In my About page I mentioned that I spent six months (before moving away) in one of Australia’s Wing Chun schools that follows the W. Cheung (WC hereafter) lineage and teaches the so-called Traditional Wing Chun (TWC). The school I am talking about is actually WC’s head quarters in Melbourne, Australia.
So, who is WC as we know him? He is a well-known persona in the Wing Chun world today. He has published many books, has done and is still doing Wing Chun seminars all over the world and has setup his own Wing Chun association with schools, franchises & affiliations in many countries around the world.
The big question here is:
How did WC succeed becoming such a prominent (some may say “controversial”) figure in Wing Chun?
To answer, we need to look at the certain claims that WC made in the Western world in the 70’s, 80’s and through to the present day. When I say “the Western world”, I mean USA, Australia & Europe. WC claimed that: (a) he is the only and true successor of Yip Man‘s secret Traditional Wing Chun system; (b) he was Yip Man‘s closed door student for four years; (c) he has trained Bruce Lee.
Before looking at these claims, I want to take a step back and give a little context as to what led me to write this post. While I was a Wing Chun student in WC’s school, I was doing a lot of reading about the evolution & spread of Wing Chun during the past 50-60 years starting from the time when Yip Man moved to Hong Kong. I was new to Wing Chun and I wanted to know more about it. While reading & researching, I would frequently come across information or statements that were related to WC: someone claimed this, someone did that, “my Kung-Fu is stronger than yours”, etc. Also, there is a pretty well known duel between Emin Boztepe & WC from the end of 80’s (the duel discussion is outside the scope of this article).
Since I was a member of WC’s school and personally met the guy, I became rather intrigued and immersed myself in this chapter of Wing Chun history. I started doing some serious digging by getting a hold of articles from old martial arts magazines, interviews, old forum posts which are still available on the Internet, personal blogs & personal interviews.
As a result, after a few months (yes, I spent several months slowly collecting & cross referencing information) I started seeing a clearer picture based on the collected information.
Some would ask – “Ok, we get it. But whyyyyyyy? People have been talking about this for decades. Why waste so much time? What is the goal you were trying to achieve?”
Why waste so much time on this? I have to thank my genuine curiosity and my OCD :P. What was my goal? Well, there were some people calling WC a liar, while others were calling him a genius in the Internet-Sphere. Therefore, I wanted to understand, with as much proof as I could find, what actually sparked this controversial discussion and why WC was the center of it.
In the following sections, I analyze WC’s claims based on the cross-referenced information I have found & obtained. Source references provided at the end of the current post. Some of these sources are downloadable at http://mywayofwingchun.com/downloads/.
Please keep in mind that this analysis is not an attempt to discredit/expose WC or his style. It is not a personal attack, so please do not read between the lines. This analysis is merely my summary of the events that happened (his claims) using the sources I found. I really hope that I have written this with an impartial point of view and managed to capture things in the right perspective (whatever that is).
WC claims that Yip Man chose him to be the only and the true secret holder of so called traditional Wing Chun. 
Before I express my opinion on this, I want to take a step back and explain something about Yip Man.
Yip Man was a very traditional Chinese man. When I say “traditional”, I mean his beliefs & his way of life. Don’t forget we are talking about Hong Kong of 1950’s when the East was just getting started to be wide open to the West. Yip Man was so traditional that he even refused to teach Wing Chun to Westerners.
Furthermore, Chinese families follow patrilineal descent lines. A patrilineal descent line is the line of fathers and sons making up all of the male ancestors. In other words, sons keep the family line going, while daughters, at marriage, are assumed to be removed from the family’s descent line.
So, for a typical Chinese father, his sons mean everything to him. They are his pride, they will inherit his wealth/debts (if any) and the family secrets (if any), they are the continuation of the family blood line.
At that time, WC was just another kid like many others who had visited Yip Man’s school from time to time, a kid who was just another junior at his school, a kid who had absolutely no blood association to Yip Man at all.
Now, having said the above, think about this – why would Yip Man, who was traditional in his beliefs and his way of life, choose WC over his sons? Why would Yip Man choose this 13-year old kid over his own flesh and blood to be the true and the only keeper of the “secret” Wing Chun system?
In other words, did Yip Man find his own sons (who by the way joined Yip Man in Hong Kong only in 1962 ), thousands of students he taught over the years  including his early disciples like Chu Shong Tin (Tsui Sheung Tin) & Wong Shun Leung  to be unworthy in carrying the “secret technique” in comparison to the 13-year old WC?
This whole idea is absurd. Nonetheless, this legend was successfully “bought” by the Western world when it was first published in the 80’s .
Why? Well, IMHO we Westerners are suckers for the mysterious fairy tales from the East, especially in the martial arts world. How could we not believe a beautifully presented story from a Chinese dude who is fit, knows martial arts and who was published in one of the biggest martial arts magazines of those times? Backed by the claim that the man trained Bruce Lee him self and has 2-3 pictures proving his direct connection to Bruce Lee and Yip Man, add Bruce Lee’s fame into equation – this legend was gold. Also, WC had an element of being the first Chinese martial artist making such bold statements in the West. Who would dare to prove otherwise? Interestingly to note, WC became rather outspoken after the passing of Yip Man & Bruce Lee. Why? Is it because two main people who could dispute his claims were gone?
WC claims that he was a closed door student of Yip Man for several years and learned traditional secret style of Wing Chun, unlike the modified style taught to commercial students. To be more accurate, WC claims that from 1954 to 1958 he was a live-in student Yip Man. 
There is no concrete evidence (for example a photo) that WC did live with Yip Man. Surely, during those four years, there would be at least one picture taken of WC and Yip Man practicing together, doing chi sao or eating together. WC displays on the home page of his website two pictures (UPDATE 4th of Aug, 2015: I checked WC’s website and could not locate those two pictures anywhere. I also noticed that his website got redesigned) of himself that support his connection to Yip Man and Bruce Lee. These pictures are concrete evidence that he used to support his legend – direct disciple of Yip Man and the man who trained Bruce Lee.
I am confident, if evidence that WC was a live-in student would exist, WC would be displaying it with pride in addition to the two pictures mentioned previously in order to help his self promotion.
Also, no one else in Yip Man’s school have confirmed this, not even Wong Shun Leung who was WC’s senior. Wong Shun Leung did mention WC numerous times in various interviews , but not even once WC was mentioned as live-in student of Yip Man.
In addition to all that, in the following video , WC admits that he was taught by his senior Wing Chun brother, Chu Shong Tin (Tsui Sheung Tin). Wong Shun Leung stated that he watched over WC learning. Ip Chun himself states that “..When Yip Man was teaching, he would never teach one person a special technique and not teach the others. He thought to do this was immoral and so he treated everyone the same..”.
Hawkins Cheung (Bruce Lee’s teenage friend and fellow student), teaching Wing Chun in LA, USA in an interview  said the WC was only making mischief to promote him self, and that “..modified, traditional – its all bullshit..“, implying that WC invented this historical divergence in the art, in order to promote his own teaching.
However, while in Hong Kong WC was known to have a bad reputation for fighting, which has caused him problems at home with his father who was a detective of Hong Kong police department . Therefore, it is not impossible that WC was staying at Yip Man’s kwoon overnight occasionally in order to avoid problems by going home. Nevertheless, it does not make WC Yip Man’s live-in student and a sole keeper of some martial art secret. IMO, it looks like fact manipulation/exaggeration to me.
WC claims that he has trained Bruce Lee.
This claim is correct in essence, I just think its misunderstood. Yes, he has a picture of him and Bruce, yes they were friends. It is a fact that WC did introduce Bruce Lee to Wing Chun, Wong Shun Leung did support this claim in several interviews .
Bruce and WC did spent several months training & hanging out together before WC departed for Australia . Yip Man was traditional in his ways and was reluctant to properly teach Bruce who was Eurasian . WC liked to fight, and Bruce was following him. Bruce looked up to William as a fighter while in Hong Kong, which caused the boys to get into trouble from time to time. WC’s father had to bail them out . Bruce acknowledged later on, that while in Hong Kong, he saw WC as one of the best fighters . Furthermore, WC was acknowledged as one of Yip Man’s disciples who helped to firmly establish Wing Chun’s reputation as a fighting art through the challenge matches in Hong Kong .
Nonetheless, it was Wong Shun Leung who continued training Bruce after WC’s departure . Wong Shun Leung taught Bruce Lee privately for over one-and-a-half years before Bruce’s departure to US & also watched him train under Yip Man . In the documentary Wong Shun Leung The King of Talking Hands, in an old video footage, Wong Shun Leung confirms that he has trained Bruce Lee at his own home .
I think when WC claims that he trained Bruce Lee, it need to be put in proper perspective – it was just for a short time before WC left for Australia, when the boys were teenagers before Bruce even was a serious & excellent martial artist and a movie star in US .
“Black Belt” magazine mentioned that Bruce Lee’s “Return of the Dragon” in 1973 is an obvious tribute to the training experience that Bruce had with WC . That said, there is a picture floating on the Internet of Wong Shun Leung, Raymond Chow & Bruce Lee together on the set of “Enter the Dragon” (shot in 1973 and released six days after Bruce’s death). Therefore, it is implied that Wong Shun Leung helped Bruce Lee with the fighting scenes.
I think if an obvious tribute should be made, it should be made to Wong Shun Leung instead of WC for training Bruce: WC was not Bruce’s Wing Chun master & was not responsible for Bruce’s future achievements in Martial Arts. It was Wong Shun Leung & Yip Man who really helped Bruce become what after time turned out to be – a solid Wing Chun practitioner (which led Bruce to Jeet Kune Do after). The teachers of Bruce who really influenced him as a fighter were Wong Shun Leung & Yip Man, and not WC . Wong Shun Leung just never used it for self-promotion and commercial goals. Bruce thanked Wong Shun Leung & Yip Man in a letter addressed to Wong Shun Leung for teaching him the ways of Wing Chun .
While in Australia, WC continued training hard using Wing Chun concepts he learned from Yip Man and quite possible from other sources before Yip Man . From my personal conversation with David Cheung, (WC’s brother who spent several years learning under Wong Shun Leung in Hong Kong), I got to know (based on what David has told me, I do not have concrete evidence, it was a conversation over dinner between myself, my wife and David in Melbourne, Carnegie, Rosstown Rd) that WC sponsored David to come to Australia in early 80’s in order to complete learning the Wing Chun system from him.
Having written all this, does it mean that WC style is crap? No, I am not saying this nor I am implying this. Yes, WC’s style is different, but that can be due to various reasons:
- While Yip Man did reach a few students in Foshan, his greatest efforts were made when he moved to Hong Kong in 1949. There he further refined his system, reorganizing and revising his forms (varying them from time to time and student to student). Yip Man’s very individualistic reaching method lead to him producing very talented disciples, however, it also lead to a system with different branches and varying opinions of what Yip Man taught .
- Yip Man taught in a traditional manner. This meant that Ip Man would give some information only once in a while. If you were not alert and missed the point, then hard lines. He would expect the students to grasp the whole meaning from maybe one or two words of explanation. Of course, he welcomed questions and discussions which showed that a student was thinking for himself. Hence the information was not evenly distributed. Some students might get little bits of loose information, whilst others received more information. You had to be able to read between the lines to arrive at an answer; there was no systematic manner of explanation. Grandmaster Yip Man used to believe that teaching one good student would be better than teaching ten bad ones. Hence, he would not spend too much time with a student whom he thought not worthy of his time. This is why some teachers of Wing Chun teach in different manners. From Yip Man’s one word of explanation they may have got the wrong meaning which they now pass on. Their grasp of the ideas which Yip Man gave depended very much on their intelligence, attendance to class and so on their training attitude. This is not a criticism of Yip Man but rather it reflects the attitude of the time which was very much traditional .
- It is also possible that while in Hong Kong, Yip Man was not the only source that WC learned from. Since WC’s father was a high ranking policeman in Hong Kong, it was not impossible that he arranged for William to study Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun .
- When a Wing Chun student went abroad, it was likely he would not have completed the whole Wing Chun system. There were some people who had completed the system and were more experienced. They would take the whole Wing Chun system to the country they went to, but there were many others who had barely learnt half the system. Some had only just started studying Tsum Kui (the second form), so they would go abroad with only half the system. That is why there is such a contrast between different teachers of Wing Chun – due to their own making and so that is why we have so many “styles” of Wing Chun .
- When teaching, the worst thing that happens is when someone asks why is your Wing Chun different from another teacher’s Wing Chun. However, the teacher will never say that he made this part up himself and so would say that Yip Man personally taught them these different forms in secret. In saying this, the teacher does not realise that he is in fact ruining the reputation of his own Sifu, Yip Man and his attitude to teaching .
- I had the honor in meeting Sifu Keith Young in Melbourne. When WC started to teach in Australia in the 70’s, Sifu Keith was a first batch student. Sifu Keith confirmed that over the years WC was making alterations/corrections to the same techniques he was teaching to his students. Interesting to point out, why WC started formally to teach only after the death of Yip Man?
That is probably why we see these days differences between WC style and others. I have met WC a number of times, and attended few of his seminars while at his school. From my experience, I could see that WC is a strong believer in his style of Wing Chun, definitely excellent in it and thought other styles to be inferior to his.
Nonetheless, at the end of the day, its not only the style/Sifu that matters but how much training student has put it. One can have Sifu like Yip Man, but without diligent training it would be a waste of time. I am not the first to say this – any style can be good if properly trained for. Whatever style WC has/had, he is excellent in it, because he trained hard for it.
WC is a very good business man, superb I must say. I actually give him kudos how he managed to spin his story which brought him his commercial success in the 80s and 90s. Well, how could this not have worked? Bruce Lee and Yip Man passed away in the 70s, and WC in early 80s while in Australia could claim anything he wanted. No one could dispute him. Of course, with the explosion of the internet and ease of access to information (especially in the present day), I believe the self proclamation became harder for WC.
When the time was right, WC knew exactly how to market him self by building on Bruce Lee’s fame in US and Australia, giving him self a title of grandmaster (we Westerners are suckers for big titles) and publishing pretty stories in world wide known magazines. The main reason why WC succeeded making a name for himself is because he was living in the Western country and targeted Westerners. But, having said that, this would have never worked in Asia/Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, WC would be one among many. As I mentioned previously – a truly good business man, no doubt.
Obviously what WC has claimed over the time did upset WC’s Wing Chun brothers in the old country (Hong Kong) . I have a feeling that most were offended by the distortion of the truth and not by the fact that WC is getting wealthier. Therefore, Hong Kong Ving Tsun Association including Wong Shun Leung and Ip Chun issued a letter to clarify WC claims or (I quote) “clarification the distorted affairs”. To which WC posted his own response in Australasian “Fighting Arts” magazine, vol. 10 no. 3.
I guess you do need to upset some people if you want to get rich, which is exactly what WC has done and what has happened in Wing Chun world over the years. Therefore, these days it does not really matter if someone writes that WC is a liar/genius or their takes on this whole controversy thing. WC has achieved his goal long time ago – he is the “grandmaster” for many people around the world.
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- http://cheungswingchuntruth.blogspot.com/2010/06/grand-master-william-cheung-story.html (Last viewed on: 15 Jun 14)
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- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_0rfNkJ7pY&t=678 (Last viewed on: 08 Aug 15)
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