By Daniel Palau – English Translation by David Robinson.
I first met Sifu Wong Hong Chung (John Wong) in 2011, during a trip that my Sifu Santiago Pascual organized to explore the roots of Ving Tsun in Hong Kong and Mainland China. From the offset, I was able to see the friendly nature that characterizes this Sifu. For those who do not know who Sifu Wong Hong Chung is, but practice Ving Tsun, I need to say little more than that he is the son of Grandmaster Wong Shun Leung (1936-1997), one of only 5 students who were privileged to learn the full Ving Tsun system directly from the famous GGM Ip Man.
Master Wong Shun Leung spent his time constantly refining his Ving Tsun thanks to the experience he gained through 15 years in bare-knuckle fights, without protective gear or weight categories, otherwise known as Beimo, where he was never defeated and was thus dubbed Gong Sao Wong “The King of talking with his hands”. It is estimated that there were between 60 and 100 of these illegal meetings, which used to take place on rooftops, away from prying eyes, or ocasionally in hotel rooms reserved specifically for the occasion. The martial atmosphere of that time could be described loosely as quite brutal… …however, accounts of these fights have already been written about some time ago and is very easy to find information about them.
GM Wong Shun Leung, even though he possessed a bold and determined character, never boasted or bragged about his reputation as an undefeated fighter. Whenever he was asked about these encounters, he was very frank and realistic, admitting that even in the best of victories, he would often walk away with some type of injury.
His son, Master John Wong, is modest and extremely polite in character, inheriting from his father a pragmatic and analytical mind which gives him the ability to assimilate and clearly transmit the legacy left by his father. Currently, he’s devoting much of his efforts to create a community that brings together students from his father and his Ving Tsun lineage. This allows a framework for followers of the WSL lineage to get to know one another at gatherings, with the aim of conserving the teachings of his father. Undoubtedly, Master John Wong is the best ambassador for this task.
I had previously contacted Wong Hong Chung by email and then by phone, so I travelled to Hong Kong to visit him in the VTAA. When I arrived, he was about to start the class. After a brief greeting and an invitation to take a seat, the class began.
There were beginners practicing basic techniques and Siu Nin Tao (the first form of Ving Tsun), while others worked at Chi Sao and the wooden dummy. The Chi Sao I witnessed was honestly of a very high technical quality. Good structure and movement with very precise hands that shot forward at high speed at the slightest mistake, without losing the alignment of the elbow or leaving any opening. Sifu Wong walked among his students correcting the details, fully concentrating on the task at hand.
When the class ended, I spoke with him to organise a date for the interview. Shortly afterwards, he called to tell me he was going to make a trip to Foshan and that we could do the interview there, which would give us the opportunity to visit some important sites in Ving Tsun’s history. It was an unexpected surprise and I jumped at that chance.
The product of that encounter in Foshan is the following interview, which took place in different locations such as the kwoon of Sifu Yip Chi Chu, or the Hoi Tin Restaurant, an establishment that is more than 100 years old and was a favorite of GGM Ip Man. Even now, it still opens daily, serving delicious and traditional Cantonese dishes.
When did you start your journey in Kung Fu and Wing Chun? Can you explain a little to us about this period of your study?
When I was little, whilst we were having a two month holiday. My father spoke to me and my brother and sister, and began to teach me and my sister a little Siu Nin Tao. I forget whether we then learned Chi Sao or not. We were also taught by some of the SiHings who helped my father to give lessons, but I was very young and had to go to school, so didn’t have much time and also nobody could take me to my father’s kwoon. Then I stopped studying for years and at 13 or 14 years old, with my brother and my cousin, I began to study Ving Tsun again. At that time, my sister was no longer studing Ving Tsun and later, my brother stopped practicing, but my cousin still practiced sometimes. By then, my father had moved the school to its final site and I was already older and could go to Mou Kwoon on my own.
So you were the only son who continued to practice, finishing the style to later start teaching it?
Yes, that’s right. I consider it my duty – as well as maintaining contact between all my father’s students. My duty, rather than teach, is to keep everyone together. But before my father died, I never thought I would teach Wing Chun. I wanted to train and practice, but I did not think about teaching. They are two different things, it’s much more fun to just train.
Due to my character, I did not like fighting too, though for some people maybe fighting is exhilarating. You can learn without fighting too. In fact, Wing Chun offers you that possibility. Training …. that process is fun, but training and real fighting is different. I know the difference, but when you start teaching, it makes you think more – not focus only on one thing. When you teach, you have to think about what’s correct and what isn’t all at once. It’s interesting.
What is your relationship with the Kung Fu circle in HK?
Previously, I had not had much contact and when I started teaching I did not have much time to socialize with people from other types of Kung Fu or martial arts. I am currently very focused on teaching, but in the last three or four years, I have had more opportunities to meet other Sifus because of my position as secretary of the VTAA.
What’s your personal training like? Do you do any specific warm ups? What exercises do you practice more?
I follow the same method as my father. My father said that the Wing Chun system should always be kept in a development process, to be an ever increasingly better system. Not just the system, but to develop a process that ensures training and allows us to learn more about the theory behind Wing Chun. This forces you to think more. However, if we focus on a more real training method, maybe this method can allow students to better understand the system’s theory, concepts, strength, sensitivity, etc. In reality, my father had already done this, but perhaps it wasn’t quite complete. We follow the training of my father as a base – for example, we can draw individual techniques from the forms, develop and combine them – not to change the system, but with the goal to exploit and develop these techniques. That’s my goal in training.
My intention is to make the most complicated techniques and how they work, easier to understand for everyone, regardless of their level. Perhaps one can give a very sophisticated explanation, but this level of explanation would be lost on the people for whom these martial concepts are new. In this way, I can share my experience.
During the learning process, we make mistakes and have to try again, which is completely normal. So my intention is that when someone does something wrong, we can easily fix it. It’s not a shortcut, I’m only attempting to limit the time that a student spends performing an incorrect process and trying to explain to the student how to train. If you don’t train well, you will not get anything from it.
Do you have any specific warm up before the class?
Not especially. We do some Chi Sao to relax, and sometimes we do a warm up exercise.
Any preference on the forms?
Currently, I’m not practicing the forms from start to finish. I’m concentrating more on extracting the movements from the forms. For example, you can remove Tan Sau and use it within different movements. It’s all about directions, the lines you draw towards your opponent or the lines they have coming towards you. Either forward or backward, focusing on the opponent as though they were the wooden dummy (using angles) and seeing the lines or axes of the body so we don’t only respond in one plane. If we study these axes and lines as if they were 3D, it shows us the possible targets and possible actions available to us.
The possible responses we have are much higher. Not only thinking of a response within the same line of force, with only one arm. We have two arms, so we don’t only have one line of force or possible response (Sifu Wong explained with examples such as running from a random position, all possible lines that are projected towards the opponent and all lines projecting to us when we interact with the opponent). The same theory is true when learning other martial arts, such as Taijiquan. It follows the same process.
When you encounter these theories, it is easier to train and understand what you’re doing. In class, I take these movements and study the ways to apply these theories. You can know the theory, but it takes some time to understand and apply it – how we work with force and softness, without confusing soft with no energy.
Which part of the body is soft, which part is hard. Sometimes, they can be both states at once. We are not just hard or soft, we can be in both states simultaneously. One hand could be “hard” and the other “soft”, one side is soft and one side is hard – and then change depending on what is happening. Normally, you want to go forward with Soi Ma. Launching an attack either in a static position or in motion is easier. Just going in and attacking, but back with Toi Ma, to absorb the energy that comes, that’s different.
But sometimes students want to stay in a fixed position because they think that if they go back they lose the advantage.
Yes, last night, I explained to Ivan how to use the steps when you go back and check the directions or lines that come towards us, and how to run our lines forward, using our “ma” (stance). Sometimes, the practitioner tends to use all his or her available force at once. Sometimes it works and you think …. now I want to hit hard!! In fact, if we have enough strength and it is the right time to use it , that’s not entirely wrong.
They make it like a Kamikaze attack, without thinking about what could happen next.
Yeah, sure, that’s why that option is not always the safest way to go. But this is just training, not a real fight. We are talking about concepts, but if you train them properly they are useful in a fight.
You mentioned yesterday that you’re trying to help your students to learn faster. Can you explain a bit about that?
Yes, some of my SiHings use the traditional system with their students. Siu Nim Tao (first form) is practiced for about three months, which is OK. Sometimes my father sped this up depending on the student. In my opinion, within the principles of learning, if someone practices the whole form, they will not understand it. Of course, you have to train the positions – fuk Sao, tan sao, etc, but no one knows yet what each thing is used for. I’m not saying Siu Nim Tao isn’t useful, only that when learning the form intially, you only have to remember the sequence of moves and then later take these movements and study them individually.
In Hong Kong is there much focus on weapon training within the family of Wong Shun Leung and other families of Wing Chun?
Not too much, I can’t speak too much about other families of Wing Chun, but when I visited, I did not see that much weapons training being practiced. This is more a problem of the environment. As you know, the places where one can train or live in Hong Kong are very small – often we do not have enough space to train and I’m not just talk about in the past. We can only do weapons training at the school (about 90 % of the Hong Kong population live in very small spaces).
Even if I want to practice at home with the pole, I can not train because of this space issue. Even the Ba Chan Do (butterfly knives Wing Chun) cause problems. For Chisao it’s different, not everyone wants to fight, but instead, love to practice Chi Sao as if it were a game of chess. They enjoy it a lot, but regarding the pole, it’s much more difficult.
Speaking off the pole, people are surprised about the power that its training gives you.
Yes, of course, it gives you a lot of strength. But even training without the pole, doing the pole punches, this also increases your power. It all depends on the students you have in class. Whether they are beginners or advanced. Actually, if you have enough energy, it is also good to take the opportunity to find new training partners in class.
After the death of your father, how do you feel your families system of Wing Chun is developing?
We say that we follow a training method, we haven’t changed the Wing Chun – just a few exercises within the basic training, but not much. I do not mean change – I talk about some exercises that were once practiced and ceased to be practiced for a long time and now we have recovered them again. Likewise, now we don’t practice some that could be considered more modern.
For example some drills with the wall bag – trying to put out a candle with one’s fist to build strength and speed. Also, we focus more on exercises to understand angles. Some of these exercises were practiced but were stopped by 1975, and now we’ve revived them again. So they aren’t new. They’re basic things, we’re not talking about big changes.
What areas of Wing Chun did your father concentrate on?
In hitting, for example, if you don’t train regularly, then you should train to develop your punch. You know, he liked to fight – maybe that’s why he focused more on that. Training the muscles is easy. If you train for an hour, you’ll benefit, it’s easy. But the skill is different – you need a long time to develop it.
How do you feel when you see all that your father did?
I think that he created a new approach or point of view. People used to say that Chinese Kung Fu couldn’t be used to fight. Even today, now that people have much more information through the Internet… for example, many people thought that Taijiquan was only, or had always been solely for health. No one imagined that it can also used to fight.
Long ago, maybe it was the same with Wing Chun. People thought it was not powerful because they saw Siu Nin Tao and thought that the Tan or Bong Sao Sao were useless. So the training method of Wong Shun Leung shows you how you can use it in real fight. It is a method that pushes you to think more.
Maybe that was his outlook. It’s similar to the old and the new Thai-boxing?There were also changes. In Wing Chun we have to think practically – what’s realistic and what is just training. We must try to be more direct, more efficient. This was my father’s opinion. After his death, there can still be more development because he gave us this new direction.
I‘ve noticed that people in Foshan, in the circles of Kung Fu, know who Wong Shun Leung is – even practitioners of other styles of Kung fu from different areas of China know of him. It’s something that surprised me. How do you feel when you see this?
(Laughing) I have many feelings about it, but being the son of Wong Shun Leung, I sense a certain pressure because my abilities in kung fu are being constantly compared to his. I can’t do the things he did (laughs again). Seriously, I’m a middle-aged man. In terms of seniority within our Wing Chun family, I’m in the middle, so I’m not one of the highest SiHings within the family. If we talk about Kung Fu ability, some of my father’s first students, like Wan Kam Leung, can perform like he did.
How was Wong Shun Leung at home?
At home, he didn’t talk much about Kung Fu or VTAA. Only sometimes I heard some conversation or story after dinner. After his death, I contacted some of my SiSoks, Sipaks and other Sifus. That’s when I heard more stories about my father. Then I realized that my father had done many things, but I only found out after he died. Whether talking about him as a father or as a Sifu, I can say he liked art in the global sense – artistic things where you develop your potential.
He never pressured anyone not even me. He didn’t force me to practice Wing Chun or anything else. But he was like that with everyone, not only to me. Even with other SiDais or SiHings. His thinking was that a person must be devoted to what they like – then things come more naturally. He liked to explain things, but you could never force him to explain, (laughs). Actually, sometimes he wouldn’t answer you if you asked him a meaningless question.
Well, I had heard that GM Ip Man could also react in a similar fashion, and not answer depending on the question.
Yes, some SiSoks told me that GM Ip Man and my father were alike in some ways.
Do you have any anecdotes about training with your father?
At school? In the school I never trained directly with my father. But at home, with my brother, as we asked him lots of questions, he would teach us. Not formally, but if we asked how things worked, he would show us and explain things.
Have you had to use Wing Chun on the street?
Only a couple of times – just fists. Both times were the same. I can’t really call them a fight. I’m not a trouble maker, or rather, I don’t “look” like a trouble maker. It was just a case of using a few punches to solve the situation and leave. After hitting them, I felt fear hit and quickly got out of there. So I can’t say it was a real situation. I think that 80% of people could do the same.
My Sikung Bernardo Nino once said that he (Nino Bernardo) doesn’t like to fight, and in fearing fighting or being hit, he was therefore ready to hit.
I do not like to fight. I’m not training for that purpose. But I like to train to avoid it and stay ready for it, if it happens. It’s the same for my students – I teach that idea.
I wanted to ask your opinion about Wing Chun competitions.
From my point of view, I do not like them because I do not see much Wing Chun used. In the last five years, many people have wanted to participate in competitions of Chi Sao. They train year after year, and want to try if it works outside of class.
For me, Chi Sao is for training, to practice many techniques against another person without having a real fight. Some things within Chi Sao are only specific to the framework of Chi Sao. They are not for a real fight, and we do things to keep in a certain position and keep practicing Chi Sao. But in a real situation, we would be moving and would employ some of these concepts, but others less so.
What do you think about the future of Wing Chun?
I think it’s amazing, because you know … if you look at the history of Wing Chun, it’s already several hundred years old. Its creators had to be really smart, very smart. It is an unusual system. For example, Taijiquan is good – it is useful – but it is complicated. It is very difficult to fully master. Wing Chun is not as extensive. It is simpler, easier to learn – it takes less time to learn it.
I’m not saying it’s better, but maybe it could be seen as more efficient. Perhaps the person, or persons who created the style hundreds of years ago had already learnt another Kung Fu style, and then went through a process of eliminating some items, simplifying it down.
What is your goal in Wing Chun?
For me, I’m not a fighter. I’m better teaching. I can make students learn easily – that’s my skill. I prefer using Wing Chun to get to know people, rather than using it to fight.
If someone who has no knowledge of Wing Chun and asks what it is, what do you tell them?
It is a fighting system, but not only a fighting system. It’s also a self defence system.
Normally, when we talk about a fighting system, people think of death or violence. Sometimes, I explain to the guys that although you really have the ability to hit, you shouldn’t.
At first, the students have to be able to … at least, even if they can not hit, avoid being hit. That’s very important. It is the first part. Then, within a fight scenario, you can hit or escape if attacking is not really necessary. If you want to avoid being hit, it’s easy. But hitting someone hard is more complicated.
If someone does not really want fight, is very unlikely that they’ll go in and attack, so the first thing to learn is to protect oneself and then, later, to fight. As I said before, for example in boxing, sometimes a fighter only thinks to hit, hit, – and you see how their structure is lost. Don’t break your structure – we are reliant on it, so do not lose it. You must protect your structure and then we find the opportunity, the moment.
What is it that you find new students are looking for when they come to you, especially with the recent success of Wing Chun films?
If, a few years ago, someone came, it was because they wanted to learn the things they saw that my father did. Some people just for fun, others to defend themselves, etc. But usually my students bring other students. Others come because they want to try themselves out against someone from the Wong Shun Leung family.
Are new students really looking for that?
It is a little strange – not many people are aware of me. But I have some more well known Sidai appearing in TV series, and some students from other lineages see it and they want some to try some “exchanges” with students from the Wong Shun Leung line, to see if what they learned can operate in a fight.
Therefore, quite often after such an exchange, the person will want to come and learn from us. I can understand that you would like to know that what you’ve learnt can be put into practice – to see if it works.
Any advice for new students and for advanced?
Focus on the positions from the first part of Siu Nim Tao (first form of Wing Chun). I do not give too many explanations, but one thing that I insist is the correct position. I often give many details about it, along with the elbow, because many techniques will use the elbow in connection with the position.
Some movements, you can explain step by step to see them from a more detailed perspective – other movements can be corrected from time to time and later can be analyzed in more depth. But the position is always vital.
To conclude, where you can be reached if someone wants to contact you?
I teach at the VTAA two days a week. My father used to teach there too, and there are now many other Sifus, Sipaks and Sisoks teaching there.
I teach 2 nights a week – Monday and Thursday. But everyone is welcome, not just to train, because I want to stay connected with the entire clan of Wong Shun Leung Wing Chun and grow together. Many Sihings went outside and opened schools. Although my father died some years ago, it is important to keep everyone connected and learn more about each other.
Thanks for your time and for the interview.
You’re welcome, thank you.
I would also like to thank Sifu Yip Chi Chu for her kindness to be our guide and explain the history of Foshan in such detail, as well as letting us use her koown during part of the interview.
By Daniel Palau
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