My Way of Wing Chun

The Learning Curve

My Take on Wing Chun Controversy

In About page I have mentioned that I have spent six months (before moving away) in one of the Australian Wing Chun schools, that follows W. Cheung (WC hereafter) lineage, and teaches the so-called Traditional Wing Chun (TWC). The school  is actually WC’s head quarters (HQ hereafter).

The main reason why WC started to become a controversial figure in the 80′s through the 90′s, is certain claims that he made in the Western world. Claims like that he is the only and true successor of Ip Man‘s secret traditional Wing Chun system, and hence the only and true Grandmaster. Claims like that he is the one who trained Bruce Lee and Lee’s success should be attributed mainly to him.

While, practicing Wing Chun in WC’s school, I did a lot of reading and researching, not about WC specifically, but about evolution and spread of Wing Chun in general in the past 50-60 years starting from Ip Man. I was new to Wing Chun and I wanted to know more about it. Naturally, while reading and researching, from time to time I came across this whole fuss about WC: who said what, who did what, who claim what etc. etc.

Since I was a member of WC’s school, I got sucked in to this area of Wing Chun’s history and started doing some serious digging. I got a hold on some old articles, interviews, forum posts, blogs and after a few weeks I started seeing a clearer picture. Why I am became so obsessed with WC? Well, it was not with WC specifically, but just with my search for the truth (whatever that is). Some people on the Internet were calling WC a liar, some were calling him a genius, therefore I wanted to understand by myself with as much proof as I can find what actually has happened.

In the following, I talk about these claims and express my opinion based on the crossed referenced information I have found (references provided at the end of the article). This analysis is not about discrediting/exposing anyone or anyone’s style etc. I care only about the facts, and I really hope that I have written this with impartial point of view.

WC claims that Ip Man chose him, to be the only and the true secret holder of so called traditional Wing Chun. [1][2]

Before I will express my opinion on this, I want to take a step back and explain something: Ip Man, was a very traditional Chinese man, I mean he even refused to teach Wing Chun to Westerners. Don’t forget we are talking about Hong Kong of 1950′s. In a typical traditional Chinese family, the male sons are very important, they will have a continuous line of descendants, in other words will keep the family line going. For a typical Chinese father his sons are everything for him. They are his pride, they will inherit his wealth/debts (if any) and the family secrets (if any).

Now, having said the above, think about it – why would Ip Man, who was traditional in his believes and his way of life, would choose WC who was just another kid like many others who have visited his school from time to time, kid who was just another junior at his school, kid who had absolutely no blood association with Ip Man at all, choose him over his two sons, his own flesh and blood to be the true and only keeper of some secret Wing Chun system?

In other words, has Ip Man found his own sons (which by the way joined Ip Man in Hong Kong only in 1962 [10]) and his senior students like Chu Shong Tin (Tsui Sheung Tin) and Wong Shun Leung to be unworthy in comparison to 13 years 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 [2].

Why? Well, IMHO we Westerners are suckers for the mysterious fairy tales from the East, especially in the martial art world. How can we not believe to a beautifully presented story by a Chinese dude who is fit, knows martial arts and which was published in one of the biggest martial arts magazines of those times? Backed by the fact that the man trained Bruce Lee him self and has 2-3 pictures proving his direct connection to Bruce Lee and Ip Man, 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?

WC claims that he was a closed door student of Ip 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 Ip Man. [1]

There is no concrete evidence (for example a photo)  that WC did live with Ip Man. Surely, during those four years, there would be at least one picture taken of WC and Ip Man practicing together, doing chi sao or eating together. WC displays on the home page of his website two pictures of himself that support his connection to Ip Man and Bruce Lee. These pictures are concrete evidence that he used to support his legend – direct disciple of Ip 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 Ip 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 [4][6][7], but not even once WC was mentioned as live-in student of Ip Man.

In addition to all that, in the following video [11], 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.[4] Ip Chun himself states that “..When Ip 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..”[3]. Hawkins Cheung (Bruce Lee’s teenage friend and fellow student), teaching Wing Chun in LA, USA in an interview [9] 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 [6]. Therefore, it is not impossible that WC was staying at Ip Man’s kwoon overnight occasionally in order to avoid problems by going home. Nevertheless, it does not make WC Ip 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 [4][6][7].

Bruce and WC did spent several months training and hanging out together before WC departed for Australia [7]. 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 [6]. Bruce acknowledged later on, that while in Hong Kong, he saw WC as one of the best fighters [7].

Nonetheless, it was Wong Shun Leung who shaped Bruce Lee as a Wing Chun practitioner: Wong Shun Leung taught Bruce Lee privately for over one-and-a-half years before Bruce’s departure to US and also watched him train under Ip Man [4][5][7]. Bruce thanked Wong Shun Leung and Ip Man in a letter addressed to Wong Shun Leung for teaching him the ways of Wing Chun [7].

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 and excellent martial artist and a movie star in US [7]. The  teachers of Bruce who really influenced him as a fighter were Wong Shun Leung and Ip Man, and not WC. Wong Shun Leung just never used it for self promotion and commercial purposes.

“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 [1]. 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 master and was not responsible for making Bruce who he has become, Wong Shun Leung and Ip Man were.

In conclusion

While in Australia, WC continued training hard using Wing Chun concepts he learned from Ip Man and quite possible from other sources before Ip Man [6][8]. 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. When the 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 [3].

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 Ip 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, Ip Man and his attitude to teaching [3]. Its also possible that while in Hong Kong, Ip 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 [6][8]. I also had the honor to meet 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. Also 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 Ip 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 Ip 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.

References:

  1.  William Cheung, Black Belt Magazine vol. 20 no. 12, pp. 21-25 (Dec 1982)
  2.  The William Cheung Story Part 4, Black Belt Magazine vol. 21 no. 4, pp. 21-25 (Apr 1983)
  3.  Ip Chun, The Spread of Wing Chun, Qi Magazine no. 56, pp. 40-41 (Jul/Aug 2001)
  4.  Bey Logan, Bruce Lee’s Teacher, Combat Magazine vol. 12 no. 9, pp. 50-55 (Aug 1986)
  5.  Jose M. Fraguas, Kung-Fu Masters, pp. 172-173 (2002)
  6.  Roy Horan, A Wing Chun Phenomenon, Black Belt Magazine vol. 21 no. 9, pp. 28-35 (Sep 1983)
  7.  Wong Shun Leung, Reminiscence of Bruce Lee (1978)
  8.  http://cheungswingchuntruth.blogspot.com/2010/06/grand-master-william-cheung-story.html (Last viewed on 31 Dec 12)
  9.  Bruce Thomas, Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit : a Biography, pp. 308-309 (Nov 1994)
  10.  Michael Tse, Ip Chun, Qi Magazine no. 18, pp. 16-19 (Feb/Mar 1995)
  11. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xezmum_william-cheung-learn-from-tsui-sheu_sport (Last viewed on 31 Dec 12)

9 responses to “My Take on Wing Chun Controversy

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  6. Jayron April 25, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Jayron

    On the issue of Ip Man choosing William Cheung over his sons, keep in mind that that both Ip Chun and Ip Ching started training wing chun only when they became adults, since they did not have good relations with their father as children being that Ip Man had extra marital affairs. I don’t clearly remember if it was Ip Chun or Ip Ching but one of them used to be a lawyer whom began training after their retirement in that profession around at age 40(or at least in their late 30′s)

    Also if you examine other Wing Chun lineages that are non-Ip man and non-Chan Wah Shun related, such as the Hung Fa Yi lineage for e.g they have the exact SAME style and footwork as William Cheungs system. Which also confirms the changes made in the system as it was passed down between Leung bik and Chan Wa Shun. Some people say the story of Leung Bik meeting Ip Man was another fairy tale made up by William Cheung, but if you notice in the movie “Ip Man The Legend is Born” this so called “fairy tale” is supported and endorsed by Ip Chun himself whom actually PLAYS as Leung Bik.

    That’s my 2 cents on this matter.

    • Wooden Dummy April 25, 2013 at 12:37 pm

      Hi Jayron,

      Agreed, if the sources I used here on the blog are true, the Ip Sons joined his father in Hong Kong in 1962 (according to Michael Tse, http://mywayofwingchun.com/1995/02/15/ip-chun/ ). Which around 10 years before Ip Man’s death. In other words, when WC was in Hong Kong, the Sons were not…

      But, taking into account how traditional Ip Man was, if indeed there was some sort of secret technique, I tend to think Ip Man would have kept it for his off springs or at least would pass it to one of the senior students like Wong Shun Leung.

      Also, It is quite possible that Ip Man was not the only teacher WC learned from while in Hong Kong, hence the different foot work, etc. But I really doubt it that Ip Man actually “chose” WC per se for anything. WC simply spent around 4 years with Ip Man as a kid/teenager and went away to Australia.

      I am not trying to discredit WC as a Wing Chun practitioner and teacher, I am simply trying to show that the legend sold to Westerners about secret technique and being the chosen one is just a fairy tale.. Of course having said that, there is only so much I can prove or write about as I will never have real concrete proof :)

      • Jayron April 25, 2013 at 6:01 pm

        Well if there was a ‘secret technique’ its not so secret anymore. From trying both William Cheung’s system and the other more popular Ip Man Lineages, there is an entire WEALTH of additional wing chun characteristic and effective techniques that are in his system which simply cannot be found in those lineages, including Wong Shun Leung’s. Try meeting Masters from the Leung Bik related lineages, and you’ll find that their wing chun system and William Cheung’s are almost exactly IDENTICAL.

        • Wooden Dummy July 24, 2013 at 10:31 am

          Yep… Its indeed possible that WC learned from others, as you pointed out Leung Jan (梁贊) related lineages:

          • 1. Leung Jan => Leung Bik (梁壁)
          • 2. Leung Jan => Lai Ying/Yeung => Wong Jing => Mai Gei Wong/Wong Wu Fong => Wong Nim Yi
          • 3. Yuen Kay San (阮奇山) => Wong Jing => Mai Gei Wong/Wong Wu Fong => Wong Nim Yi

          So who knows what WC picked up and where…

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