Interview with Wong Shun Leung and Barry Lee

by Earl Montaigue

Wing Chun Master , Sifu Wong Shun Leung says : „Any Martial Artist who says he doesn´t get hit is lying to himself!“

Sifu Wong Shun Leung´s Martial Arts ability is “legendary” ,and well documented in Hong Kong ,with his having fought and won many real fights in his younger years (And also in his older years , as will soon be found …) Sifu Wong is probably one of relatively few chinese Martial Artists still living who is able to claim real challenge match experience, keeping in mind that he lived in an era when Kung Fu was still unknown in the west and protective equipment was virtually unheard of.

In those days, it was accepted practice for students from other schools to visit the various “rival“ styles in Hong Kong and “try out their style”. If a student was able to beat the main teacher of a particular school, the school would invariably have to close down. Sifu Wong Shun Leung reputedly “closed down” quite a number of schools in that way.

I must say that, when reading this article, you should keep in mind that this sort of challenge was the accepted thing in those days in Hong Kong. These days it cannot – and should not – be done. However, Sifu Wong feels that, although one is able to have a more-or-less realistic sparring match, nothing beats “the real thing”, and that perhaps serious instructors and students are losing a little with the passing of that era. He regards modern tournaments as nothing more than “games”.

He said he believes all Martial Arts styles can be just as good as each other; it just depends upon how diligently one practices. He does not claim Wing Chun is the only Martial Art. Nor does he claim that it is the best system for everyone – only that it is a basic , straightforward system with no frills and works very well in most situations.

Sifu Wong believes that everyone must learn and teach their own arts their own way, and that every art art has something to offer. When I asked him about other styles he said he did not know very much about this or that style, and so he would not comment. Quite apart from Sifu Wong Shun Leung´s obvious Martial arts ability, I found him to be, quite simply, a lovely man …

The following is a transcript of my interview with Sifu Wong Shun Leung, which has been edited in line with the publisher´s note in Vol. 10/3 , regarding the two Readers` Forum letters which closed the subject of the ongoing “Wing Chun Controversy”. The interview includes several additional comments from Wong Shun Leung´s sister Wendy Lee, who acted as interpreter, and brother-in-law Barry Lee, both of whom live in Sydney. (Wong Shun Leung has no representative in Australia, but would like Barry Lee – who has been teaching privately for over 10 years – to represent Wong´s Wing Chun in Australia.)

Erle: Sifu Wong, were you the first student of Yip Man?

Wong Shun Leung: No, but I learned in the early years when my Sifu was still teaching. Kung Fu is not like an inheritance. It doesn´t matter how senior you are, but how good you are. You need to study hard. It doesn´t matter if you are the son of a grandmaster, only how hard you practice.

Erle: Yes, we hear so many stories about how a certain master taught his son from the age of four, etc. and so some naturally assume that that son must be quote good …

Wendy Lee: My brother has two sons, but they aren´t interested in Kung Fu, although his daughter is quite interested. You can´t force the children to practice something that they don´t particularly want to.

Erle: Was Wing Chun your first Martial Art, Sifu ?

Wong Shun Leung: No, I learned a couple of other styles before Wing Chun. I started Wing Chun at around 17 or 18 years of age.

Barry Lee: He wasn´t the first student of Yip Man, but was one of four students that were taught around the same time and are now recognized as the main students of Yip Man. Wong Shun Leung, Choy Sun Ting, Lok Yiu and Leung Seung were the major students of Yip Man at that time. Wong Shun Leung was the only one who really went out and proved his style for the old master (Yip Man). He is the one the old master (Yip Man) used to rely upon and used to send out to fight the various other styles, so in that way he distinguished himself in a way that no other teacher, or no other student of Yip Man, really had to the same degree. They all went out and fought, but never anywhere near the amount of fights this man (Wong) has had; and proven fights against the best of nearly every style. Many were documented in newspapers; there were films taken etc.. As Sifu became more famous, the challenges came to him. Wong Shun Leung was 5ft. 4ins., approximately 104 lbs. and was never beaten.

Erle: It must have been greatly different in those days. The west hardly even knew about Kung Fu then …

Wong Shun Leung: Nowadays you just can´t do the things that we did then, and I think people miss out on some of the real aspects of fighting because of this.

Erle: What do you feel about the Buce Lee era? His style and ideas etc.? (Wong Shun Leung was one of the senior instructors who taught Wing Chun to Bruce Lee … )

Wong Shun Leung: We had all known Bruce for many years. My sister used to know him when she was a little girl. When Bruce started to become famous he came back to Hong Kong and still came to ask me to practice with him. Bruce would ask me what I thought of his new style, or rather “way” (Jeet Kune Do has no “style” ). On one occasion I discussed and practiced with Bruce from midday until midnight behind closed doors (The two men went into a closed room while the two wives sat in the other room and talked. Another thing that could only happen in those days – Erle) Some of this time in the closed room was spent just talking, sometimes we would Chi Sau (sticky hands training); sometimes we would fight.
Bruce was a very hard-working man; he trained very hard. A lot of Jeet Kune Do obviously came from Wing Chun. But with a lot of things… just because Bruce could do it doesn´t mean that his students could do it. Because Bruce had a firm background, with much Chi Sau, which teaches you instinctive reaction. It enables you to follow your opponent. (Sifu Wong was mainly referring to the students of Bruce Lee who had no other Martial Arts training. People like Dan Inosanto already had a solid background in other arts, so the concepts of Jeet Kune Do were easily picked up by him – Erle).
You can´t teach people from the top. You must teach them as you learnt, from basics to a higher level. Jeet Kune Do is not a bad way. In fact, it´s quite good. But one thing that one must remember is that not many men are like Bruce Lee. He had a gift and so probably would have been good at any style.

Erle: What do you think about many people who have changed the basic Wing Chun with respect to footwork, to cause it to be better in their eyes?

Barry Lee: Some people say there is not enough footwork. But in fact those are the people who haven´t really analysed the style and don´t understand the kicks and the footwork that is involved.

Wong Shun Leung: Someone who is looking at Wing Chun and hasn´t trained the full system, or hasn´t really gone for enough time with a teacher, probably won´t know enough footwork. They won´t understand the mobility involved in Wing Chun – the angles of attack, the advance and retreat. They won´t understand the full use of kicks in all situations. Therefore they will want to add something else that they think is better, for the sake of not knowing.

Barry Lee: It´s the ability of the man and the understanding of what he´s doing that´s important. In an actual fighting situation you will very rarely need to use your legs. And when you do, you use them in such a way as to maintain your centre of balance so that you can use your hands.

Wong Shun Leung: I think the kicks in Wing Chun are enough. It´s much easier to use your hands than to use your feet. Your hand is able to reach your opponent long before your foot. Why take the long way to attack (circle), when there is a much more direct method of attack? If you are using your hands, then your opponent can´t see a kick coming if you have to use it. When you teach Kung Fu, you can fool a lot of people, but not yourself. You can make like a movie and do many complicated movements and kicks, but you only fool yourself as to whether that would work in a real situation of life and death.

Barry Lee: If you are training for the purpose of knocking your opponent down, you only need a small number of techniques. So it comes back to the ability of the man. In all of Sifu´s fights he very rarely had to use his kicks; so that answers the question.

Erle: Regarding basic Wing Chun training methods: What does one learn first with the legs?

Wong Shun Leung: You must learn, from the beginning, balance and stability, and then mobility. Mobility is such that you change your angle to the opponent, very often you´re stepping very fast. It´s a very aggressive style in many ways. Very rarely will you step back but you will step back if you have to. In fact, we learn to step backwards before learning to step forwards. But for every step back, you will try to take two steps forward. The mobility that you´re talking about is in the angle to your opponent. We use a lot of twisting; a lot of shifting using the hips to shift; using your body to change your direction with regard to your opponent.

Erle: How effective is Wing Chun against multiple attacks?

Wong Shun Leung: Wing Chun is better against one opponent (as is any art ), but if you face three people then you´d better be sure that you are better than them… (At this point, Barry and Wendy related – with Wong´s okay – an incident which happened to Wong, who is now 52 years old, in Hong Kong about a year ago)…

Barry Lee: Sifu has a good friend who has trained in some Wing Chun, but normally doesn´t train in Wing Chun. He´s just a good friend who comes to talk to Sifu. This friend is an habitual gambler and has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time, and in this instance he owed a lot of money in gambling debts. Sifu and this person were in a restaurant minding their own business in the evening and more than 13 men came in, all with weapons of some kind in order to get this man. They were going to finish him and Sifu was forced to defend him. Normally Sifu would let them come to him but, because they were after the other man, he stepped between him and them and stepped into them. In his whole life, maybe more than 30 years of fighting, it was the first mistake of stepping in rather than doing the Wing Chun practice of allowing the fight to come to him. But he had to save his friend; otherwise he would have isolated a number of them and taken them out that way. Sifu fought them and knocked four or more of them down. He went to punch one of them and his sleeve – because he was wearing the long Min Lap (Chinese jacket with rolled up sleeves) at the time – the Min Lap unravelled and the man grabbed the jacket and came up with a knife. As the knife came up Sifu had the reflex action to move and the knife just caught him between the eyes (There is a scar on Wong´s forehead, between his eyes). The man grabbed his arm and as he pulled Sifu in, Sifu finished him with one punch. The rest of them ran away as the police came.
But Sifu never advocates fighting a man with a weapon unless it is absolutely necessary. In a group fight, you angle yourself so that you are facing one man and the group has to come from behind him to get to you. So you isolate them by taking the man at an angle.

Erle: Sifu, I know why I use the last three knuckles to punch, but what is your reasoning for using these three knuckles, which most hard stylists would think are the least strong ones and would be likely to be hurt?

(At this point Wong stood up and demonstrated with Barry Lee. He showed the more “natural” punch, with the palm held horizontal to the ground, demonstrated how the power theoretically goes straight back to the shoulder and stops. Then he demonstrated the opposing theory of how, when you use the vertical fist with the last three knuckles, the power is transmitted right back through the hip, the leg and to the rear foot. This makes for much more power for the least amount of energy used.
A Karate friend of mine pointed out to me that some Karate styles also use the vertical fist, but use the top two knuckles. This can mostly be used when attacking the chin, so that the last two knuckles don´t even come in contact.)

Wong Shun Leung: In Wing Chun (and Tai Chi) we hit the larger part of the face, usually at an angle, so the butt of the chin is avoided. In Wing Chun, the main target area is from the mouth upward, although this is only general.

Erle: Is there any time when you would punch with the weight placed on the front foot?

Barry Lee: Never.

Erle: Do you use a “natural “ punch – i.e. when the left foot is forward, and punching with the left fist?

Barry Lee: Oh yes, of course. It depends entirely upon the situation. When you´re fighting you can´t afford to change your stance midstream.

Wong Shun Leung: Even with the natural punch (same hand, same foot )the power still goes back to the rear foot and ground.

Barry Lee: When you`re practicing your “twist” in Wing Chun (twist developed from the hips for mobility and power) your weight is evenly distributed across both feet. When you are developing that power in the punch the force is transmitted back into this leg (the rear one), but in fact the weight is evenly distributed across both feet.

Erle: That answers another question: Some people think that the power for the Wing Chun punch only comes from the triceps?

Wong Shun Leung: No! From the whole body. And many people think the power in Wing Chun comes from the snap of the wrist and that’s wrong, too. When you see Bruce Lee´s one-inch punch – it´s still from the whole body and not just the wrist!

Barry Lee: In Wing Chun you think in terms of your elbow driving the fist forward, rather then the fist pulling the rest of the arm forward. It´s coordination and technique; everything beginning together and finishing together. That´s far more important than even speed and power; and that will give you power.

Erle: Barry, I watched as you performed a punch and I would think that I would receive a nice bit of the old tennis elbow if I punched like that, locking the elbow upwards. Do you ever get a sore elbow?

Wong Shun Leung: In the beginning you do, but it stretches the ligaments in the back of the elbow and if you train hard in the correct way your whole body becomes conditioned and you no longer have problems.

Barry Lee: But if you´re fighting it´s rapid and you don´t always fully extend the elbow. You try to hit the opponent with a slightly bent arm, leaving room for penetration or reaction to his movement.

Erle: Can´t you easily damage these (the last three) knuckles?

Wong Shun Leung: In 35 years of fighting I have never broken a knuckle.

Erle: What are the main striking areas in Wing Chun?

Barry Lee: Wing Chun is a complete system. If you have the opportunity you´re going to hit somebody here, here and here (indicating various different parts of the body, including solar plexus and ribs etc.) but your main target is here (indicating the face). The centre line contains most of the vital points of the body, the areas that are most easily damaged . Whenever we can, the main punch in Wing Chun is centred here (the mouth and the nose) with a slight upward angle, but obviously, like any other style, of course we strike the body when we have to. If someone is 6ft.8ins., of course, you would have to go for the body because punching to the head would bring you in too close and leave you too open.

Erle: What are your ideas on Chi?

Wong Shun Leung: I don´t know anything about the Chi. That´s as honest as I can be. If someone practices any Martial Art, then that person must become stronger and more durable than someone who hasn´t practiced. So if you are punched you are able to take a lot more punishment than a normal person. I have been hit many times, as have all of the great Martial Artists that I know of. So we are not supermen, but we can take a lot more . Any Martial Artist who says that he doesn´t get hit is lying to himself!

Erle: What do you say about the “old master“ who stands up and says that no-one can push him over etc.?

Wong Shun Leung: What for! So if your student pushes your arm and can´t push you down, then many students can´t push you down… that means a truck can´t push you down? What are you – Superman? Eventually there is somebody who will knock you down; there is always someone better. An “old master” might not be pushed down, but he will still be hurt if his nose is broken. There are too many magician´s tricks in Martial Arts today. They would be better off learning how to fight.

Erle: Tell me about Bil Jee (Thrusting fingers, he third and advanced form of Wing Chun… )

Wong Shun Leung: Barry can explain it better in English.

Barry Lee: Bil Jee is like standing outside your style and fighting, or knowing how to use your technique and not be bound by what you have learned in Sil Lim Tao or Chum Kiu (the first two forms), where you are bound by certain principles. In Bil Jee you are standing outside looking at it. You have achieved a certain level that enables you to perhaps defend yourself, if you have to, against more than one person; to defend yourself if one arm is cut.
It teaches you to be able to use a specific technique to be able to still protect yourself. It´s all defence, more than anything else. So you are using weapons – the elbow, the fingers – to areas that will damage quite drastically when you hit them. So you have to do that, because you´re fighting more than one person, or you have a cut arm, you´re disabled in some way. So in other words, it teaches you to apply your Wing Chun techniques more naturally and not be bound by what you have learnt previously.

Erle: So it doesn´t teach new, specialised techniques, does it? For instance, the so-called Dim Mak, or Death Touch?

Wong Shun Leung: No. (And jokingly…) You might kill yourself if you touch yourself? Besides, if a person is moving very fast, it´s almost impossible to touch small areas with such precision. In Bil Jee we do strike the more vulnerable areas of the body and these are things that are not taught in the first two forms. One must, however know the first two forms. You can´t just learn Bil Jee. In fact, most of our fighting is done in the first two forms. It´s only when life is threatened, or there are more than one opponent, that we use Bil Jee.

Erle: How do you train in Bil Jee, when these techniques are quite dangerous?

Wong Shun Leung: Training the set is enough. Because if you have learnt Wing Chun from Sil Lim Tao, Chum Kiu, Chi Sau etc. – learning the system step-by-step – once you come to Bil Jee you´re at a standard where you perform those techniques correctly and you will, through simply practicing the set, be able to use it in those situations. Because Wing Chun teaches, above all, instinctive reaction.

Erle: What about the future of Wing Chun?

Wong Shun Leung: Wing Chun has a very good future, because it´s spreading around the world. I have been asked to go to a South American country to teach their Police Force, although I´ve not made a decision regarding that yet. The future of Wing Chun depends on the teacher. If he teaches the right thing, the future will be bright.

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