INTERVIEW WITH IP CHEE KEUNG SIFU
Combat Magazine June 1999
In the UK, Kung Fu as a Martial Art is in a vast minority, with approximately 5,000 schools nationwide compared with the far greater figure of 100,000 clubs teaching Karate. There are various factors which can account for this statistic, not least the small number of ‘qualified’ Sifu prepared to break with tradition and teach openly.
In order to propagate authentic traditional Chinese Martial Arts, Sifu Ip Chee Keung has agreed to travel to UK in order to pass on his family system - Tung Kong Chow’s Family Praying Mantis Kung Fu. He has related to me that his only aim is to teach those that wish to learn - to pass on the system of ‘Chow Gar’. Having spent much time with Ip Sifu, I have no doubts that his motives are no less than honorable, and that he is in fact the embodiment of what many would consider a true Sifu to be like.
Ip Sifu is a very slight gentleman, of a humble and polite manner. Sifu possesses 200 years of traditional lineage in the Mantis system, with a renowned Grandmaster for a father - he is outwardly quite deceptive. To those that recognise the signs, there are still a couple of things which give him away as a Southern Mantis Master. His hands are a sure sign - small but very sinuous and wiry, and his back - when moving, Sifu often cannot help revealing the developed back muscles which arise from many years of training Iron Shirt Chi Gung. All of this aside, Sifu has demonstrated that he is a kind and considerate man, who still retains his enthusiasm for teaching his style after all this time.
Combat: Sifu, thank you for taking the time to give this interview.
Combat: Can you tell us what your earliest recollection of Kung Fu is?
ICK: Well, as a child, I remember seeing my father teaching in the hall. I didn’t know what it was, and I wondered why these people would do these strange exercises which made them grunt and sweat. As a child, my father never pushed me into training Kung Fu - he let me find my own way. But then he did have his own methods of introducing me to the family style. One time, my father paid a young boy, a Judo student, to jump on me as I was coming home from school. I remember that he hurt me, and I was quite upset by this. Of course, my father suggested that I learn some Kung Fu in order to prevent this from happening again. So he got me to learn, even if it was a little indirectly.
I trained for a while, but halfheartedly, as a child, you have many things to distract you. When I was about 14 or 15, I sat in on an advanced class, and watched as the students used the Mantis shock power to extinguish candle flames at a distance which impressed me a great deal. I also witnessed my father allowing students to strike him as hard as they could, without effect. This was the first time I had witnessed the Iron Shirt training. It was at this point that it captured my imagination, and I decided to put more effort and concentration into my training.
Combat: Chow Gar Mantis doesn’t place the same emphasis on the heavy and lengthy stance trainings that you come across in other systems such as Shaolin Quan or Hung Gar. Even so, dealing with hardship and learning to control pain are integral parts of the majority of Kung Fu systems. What exercises did your father make you do which you recall were particularly hard and unpleasant?
ICK: I used to hate the conditioning exercises - especially the Gao Choi first level Blood Sand Palm training - it hurt! I was never particularly fond of body conditioning, but like anything, you overcome the hardship and it becomes acceptable.
Combat: How did the other students treat you - as the son of their Sifu? Was there any preferential treatment?
ICK: Some students were too nice - they didn’t show their real face. Others were keen to give me a hard time. Aggressive and arrogant - I don’t like this kind of attitude.
Combat: Do you remember the moment that you began feeling happy with your progress in Kung Fu? What was your first great achievement?
ICK: I first noticed that my Kung Fu was improving when my Chy Sau (*an exercise specifically designed to strengthen the bridge in Southern Mantis, and to generate short range shock powers) became very strong. In Chow Gar, the Iron Shirt is generated at the same time as the shock powers. You cannot separate the two - when you have built up your short range powers, you will have also built your Steel jacket. Both are fundamental parts of the Chow Gar system.
Combat: Did you go out to spar with different schools and styles?
ICK: Yes - after about 1 year I went out to spar with other schools. The schools in the area taught Wing Chun, and Hung Gar.
Combat: After only 1 year - was your standard of Kung Fu high enough? How did you feel about going out to schools which might be seen as rivals.
ICK: Its all about confidence. If you feel at all nervous or concerned, then this means that your Kung Fu is no good. When your Kung Fu is of a good standard, fear does not even come into it. You will be naturally confident.
Combat: Earlier on you mentioned other students in your fathers class that appeared aggressive. It is said that due to the methods involved, training in Southern Mantis can make you aggressive. Is this true?
ICK: Southern Mantis is an aggressive system, with no fancy techniques. Each move is designed to inflict pain upon the opponent. Training aggressive techniques regularly can often make you become aggressive.
Combat: Sifu Ip, you are a practicing Buddhist, and you do not come across as aggressive or arrogant. Having practiced Chow Gar for many years, how do you find it possible to maintain a calm and humble approach to life? Does Chow Gar have its own system of meditation?
ICK: Chow Gar does have its own meditations, but they are at a very advanced level. In addition to these, I practice my own meditation. Also, the aggressive attitude passes as you progress further into the art. Chow Gar is a very deep discipline, and in training it you begin to realise many things - you will become wise. When you become proficient in Chow Gar, you will know the Dao.
Combat: So there is a spiritual aspect to Chow Gar Praying Mantis Kung Fu?
ICK: Most definitely. When you have a high level of Kung Fu, you will develop a deeper understanding. Poor standards only breed arrogance, greed and competition. To become humble and honest is the way of Chow Gar Mantis.
Combat: What can you say about the techniques contained in the Chow Gar system?
ICK: Chow Gar is a complete Traditional Kung Fu system , handed down from Lao Sui to my father, and so to me. We have many hand forms and weapons forms. The student will begin to develop their Steel Jacket from day one, although will probably not recognise this fact. The system uses short range ‘shock powers’ to deliver accurate strikes to nerve points, although, as you can imagine, I have to be satisfied that you are worthy of learning this kind of Kung Fu, and the more dangerous techniques are taught much later on. We have no Iron Palm - Chow Gar has a technique called Hui Sa Jeun -or ‘Blood Sand Palm’. This is an internally trained palm, utilising the flow of internal energy when striking the opponent. All techniques are designed to be used at close range.
Combat: On the subject of internal energy, Sifu Ip, your Kung Fu has kept you looking very young, and you appear to have a great deal of energy. Your father, Grandmaster Ip, is 89 years old and still remains in good health. What can you say about the internal aspect to Chow Gar?
ICK: The power used in our art comes from within the body, it doesn’t rely upon large muscles. The energy is stimulated when training the forms. The aim is to bring the energy out from the body to the tips of the fingers to be able to release the short range powers and to be able to deflect the energy of your opponent. The energy of most people is concentrated around the body, the shoulders and chest and is weak. This is why when they get into fight, people will tend to grab and wrestle using the energy that is close to the body. The energy that we generate when training forms is also what protects the body from strikes, and generates what is know as the Steel Jacket. When this is properly developed, strikes cannot hurt or harm you, keeping your body and organs safe from injury and in good working order. This helps maintain a healthy body and mind.
Combat: The first form in Chow Gar, Saam Bo Jin, concentrates on dynamic tension in the hands and feet, ie a ‘hard’ Chi Kung. Is the Chi Kung in Chow Gar all hard?
ICK: Most of the Chi Kung in our system is of a hard nature, but there are soft Chi Kung trainings as well. The Swimming Dragons Form, taught at a higher level, is a soft Chi Kung form.
CL: Sifu, what weapons are taught as part of the Chow Gar system?
ICK: Chow Gar has many weapons included as part of the advanced trainings. We have pole, broadsword, butterfly knives, sai, and kwan.
Combat: Have you ever had occasion to use your art?
ICK: Well, one time back in about 1973, I was living in UK. I had not been here very long, and I was working in a chinese restaurant, cooking and cleaning. At that time, for some reason, it was common for westerners to come to a chinese restaurant, and make trouble. Often you would get men in the restaurant who would eat, and then say that they would fight with the staff, and if they won, they would not have to pay for the meal. If the staff won, then they would pay. Anyway, one day I was in the kitchen and the manager came out looking worried and said that there were some men making trouble. They wanted to fight, but he didn’t want to fight them, so he asked the waiters, and they didn’t want to either. So eventually, he said ‘Mr Ip will you fight these men?’. They had no idea that I did Kung Fu at this time. I went out into the restaurant, they were 3 navy men, drunk. I told them that they should pay for the meal, as they had eaten it, not make trouble, and leave quickly.
They were not content with this point of view – the loudest one wanted to fight with me, and put up a boxing style guard. So I said OK, we can fight. I came forward and struck out with a low level kick, and as he leaned forward to protect himself, I used a palm to his face. Nothing strong – just to teach him a lesson. Then as his head came up, I used a shock power bridging technique and sent him across the room into a table. After this, the men paid for their meal and left quietly.
Before this, nobody knew that I did Kung Fu, or who my father was. After the incident in the restaurant, people approached me and asked me to teach them. So eventually I set up a school here in UK.
Combat: Kung Fu was very popular back then. Did you have many students?
ICK: I initially had about 30 students, but this increased to about 50 in time. Most of my students were English at this time.
Combat: How did your peers feel about you breaking with tradition and teaching non-Chinese?
ICK: I had many complaints from the Chinese community, and other Kung Fu Sifu. They wanted me to keep my Kung Fu amongst the Chinese only. I told them that the colour of the face doesn’t matter, its what is inside that counts.
Combat: Sifu Ip, to finish off, what do you feel is your aim in bringing Chow Gar Praying Mantis Kung Fu to the UK?
ICK: As I have already mentioned, my aim is to teach the real Chow Gar to the people. My wish is to pass on the real system, so that Chow Gar can continue on into the next generation. Kung Fu is more than a fighting art, it is a way of life, and in learning, you can achieve a much greater depth to your life. It should help you build a better character, make you stronger and teach you a better way to live. This is my aim in bringing Chow Gar to the UK.
Combat: Sifu Ip, thank you very much for your time.