Interview With Sifu Wan Kam Leung

The Birth of Practical Wing Chun

Master Wan Kam Leung learned his Wing Chun under the great Wong Shun Leung. Over the last four decades, he has dedicated himself to his Art, training and researching tirelessly to evolve the original teachings passed on by his late master.

Today, he is undoubtedly one of the world’s finest Wing Chun practitioners. His style utilises sharp and explosive movements designed to flank the opponent.

It is a great honour for us to have him appear on the cover of our first issue, and we are grateful to him for agreeing to do this interview. We could think of no better choice to kick off our first issue.

Master Wan, can you tell us about yourself?

I’ve had a great passion for martial arts ever since I was very young. Before I started Wing Chun, I had already trained in several different styles. I must admit that I was not very attracted to Wing Chun in the beginning. I thought it seemed very mechanical and rigid in its movements. However, I later realized that Wing Chun wasn’t what I had initially imagined.

Wing Chun is a very efficient and practical fighting system and is particularly suited for self-defence on the streets. I first met my Sifu, the late Wong Shun Leung, in the 1960s. He was just about to open his school, and I was the first student to sign up. I became very fascinated by the practicability of the system but never thought I would one day be teaching Wing Chun professionally. I promised my Sifu that I would not teach full time as long as he was still teaching. 

My Sifu was an inspirational figure in my life, and when he passed away so suddenly in 1997, I was very shocked and saddened. I have since been teaching Wing Chun on a full-time basis. Practical Wing Chun’s International Headquarters is located in Kowloon, on Nathan Road, and is open seven days a week. 

Can you tell us how you developed Practical Wing Chun?

As I trained other styles before and have always had a general curiosity in all martial arts, I used to test what I learned in Wing Chun against other martial artists of differing styles. I had a lot of successful experiences but also some great defeats. Each defeat made me think about my training, and I tried to discover where my techniques were insufficient. 

I started to analyse each one of my techniques. In time, it evolved into Practical Wing Chun. It has been carefully modified and can no longer be considered the same style of Wing Chun that I learned. Practical Wing Chun wasn’t created overnight. The techniques have been gradually re-adjusted over time. When I call my system “practical”, I don’t mean that other Wing Chun systems are not practical. What I mean is that every movement from the empty-hand forms is practical and applicable.

Wan Kam Leung Issue 1

The reason our stance differs from traditional Wing Chun is due to the natural knee position. We still have the triangle that many traditional Wing Chun styles emphasise, but our penetrating triangle does not end so near the front of our body. It enables us to penetrate deeper with our stance when moving forward and maintaining a very natural knee and leg position. It more closely relates to the way humans walk, making it as natural as possible whilst maintaining good biomechanics. I have also found that this position is much safer against the pressure of a kick towards the knee. 

If the foot and knee are facing in, receiving a kick would cause terrible damage to the knee and ligaments. Whilst the foot is facing forward, a direct kick to the knee will hurt, of course, but not cause disabling damage. The main advantages are that it is more natural for stepping, balance, and changing direction, and it gives a more stable knee position to transmit force.

Master Wan, Siu Nim Tao has a legendary reputation for developing great power if trained correctly. Can you elaborate on this?

It is true that when you train Siu Nim Tao correctly, you can develop both Chi and power. The power that you cultivate from the form is not hard, but soft power. At the same time, you can also develop mind intent.

Wing Chun only consists of 3 hand forms; each has its own characteristics. Siu Nim Tao is the first form a student learns. When practising Siu Nim Tao without moving, you practice grounding your stance, mind intent, and maintaining your balance while staying loose. The student may then practice how to apply the techniques from the form. 

How does Siu Nim Tao develop this power? Firstly, you need to execute the movements with as little tension as possible. You must also maintain a balanced, grounded stance. Power generation requires staying loose without tensing up. Then, you need to understand where the power is generated from when attacking or defending. 

Advancing actions differ from backwards movements. All this combined with breathing, body structure and angles helps with power generation.

Can you give some advice to our readers on how to flank effectively?

The three empty-hand forms in Wing Chun each contain offensive and defensive components, either frontally or from the side. If you are familiar with the forms, you will understand that they provide you with the necessary techniques in any given situation. 

First, you must become very familiar with the forms. Then you must understand the nature and details of every technique. Learn how and when to apply each one in a given situation. There are no superior techniques in Wing Chun. All can be effective if used correctly, and all can fail if used in the wrong context.

Master Wan, why are there no hook punches in Wing Chun?

While I believe hooks to be powerful, they do not follow one essential principle of Wing Chun: covering your centerline.

Many fighters focus on hitting the opponent’s centre, but they miss out on the principle of covering their own. Each technique has to allow you to do that, and the punch is no exception. That is why we focus on the 135˚ angle, which protects your centre while attacking. 

Our practical Wing Chun punch is very similar to a boxing punch in structure, speed and power. But our technique covers the centre. You can punch very powerfully without covering the centre, but you will have to rely on speed and hope that your opponent is slower than you or cannot control the space properly. We want to own the centre and rely on technical skills instead.

Master Wan, can you tell us how you came to use the precise angle 135?

 Angles and the centreline are vital in Wing Chun. I don’t completely straighten the arms for several reasons. For example, if you straighten your arm, the recoil from your punch will not be channelled into the ground. I do use other angles, but ultimately, 135 degrees is optimal. Precise angles are necessary if you want to achieve a simultaneous attack and defence while protecting your centerline. This concept is one of the strong points in Wing Chun. 

Can you explain the ‘Soft power’ of Wing Chun? Is this an internal concept? How can one soften up and develop “Internal power”?

Many internal Chinese kung-fu systems include the word “Sung” in their style. It means “loose”. Some practitioners misinterpret this, leading to a complete lack of structure. I always tell my students to be “Fong Sung”, which means “Relaxed”. 

There is no proper translation for it in English. It means that the structure has to be soft but not collapse. Only whilst relaxed can we achieve the soft power of the Wing Chun engine. Wing Chun is a very sophisticated style, but many people rest on the surface and study the forms without understanding its depths. Many translate “Kung Fu” as hard work, but that doesn’t mean that you have to train it in a “hard” way. 

You might be able to do that when young, but if you don’t rely on developing your technical skills, you might not go far while ageing. 

There are static forms that help you relax your structure. Then there are moving forms that teach you how to move this structure across the surrounding space efficiently. In our style, we focus on both. It took me years of training and development to incorporate Nei Gung into my style and with the engine of Wing Chun. 

Many try to incorporate soft power from other styles, but it doesn’t always work. We see many Wing Chun styles today that look like Tai Chi or other arts. They start to lose economy of motion and proper angles for close combat. 

In addition to the above mentioned, I also urge my students to focus on maintaining soft shoulders, loose wrists, keeping their elbows in and keeping the arm at an angle of 135 degrees. In Wing Chun, it is critical to stay soft. You never fight force against force. Instead, you seek to deflect and redirect incoming force or borrow it to use it against your opponent. 

To develop that habit, all students should learn to practice the form without tensing up; do not rely on strength but technical skills instead. After all, the combination of being soft and powerful is a skill that few have mastered.

We understand you do a lot of conditioning work. How does one train to take punches and kicks the way you do? 

I do much conditioning work, but not by working out in a gym or weight training. I condition my body purely through qigong exercises. I am very passionate about Wing Chun, but besides Wing Chun, Chi gong is also essential to me. Chi gong is very beneficial to Wing Chun. 

There is a Chinese saying: 练武不练功到老一场空. 

It means that if you only train the external aspect of martial arts but neglect the internal side, you will have nothing to show for it in old age. With this wisdom, I have continued my Chi gong practise throughout the years. 

How do you define “Chi”? Is it something real that science will one day discover, or is it just a learning tool?

What is Chi? Chi is breathing, something that we all do. So Chi is life energy. People breathe without giving it much thought, but Chi can be trained and applied. Chi gong is part of Chinese culture, and depending on how you practice, it will provide you with different kinds of benefits. 

At its core, chi gong is simply a breathing exercise with five different breathing methods. Some people practice chi gong purely for health or strength, but ultimately, it all comes down to breathing. Ω

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