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When did you become the #1 student for the UK Wing Chun association?
The association started in the mid 80s and I was one of the first batch of students. At one point of time we were one of the largest in the UK. I can’t say that at the moment, now there are obviously lots of other groups. At that time we had around 50 branches and were quite substantial, to be called the top student was quite a privilege.
Can we hear about your training?
I only had one Sifu and the Chinese say “if you have one Sifu for a day, he is your Sifu for life.” My Sifu is James Sinclair, I started training with him in the mid 1980s. At the time I didn’t really have any plans of teaching, I just trained and enjoyed the art. At the time Wing Chun wasn’t well known and there were very few Wing Chun schools. I didn’t actively seek out Wing Chun, I just stumped upon it and fell in love with the system. I went on to become an apprentice instructor and by 1989 I started teaching, and around 1990 I became a profession instructor. I am lucky enough to have been training for most of my adult life.
It sounds like you have been teaching most your life, despite getting a PHD in philosophy you stuck to teaching Wing Chun?
I started teaching because I wanted to train, not because I wanted to stand there and tell people what to do. Teaching gave me a vehicle to train, because I could just train during the day, which was great. We would have 3 training sessions throughout the day, myself and another group of full time guys would Chi Sau in the morning, followed by running or the gym in the afternoon, for the third session we would work some forms. Then I would go off and teach my class, that routine, especially with the training it was very demanding, it builds that state of mind you can do anything in your life. Later I would go to study and got my doctorate in Philosophy and I’m also a specialist in Psychology. Training martial arts has allowed me to achieve, that’s the message I try to get across to my students, It is not all about the kicking and punching. There are so many benefits from training martial arts, not just getting fit. This doesn’t only apply to Wing Chun, it applies to other martial arts as well. I think it is very important to keep your mind fresh and active. Allowing my martial arts to evolve. The way I used to move 30 years ago is very different to how I move and see things now. That’s a boy becoming a man, you see things very differently as you get older.
What was the training atmosphere in the 80’s?
When I started there was less Wing Chun schools, more Chinese Kung Fu schools. Over the 10 years, Wing Chun has gained massive popularity. The attitude was very different, generally the Wing Chun people were more likely to touch hands and have challenges. Far more in those days than now… When I first started teaching I had to consider who was going to come down and challenge me. Now, you don’t hear about that. There is good and bad from it, there is a benefit, but you have to move on. Now it is very different, you can type “Wing Chun” into YouTube. It is more easily assessable, now you can you can find a Knife form, where back then, it would take years and years before you got to see it. You had to earn the right to study it. Like most things if you don’t work for it, you won’t appreciate it.
What are you views on traditional training vs modern training?
I can only speak for the Wing Chun community, I trained it for 30 years, it is all I know. As I hinted earlier, how I train now is very different then 30 years ago. Wing Chun is really about concepts not moves. When I teach newer students they get fixated on forming Bong Sau, Tan Sau, etc. What I try to explain to them is you are working on a concept, some call it the science of fighting, I call it the “strategy of fighting.” In that sense, you are working in a conceptual frame work. We are doing actions and movements, not blocks and so on. That’s a general statement, in my opinion if you are working to a concept and move away from I am performing a Tan or a single action. For example a Tan Sau is a spreading concept. If you are sticking to that concept and principle you can evolve it. You can only learn all this from time and training, which will make or break you as a Wing Chun stylist.
It seems like you travel a lot around the world for Wing Chun and seminars?
We go to Hong Kong once a year. As a Wing Chun practitioner, you have to be open minded as to the way people move. If I hear someone is well known, I’ll go visit them. For example the Wing Chun you see in mainland, China is different from Hong Kong. You’ll see more influences; it seems more “untouched.” Where in HK you’ll see more of what we are used to in the west. I think it is very important to get out there, speak research, and listen. It makes it much more practice to understand what you are doing; I believe if you do something you should do it well.
The thing about Chinese martial arts is that most people do not understand they tend to be family styles. Lots of styles are very small that passed onto their family. Each family and village would have a different emphasis on how they train. I think everyone has a piece of the puzzle and by going out there we can join the pieces together. Collectively, not what your lineage is, we can do better. Which I really like this podcast, I think it will be a really good thing for our community.
What is the problem that you see with the Wing Chun community?
I call it the “Youtube generation.” You bring it up on the computer, you see it, but you are not interacting with the person. You don’t really know why they are doing it or the concept behind it. Recently I got an email for one of my videos, where I have around 800,000 views. In this video I just talk about really basic concepts for Wing Chun vs Boxing. This is an issue that comes up for lots of “modern” Wing Chun people, they want to know how to stop a jab and things like that. Anyway, I got an email asking me why I disabled my comments. The reason is, you need to have a conversation with the person. You need to have an open discussion for the reasons why you do certain things.
Where did you go in China?
We managed to go around in Hong Kong and even made it to Guang Zhou and met the WuShu team in Guang Zhou Sports University. We did an exchange, they did some demos and so did we. We even got to met the San Da team. That was a great experience for my students; we even made it over to Fut San (where Ip Man is from.)
What kind of advice do you give to your students?
Often I am asked, why aren’t I getting any better? Many people only come and train for a few hours a week and I point out to them that is only around 50 hours a year. You have to keep training and get the muscle memory and train things like shadow sparring.
What is the different between shadow sparing and shadow boxing?
It is very different to shadow boxing. There is a number of ways you can approach. There are two ways I approach it in my own personal training. I like to train the machines of the movement, repeat a chain linked of actions with footwork. It is similar to doing your forms, but just breaking it up. I think at a higher level you kind of just “go” and figure out what each movement means. For example when I train dummy I’ll just kind of “go” and when I went to Hong Kong, I heard that Ip man had to reconstruct the form so he could teach it. Because when he just trained the form, he took it to the point where he could train very freely. It should be the same thing when you train in the air. You should be able to link and merge your forms together.
Another way is to actually think about what you are doing. Not just sit there and go though it. Think to your self “okay, I do a bong – lop sau, and punch forward, is that person going to block it? Yes, they are, so I switch that into a lan sau, etc. When I lop, where are they likely to block?”
In other words you can train for the mechanics, the physicality of the movement, which will help you link your body and comes in handy for Chi Sau. Then you can also train the conceptual side of it.
Wing Chun is a multi strike style of martial arts, we all know what. For example in many Japanese arts, it is more like a one punch kill type of thing. Our forms are great, but they are very conceptual. The first form is very static, but you are training the basic framework/structure and different ideas. You need the platform to practice, if they do it in boxing, why can we also express our ideas in the air? Why cant I practice getting and trapping hands?
One of the main problems that I see with students is that we spend a lot of time practicing Chi Sau. If you speak about Chi sau with anyone who does it, they will say it’s important. But if you ask them “why” they will respond because it gives us certain tactile responses, allows me to stick, move, etc. This is great, but if you ask them how do you get into Chi Sau? Many will say, well when they come to me, then I’ll stick and trap their arms. That’s okay in certain concepts, for example if you get surprised, you may get the option to link to their arms. In certain situations they may already be an open space (between two people). That’s where the shadow sparring gives you the ability to link your forms.
I used to do a lot of heavy bag work , you think for a Wing Chun guy, why would you do that? Lots of elbows, changing angles, sticking, use it as if it was a wooden dummy. It would give me the ability to punch, move deflect, develop the concepts that we take from the second form. It’s the way that you train for forward progression.
The wooden dummy is a great training tool, it helps us gain a lot of characteristics of Wing Chun. The point is the dummy doesn’t move, I am moving around the dummy. It is something the bag allows you to do that you can’t do on the wooden dummy (the bag moves and requires you to track it.) Having said that, you have to get a happy medium. We have to a medium between moving too much and not moving at all. There is a lot of different schools of thought on it, in the UK we have a saying “there are different horses for different courses.” For some people you have to be more mobile. For example if you wanted to train with a boxer who has to have a little more idea of timing and ability. My point is different tools will give you different attributes. It is really how you train, this is the reason why I don’t get involved with political arguments of “this style vs that style.”
I’m of a different generation, I’m in my mid 40s, but I think we are much more open, and the generation after me also seems much more open to discussion. I find the older generation is less open not as willing to share. I think we should share and open the doors much more. Even if I give you my information you still have to go away and train it. To me there is no risk in that, if you improve, I’ll improve too.
Since we are on the topic of “the old vs the new,” since you have been to both mainland and Hong Kong, is there any difference in the attitude in which they train? From pervious conversations I leaned in HK it’s a much more relaxed kind of atmosphere, you get out of it what you put into it.
My experience, they tend to be much more focused. The style varies it is hard to say. Although I agree in Hong Kong it tends to be a bit more laid back. If you train, train chi sau, used the dummy, you’ll get a lot out of it.
I found in the mainland, they tend to have a lot more structure. I think that’s because of the influence of other styles. In HK the lifestyle tends to be very fast, guys pop in they train and go. I think it has to do with the lifestyle.
Having said that in the west, it is extremely structured. In our classes, we have a very structured way of training. I like to think we are progressive in the way that we structure our lessons. You’ll get something out of it, even if you just turn up. I believe it is important to have a clear objective. We even have session where the class is open and the guys can show up and work whatever they want to work on. We even get a lot of overseas visitors, or our local students moved closer to our school. It’s a real complement to our team of guys who teach.
Do you have any training tips?
I think the theme of this discussing is that there are no “kung fu secrets.” It really comes down to how you train. People ask me “how do I become good?” I say “train.” They respond that they are worried about making a mistake. That’s a very common misconception, I remind that if they are training, then you are getting muscle memory for an action. It may not be 100% correct, but then your Sifu can correct you. Of course if you remain unchecked for years, then that may be the case. But training is how you get it done. Lots of punching, turning, footwork training, so it becomes second nature. Then you can free your mind and think about what you want to do. There are no secrets, apart from hard work.
How can we find you?
That’s easy, we are based in North London. www.londonwingchun.co.uk