Trained by the late grandmaster Yip Man, teacher to the great Bruce Lee, Wong Shun Leung is perhaps best-known as the Wing Chun man who routinely challenged anyone of any style – and lived to tell about it
Hong Kong-based Wing Chun instructor, Wong Shun Leung, has been called many things by people in the martial arts world. England’s Fighter magazine called him: “..A communicator and teacher of Wing Chun par excellence;” Jessie Glover, the first American student of the late Bruce Lee, wrote in his book Bruce Lee’s Non-Classical Gung Fu, that Wong Shun Leung “..Is one of the greatest Wing Chun teachers in the world;” Bey Logan, former editor of the British martial arts magazine Combat, wrote that “…Wong Shun Leung is far more important as a Wing Chun teacher in his own right than just a figure in the life of Bruce Lee. He deserves better than to be in anyone’s shadow
However you want to see it, there is no denying that Wong Shun Leung is possibly the greatest living representative of the dynamic Chinese fighting art of Wing Chun, the man who put Wing Chun on the map in the late 1950s and early 1960s in his well-publicized challenge matches against representatives of all the major combat arts in Hong Kong. He can rightly claim to have been the late Bruce Lee’s teacher, and to have influenced the development of Lee’s personal art of combat, Jeet Kune Do. His ego is such, however, that Wong Shun Leung prefers to be known simply as a teacher, a sijit, and he refuses to accept accolades such as “master” or “grandmaster,” terms which he believes are worthless because they have been abused so readily in recent years.
Wong, in his own typical fashion, usually downplays his “deadly” image by stating, “I can’t fight very well and my Kung-Fu is not very good.” He decries the claims of other so-called “masters” by emphasizing that it matters not whether one is the son of a grandmaster, or that one knows “every deadly move known to man.” He insists it is far more important that one practice hard, to “become the master of the art, not its slave.” To Wong it makes no difference how senior you are, but how good you are. He considers that Wing Chun is a skill, not an art and he sees nothing wrong with using one’s skills.
Making the comparison, Wong has been quoted as saying, “…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….in other arts, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but in martial art, the only judgment is whether or not it works!” This belief is characteristic of Wong’s down-to-earth approach to combat, and he certainly has the fighting record to back up his convictions.
Wong Shun Leung began his martial arts training while in his early teens. He tried his hand at several styles, including Western boxing, in which he developed a real interest, an interest which he maintains today. Wong considers boxing to be practical for the street because boxers learn to give and take punishment right from the start, concentrating on attacking instead of “chasing the opponent’s hands” like many of the classical Kung-Fu styles. He probably would still be boxing if it hadn’t been for two particular incidents which forever changed his approach to combat.
First, while sparring with his boxing coach one afternoon, Wong accidentally landed a damaging blow to the face. In a rage, the coach began pounding Wong until, bleeding from nose and mouth, Wong managed to gain the upper hand, eventually knocking his coach out cold. After this event, Wong lost all respect for his boxing coach and never returned. Wong’s father and grandfather had both been doctors of traditional Chinese medicine and were well- acquainted with members of Hong Kong’s martial arts community so that from an early age, Wong had heard hundreds of tales of the exploits of various local heroes. His grandfather had even been a good friend of Chan Wah Sun, the first of his future instructor Yip Man‘s Wing Chun teachers, so Wong was aware of the fighting art of Chan the “moneychanger” (Jau Chin Wa) from Fatsaan.
Wong recalled some of the stories he had been told about Chan Wah Sun, and of Chan’s teacher, the legendary Fatsaan Jan Sinsaang (Dr. Leung Jan, a noted herbalist in the 19th century, renowned for his unrivaled fighting skills) and he decided to find a Wing Chun teacher and learn more about the system. As it turned out, friends of his older brother were learning Wing Chun so it was arranged that he would go to see them train. Wong ended up having a match with the man who was to become his teacher, the late grandmaster Yip Man, after initially having “held his own” with a couple of the junior students at the school. He was soundly beaten by Yip Man. From that punishing moment, Wong Shun Leung became a devoted member of the Wing Chun clan and within a year had single-handedly elevated the Wing Chun system from the position of an obscure, virtually unknown, southern Chinese martial art, to that of a viable force.
Now 55, Wong Shun Leung has been involved in Wing Chun for over 38 years, constantly working to develop and pass on the skills of the system to literally thousands of students. These days he spends at least three months every year traveling around the world, spreading his interpretation of Wing Chun in an honest, effective and realistic manner. Wong is a realist when it comes to combat, advising his audiences that martial artists are not invincible, and that sometimes the best solution when surrounded by villains is “…run away!” It is foolhardy, he suggests, to believe that training in the martial arts will help a person dispose of a group of attackers without raising as much as a sweat.
“If someone practices any martial art,” says Wong, “then that person must become stronger and more durable than someone who hasn’t practiced. So if you are punched you are able to take a lot more punishment than a normal person. I have been hit many times, as have all of the great martial artists that I know of. So we are not supermen, but we can take a lot more. Any martial artist who says that he does not get hit is lying to himself.”
To him, fighting is like a game of chess; just as one cannot expect to win a game of chess without first sacrificing one or more pieces, one cannot expect to be victorious in a fight without sustaining some kind of injury, even if only a few bruises. Several jagged scars on his knuckles, as well as scars from a knife on his arm and forehead, attest to this belief. When it comes to combat experience, Wong Shun Leung could tell many tales, but with his usual modesty he tends to downplay this aspect of his martial arts career.
It is known in Hong Kong, however, that from around the time Wong was 18 until about the age of 24, he took part in countless challenge matches (referred to in Cantonese as beimo) against fighters from virtually every style of martial art in the colony. Bruce Lee credited Wong with hundreds of victories, but conservative estimates suggest approximately 50-to- 60 such matches, with Wong always emerging the winner. He was so successful that the local Hong Kong press picked up on his exploits and one enterprising reporter (now an Australian resident) actually arranged fights for him against non-Chinese as well, including a 250-pound Russian boxer named Giko.
In the press reports Wong became known as Gong Sau Wong, meaning the “King of the Challenge Fight,” the sound wong meaning both “king” as well as being the same as his surname (although a different written character). The term gong sau was actually coined by Wong during an interview conducted at the time and means literally “talking with the hands.”
When pressed about these matches, Wong responds, “I didn’t actually learn Wing Chun just to go out and fight. Kung-fu should really be used as a way of protecting yourself in circumstances where you are physically threatened. After I learned the skills of Wing Chun from Yip Man I often had the opportunity to test them. By experimenting with my skills I could discover their limitations and how they compared with other disciplines and so improve myself. After a time of this experimentation I learned that I needed torelyless on thefightingpartto get that self-satisfaction and feeling of achievement.”
It was also during this period of experimentation that Wong Shun Leung introduced Bruce Lee to the experience of the challenge fight. In the first of Lee’s matches, Wong coached him between rounds, encouraging Lee to continue when it seemed that he was about to give up. The result was a victory that possibly changed the course of Lee’s life and certainly began the development of the martial arts superstar. Grandmaster Yip Man, on hearing ofthe event, reportedly told Wong, “Fortunately you ac- companied him to the venue and encouraged him to go on with the match. This trial of martial skill may be a decisive influence on him in the future. If someday Bruce Lee succeeds, the credit should rightfully go to you.”
In discussing this period in Lee’s life, Jessie Glover wrote, “Wong was four years senior to Bruce in Yip Man’s clan and Bruce studied privately for a year and a half under both him and Yip Man.” Also. Wong was “..the man most responsible for the development of Bruce Lee.” Glover added, “In ’59 Bruce told me that Wong was the greatest fighter in the Wing Chun style, and that he had successfully defeated all challengers.”
Wong Shun Leung is more than a gifted fighter and excellent teacher; he also is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, and a self- taught calligrapher whose writings are greatly prized by those who appreciate such talent. He enjoys reading classical Chinese poetry, eating fine food, sipping a glass of good brandy with friends and sharing amusing anecdotes and jokes with students.
Former Combat editor Bey Logan, in his article “Bruce Lee’s Teacher” wrote, “The first thing you notice is how normal he looks. He looks too short, too friendly to be the legendary Wong Shun Leung Sifu. It is only the way he moves, the way he watches, that reveals the nature of the discipline he has mastered. Next, you’re surprised by his keen sense of humor. Many Westerners seem to cling to the idea that a Sifu must be a very old, very solemn man. There is none of the stereotypical master Po- figure about Wong Shun Leung. He is very funny.”
But as well as being a friendly, amusing and approachable man, Wong is first and foremost an exponent and teacher of combat with quite definite views on the purpose and function of Kung-Fu. Being the one Yip Man student who taught for him rather than go out and open his own school, Wong absorbed all that his teacher had to offer, there result being that he could claim his rightful place on the Wing Chun throne. However, Wong is content with teaching, letting his skills and experiences speak for themselves.
On the subject of self-defense, Wong says, “If you learn kung- fu, your purpose is to fight. If you can’t fight and win, how can you defend yourself? Therefore, if you want to defend yourself, you must train until you can over-power others.” In an article he once said, “Wing Chun Kung-Fu is a very sophisticated weapon… nothing else. It is a science of combat, the intent of which is the total in capacitation of an opponent. Iris straightforward, efficient and deadly. If you’re looking to learn self-defense, don’t study Wing Chun. It would be better for you to master the art of invisibility.”
Strong opinions indeed, but then Wong Shun Leung bases such belief upon many years of experience in what could only be described as real combat. He views many of the practices of modem martial artists as little more than games. Although he realizes that the days of the challenge fight are over, he looks upon their passing with an element of sadness, not because he is an advocate of violence, but because today’s martial artist are missing out on realistic training, and he sees the kinds of sparring exercises common to most styles as being a poor substitute for the realities of street combat.
Wong is constantly warning his students against the dangers of blindly following an instructor, copying every move he makes and accepting everything they say as gospel. “You must become the master of your system, not its slave” he often says. Using art as an example, Wong adds, “…Kung-Fu is like painting a picture. When you learn to paint from your teacher you cannot be exactly the same as he because there are differences in age and experience, and so there must be personal differences. A person’ s nature and physique influences the way in which one does things. Besides, if you do things exactly the same way your teacher does them, you’re just copying, not expressing yourself and will therefore not improve yourself.”
He is not suggesting that the Wing Chun student should go out and invent his way of doing things. On the contrary. Wong is a firm believer in passing on and practicing the skills of Wing Chun exactly as he himself learned them. However, he realizes all people are different; he has therefore adopted the more realistic approach of passing on the essence of Wing Chun in the form of its concepts and basic principles. Students are then free to interpret and utilize the techniques in a unique manner.
Wong also enjoys dispelling the many myths that shroud the martial arts, myths that give practitioners a bad name and detract from their credibility. “Martial artists are not people who learn magical powers to become mystical monks like the movies portray them to be. A lot of Kung-Fu styles have in the past lived off reputations of having some secret level that you can eventually attain and, unfortunately, some instructors have maintained these ridiculous ideas.”
He cites an example from his younger days when he was involved in a fight between a friend and another man. He defeated the person in question and was about to leave the scene when the guy, still lying on the ground, called out, “Hey little fella, don’t go! I’ve already given you the dim mak (death touch). You’re doomed!” Wong then adds, “That was around 35 years ago and the dim mak hasn’t worked yet…” Once, when asked about the existence of dim mak techniques in Wing Chun, Wong jokingly replied, “You might kill yourself if you touch yourself,” and then in a slightly more serious tone, added, “Besides, if a person is moving very fast, it’s almost impossible to touch some small areas with such precision.”
Wong Shun Leung is indeed a rare breed of man. He doesn’t try to exploit his reputation as one of Hong Kong’s most formidable street fighters, nor his influence on the career of the late Bruce Lee. He doesn’t go around telling everyone how good he is, nor does he run down other instructors and styles. Despite his obvious skill he is not a pretentious man; his school in Hong Kong is small and drab, containing none of the modem conveniences found in most Western schools. He is merely an excellent teacher who embodies all the qualities one could ever hope for in an instructor.
He has dedicated his life to the advancement and understanding of Wing Chun, “spreading the word” everywhere from Melbourne to Munich, establishing schools wherever he goes, teaching anyone willing to listen. Wong is foe to all who make false claims about Kung-Fu and friend to every one searching for the truth about combat and themselves.
He has been described as”… An appropriate example of a man who has become his art and vice versa. He started as a gifted fighter, studied both the physical and mental aspects of Wing Chun, and finally became Wing Chun spiritually. He’s a man who can be either soft-spoken or out spoken depending upon the situation at hand.
He has learned to understand his own limitations and thereby the limitations of others. His demeanor is calm, relaxed, and his intent unwavering. He is philosophy without embellishment, like an old sword that doesn’t appear dangerous at first, until you’ve tasted its razor edge.”
Wong Shun Leung is Wing Chun personified, a living example of what can be achieved by anyone willing to devote his energy to the practice and understanding o f a chosen field. He credits a simple philosophy for his martial arts, success: “My aim,” says Wong, “is to better myself with each day of training.”
About the Author: A resident of Melbourne Australia, David Peterson is a well-known martial artist and freelance writer. He has written for many Australian martial arts magazines.
 David Peterson, Wong Shun Leung: Wing Chun’s Living Legend, Inside Kung-Fu Magazine vol.18 no. 2, pp. 45-49,83 (Feb 1991)