by Rene Ritchie
We emerged from the Prince Edward Station onto the crowded streets of Kowloon just as the sun was beginning to set. Working our way through the heavy traffic, both human and automotive, framed beneath a patchwork sky of ever-glowing store signs, With the smell of the many restaurants, cafes, noodle & snack shops, and food stalls filling the air, we headed towards Sham Shui Po.
“There,” my friend said after a goodly walk, “do you see his sign?”
Following my friend’s gaze, I looked down the street, straining to see what he had seen. I could read some Chinese, especially martial terms and those proper names I was familiar with, but there were simply too many signs, too much clutter, to sort out. “I see hundreds of signs,” I replied with a grin.
“The red one,” he added, pointing to a large mosaic of color down the street, perhaps wondering why I hadn’t caught it earlier.
As we got closer, I finally made it out – “Guangzhou Taiji Wing Chun Institute” and just below, standing out from the rest of the line by size of print “Kwok Wan-Ping”.
Kwok Wan-Ping was born in 1939 and as a youth studied at the Guangzhou and Wuhon Sports Institutes for 4 years. At the institute, he studied Mongolian, freestyle, and Greco-Roman wrestling and went on to win the All.-China lightweight wrestling championship. He also practiced weight lifting, fencing, and the martial arts. Later, he studied the taijiquan, baguazhang, and xingyiquan of Fu Wing-Fay, son of the legendary Fu Zhensung, Chen family taijiquan, among other systems. In Guangzhou in the mid-1960s, he was exposed to and immediately began studying Yuen Kay-San wing chun kuen under Yuen’s disciple, grandmaster Sum Nung.
During this period, China was in the midst of turbulent times and, thinking in terms of what was best for his family, in the late-1960s Kwok Wan-Ping moved from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. Settling in Kowloon, Kwok Wan-Ping opened the Guangzhou Wing Chun Taiji Institute.
Grandmaster Sum Nung had personally taught for a short time in Hong Kong in the mid-1950s, yet desspite lucrative requests from local unions and offers of partnerships from other established instructors, he’d been unwilling to remain away from his family. Thus it wasn’t until Kwok Wan-Ping’s institute opened that Hong Kong finally had long-term access to his teachings. Concerns over the conditions in China, however, caused grandmaster Sum Nung to ask his public followers to use the name Guangzhou wing chun kuen, instead of using his name, to avoid trouble in the mainland, where the teaching of wing chun kuen was still forbidden.
Other wing chun kuen practitioners had already established themselves in Hong Kong but having come from Foshan themselves, they had long term friendships with grandmaster Sum Nung and when Kwok Wan-Ping’s school opened, several stopped by to visit and welcome him into the community.
Although it was not always easy, and he would face many challenges over the years, Kwok Wan-Ping went on to become one of the most famous and sought after professional martial arts teachers in Hong Kong. In addition, several of his students and descendants have become highly respected wing chun kuen instructors in their own rights, spreading the art in Hong Kong and internationally, such as Tse Chung-Fai of British Columbia, Chow Gwok-Tai of Toronto, and Lee Chun-Ming of Virginia.
It was through the latter’s line, through one of Kwok Wan-Ping’s tosat (great grand-students) I had met online, that I’d gained my first insight into this branch. Of the next few years, I would meet (electronically), many others. Although my own teacher, Ngo Lui-Kay, had begun learning from grandmaster Sum Nung at roughly the same time, classes back then had been separate and private and the two had only met a few times on special occasions. Nevertheless, I had always heard great things about Kwok Wan-Ping, his skill and his warm and friendly nature. I had also been taught that our wing chun kuen family was important and that wing chun kuen was a great way to make new friends. Thus when I passed through Hong Kong on my way to Guangzhou, I could not pass up the opportunity to stop by and pay my respects to my martial uncle.
All this background flashed through my mind as we climbed the stairs up the half-dozen or so floors to Kwok Wan-Ping’s school. Joking that the stair climb was a good leg warm-up, we finally reached the gate before our destination and, opening it, we stepped in side.
Well-sized by Hong Kong standards, Kwok Wan-Ping’s institute was already alive with activity. We had arrived at around 6pm, half-way through the taijiquan lesson. Several pairs were deep into their push-hands practice, bending back and forth, turning and moving in the distinctive Fu family style. Above them, three large pictures dominated the room. On one wall, a portrait of grandmaster Sum Nung smiled down. On the other hung the father and son of the Fu family. Covering almost every spare inch around them were photos, large and small, of Kwok Wan-Ping in action, and of him posing with classes from throughout his long teaching career, visitors and celebrities, and other special events.
On the floor in front of us, a small group had begun practicing a fan sequence. In front of them, leading them, was Kwok Wan-Ping.
I had seen pictures of him from some 20 years previous. It appeared that not much had changed. 60 years of age and perhaps 5′ tall, he was only slightly less wide. In keeping with the saying “arms the size of thighs” his solid mass and well-defined physique would have been impressive on a man one-third his age. This was easy to see, as due to the humidity and the warmth generated by so many working so hard in so small a space, he wore only a pair of blue shorts and workout shoes. As I watched him go through the sequence with his students, I noticed immediately that he also possessed amazing flexibility and balance.
When he turned an noticed us, I saw the other attribute that had always stood out in the old pictures, his smile. Taking a break from his teaching, he approached us and welcomed us to his school. His reputation for hospitality was well earned. Kwok Wan-Ping shared old stories from his past and asked questions about our own. When my friend mentioned that I had been studying Mandarin (although he neglected, as usual, to point out that I was presently only at about a grade 1 level), Kwok Wan-Ping switched to that dialect and, despite my shortcomings in the language, we managed to have a short, yet very interesting conversation.
Over time, more and more students arrived, including Kwok Wan-Ping’s son, who has been learning from his father for several years, and practice began. Like most good teachers, Kwok Wan-Ping’s class stressed the basics, and lots of them. Students went through their boxing and paired up to do lots of partner work like chong choi (crashing punches), chai kiu (stirring bridges), huen sao (circling arms), and luk sao (rolling arms). While the students practiced, Kwok Wan-Ping moved among them offering corrections and instruction in new material. In between, sihing (elder classmates) helped the newer students review and drill what they had learned. After, some moved on to the practice of chi sao (sticking arms).
Kwok Wan-Ping’s students, even the beginners, were all remarkable for their stability (an area that even many long term practitioners have trouble with). No doubt the pressure they use and learn to adapt to early on in partner training accounts, at least in part, for their skill in this area.
As the hour grew late, and Kwok Wan-Ping’s wife began to get his dinner ready, we reluctantly decided we had better get on our way. I could not have hoped for a better welcoming to Hong Kong and start of my journey and would like to thank Kwok Wan-Ping and his students for their hospitality.
The sky above was dark as we left the building but the streets alight in neon. Slightly weary from the class yet exhilarated by the visit, we hurried off into the night. We still had a dinner date to keep and plans to make for our trip to Guangzhou.