Wong Shun Leung, Wing Chun Sifu, gives his first U.K. interview to Bey Logan. (Interpreter: Nino Bernardo)
“I once took on ten guys carrying knives!” At these words, the seminar students all lean forward extra attentively. “And they never cut me once!” Twenty-five pairs of ears prick up simultaneously. What feat of kung fu did the teacher use to escape apparently certain death? “How did you do it, Sifu?”, someone asks. Wong Shun Leung mimes the action of running like hell, glancing over his shoulder as he does so! The timing is perfect, and the dry wit typical of a man who plays down the image of the kung fu master (a word he hates) and plays up his role as a Wing Chun teacher (a role he enjoys). “I can’t fight very well and my kung fu’s not very good”, says the man who won a reputation as being one of Hong Kong’s foremost challenge fighters, the man who taught the young Bruce Lee, the man who has just “adopted” a string of over twenty German Wing Chun schools from another organisation, a man who will still teach a small group at a London club with a still growing enthusiasm for his art.
In a lifetime, Wong can recall many memorable times and places and people. I was honoured to be granted (with the aid of Nino’s interpretation) the first interview Sifu Wong has ever given in the U.K. Our conversation ranged from his early days with Grandmaster Yip Man to the night of Bruce Lee’s death to his feelings about the current state of the art. As someone who has devoted a lifetime to his kung fu, Wong’s views on the nature of the teacher, student and art have something to offer any martial artist, regardless of style or system.
BEY LOGAN: Sifu Wong, how did you first become involved in the martial arts?
WONG SHUN LEUNG: As a youth, I became interested in kung fu, and I heard my father mention the name Leung Jian. At that time, Mr. Jian’s name was more widely known than that of this art, Wing Chun. Later, I heard about Yip Man, and went to study under him when I was sixteen. He was, then, about the age that I am now, and he used to teach in his living room. Wing Chun is so famous today. I think it’s hard for people to imagine how little heard of it was when I started training.
B.L: Was the system taught in the same way that it is today?
W.S.L: First, you would learn Sil Lim Tao (the first form of Wing Chun) and this would be divided into three thirds for you, as is normal today. However, it was very intuitive. Yip Man would teach you as much as he felt you were ready for. With humility, I would say that I was faster than most of the other students at that time. My enthusiasm was such that I picked it up faster.
B.L: I have heard that you were naturally pretty good at fighting BEFORE you started Wing Chun. Do you think that this natural ability meant that you looked at the art through different eyes than those with which someone who hadn’t fought would view the style?
W.S.L: Yes, in as much as when I first saw the art, before studying it, I could see how it made sense. I could see how it could be an efficient fighting system. I should stress that I don’t view Wirig Chun as an art, but as a skill.
B.L: From the seminar, I gathered that you see the central principle of Wing Chun as being that of Lut Sao Jic Chung (the principle that states that, if a gap opens between you and your opponent, the attack forward is instant, without thought, being an instinctive and conditioned reflex). How soon in your training did this principle become apparent?
W.S.L: As soon as I started learning chi sao (sticking hands) the idea of Lat Sau Chek Chung became apparent. This principle holds true for all aspects of Wing Chun, except for the Bart Charm Do (butterfly knives). With those, if your opponent’s knife releases and you stab forward instinctively, your own knife may stick into him, making it hard for you to defend against his weapon and immobilising one of yours.
B.L: How soon after beginning your Wing Chun training did you have to apply it in a street situation?
W.S.L: I had learnt for about three or four months. Before that, I had actually started my Wing Chun career by trying to beat Yip Man up! When I first began, Sifu Yip had some students who trained with him. I had doubts about whether they could actually make the art serve them in a fight. You see, it doesn’t matter how long you have been training in Wing Chun (or any other fighting art), you have to make it your slave, not your master. In fact, these students made no impression on me when I first sparred with them and, after about twenty minutes, I was asked to spar with Yip Man’s nephew. He took a worse beating that the other guys! I was actually using Wing Chun techniques on them. It was in a crude form, but I could make it WORK, which was the important thing.
Finally, I fought Yip Man. I tried to use boxing technique against him, and, remember, I was much younger than he was. Yip Man did not attack… rather, he systematically cornered me until I had no place to go. Yip Man beat me and, if he had not, I would not be doing Wing Chun now!
B.L: Going back to my first question, can you describe for us thefirst time you had to use the skill outside the class?
W.S.L: Yes. It was more of a fight than a bei mo (challenge match). I went to the house of one of my si-hings (brothers in kung fu). This man had a friend who trained in Chu Chow kung fu, a good fighter. At that time, he was angry with him over something to do with a territorial dispute between the triads (illegal societies). I arrived to find them fighting outside a shop that sold dried kindling for firewood. I punched the Chu Chow guy and knocked him into a big tub of coal. Just to show him how serious I was, I took a cowboy stance and dived on top of him and just kept on punching! I rested for a little while, then decided to leave. As I walked away, the Chu Chow man called out: “Hey little fella, don’t go! I’ve already given you the dim mak (death touch). You’re doomed!” That was around thirty-five years ago and the dim mak hasn’t worked yet…
B.L: Well, you have to give these things time. This was the start, I know, of a whole series of encounters in which Wing Chun fighters came off better than fightersfrom other kung fu styles. How did Yip Man view these fights?
W.S.L: The old man said, when I started training, “Within a year, this, little rascal is going to make this colony stink of Wing Chun!” From a technical standpoint, Yip Man always discussed the theories of practical fighting and he thought it was only logical that I should have won that fight. From a moral standpoint, I don’t think it was an issue. You see, I view Wing Chun as a skill, not an art, and I don’t see any thing wrong with using your skills.
B.L: However, a lot of people who do Wing Chun, yourself included, are excellent artists in otherfields. Do you see no similarities between those arts and Wing Chun?
W.S.L: If A and B have a fight, and B gets knocked out, then everyone knows that A won. There’s a winner and a loser. However, in music, you can like someone’s guitar playing or not like it and it doesn’t matter. Because it’s an ART, you can’t PROVE that one painting or piece of music is better than another. However, in kung fu, you can prove your skill in such a way that there is no doubt! This is the difference.
B.L: Of all the people you compared with, who was the most skillful?
W.S.L: There was a boxer, a White Russian called Giko. He was a retired heavyweight. John Ball, the editor of a newspaper in Hong Kong, had heard that Wing Chun was very good. He liked to stir things up, so he brought Giko down to my gym. We fought without gloves, because Giko’s hands were too big to fit into the gloves that I had at the gym. If we had worn gloves, I think I might have lost! It was the most difficult fight I ever had. There were pictures in The Star disappearing into this guy and we still fought until Giko asked to stop.
B.L: Something you mentioned at this year’s seminar was the ongoingfeud betweenfencersfrom a Hong Kong fencing school and practitioners of the Wing Chun butterfly knives. Can you tell us about this?
W.S.L: Yes. It started with Yip Man, who was challenged by. the Australian national fencing champion. After Grandmaster Yip had beaten him, he later challenged me, and was beaten again. More recently, a bout between myself and a fencing champion called Stanley Cunningham was shown on Hong Kong T.V. He is the headmaster of the Hong Kong police cadet school. He was determined not to be defeated and, during out bout, he fought with a sabre, as opposed to a fencing foil, and he struck the edges of my bart charm do so powerfully that they became serrated and very sharp. As a result, I accidentally cut him on the arms very badly, and quite a bit of our fight had to be cut from the T.V. show.
B.L: That’s an interesting story, and I don’t think it’s been reported in the Western martial artspress before. However, something that you must always find yourself being asked about, Sifu Wong, is your friendship with Bruce Lee…
W.S.L: Yes. Bruce Lee is an old friend. What would you like to know about him?
B.L: I know that it was William Cheung who introduced Bruce Lee to Wing Chun and brought him to the Yip Man school, but was it him or yourself who actually taught Bruce?
W.S.L: William Cheung did indeed introduce Bruce Lee to Wing Chun, but he then went off to Australia, so I don’t see how he could have been teaching Bruce for any length of time. They were also about the same age. In a letter to me, Bruce said: “Even though I am a student of Yip Man, in reality, I learned my kung fu from you”. I still have the letter.
B.L: Why did Bruce leave Yip Man’s school?
W.S.L: He had some problems (which I’d rather not elaborate on) that caused his departure to the United States.
B.L: Did Bruce Lee actually fail to attend Yip Man’s funeral?
W.S.L: He wasn’t actually there himself, but he sent a representative. As far as I’m concerned, it was no big deal.
B.L: Was it a surprise to you when Lee returned to Hong Kong to become such a hugely successful movie star?
W.S.L: Not really. Remember, he had been a movie star as a youth before he went to America, also he was hard- working and intelligent. Often, a good movie actor would not need to be able to really do kung fu. If he was handsome, they would use a stand-in for the fighting scenes. With Bruce, he could do both, so he was more economical!
B.L: After Bruce returned to Hong Kong, he offered you a role as one of his opponents in ‘Game of Death’. Were you going to play a Wing Chun master in that film?
W.S.L: No. I was to be a karate master. I was to be the last person Bruce fought, when he reached the top of this tower (which had different fighters on each floor). My character was to have beaten Bruce, but he would still have managed to kill me! I told him that I didn’t want to go and die in my first movie! Also, I wasn’t in financial dire straits at the time, so I didn’t have to do the film to make money.
B.L: I know that you were one of the few people to have seen Lee’s body on the night of his death. As this is still a matter of great interest, can you tell us about that night?
W.S.L: A reporter called me with the news. At first, I couldn’t believe it. I’d talked to Bruce on the ‘phone only five hours before! Being as Bruce was such a famous movie star, there had already been several rumours and hoaxes saying that he ws dead. When I reached the hospital, I found that, as was normal in a case of sudden death where there might be suspicious circumstances, no-one was allowed near the body. However, the hospital director’s children were all students of mine, so he let me in, along with a couple of reporters who were with me.
However, they were not allowed to take their cameras in. Bruce looked as though .he was still alive. He was naked, covered by a cloth. Some of the reporters wanted to inspect the body, but, out of respect for Bruce, I stopped them. He looked like he was cramped, very tense at the time of his death. His fingers and toes were all stretched out. His arms were crossed over his chest. As to how he died, I really can’t comment. Before his death, I know that he had some trouble in his brain, with black-outs and convulsions, and, when he was a child, he had suffered from epilepsy.
B.L: After Bruce’s death, when hisfilms really gained their worldwide popularity, martial arts, and Wing Chun in particular, suddenly became more widespread. Do you still teach in the manner that Yip Man did, or have you modified your methods at all?
W.S.L: Basically, it’s the same method. If anything, I feel that I teach in a more systematic way. It’s still very intuitive. I teach more to the more receptive students.
B.L: I know my readers will expect me to ask this, so I suppose I’d better: Do you have any comment to make on the recent William Cheung controversy?
W.S.L: He doesn’t deserve mentioning. I travel around and try to explain Wing Chun as honestly and realistically as I can. I try to explain it in a scientific and logical manner. In a recent article, William Cheung claimed that I spent three years training, “part-time”, with Yip Man. In the Chinese mentality, there’s no such thing as “part” or “full” time. If I work at a certain job, I may spend five hours a day working at it (if I’m busy) and less time if I’m not so busy. Does this mean that I do that job ‘part-time’? Also, I was watching HIM learn. He didn’t watch me learning.
B.L: Another issue that’s been raised concerned Dr. Leung Ting. Isn t it true that, at one time, magazine articles appeared about him in which he claimed to be Grandmaster of Wing Chun and all the Hong Kong sifus (including you) joined together to condemn him, yet, just recently, he has signed a document, along with yourself and others, condemning William Cheung. Doesn’t this show a double standard?
W.S.L: Leung Ting is a member of the Wing Chun ‘family’. He has corrected himself and so we have all tried to forgive him. However, William Cheung is doing something completely wrong, so we all condemn him.
B.L: Another issue concerns thefighting ability of the other senior members of the Wing Chun fraternity. Wiliam Cheung has suggested that, because the other elders of the style are not in any kind of athletic shape, they are unfit to be the Grandmaster…
W.S.L: My student, Barry Lee, lives in Australia. Even HE can beat William Cheung! Does this mean that Barry Lee be made into the Grandmaster, even though he is of a generation below me? People doing Wing Chun need to be physically fit. Those coaching them needn’t be. Are the coaches of Olympic champions as fit as the people they teach? Of course not! Yet they are still ‘Grandmasters’ of their various sports. Nowadays, I spend more time teaching than practicing Wing Chun, but I would say that, at my age, I compare well with people in other arts. If appearance and fitness ARE so important, then why shouldn’t someone William Cheung’s age, who is better built and fitter than he is, become Grandmaster?
B.L: Despite the fact that you now travel so widely, the art will still be spread to even more people through books, movies and videos. Do you have any plans in this direction?
W.S.L: I’m writing a book, but I think that it’s too late for me to be a movie star now! I was in a movie (“Bruce’s Fingers”) because I had taught the star (Bruce Le) a little and I appeared in a video on Wing Chun (for Seasonal Films), but that’s it.
B.L: What are your views on Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, speaking as someone who gave Bruce his foundation in kung fu?
W.S.L: Wing Chun is very logical. As long as the art remains logical, it doesn’t matter what you call it, and it doesn’t matter if what you’re doing isn’t ‘Wing Chun’ as such. If it’s logical, if it WORKS, then you can use it to make your art your slave, not your master. However, you have to be careful about mixing Wing Chun with other styles. A man from the North and a man from the South can have a baby, but whether a man and a dog can have a baby, I’m not so sure!
B.L: What ambitions remain for you?
W.S.L: I want to spread throughout the world the truth of Wing Chun. There are too many liars, too many tall tales about Wing Chun. I’ll continue to support my instructors around the world. In this country you have Nino Bernardo, who does a fine teaching job. If someone was going to start training tomorrow, I might disappoint him by telling him that Wing Chun is not a Death Touch Kung Fu. Rather, it is a skill that requires intelligence, sensitivity and hard work!
 Bey Logan, Bruce Lee’s Teacher, Combat Magazine vol. 12 no. 9, pp. 50-55 (Aug 1986)