Interview With Sifu Wan Kam Leung

Wan Kam Leung Issue 1 WCO

The Birth of Practical Wing Chun

Master Wan Kam Leung learned his Wing Chun under the great Wong Shun Leung. Over the last 4 decades, he has dedicated himself to his Art, training and researching tirelessly in order to further 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 is characterised by sharp, explosive movements aimed at flanking the opponent and shutting down their offence.

It is a great honour for us to have him appear on the cover of our very first issue and we are grateful to him for agreeing to do this interview. We could think of no greater teacher to kick off our first issue. Without further ado, we present to you, Sifu Wan Kam Leung.

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, I was not very attracted to Wing Chun in the beginning because 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 7 days a week. 

Can you tell us how you developed Practical Wing Chun?

As I’ve 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’ve had a lot of successful experiences, but also some great defeats. Each defeat made me  think about my own training, and I tried to find out where my techniques were insufficient.

I started to analyse each one of my techniques, and with 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 is not a system that was created overnight. The techniques have been gradually re-adjusted over time, so when I call my system “practical” it doesn’t mean that other Wing Chun systems are not practical in their own way. It means that every single movement from the empty-hand forms are practical and applicable just as they are practiced. 

You practice your forms with almost parallel feet, rather than the more traditional Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma . What are the advantages?

The reason our stance differs from traditional Wing Chun is mainly based on the natural knee position. We still have a triangle as many traditional Wing Chun styles emphasise, but our penetrating triangle does not end so near the front of our body. 

This enables us to penetrate deeper with our stance when moving forward, whilst maintaining a very natural knee and leg position. It more closely relates to the way humans walk, making the movement as natural as possible whilst maintaining good biomechanics. Through experimentation, 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 and natural knee position to transmit force.

Master Wan, the Siu Nim Tao form has a legendary reputation for developing great power, if trained correctly. It has been said that part of the secret is to develop the “Mind Intent”. Can you elaborate on this please?

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

According to my own understanding, Siu Nim Tao is a very practical form. Wing Chun only consists of 3 hand forms; each with their own characteristics. Siu Nim Tao is the first form a student learns. When practicing Siu Nim Tao without moving, you practice grounding your stance, your mind intent, and maintaining your balance while staying loose. Once this is achieved, the student may then practice how to apply the techniques from the form. 

Where does the power in Siu Nim Tao come from? Firstly, you need to execute the movements in a soft manner while maintaining a balanced, grounded stance. In order to develop power, first you must understand how to stay loose without tensing up, whether in San Sau or Chi Sau. Then, you need to understand where the power is generated from when attacking or defending. 

It must be understood that forward actions differ from backwards movements. All this combined with breathing, body structure and angles helps with power generation.

Flanking the opponent is something that you do effortlessly in your videos and yet, this is a difficult skill to cultivate for beginners. Can you give some advice to our readers on how to flank effectively?

The three 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 the forms provide you with the necessary techniques in any given situation. 

So my advice is, first become very familiar with the forms. Then you must understand the nature and details of every technique in the forms. Learn how and when to apply each technique in a given situation. There are no superior techniques in Wing Chun. Any technique can be effective if applied correctly, and at the same time, a technique you favor can fail if the situation is not favorable for this technique. 

Master Wan, although there are elbow strikes in Wing Chun, we never see ‘boxing hook’ style punches, despite the mechanics being almost identical to elbow strikes. Why are there no ‘hook punches’ in Wing Chun?

While I believe “hook” punches to be very powerful, they do not follow one essential principle of Wing Chun: covering your own center line.

Many fighters focus on hitting the opponent’s center, but they miss out on the principle of covering their own. Each technique has to allow you to do that, and the punch is not exception. That is why we focus a lot on the 135˚ angle, which allows you to protect your center while attacking. 

Our practical Wing Chun punch is actually very similar to a boxing punch in structure, speed and power, while managing to cover the center. You can surely punch very powerfully without covering the center, 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 center and rely on technical skills instead. That is why we don`t use ‘hook’ punches in our style.

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

Angles and the center line are very important. 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 channeled into the ground. I do use other angles, but ultimately the strongest angle is 135 degrees. Angles are very important if you want to achieve a simultaneous attack and defense while protecting your center line. This 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 interpret it incorrectly and have a complete lack of structure. 

I always tell my students to be “Fong Sung”, that means “Relaxed”. 

There is no proper translation for it in English. It means that the structure has to be soft, but not collapse. Only with a relaxed structure, the right angles and speed, is it possible to achieve the soft power that is in our Wing Chun engine. Wing Chun is a very sophisticated style, but many people rest on the surface and just study the forms without really understanding what is going on behind it. Many translate “Kung Fu” as hard work, but that doesn’t mean that you have to work 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 and there are moving forms that teach you how to move this relaxed structure across the surrounding space in an efficient way. 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. That is why we see many Wing Chun styles today looking more like Tai Chi or other arts, and loosing the roots based on 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 very important to stay soft. You never fight force against force. Instead, you seek to deflect and redirect incoming force or borrow the incoming force to use it against your opponent. 

To develop that habit, all students should learn to practice the form in a very soft manner. In particular, all movements should be executed in a very relaxed way, so that the students learn not to rely on strength but technical skill 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 a lot of 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 very important 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. 

Which means: if you only on train the external aspects of martial arts but neglect the internal aspects, you will have nothing to show for it in old age.  With this wisdom I have continued my Chi gong practice 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. What people normally do is breathing in and out 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 and some for strength, but ultimately, it all comes down to breathing methods. Ω

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