Is traditional Chinese kung fu stuck in the past?

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Wing Chun kung fu was never about breaking bricks. In the 1970’s I made a decision to defy this tradition, so In my shows, I went to demonstrate breaking concrete blocks, bricks and pavement slabs.

Most of the kung fu masters were so horrified to see that. They said that I was practising karate and destroying the good name of kung fu!

Their argument was that Chinese martial arts does not include breaking. So I raised the point that how can one show the power of Wing Chun if one does not show it through breaking ability?

If you do not possess the power to break a concrete slab, how can you expect to knock out an opponent? Chinese martial arts is based on skill, techniques and deep philosophy, and then power and strength. Jumping up and down or doing complicated moves and somersaulting with a pole or sword is just a performance, it is not practical in a real self defence situation.

I thought that the older masters should understand that people in the West are more realistic. They only wanted to see real action — The deep philosophy and inner strength of Wing Chun is not obvious to the beginner until they have been training in the art, for a long time.

For Wing Chun to survive, I needed to attract new students and I needed to adapt to modern society. Practising forms and set patterns —was okay from the beginning but they needed to learn power training, sparring, and conditioning. Just learning forms in kung fu is like learning to swim without going in the water. It is not realistic, and to me it’s cheating the student.

There were a few older Chinese masters from different styles who did not agree and wanted to stop me from teaching my art. They complained to my Master and a meeting was set up to clarify this. I sought my Master for advice asking him if I was wrong. He said that all these people are jealous in a similar way to what they did to Bruce Lee in the States, I did the right thing; Chinese martial arts is expressing oneself, not just a fixed pattern learning form after form, thinking that they can defend themselves.

He told me that these so-called masters are just students claiming to be masters and I should just ignore them and get on with it.

I asked him, “what about the meeting?” He told me that we should go, be respectful, they would not do anything to me because they were not trained to the same level. He mentioned that they were just amateurs and not professionals, and even though he did not say much to me about my progress, he could see the way I trained with my heart and soul, not worrying about getting hit. He told me, “The effort you put in is tremendous” — he had yet to witness a similar student, and that is what he wanted in a disciple.

We went to the meeting and they accused me of having no respect for Chinese culture and that I was not even Chinese as I came from Malaysia not from Hong Kong! They made it clear that they thought that I should not be teaching kung fu in that way.

I told them that they were amateurs, either cooks or restaurant owners, and that this is not professional enough — they should mind their own business and leave me alone. Times had changed and this was the new world now and a new generation. All these traditions are good but we need to learn to adapt in the new society. No doubt I was born in Malaysia, my grandparents are as Chinese as any of them, so what is the problem? They were angry with me asking my Master how could he let me behave like this? My Master told them that I was a big boy now and he couldn’t keep telling me what I should do. He told them that I was the first Chinese master in Europe to teach like this and he said. “We should support him, and this will make us Chinese, proud in England”.

They disagreed at first; until eventually I told them the only way now is to have a duel. One master said that if he hit me once I would be dead in three days time. I replied that as they were my elders I would let any one of them hit and kick me once, but in return, I would punch or kick them once and whoever it was — would die on the spot.

None of them dared to accept my challenge and looked sheepish. My master saw this and told them “We are all getting old now. Why do we need to interfere with the next generation, they have their way. Whether it is good or bad, we need to support him and we should not be stubborn like this”.

Finally they left without saying anything, but in my heart I felt that you cannot please everyone. I thanked my Master for his support and continued to teach my form of Wing Chun as I still do today.

After this my reputation grew in Chinatown. At that time there were lots of gambling dens in the basements of the restaurants. Fierce rivalry existed among each other and there was a big rush to get the customers in. I was approached by the owner to look after after No 10. and No 20. Gerrard street: Kowloon restaurant basement, which was the most popular at that time.

People were gambling away thousand of pounds! Which was a lot of money at that time. Where they managed to get this sort of money to gamble is beyond me. Nevertheless I was paid 40 pounds for 2 hours work, that was big money to me and it contributed greatly to my school fees and living expenses.

Chinese dominoes (Fan Tan and Pai Kow) were the Chinese favourite, lots of money was changing hands and I looked after No 10 most of the time. Making sure that no one tried to cheat or cause trouble. I would look after No 10 twice a week, after I finished working at my night club.

When I was not looking after No 10, my students were there to fill my place. I did this for just a few hours to earn more money to help me through my college in the event that I was not able to train with my Master from 4am to 6am.

They were fights sometime but I dealt with them. They knew who I am and most of these Hong Kong people always gave face to me as I have built up a good reputation as a hard man in Chinatown. Since then everyone in Chinatown addressed me as the little Sifu or little Master.

A reputation was not easy to earn in this period among the Chinese

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I teach people Wing Chun Kung Fu in London

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