Wing Chun is my art. It is the art that I have chosen to follow over and above others, which were on offer. I remember carefully considering my options back in ’93, skimming through the back pages of martial arts magazines, searching for the most appropriate style, the one that ‘fit me’.
Like many people who had taken a brief excursion into the kicking and punching arts, I had a small amount of knowledge of karate, mainly through the fanatical dedication of my elder brother. Gladly, the memories have now become somewhat forgotten, possibly by way of forced repression, as they tend to be less than glamorous. However, I do recall myself as a sickly boy being swung around the dojo by the lapel of my Gi, by bigger, burlier students. The style never particularly interested me, from even a child’s perspective it seemed too conformist and uncompromising. The students were often loud and brash and had quirky tendencies to scream ‘KIAA!’ at the slightest of movements.
Thankfully I have since met karateka who have dispelled my notion of impracticality or rigidity of the art.
Through the rest of my early formative years I was able to train under the watchful eyes of Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and ‘Black Belt’ Jones. I followed their on-screen mannerisms, taking particular note of their facial expressions and battle cries. I recall a certain oneness between me and these iconic figures who seemed to ooze charisma unlike many of the successive line of Kung Fu flick counterparts. In fact, some of my fondest childhood memories were of me playing Bruce Lee aged 6, against my best friend who would play ‘Tarzan Lord of the Jungle’ – hardly the most apt nemesis for our Kung Fu hero. Never was I able to dissuade him from his method acting choice in favour of ‘O’Hara’ or even ‘Han, the man’. No, Tyrone wasn’t the brightest friend I had in School. He lived in a semi-detached shoe box on Clarence Street and devoted much of his time to sobbing his ‘King of the Apes’ eyes out after receiving a roundhouse from me, accidentally of course.
Even now I am captivated by the enduring image of Bruce Lee. A flashback t0 a film where he draws his fingers over his wound, tastes the blood, spits and ‘KABAAM!… BLOOM!’. A sense of awe washes over me.
Admittedly, ages 9 to 18 were without any martial influence whatsoever. No kicks were thrown. No techniques mastered. I call this the temporary lapse period; my soul restless. Body pubescent!
The universe is in a constant state of flux.
Things change and they certainly did at age 18. I was out hip-hopping at a nightclub in Leicester Square, London with a 20 strong posse. Following what seemed like a minor scuffle I witnessed someone get stabbed in the face with a bottle. I saw pain, suffering and blood. I experienced dread, fear and revulsion.
I hadn’t lived a sheltered life, but to have seen such an event close up in all its glorious technicolour changed my outlook. It taught me how fragile people were. Before this, I had assumed that no such tragedy could possibly befall me. Surely, such things were just make believe, part of Hollywood machinations and therefore limited to on-screen violence.
Could it be that such atrocious crimes were or could be real?
I didn’t sleep for a week.
I realise now that this single event was to symbolise my first step towards Wing Chun Gung Fu.
It took a long while to rationalize the stabbing. Many attempts to reduce the image to enable it to become more palatable. The event also served as my re-introduction into the martial arts. I visited bunch of London based schools; Capoeira to Tae Kwon Do and beyond. Impressed by a few but bewildered by the majority. But even those that raised an eyebrow of marginal curiosity had some defect that was difficult to reconcile. I come to realise now that those same styles were never really defective, if anything, my own prejudices stopped me from seeing their true worth. It was only on reading about the Chinese arts that I was drawn closer to the one I am so heavily involved with these days.
I became more enthuisiastic about Wing Chun. I joined a local club primarily due to its location. The regime consisted of a warm up by way of push-ups and numerous sit-ups. This was followed by the collective of students, drilling a few basic techniques. Week in, week out, I would venture to the converted church hall, to shuffle and shift, in and out of rudimentary techniques on the carpeted floor. I happily paid my fiver to physically exhaust myself each Monday and Wednesday evening. This went on for quite some time until I received a telephone call from a representative of a Kwoon (Gung Fu School) on the other side of London. The chap on the line asked me to visit the coming Saturday in order to try out a class. I was told to participate rather than watch and he encouraged me to ask any questions I had. Lastly, I was told to keep an ‘open-mind’.
That weekend I parked my car, walked around the grey block building and came to a double door with an inconspicuous buzzer to the side. After breaching main security (being let in) I walked down the equally grey and equally imposing steps toward the basement. Before me stood two great doors that were guarded by a dragon motif that stretched across them. The design was heavily studded, was large, red and garish. This in addition to the permeating scent of incense added to the mystique and made me increasingly nervous. Through the doors and dressed quite plainly was an oriental man who was later pointed out as being a Chow Gar Mantis master and the proprietor of the Kwoon. He collected the modest fee and I was allowed to proceed to the next stage.
The narrow corridor led to the main hall in all its gloriousness. Concrete floor, stone pillars, hanging sand bags, wooden men and an awe inspiring, larger than life, statue of the Buddha. I was captivated.
Although age has made my memory somewhat hazed, I remember being in the dimly lit cavern and instructed to follow the movements to the best of my ability. The only sounds were those of the sweeping of shoes that skimmed the floor in their quickness and the divided breath of the nine students who devoted their entirety to this endeavour.
Wing Chun is not better nor worse. Wing Chun is the truth.
We were gathered into the centre of the space, yet there sat, no more than 10 feet away, an old man wearing a trilby hat. Gazing at the movements, yet paying no more attention than a pacifist in a street brawl he sat, watched and did not interrupt. He was aged. The wonderment that would have been his youth had been replaced by wisdom and brilliance. He was without expression, yet he oozed the magnificence of a warrior. He did not move, though I could see electricity coarse through his raised veins, fuelling him, driving him.
When I questioned my peers about this Chinese man, the answers came back in whispers… “he was an Opera House actor”… “he had trained his entire life in martial arts”… “he lived on board the travelling Red Junk Theatre”…
He was Leung, Kwok-Keung, (Liang, Gou-Qiang) and he would become my Sifu.
***written circa 2000