Our Interview with Sifu Robert Chu was super interesting and has caused me to rethink how I train WC & Kung Fu. Super interesting stuff with lots of great knowledge to take advantage of. If you are not familiar with Sifu Chu, he is also a student of Hawkins Cheung and regularly writes for WC Illustrated. Break out a note pad and get ready for this interview!!
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Can you tell us a bit about who you are?
Sure, I started Wing Chun at the age of 14. I studied with a friend of mine, he studied with Jiu Wan. Jiu Wan was one of Ip Man’s earliest students. He (my friend) only knew the first form, but he did a lot of Pak sau, Lop Da, kicks, stepping, and a lot of fighting. He was kind of a gangster when he was younger, so he just learned it so he could fight. After a while, there wasn’t much more I could learn from him.
Afterwards, I had a friend that was studying from Moy Yat, his name was Eric Kwai, who happens to be a really good practitioner of Dragon style Kung Fu, which is really common in New York (where I used to live) and Hong Kong .
Anyway, at some point he challenged me to a sparring match. Although I beat him, he said “how about we trade techniques?” He had pretty good hands and I was better with my legs, so I said “okay, let’s trade!”
He re-taught me the first form of Siu Nim Tao. He also taught me the second form, the third form, and the dummy. After a while he told me “we are good training partners, but maybe you should go train with someone else.” He then suggested I go study with Lee Moy Shan. Lee Moy Shan was Moy Yat’s top student. He was one of Moy Yat’s first students to come to New York and was a younger man. He was something like 10 years older than me.
He was really enthusiastic about Wing Chun, but when I met him he wasn’t really into teaching. He often had his senior students help out and teach. He was very busy with his restaurant truck, this was the old days when it was pretty popular.
Since I worked in a restaurant before, I would often go over to him while he was working and we would talk about Wing Chun principles, concepts and things like that. He really helped me out a lot.
A few years after that, I went to Hong Kong to study with Koo Sang. Of course, while I was there I met with Chu Shong Ting, Lo Man Kam in Taiwan, and Wong Shun Leung. Finally around 1987, I contacted Hawkins Cheung and asked if he would do a seminar in New York. He agreed and I really liked what Hawkins taught me.
One of things that is very different about him is that he does not have a very big emphasis on hand technique or footwork, or forms or anything like that. He really had the integration of martial arts with his body. I really liked what he had to teach me.
Now, Hawkins is a short man. I’m around 6’1 (1.8 meters), he is, at most 5’3 or 5’4 (1.6 meters) on a good day, probably with shoes on. He’s like 108 pounds, I’m over 200.
First of all, what I really liked was he was open to touching hands, a lot of New York Sifu’s weren’t very open about touching hands. One thing I noticed about him was that, although I was stronger than him, he was very strong for a small man. I thought he must be using his body very well and he certainly did. I really liked the way he taught.
When I got married in 1988, I moved to Los Angles to study with him. I thought it was the greatest thing to study with one of Ip Man’s most senior students and training brother of Bruce Lee. Hawkins was really close to Bruce Lee, if you think about who he (Bruce Lee) was close to, he was very close with Wong Shun Leung, William Cheung, and Hawkins. And of course, he (Hawkins) was close to Ho Kam Ming and Ip Man.
In that close unity, I noticed a lot of similarities. Later on, I went to visit other seniors in the Wing Chun system and got comparisons. I really liked Hawkins Cheung because he emphasis on body technique, not just hand technique. I learned the hand techniques from lots of different people. At the time I thought, “I really gotta put my mind to how he did all that.”
He came up with showing me his body structure and that was really instrumental in my own development, and later became the way I teach my own students.
Since you got to meet a number of high level Wing Chun people, how would you compare Hawkins Cheung with Wong Shun Leung?
Wong Shun Leung had a belly, so he was obviously much heavier than Hawkins. Clearly this is NOT TO disparage WSL. I met him in Hong Kong in 1988, I found him to be really smart. When I was there we briefly touched hands, he was very good in his body control, and he seemed as if he used his stomach very good. I’m joking about that, when he would Jut Sau, he would draw me in, and when he would Tok Sau, he would push me out. It seemed like “this guy knows how to use his weight to his advantage.”
WSL was also pretty short, he was probably around the same height as Hawkins. If I were to judge the two, I would say that Hawkins uses the body more than WSL, although he (Wong) most certainly knew how to use his body.
Wong Shun Leung told me, that he always felt at a disadvantage. He said, “you’re a tall guy, long arms; the guy with the bigger reach often wins.” Hawkins on the other hand, was able to negate all of that. He was able to handle me very easily, this is because he was able to over extend me or get so close to me that I couldn’t generate any force, but he could.
I’m not going to say who is better, (although) Wong Shun Leung is senior. If you talk about the skill, the skill level is comparable. I would say in terms of understanding the body, explaining the body to me, from this perspective, I would say Hawkins Cheung was more clear about that. I never spoke about those kinds of things with WSL.
Wong Shun Leung taught speed, punching, and fast footwork, which makes him different than Hawkins. Hawkins was rooted and had more control.
One time I asked Hawkins “When you touched hands with Ip Man, what was it like? Did he dominate you? Did he smash you? Did he punch you very fast?” He goes “No! Playing with the Old Man was very fun, he would lead you into the wall, push you out the door, guide you here or there, you were always on your tippy toes or heels, you could never control your balance with him.”
Ip Man was very good at controlling people, I thought to myself, “that kind of skill never comes from the arms or shoulders, it really comes from understanding, let’s say the Dan Tian, the lower part of the body. The use of the hips and center, he (Hawkins) is able to use that power very good. The three men I mentioned, Ip Man, Hawkins Cheung, and Wong Shun Leung, are all able to do this.
Many Wong Shun Leung’s students today, don’t use what Wong Shun Leung had. People like David Peterson are very good, because when I touched hands with him I could feel that he knows how to use his hips properly. The hips and pelvis all have to be in coordination with the steps. Peterson knows how to align his body.
In my opinion, David Peterson was the closest to Wong Shun Leung in terms of feel, in terms of Chi Sau, more so than other students of Wong Shun Leung.
In a past interview, I got to speak with Sifu David Peterson about speaking Chinese and how it affects the way you learn Wing Chun. Is it correct that you are both a native speaker of English and Cantonese?
Yes, Mandarin as well. David is a Mandarin teacher, I speak to David in Mandarin, it’s very funny. His Cantonese is very good too, probably better than mine!! (laughing.) He is quite an exceptional character and a good man too.
One thing that Peterson brought up is that Cantonese is the language of Wing Chun. Obviously communication is an issue, if they don’t speak English, it helps to speak their language. My point is, would I have a better understanding of Wing Chun if I could speak Cantonese?
I think there is a certain nuance, but I disagree that Cantonese is the language of Wing Chun. Chinese is the language of Wing Chun and I’ll tell you why. Wing Chun has its origins in the Fujian Marital arts. Of course, Fujian (people) don’t speak Cantonese, they speak a Fujian dialect. I think Wing Chun really began over there and later on Cantonese took it over.
Especially past masters of Wing Chun, for example during the Ming Dynasty I don’t think they spoke Mandarin or Cantonese. I believe they spoke a version of the Fujian dialect or perhaps Hakka.
Only when the Qing Dynasty came around, did they standardize the language based on Northern Chinese Dialects. Now because there is a renaissance of Wing Chun from Hong Kong, from 1949 on, Cantonese kind of became the official language. Before that, they probably spoke Fujian, Hakka, or other dialects.
To get back on track, from what I understand you are an expert in Wing Chun body structure?
I like to call it “body structure”, to name it after my teacher’s, Hawkins Cheung’s, term. The name itself is a misnomer, because structure implies a 3D building or something of that sort. It seems static, but to give a nod to my Sifu, I call it the same as Hawkins Cheung. In Cantonese, he calls it “body power,” he is referring to the body as a whole. Although in Mandarin, they call it something like “framework.” A good way to say it is something like “whole body power” or “alignment power.”
How did you research this subject?
If you look at any modern athletics, like weight training or other modern sports, people will do things like analyze Tiger Wood’s swing and will base everything on physics. You have force, momentum, acceleration, and mass. Not to mention body torque, rotation, skeletal alignment, and so on and so forth.
I’m an Acupuncturist. Because of that I understand the body and I am pretty good with my topical anatomy. When you study these types of things, every aspect goes into it. When you are thinking how to optimize forces, although Hawkins gave me the inspiration, I base my entire system on this study.
I actually made up some physical structure tests for Wing Chun.
I base everything on a functional assessment of Wing Chun, as opposed to an assessment based on lineage. Whereas most people would say I’m from this or that lineage/style. That part, ehhh, it is hard to judge anything because maybe that person had a lot of money and that is how they became disciples of Ip Man. In the interest of promoting Wing Chun, Ip Man taught them the art. It is possible they did not practice that much and they do not really understand how Wing Chun works. The result is maybe they just have a surface understanding of body mechanics.
I don’t agree that Wing Chun should constantly talk about “my lineage this” or “my lineage that.” You could say that’s stupid or outdated, almost like Chinese ancestor worship. To me, the art has to be functional.
Art is two things: you have the body of knowledge, than you have the application. You have to be able to gather it and pass it down, to do that you have to really be able to understand it. You can’t say, “Oh my teacher taught it to me because of ‘this’ and this is the way Ip Man taught him.” You better know why Ip Man does a technique – a certain why, not because “your teacher passed it down that way.”
Most people in martial arts are just posers. It’s like Chinese kids, when they are young they learn to recite poetry Tang dynasty poetry. They don’t know what it means, but they just recite it. It is not until they are in their teens or 20’s can they understand what the poem means. It is the same thing with Wing Chun, many are posers. They show the form and some drills, but they don’t really understand the meaning of it, yet.
It is not until you have enough experience, beatings, or pain, do you really understand it has a lot of deep meaning to it. When most people look at Siu Nim Tao, they say “what is this crap?” But they keep learning and learning and they say “this set has a lot of good tools for me.”
Chinese arts are not linear (in progression), lots of people like to think they can go from beginner level, to intermediate, and then advance. I don’t agree with that. Chinese arts are more like this: The basics are very advanced, so you spend a lot of time doing just the basics.
When you start combining the basics with permutations and combinations, then the basics become very confusing and complex. You can say the pinnacle of the art is in that intermediate stage because of its complexity. Then, just like a circle, you are going down to basics again. You are whittling away at the non-essential. You are cutting away at all the nonsense, to make things so complicated, you go back to simplicity and it becomes a circle.
There is a famous saying, when I first learned Zen “mountains were mountains, and rivers were rivers. After I studied Zen, mountains were no longer mountains, and rivers were no longer rivers. After I finally understood Zen, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers.” It shows a circular pattern in thinking. That way is more the Chinese way of thinking, the advanced seems so basic. Yet the basics are so advanced.
You leave behind all the complex thinking, complex techniques, and complex combinations. You can clearly see where people are nowadays. The more simple things are, the better, because that is more advanced. It comes down to how well do people think and what are they doing with the art.
A moment ago you were talking about a “Wing Chun test,” what does the test look for?
You are going to stand yee jee kim yeung ma, your regular Wing Chun stance. Why stand like this? It is the foundation of our art. If you can’t stand like that you can’t fight, I’m not talking about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I’m talking about Wing Chun. If you have no balance, if you have no stance, you have no way of generating force and momentum, then you have nothing.
What you might do is open up your stance, and I’ll put my palm on your chest and press. Then I’ll see if you can stand. Most people, because they do not understand structural alignment, if I give them a little bit of energy, a little bit of pressure, they already topple over. Maybe I’ll also push them from side to side, if their stance is too narrow, I’ll push them over, very easily.
Then if they are doing the first punch, I might press on the fist, most likely their hand collapses. When they do a Tan Sau, I press on it and see if they can still stand. More than likely, they can’t stand, they can’t deal with the pressure.
Originally, I came out with only 4 tests, that was pressure to the front of the chest, the sideward Bong Sau from Chum Kiu, if you could resist being pulled form Lan Sau, then pushing you from Lan Sau position in Chum Kiu. After I applied (this methodology) to the entire system, it made me realize this is a good way to teach, it affirms this is why we do Wing Chun. It does not make a stylistic system, it gives us a system and a scientific way to duplicate the results. The definition of science is the observation of nature and DUPLICABLE results. This way, you can say I make my Wing Chun very scientific from a western point of view.
How can you practice this type of balance on your own?
You can’t practice this on your own. You need someone to press you; you need an experienced teacher to push you, because he knows what he is looking for. Let’s say I put my palm on your chest and you topple over. I’m immediately going to say, “Okay, you need to equalize the force with your pelvis.” So your pelvis has to be forward. Your three points in alignment have to be corrected.
The three points in alignment are the point between the eyebrows, the point in the center of the chest, and the dan tian, which is two finger breadths below the navel. These three points have to be in alignment. If you see pictures of Ip Man, his pelvis is always protruded forward. That famous picture between Bruce Lee and Ip man, you gotta laugh at it. Ip Man owns Bruce Lee in that exchange. Bruce Lee’s coccyx is behind his heels. The next motion Bruce Lee does, he (Ip Man) is going to throw Bruce Lee around…!
A person with structure can always see a person without structure. A lot of people overcompensate their inadequacy with structure with pressure from their shoulders. The legs, the buttocks, the pelvis, are so massive. They are your center of gravity, that is where your strength should come from, not from your shoulders. Those are the major things.
Granted, this is not a static thing either, this is very dynamic. It is kind of like when you study the dummy, you are told to do the double jut sau, the double tok sau position. You have to drop your stance when you do the double fuk sau or jut sau. Then you have to raise up your stance when you do the tok sau. That is just going to give you the feeling for structure, (but) only your teacher is going to be able to do it if he is trained in our method.
This is because he has the feeling of equalizing pressure at all times or is giving you different levels of pressure at all times, so that you can develop this structure method. What is the advantage? You might say that you use Wing Chun to the 4th power. Let’s say you know how to do a transition of two techniques, like Pak Da to Tan Da or Tan Da to Pak Da.
Do you know what I mean?
Yes, you are talking about two variations of blocking and attacking at the same time.
Right, let’s say you take those two different techniques, and you are schooled in regular Wing Chun. You know how to use your arms, you know how to do these techniques only one way. I’m not talking about variations, but you only know how to get power with your arms. But in my way, you know how to get power from your body.
You can go like this from Tan Da to Pak Da, from hand to hand. Then I can go from hand to body, where I do Tan da with the hands, and then Pak Da with the body. Maybe then, I do Pak da with the body first, then Tan da with the hands, fast. I can also do a final switch, Pak Da with the body, Tan da with the body. The combinations have a lot of subtlety; it’s a matter of me lining up the body when I want to.
I know the same combinations you know with your hands, but I also know how to interject my body. Most people have body structure, but they have it only for a single split second. They do not know how to continuously align their body and keep that energy there. That is the difference between mastery of martial arts and non-mastery.
Yesterday when you and I were talking, you were telling me about how to train with a medicine ball. Can you tell us more about that?
You can do medicine ball by yourself, but it is more enjoyable with a partner. Now you might see Bruce Lee in the old days using it, but I don’t think he was throwing it right. He was just doing it to condition his abs; I don’t think he was doing it the way I am doing it, using it to strengthen up the Wing Chun structure.
Let’s say you and a partner stand 4-5 feet away from each other. You face each other – straight and want to throw and catch the medicine ball with each other. You both go in yee jee kim yeung ma, the basic stance in Wing Chun. You throw the medicine ball with each other like you do the opening part of Chum Kiu, the part where you do the double thrusting palm forward.
When you throw the ball, you’re not throwing it with your shoulders. You’re throwing it as …. I got no other way to say it… you’re throwing it like you’re humping. You’re throwing your pelvis forward. You issue the force straight forward and it releases from your hands. Then the other person has to catch it, when they catch it, he has to decelerate the ball’s momentum. He handles it when he has to sink into his stance and is able to catch it properly. He, in turn, launches it through his stance platform as well. That’s a very simple thing and people aren’t going to get hurt with the medicine ball.
It is going to teach you three things about yee jee kim yeung ma. Number one, you have a neutral Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma when you are not doing anything. Number two, you have an active Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma, where you are throwing it forward. Number three, they have to use it to decelerate and control of the ball. Right away, most people don’t have three (YJKYM), they only have one. They lock their knees and they are stiff, like robots.
Is there any other training tools? For example there is a picture of Ip Man, he has like 45 Iron Rings hanging off his hand?
I think he was doing that to please the student who gave him that as a gift. I don’t see that tool as something good; you are using your arm power, not using your body power.
When you get more advanced you are going to do three things. The wooden dummy is indispensable. You need to be able to do all those things with the wooden dummy. You have to be able to move it back and forth with your body structure.
The other thing is the pole, when you are good at the Wing Chun pole, you are going to whip it back and forth because you are going to whip your hips back and forth.
The third thing is when you use the knives in Wing Chun. You are holding this ½ pound to a pound, goodies in your hands. You have to use your structure to move them around.
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If you don’t have that, you don’t know how to use your body. Then it is going to be pathetic, man. I would say around 95% of Wing Chun, they do not know how to use their body at all – they are just posers.
Do you think Wing Chun is on a downward spiral?
No, I think it is increasing in popularity because of the Ip man movies. China is also becoming aware that there is Wing Chun in the world. It was exported out of China, now they want it back into China, meaning it is going to become more and more popular.
I think a lot of people are going to say, “there is a lot of weakness to Wing Chun.” This is because those are the people who stand in the rigid stiff stance. Or they might say, “the power always comes from the shoulders.” What happens when you have a shoulder injury?
A lot of Wing Chun people just spend their time doing exercises for their shoulders, like bench presses, rather than doing complete body unity things, like dead lifts, squats, clean and press, or jerks. You need whole body coordination and power. Isolated workouts is not what is going to give you power in the end. It is the functional coordination of the entire body alignment.
What about the old school horse stance?
It has its place for beginners. There is an old school exercise called “pushing horse.” It is when your hands are behind your back and you are trying to knock everyone out of this 12 foot circle. In this drill, you are only allowed to use your horse stance.
If you met people who are really good with their horse and structure, they are able to control people. Their hands can still remain very loose and fluid, able to strike at will. Those things are good from the old school method.
Isolations exercises like Pak sau without the body, or dan chi sau without the body, mostly, they are useless. Even Bong Sau Lop Da without the body, they do without the body or hips. It becomes a useless exercise because they don’t build up their body, they build up their shoulders.
I’ve heard of people doing Tan Sau with the elastic band? Useless?
I would say that exercise in the United States has become segmented. People just do things like curls, bench presses, and are all isolated exercises. These are all good for body building or working on a weak part. You gotta do full body coordinated type of training.
I don’t agree – I don’t think it will help build you structure.
I think the medicine ball, let’s say in your school you have three sizes. You have a 10 pounder, a 12 pounder, and a 15 pounder to start with. Have everyone warm up with them, have everyone do medicine ball drills. You can do it standing, shifting, from difference stances, and pass it to each other. You can change the distance from one another, it can be 10 feet, 12, feet, 20 feet. You can’t launch a ball 12 feet with your arms, you gotta use your stance. To me that is more valuable than doing a rubber band or something silly like that.
I have a motto, “If you ain’t using your thighs, it ain’t exercise.”
In your articles, I’ve read that you use a term called “wedging.” Can you please explain to us what that is?
In my articles, I talk about three things. The basis of Wing Chun is three things, you have push, pull, and wedge.
Pushing is like pushing the door open.
Pulling is like pulling the door open.
Wedging is like “oh shoot, the door is about to close, let me stick my foot in” to prevent the door from closing.
Wedging is like the keel of a boat, it parts the water. That is the idea behind “wedging”.
Tan Sau, Biu Sau, Gaun Sau, even punching, they are all wedges to keep the door open while you are striking forward. Wing Chun is kind of like a 4th dimensional art. I’ll say 4th dimensional because we are including time. You have height, width, depth, and finally, the factor of time.
When someone is punching at you, you have to control and strike at the same time. I don’t believe in the word “block”. To me, that is just primitive Neanderthal Wing Chun. What is happening in Wing Chun is that your hands are like an antennae, you are able to whip and gently change direction, guide, redirect, push, pull, etc. That is more how Wing Chun hands should be.
To me, it is kind of silly when you say “wing block”, to me it sounds primitive, it sounds stupid. It sounds more like Karate. I’m not saying Karate is primitive or stupid, that is just the type of terminology they use there.
Language itself is a power. We might say Pak sau is pushing, we are pushing the opponent. I might slap things open. When I say pulling, not like using my arm power, I mean yanking he door off the hinges. Like when you pull someone they are going to crash to ground and smash them. If you are going to push someone, you are going to push them through the wall.
If you use a wedge you are going to hold them open and unbalance them. Turn them like you are going through a revolving door. They are going to rotate on their axis. This is the way to use Wing Chun. In this medium I can’t show you, but at least you can visualize what is going on.
You gotta have some brains in order to do Wing Chun. That is the beauty of it, what is it an advanced marital art? It is thinking man’s art. Think about it, Wing Chun was passed down by the opera troops. They have to be very innovative, be comical, understand situations to entertain people. They have to be able to take the best of martial arts and simplify it for application. Yet they still have to be able to use martial arts for show and entertainment.
They passed it down to the merchant class. Doctors and merchants are usually very smart people. They have to use their brain, they have to do problem solving. Then we have the age of the educated individuals, like in Hong Kong.
You didn’t have your basic farmers learning Wing Chun, you had people with more substance (learning it at that time). We should conduct the art in that matter, because it’s progressing in that matter. I think there is a great improvement of Wing Chun, because it passes onto intelligent people. Not just thugs, gangsters, or stupid people.
Do you have any final training tips for beginners?
Don’t just try to mimic. I can’t talk about training tips, because Wing Chun today, is like “stand like this” and repeat it 100 times. I think they have to follow my structure methods, they have to have people touching and feel in alignment, they have to pass the medicine ball.
For beginners, if you haven’t already implemented it already in your school, buy a medicine ball. Start with a 12 – 16 pound ball to start with. And pass it around with your fellow training brothers. See if they can handle the momentum, generating the momentum by throwing the ball to someone, and see if they can catch it. Right away, I would say that is the powerhouse of Wing Chun, that is how Wing Chun is done properly. It is as simple as tossing a ball back and forth.
I think that is a better way to try out Wing Chun. Instead of “Sifu says do the form this way”, “my tradition says it’s like this”, or “my lineage does it like this.” To that is, ehh, what can I say?
How can people contact you?
They can find me at: www.chusaulei.com or call me at 626 487-1815.