On the rooftops and back streets of Hong Kong, Wing Tsun Grandmaster Yip Man forged many of the world’s toughest fighters. Of course, everyone remembers Bruce Lee, even non-martial artists. But real Kungfu practitioners go beyond Bruce. They know Yip Man’s other stalwart pioneer, Grandmaster Leung Ting. Few masters contributed as much for Kungfu in the Western world. Professor Leung Ting was one of the first to publish works on Kungfu in English, opening the door of China’s treasured combat arts and inviting the world to come inside. He has over 50 books and videos to his credit, most in Chinese and English, with a few even translated into other European languages. Anyone who has been in the martial arts for the last two decades is familiar with at least one of his works, if not many.
Grandmaster Leung Ting began his martial career with a mission in mind, to bring honor to the art he loved so dearly. Back then, people looked down on Kungfu, viewing it as no more than the killing skills of villains. Many still hold this opinion. Grandmaster Leung fought to change the world’s perspective on our noble arts. While Bruce Lee might have first coined the English spelling ?Wing Chun,? this spelling bore a stigma. In Hong Kong and much of Europe, the initials W.C. stand for “water closet” an acronym for the toilet. In 1983, when Grandmaster Leung founded the International Wing Tsun Martial-Art Association, he registered a new spelling to avoid this unsavory association.
Today, Grandmaster Leung Ting’s International Wing Tsun Association is the largest professional organization of its kind with over 4000 branches in over 63 countries. He has taught thousands of champions, fighters, police officers, professional soldiers, and instructors over the years. He even led a historic performance of a thousand students simultaneously practicing Wing Tsun?s first form Siu-Nim-Tau in Hungary in 1999. Recently, he took charge of his American branch after his previous leader failed to meet his rigorous standards. This transition is bringing Grandmaster Leung to the U.S. more often, allowing him to stop by the Kungfu Qigong office for an interview.
Grandmaster Leung Ting is a very animated man. His words rush at you like a barrage of rolling punches and he is quick to smile and laugh. In fact, quickness is the essence of his character. He?s very quick making big gestures that rapidly bridge the gap with arms that are deceptively longer than they appear. His eyes dart about from behind his signature Lennon-style spectacles, yet his attitude is relaxed, as if he’s secure with the knowledge that he’s already found your opening but won?t need to penetrate it. He is very open and easy to interview and runs with any question you might give him. This interview took in fall of 2002.
A Naughty Little Boy and a Policeman Father
“When I was young, I was really naughty. But you know, I was really skinny at that time, so always I got beaten up by the big boys in my class, that was why the idea rose up that I should get some Chinese Kungfu so I wouldn’t be bullied by the big boys. That was the first idea. I wanted to learn Chinese Kungfu.”
“It was when I was really really young, you know, I was so naughty at that time. Four or five years old. My father was a police inspector. Actually he did not really like me to learn Kungfu because in his mind, he says, “Eh! You are so naughty, if you really learn Kungfu, maybe you cause me a lot of problems.” I think he just learned some Hung Gar or whatever, so he rarely showed me what he learned. He (only) showed me once or twice and also something from the police, some kind of judo or grappling or something.”
“I’m the eldest, all together we have seven. It was just after the WWII so people were really poor. Since my father was a detective, he didn’t have really high pay so we used to live in a not-so-good district. It was also because of that district, since I was very young, I have been trained how to deal with that kind of rascals the bullies. Because I was the eldest son, six years old or something, my mother moved to Hong Kong side, so I lived alone with my grandma and my father. My father was the Chief for dealing with Chinese Mafia. Actually he was the first captain of that district. Because I was alone, he used to take me out. I dealt with those Tong people since he fought against those people and also made friends with those people, you know, so I learned a lot of these kinds of tricks. Actually it was before I learned Kungfu, I already learned a lot of these kinds of Tong things, some kinds of special skills of the vagabonds.” I had to fight, because I was skinny and the district was no so good. Sometimes in the street you faced some rascals, some bullies, they want to ask for money. I hate to be bullied. I used to fight against those people. Most of the time I got beaten up because they were big, you know (laughs.)
“Since I was very young, that was a big lesson I learned if I were not to fight against those people aggressively, the result was I got knocked out. So finally, I understood, if I have to fight, I must fight better. So it was good. Later, after I learned Wing Tsun, I also applied this kind of idea to train myself. I train my students to fight like this. And that is why now I mainly train those people in enforcement special police, armies. So I focus mainly on very practical tactics. Wing Tsun is the answer. It’s good. I’m really lucky that I found the right stuff.”
Street Fights and a Chance to Learn Kungfu
“I did not learn Wing Tsun until I was 13 years old. It was right after a big fight against nearly twenty street boys. Actually they did not bully me. They just bullied one of my friends. So I was stupid, you know. I just went out and tried to stop them and everybody focused on me. Everybody fought me. Unfortunately, my friend, who I tried to save, just ran away. Just quit. So I have to fight. At that time, I knew nothing about Chinese Kungfu, but I learned something from the Kungfu book (although they are not too good, sometime with stupid movements.) Chinese had a wooden bed you sleep on it, right So sometimes, I took the wooden bed and leaned it up and drew some target and go do the flying kick. Tak! Tak! Tak! So in that fight, it was on Temple Street ? a really complex street, so there were lots of rascals there, full of low class people. So just because I want to interfere with my friend I was too nosy and then boom! They all fight me. Temple Street, even today, has lots of people, lots of street magicians, lots of stalls. So I fought and ran, fought and ran. Sometimes if people surrounded me, I just Pum! Pum! Pum! Pum! Kick this kind of flying kick. It works! Later I found out I could not run anymore because there was a dead end. All of a sudden I returned. I just fought against the head man. Bam! Bam! Bam! I did not care about the other people. They punched me on my back like rain. Who cares? Just Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Then later, some other guys, they knew that, so they say ‘Oh, oh, oh, don’t fight, don’t fight, don’t fight, the police are coming!’ Then everybody ditched. After that fight, one of my uncles who was learning Wing Tsun told my mother, ‘I think is should take Ting (they called me Ting when I was young) to learn Kungfu. No matter he learns Kungfu or not, he’s still a trouble maker. He still would fight. Better to let him learn Kungfu. At least he would learn some self defense.’ That was the time I started learning Kungfu.”
“My father did not even know about it, not until half a year later. Once I fought with a bus conductor because he bullied an old woman. I always fight for others. Stupid, right? At that time I didn’t care. But now, I look back and think, maybe sometimes I was too much. (laughs) I beat up that guy and also two more big guys. Then I was taken to the police station. So of course, my father found out and then of course, he beat me up for that. (laughs) But later he found out his son could fight so good, a 14 year old boy beat up big guys. Even the police, they could not believe it. I beat them up so serious. They were bruised, bloody, broken nose, everything. The police even said “Are you sure it’s this boy who beat your three up? And then they were so scared and said “no, no, only that boy, only that boy!” So although my father did not like it, at that time he was really angry with me, actually I know (that) in his deep mind, he thinks “Oh, maybe my son can fight.” Then he didn’t stop me from learning Kungfu anymore. That was good. Then I started training much harder training day and night.”
A Path not Chosen
“If I didn’t learn Kungfu, probably I’d become an artist. When I was really young, I like drawing, but my father always stopped me from this. You know, he was still in WWII, and even before, my grandpa died very early since he was 5 years old or something. Actually, my grandpa was very rich so he had a very big family. But right after his death, my grandpa’s younger brother took all his property barely leaving anything to my grandmother. Now you understand why my father, he just wanted me to become a doctor or an accountant or lawyer all these people who cost you a lot. Make a lot of money! However, I become a boxer. (laughs)”
A High Class Presentation for a Noble Art
“I was the first one to make a lot of publicity for Wing Tsun. At that time, Grandmaster Yip Man used to stop his students from open demonstration. You could hardly see any open Wing Tsun demonstrations. Grandmaster Leung Ting and Grandmaster Yip Man So Wing Tsun was only famous by talking or fighting. At that time, there were some of Grandmaster Yip Man’s students who used to challenge other people. Maybe they win, maybe they lose, but that was the only way they see Wing Tsun. However, when I started teaching, I did not think that way. I thought if you just challenge other people, that means you are just a trouble maker. So I start thinking. I knew exactly the reason why my father stopped me from learning Kungfu, because most of the people, they used to think that Kungfu people are trouble makers. Kungfu people belong to Tongs. Kungfu is some kind fighting that belongs to Chinese Mafia. I fought to change their mind.”
“The first day I went I study in Baptist College I saw they promoted karate. It was just the very beginning of karate promoting in Hong Kong. You only could see judo in middle schools. Even when I started in the middle school, I only saw people practice judo, that’s it, not even karate. So I got an idea. I said “Look, Kungfu tactics itself is just some tactic for people, just like a gun. If the police have the gun, they can use the gun to overcome the bullies. They can protect the ordinary people. But if the gun is in the hand of the criminals, of course, that would be something else. So Chinese Kungfu is just the same, especially Wing Tsun. Wing Tsun is so practical and full of wisdom. Why not we promote Wing Tsun in the high class?”
An Old Grandmaster and a Closed-Door Student
Yip Man with Wooden Dummy“I really did try very hard. I was the first one who opened a Kungfu class in the high class institute. But I still thought that it was not enough. I needed to learn something more advanced. So my first Si-Fu (my first Si-Fu was not Grandmaster Yip Man) was the first student of Grandmaster Yip Man in Hong Kong. But of course, always some problems. My first Si-Fu did not really teach me the most advanced technique. Of course, later I find out the reason. But of course, I don’t want to say anything, right? Anyway he’s passed away already. So later on, one of my Si-Hings visited Grandmaster Yip Man in the hospital. He (had) got a stomach operation. Grandmaster Yip Man promised to accept me as his student. At that time, he had just ‘closed his door,’ so I became his first closed-door student. So Grandmaster Yip Man taught me in a different way, opposite. He taught me from the wooden dummy technique. Normally the wooden dummy technique was regarded as the most advanced technique in Wing Tsun. And then go back to Biu-Tze, go back to Chum-Kiu, go backwards. His teaching method changed a lot of my thinking because he was right. Wing Tsun was so flexible. You can do whatever you want if it’s logical.
“Also I start learning something I have never heard before. Not even say I have never seen before, I have never heard before. But I know he was not too good in explanation. However all I needed was just he to show me what was the little difference. And then you have to figure it out. So that was how I learned from Grandmaster Yip Man. Actually I spent a lot of time to figure out what the hell he wanted to tell me. (laughs.)”
“Very funny you know, I still remember there was some times I just played a little trick. Sometimes he was just like an old naughty boy, you know. Sometimes he was just over there and he watched you do something and said ‘OK’. And sometimes when you made him happy, he was like a naughty old man. I still remember he mentioned in the ancient times in Futshan, they wore some kind of old body guard for Chi Sao, so in one week I drew up two Chi Sao body guards for him and then I showed him. He was so happy and then he said, “Hey! Come on! We do some Chi Sao, little Ting!” Hey, that was the way you learned. You can’t pay him. You learned some kind of tactic from him.”
“At that time, I was training very hard. I was already very strong and I didn’t really know the real, the true concept of ‘giving up the force.’ Normally we don?t use our own brute force. I always used it. It was because I played this really hard, because I was really strong. But since I went to learn Kungfu from him, he was just out of the hospital. He was weak and he was already 72 years old. How can he show me something? So sometimes I made my arm so soft. And then he was happy, it was just like playing a game of chess. Sometimes you eat somebody, then somebody takes your piece. You win a little bit and he wins a little bit. That was the best way. And then he felt he could do something. So sometimes I let him go in and hit me a little bit and he said “Ah! You see, you see! You cannot even defend this one.” So this was the trick I played to him, so as to learn his tactics. But it was fun.”
A Legendary Grandmaster named Yip Man
Yip Man“Actually he was a real Kungfu (master.) A real martial artist. When I learn from him, I started to learn some brand new concepts. I apply his concept in my system. I started to go traveling to everywhere to promote Wing Tsun. I try hard and I ask him to teach me the most advanced techniques. So I respect him very much. That’s why in my system, everybody has to hang up his photo. And everybody has to follow this routine: When they go into our school, everyone, when they study Wing Tsun, they have to bow to Grandmaster Yip Man’s photo and they have to bow to their Si-Fu. My way is: You don’t just learn the Kungfu, you also learn the Chinese idea, Chinese traditional thinking, how to be loyal to your Si-Fu. I used to tell my students that your Si-Fu is not your friend. Don’t make this mistake. ‘Si-Fu’ in Chinese means your Kungfu father, like godfather, right? ‘To-Dai,’ that means ‘student-son.’ So that is why you have the grandson, the great grandson. Just because of this idea, that’s why all my schools hang a picture of Grandmaster Yip Man.
And another reason (for Grandmaster Yip Man’s fame) was because Bruce Lee was also his student and he’s a movies star. Although he called his own style Jeet Kune Do, he could not deny that he was originally from Wing Tsun. For all these kinds of reasons, that made Grandmaster Yip Man famous. I think ‘famous or not’ is not the question. The question is whether he is a real martial artist or not.”
“Also (Grandmaster Yip Man was famous) because of his way of dealing with people, not in too much of a commercial way. If you’re too commercial, people don’t treat you like a Si-Fu. You never have a lot of loyal students. Some people, they always want to be independent. But if you want to be independent, you become a rebel of your Si-Fu. Your student will learn the same trick from you. They will be a rebel of you. The more we respect the old, great grandmaster, the more we gain respect form our own students. This is tradition.”
A New Leader, the Founder
“he ex-head man of my American organization is gone. Now I am personally in charge of the new organization. I learned all this from bad experiences. The American organization has been run for ? some of the students have been started since 1978, so it’s already 24 years. We have changed two head men so far. So this time I’m going to take it back and be in charge myself. Of course, I’m busy because I have over 63 countries to run, so I have one guy to become assistant manager, but I am the head man of this American section myself. Right now, we have reorganized the whole organization. We even renamed it as the International Wing Tsun Association, North American Section. Now we are going to make it like a committee, so most of my most loyal students are the group leaders. They become one of the partners of this association. And I myself hold over 50 % of the shares of this organization. We make it like a Board of Directors so everybody can his own idea, but we have meetings all the time. And also since I am in charge myself, I have to promote it and make it more professional. There is no more ‘one-man’ business or ‘country boy’ business. This is why since I have taken back this association. I come to America every 3 or 4 months. I especially promote a lot of the instructors. I train them and make them (reach) a much better standard and much better in running the association become more professional. I get tired of the ‘backyard’ instructors, that kind of thing. Right now, since I have taken back my organization, since August (almost one year,) we have already expanded at least two times. I expect with in just five years, we will expand at least one more time, or more than that. So this is why we push a lot of the hard workers. We emphasize more on how to run such an association and we help the group leaders and instructors to open more branches. So this is my new idea.”
“Now in America, there are 20 main schools and also many small branches and classes in different states. My international organization, it’s like partners. Normally I appoint some head students to run their own local organization in certain countries. Actually we have four big branches: the Asian, the European organization (this is strongest one) and also the Eastern European and the America organization. My former students, or my ex-students, they ran it in a “country boy” way, very amateur. I hate this kind of attitude. Nobody really took good care and they had funny ideas. They don’t really follow my instruction. Now, I just get the two biggest organizations. The North American organization belongs to U.S.A. and Canada, also we have the southern. I also have the Asian and Middle East one. I still keep the others to be managed by other students. I only make decisions for the most important things. For this kind of management, I have one manager and my head student, Keith Sonnenberg, he’s the Dai-Si-Hing, the eldest Kungfu brother in America. He’s responsible for any PR thing. Also the manager, he runs the examinations, grading, these kind of things. Just like a King with two prime ministers, we also have a court of head officers, very much like a kingdom. This is why within one year, we have already made it one time bigger. We are going to make more promotions on everything. Not just to train them hard on techniques, but also how can they run a school professionally. For so many years, a lot of my students, I rather call them ‘garage instructor’ or ‘backyard instructor.’ I hate this kind of attitude you know.
A Professional Approach to Teaching
“I also give business lectures. No matter how good you are, if people don’t know you, they don’t know you, they just don’t come. When they come, they will not know how good you can fight. They only know your name. Until they go into your school, they learn with you for a certain period, then the find ‘Oh this guy is just a phony.’ But you’ve already trapped them. The problem is you cannot even attract them to come. At this point we are still very weak ? the management and promotion.”
“The most important thing is to be very flexible. In Hong Kong, it’s so crowded. It’s just there so you can even ask people to stick the big posters outside on the street. But in America, no way. America is really really big. Actually, you know, when I do something in Mainland China, it’s really much the same as what I’m doing in America. Internet is very important, and of course, magazines. Also I teach them how to buy classified advertisements in the local newspaper. No matter how big you call yourself, people will not come to your school and learn with you from the North Pole. 99.9% of the students come locally. Most of my students, they don’t understand this. This is the little trick and they don’t even know. Don’t forget my association is the first association, I start teaching since 1967, and I was the first one who ever organized and taught the Kungfu class in universities. At that time, don’t even talk about Wing Tsun, nobody had ever had any kind of Kungfu class in the schools. Don’t even talk about universities, they did not have it in middle school or in elementary school. So I was the first one.”
A Bad Attitude of Garages and Backyards
“At that time, you know, they did not even have uniforms. No grading system, the teachers taught according to their own their own rules. If the teacher loved you more, the teacher maybe taught you one or two movement in one night or maybe teach you the whole form in two days. If the teacher did not really love you, forget it. Maybe you go with him for your whole life, you still can learn nothing. This is the problem. When I first started teaching in the university, we still had to solve a lot of problems. People in the university, they come, they go, they come, they go. So that was why I had to decide some cut proof how much they learned, which lesson they have learned. That was a very very primitive teaching system. Of course, I don’t like people learning Wing Tsun or Kungfu with different kinds of shirts, some come with short pants, some come with t-shirts, some people do Chi Sao with a jacket and tie (laughs.) I don’t like this kind of attitude. I want them to be very regular. That’s why I made them their uniforms and everything. All this kind of things made the association more professional.”
“Hong Kong is so concentrated, so condensed. China is also very very big. I have only gone to there maybe three times. As soon as I go back to back to Hong Kong, I have to go to Mainland China for national Wing Tsun seminar. So I am only responsible to teach people who become instructors. We call this “the seed” seed instructor seminars. I?m not going to teach a student. I let the instructor or the to-be-instructor teach the students. We set up (one every) three or four months every year. If this time you cannot attend my seminar since I organize my seminar in the north and then you live in the south and you think it’s too far away, the next time the seminar will take place in the south. This is the idea. Same thing in America. Sometimes I have a seminar in San Francisco, sometimes in Texas, or Seattle or where ever. Also I teach them how to run a school.
A Test for Enthusiasm
Leung Ting Teaching Jackie Chan“When I start teaching the National Instructor Seminar, I already set up a test for those people before I took them. You know how? Now I’m going to teach a class in Beijing, but this is the National Instructor Seminar. I find out that some people in China, they are so poor they can not even afford to pay for a flight ticket, so they came by train three or four nights to Beijing! And they still learn with me. So this is the first test. In America, if they are not enthusiastic enough they would not come, they fly from the north, they fly from the east, they fly from everywhere. They just came. This is the test. This is what I want in my own direct students. I want them to be the most enthusiastic Wing Tsun learners and practitioners. Because they are so enthusiastic in learning Wing Tsun and practicing, it’s easy for me to promote them.”
“Now you know why I don’t teach the students. Maybe you can go “Eh, eh, I have a young boy, five years old.” It wastes my energy to teach a young boy five years old. Even if he’s really enthusiastic, so what? It would take me over ten, or twenty years to promote this young kid to become an instructor. I’m not going to do that.”
“So this is why I teach those people. Once you start teaching, you go, maybe you can open a class. The most ideal situation is in a university. You know people can study in university, especially private schools, they must be rich (laughs.) So these people, if they learn Wing Tsun with my instructors, very soon they will have very good quality of Wing Tsun instructors in the near future. This idea can be applied in any country, actually. The only difference is how you make promotion.
A World of Fresh Blood
“Speaking the truth, I don’t really care what they learned before. In fact, those people that come from faraway countries, I find out nearly 80% of them are already martial artists, or they would not be that enthusiastic. Actually, I don’t really mind whether they learn Wing Tsun or not. According to statistics anyone of my top five countries can include all the other branches of Wing Tsun, the whole families of Grandmaster Yip Man. All the other people, I really don’t care. What I want is the public. Most of my students, they come Karate, they come from Judo, they come from Jujitsu, or Wushu, especially Mainland China. They are already Wushu teachers in some province, some cities, and just because they want to learn something real practical, so this is why they came. Wushu, they would like to go into Olympic games. This is showmanship. But Wing Tsun is for fighting. Of course everybody has his own method.”
“This is why we specialize in teaching special police, of even special troops in army. We teach specially to police and army, it’s different. They are too impatient to learn from Siu-Nim-Tao, how to set up your stance, all this kind of things. All they want is three day training, five day training at the most ? every day six hours ? morning three hours, at night three hours. When they take a long break, they practice. This is the way we teach those people. We do not really teach them Siu-Nim-Tao or all this theory. They do not need to know theory. All they are interested in is how to kill people (laughs) or how to overcome people, how to lock people up or how to defeat the terrorist or these kinds of things. This is what we?re teaching.”
A Kungfu Mountain and a Martial Arts World
“Things have changed in this time. At that time, Wing Tsun was only famous in Futshan. Even in Grandmaster Yip Man’s period, he used to fight against Choy Lay Fut, Hung Gar, or most of them were people from folk styles. At that time, they started importing the Northern Praying Mantis Kungfu and Lohan to Futshan, still very few styles. However nowadays, I have to teach people from all over the world. So you have to face Tae Kwon Do, you have to face Karate, Judo, Jujitsu, Kickboxing, Full Contact, Thai boxing, everything. So you really have modify a little bit of your training program or your fighting tactics. However, I think Wing Tsun is good enough. Wing Tsun is so flexible that you don’t need to make any change about our concept. Like a puzzle, you only need to put this and this together so you can fight against someone else. It’s not like the other styles. The other styles, they are normally fixed to a pattern. But in Wing Tsun, if you’re good enough, you don’t need this. We are doing are fighting techniques according to the movement of our enemy.”
Written by Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM