rent, and some of them brought fruit and vegetables regularly to help my family.”

“For my children, those tai chi ladies are grandmothers.

“They often told me that I should focus on loving my kids, spending as much time as possible playing together, not to worry about the unfinished housework or untidiness, show them your love every day.

“They are really my second family, and it’s totally thanks to their support, without them I couldn’t continue for this long.”

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