An interview with Robert Chu

Combat Journal Interview with Robert Chu by Salim Badat, first published at Combat Journal Website June 2008

1. How did you get to train in wing chun?

I started training in WCK when I was 14, after starting other systems of martial arts since age 7. I also studied Okinawan Shorin Ryu and Judo since age 10 and had some hard core training in that, so when I learned WCK, it was rather easy. A friend from the Chinese restaurant I worked in had some basic training and taught me the Siu Nim Tao set and the basic exercises Pak Sao, Lop Sao, Dan Chi Sao and Cern Chi Sao, as well as shifting from the 2nd form. I also learned basic fighting tactics with WCK. Afterwards, I decided the system was good and sought out more competent instruction.

2. Please explain the concept of body structure and it’s relevance to combat?

I am probably the popularizer of the term “body structure”. Most people think it refers to the form of WCK, whereas I refer to it as the function of WCK. Body structure in a few words is body alignment. Most people who throw around the term do not even know what it means.

Basically, I am talking about vector force alignment to maximize vector forces, or to reduce oncoming vector forces. This is all caused by proper skeletal alignment – you must be able to feel a line of force through your bones initially.

My entire system is based on body structure – you could say it is the core of my system, and it differs from other Yip Man Ving Tsun/Wing Chun systems out there in the curriculum and teaching methodology it is taught in.

In my system, one is taught how to defend your body structure, how to attack and maximize, how to protect yourself with the best anatomical positioning, how to face an opponent, how to control an opponent’s body structure, how to neutralize the opponent’s structure, how to disrupt an opponent’s body structure or lack of it, how to weaken the opponent’s structure, how to regain it if necessary, and how to reposition to it, as well as how to project it through weaponry. To my knowledge, no one has completely adopted this teaching methodology as completely as I have.

3. How does one develop body structure in wing chun?

Basically body structure is taught to a WCK practitioner by day one – how one stands, and feels his or her center of gravity and the relationship to the earth on a vertical plane, while being sandwiched between an opponent’s resisting force. This is the only way to have body structure. Originally we had 4 major tests for it, now we have hundreds of exercises in which to cultivate it. Only students of my system can adequately understand our meaning. In our system, the shoulder girdle is the equivalent to the pelvic girdle, and the width of the stance is determined by proportionate body measurement – it is not “follow me and I’ll show you…”.

4. Briefly describe some of the differences and similarities between the Yip Man, Yuen Kay San and Gu Lao wing chun?

All WCK is WCK. There’s really no good or bad WCK, just functional in the moment or non-functional in the moment. People who train realistically have it; people who train in a dead manner do not.

Yip Man WCK is the most popular system in the world. It is a good modern system, adapted to today’s society. However, there are many branches in the world taught today. Of them all, I highly regard the training I had in Hawkins Cheung system, Wong Shun Leung system (from Gary Lam) and Ho Kam Ming system (from Augustine Fong and Johnny Wong), as well as what I received from Koo Sang, Lo Man Kam and William Cheung.

The Yuen Kay Shan system is more sophisticated and includes an older training methodology, perhaps better taught one on one. The 3 forms are more similar to Yip Man’s early teaching in Fut Shan, there are 14 conceptual key words, 12 Cheung Bo training drills, and their Muk Yan Jong is longer and in some ways more sophisticated than in Yip Man system. I very much like the pole and knives training in YKS WCK. I am indebted to my sifu, Kwan Jong Yuen, and my training brother Rene Ritchie for my YKS training.

Gu Lao WCK is a great system for those who do not want to learn forms. The core of the system is freeform, and drilling is based on points. However, your mileage may vary depending on the person you study with based on their knowledge of fighting applications. One could study all the points, but without practical combat knowledge, they would simply be ugly random movements. A lot of people are coming out of the woodwork now with variations of Gu Lao WCK, but I must say that it is the skill rather than the number of points that is most important.

All WCK extends through the same source. The Yip Man and Yuen Kay Shan systems utilize forms, whereas the Gu Lao system I learned did not use sets, but individual moves. All had a strong emphasis on straight punching. In fact, I would say that the WCK straight punch is the essence of WCK. If you could just master that, most of real WCK is embodied in that.

5. Please tell us a bit about your recent U.K. visit?

I came to the U.K. on the invitation of my student Alan Orr, and by Mark Hobbs of Pagoda Imports, to the recent Seni event, Europe’s largest martial arts expo, held at the Excel Centre in London, England in April of 2008. There, I taught my first open U.K. seminar and gave the 35 attendees a problem: how would they rectify the dichotomy of study that was traditionally passed down to them and the functional manner in which I based my WCK on?

For the morning, I taught the nuances of my WCK, which included making and striking with the proper Wing Chun fist, some rudimentary structure methods for aligning and rooting the stance and issuing power, methods of using the striking methods of transitioning from hand to body and body to hand. Emphasis on striking and follow through were shown, and a question and answer period was held. My basic message was to emphasize the value of testing martial art through function, not only form and tradition.

The highlight of my trip was handing out medals to the winners of the First International Chi Sau Open in which my group won 7 gold medals and 1 silver medal in fullcontact Chi Sao competition against all different systems of WCK in the U.K. My grandstudents won in the tournament because of our structure methods.

6. You had to actually cover making a fist?

Yes, you might think its funny, but so many people in WCK don’t grip their fist properly! The thumb placement is a big deal – it never passes the index finger, and you must extend the first punch by aiming with your middle knuckle. The 3rd and 4th digits clench slightly more tight than the other fingers and the angle of the wrist is pronounced and with slight hyperextension, and the fist is rotated with a slight supination to maximize skeletal alignment. Knowing this, your martial arts study also increases your health. Of course in Chinese medicine, we recognize that finger as being the “fire” element (just like when we extend it to give people a piece of our mind), and then the bottom three knuckles hit the person incidently. We don’t extend our wrist or snap it – the extension puts it in anatomically correct position with the ulna and radius bones aligned properly to channel a force upon impact, and absorb a resultant force. Too many have malalignment of the fist upon impact, hitting with the pinky first. It’s a joke – they can break their fist immediately upon impact! But they insist it is their style’s trademark. This is what I mean when others pass on a dichotomy of form not equal to function.

7. What is the unique feature of your wing chun?

You could say my WCK is the functional version of WCK.

Even with all the training and research I have done, I don’t combine “styles” – I test it as a scientist does – look at what’s functional, have a hypothesis, test it, see if its replicable. With my studies in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, physics, and modern athletics, this leads me to my conclusion. Over the years, this lead me to “Let function rule over form”, and “Let application be your guide”, and now, I can also say, “Experience beats experiment.”

8. Don’t you think speed is also a critical aspect in Wing Chun? A lot of systems stress speed as a critical component of their system.

Alertness, smoothness, mental decision making, power, and timing are more critical components rather than speed. Speed by itself is empty. One time a WCK teacher boasted that one of his students could throw 12 punches in a second. My reply was how hard could that student hit? His answer, “Well,…”

9. Isn’t there body structure in other systems as well?

Yes there is, but as I said, others think that form is body structure, but unless it is tested in the same way we do, I don’t agree they have maximised full potential of structure. Even with any skilled martial artist or WCK practitioner, I could teach them to hit even harder, control better, have a more stable and mobile root, and set up strikes to finish them at will. Its all based on the thorough study of body mechanics, velocity, momentum and power. I don’t think most WCK have done this to the extent I have. And so many over the years have boasted to me they could pass structure test one, and they can’t. For me function is the form. There has to be core skill development and objectives, otherwise its all a bunch of guys arguing that this is the way it was handed down to me, not taking into account human flaw.

10.What is the essence of wing chun?

(jokingly) Wing Chun is basically: No can stand = no can fight!

But more seriously, WCK is to learn the proper mechanics and adapt them freely in combat while breaking the opponent’s balance and working him over.

11. Has your personal expression of wing chun evolved through the years?

When I was younger, I was very aggressive and attacked my opponent’s attack. I would use strikes, kicks, body control, throws, joint locks and take the opponent down to the ground.

Of course, since I am older now, I have a tendency to be more tricky. I always break my opponent’s balance and allow him to determine what kind of beating he wants. I don’t throw it all at him.

12. What is the unique flavour of your branch of wing chun?

In my branch of WCK, we approach everything from a functional level and want to create well-rounded fighters and practitioners to have strength, endurance, flexibility, correct mindset, work ethic and flexibility in all facets of combat including striking, kicking, throwing, joint locks, groundfighting and weaponry.

I think it is important for a fighter to be well rounded in practical application, while also perfecting their major system. For those who think it is a bad thing to cross train, it shows a bit of close mindedness. For example, there’s no doubt BJJ and MMA have their impact on the martial arts now, what does a WCK person do to survive if he is placed in that scenario? Without ever testing it, one is lost. I’m not saying combining all arts, but stating what are your strengths and weaknesses under all circumstances. I put one student in the mount on top of another, and see the one on the bottom either gas out or fight his way out. Its an important drill. Another thing is many WCK people are terribly out of shape. They need to make savage the body more, instead of yapping about politics!

The emphasis on combat realism is the thing that was passed down from me by Hawkins Cheung. Hawkins Cheung’s is the inspiration to me, as I have passed my art down based on his approach. Most people overemphasis sticking hands and forms, he emphasizes combat application. One would think that to be common, but most WCK instructors emphasize forms, then drills, then even more drills in Chi Sao. My sifu is the most deceptive fighter. He doesn’t look like one, but he has a way to trick you if you fight him. Its very deceptive how hard he hits and kicks. As a teacher, he didn’t teach me “Hawkins Cheung WCK”. Instead, he taught me skills and principles WCK.

13. What are your future goals and aspirations?

I am semi-retiring from WCK teaching now, really distilling my training method to make it simpler and faster to teach. I may still take on a few disciples, but only ones who want to fully learn the art and study it from the complete perspective of martial arts and medicine. I am writing a new book on these applications and training methodologies.

I am concentrating more on the teaching of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture of which I lecture on internationally in the U.S.A., Canada and Europe.

I am also a fulltime clinician, with an active practice, I am continuously doing battle with diseases such as Cancer, Parkinson’s, lupus, diabetes and heart disease. But I am very much into health and longevity, incorporating my Chinese medicine knowledge with Ayurveda in rejuvenation practices and herbal therapy.

I have also been developing my health through both external training enschewing modern and ancient training regiments with kettlebells and martial arts equipment, as well as Qi Gong/Yoga type training and created complete training regiments there. Kettlebells are great training devices that will help any fighter develop endurance, explosive strength and cardio without bulking up. I highly recommend the training to everyone, but people should have good detailed training through an AKC/WKC or RKC coach.

I have been very proud of my students’ accomplishments as well, especially of my disciple, Alan Orr, who created the International Chi Sau Open, unique in that all Judges and Referees would be invited each year from different branches of Wing Chun, with central idea for “Bringing Wing Chun forward together”. I think it will become a major event to follow throughout Europe. My other students Dave McKinnon and Marty Goldberg, are also taking my WCK to open competition and MMA venues, and proud of them as well.

Lastly, I will be doing more research and development in the Yik Kam Siu Lien Tao WCK, which I feel is one of the earliest forms of WCK, as there is documented proof, as well as core related forms, drills, skills and concepts taught in Fukien White Crane and Emei 12 Zhuang system to show how it was created. I think we need to preserve cultural artifacts for the next generation.

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