My SiFus: Part 1
In Chinese tradition, all parents have high expectations for their children buried deep in their hearts. Their desire is for the next generation to be highly successful as literati and/or martial artists. They also hope that their children’s success will lead them to devote themselves to their government or country. My father had this idea also. With this idea in his mind, he tried very hard to involve me in literature, arts, calligraphy or martial arts to gain experience and knowledge.
I was born in Canton China in 1948. When I was four years old, my father started teaching me Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting. I had to write five pages of calligraphy everyday otherwise, I was not allowed meals. In addition, he tried to find a famous martial artist to be my SiFu, hoping that someday I would be somebody of worth.
Unfortunately, I grew up during the period of the Chinese Cultural Revolution which was a time of great chaos. Like other forms of art, literature and expression, Learning and teaching kung fu was banned by the Chinese government.. The only option available to my father was to enroll me in the government sponsored Wushu organization. I woke up at 4 in the morning to participate in programs such as Char Kuen, Hop Gar, Tai Chi, etc. This was my first experience in Martial Arts.
The 1960’s was a period of turmoil when many Chinese fled China to pursue a better life in Hong Kong. In 1962 I joined other refugees in this great escape. As an immigrant in a new environment I struggled very hard to fit in and finish my high school education.
As such I was not the best behaved teenager. I enjoyed fighting with my classmates and often found myself in trouble at school and on the street. At this time, I liked western boxing and enjoyed the ring exploits of Rocky Marciano, Joe Lewis, Sunny Liston and Cassius Clay. However, my interest in the fighting arts did not extend to Chinese Martial Arts. It seemed to me that Chinese Kung Fu emphasized too many fancy movements and was not very practical. Of course this was my immature interpretation of Martial Arts that fate would soon set straight.
In 1967 there was a big anti-British riot in Hong Kong. After the violence, Hong Kong’s society and political situation was very unstable. The economy was very depressed and making a living was extremely difficult. My father opened up business as a Chinese Dit-Dar (Bone setting & injuries) doctor. Unfortunately, where he set up his clinic happened to have a lot of rascals and bullies who harassed the local businesses and tried to collect “protection fees” from us.
My father approached me with his plan for me to learn martial arts. Association with a martial arts club meant a business was left alone, as some clubs were associated with gangsters. While not all martial arts clubs had these types of members, no one would trouble a business that had any club association just to be on the safe side. My dad’s idea was for me to learn martial arts from a famous teacher while he himself taught me Chinese medicine. This would ensure a good future for me.
I had no intention of getting involved with Chinese Martial Arts. However, I respected my father’s wish because I wanted to help him. So, in the end, at 18 years old, I reluctantly agreed to learn Chinese Kung Fu.
Searching for a SiFu
My father had a friend named Mok Dun who was involved in Chinese Martial Arts. Mr. Mok Dun was a student of SiFu Yip Man from the Restaurant workers Union school. Mr. Mok Dun would frequently mention to my father the phenomenal martial arts skills of his teacher. So my father decided that I should learn Wing Chun Kung Fu, a very healthy martial art style that seldom had connections with gangsters.
At this time SiFu Yip Man had gained such a tremendous reputation in Hong Kong as a great Wing Chun SiFu that his peers in the Chinese Martial Arts community honored him with the title of Grandmaster. Unfortunately, Grandmaster Yip Man had already retired from teaching and it looked impossible for me to learn from the Grandmaster.
Under Mr. Mok Dun’s advice and given the Grandmaster’s incredible reputation, my father decided I should study from one of the Grandmaster’s elder students. Twice, my father and I visited SiFu Leung Sheung’s school and both times he was not there. We then decided to visit SiFu Lok Yiu’s school. Even though his school was still under construction, there was something about the place and atmosphere that really appealed to my father and I.
SiFu Lok Yiu, the second disciple of the late Grandmaster Yip Man was famous for his deep knowledge, diligent approach and high criteria/standards in teaching Wing Chun.
During the late 1960’s in Hong Kong, it was still customary for a teacher to accept a student formally as a disciple. Based on a personal recommendation from his younger Kung Fu brother Mr. Mok Dun, and having spoken to my Father, SiFu Lok Yiu decided to take me as his disciple.
Following the Chinese custom, I gave SiFu Lok Yiu some traditional gifts and a red-pocket and he spoke with me privately. He saw me for the mischievous carefree youth that I was and told me that he didn’t like trouble makers. Then he challenged me to find one reason why he should teach me.
When I couldn’t answer him, he told me I had a chance to learn only because of his relationship with Mr. Mok Dun and my father. He told me that he doesn’t take trouble makers like me. SiFu Lok Yiu spoke sternly and strictly and made me promise to follow the rules of his school, work hard and stay out of trouble.
Even after SiFu Lok Yiu had spoken to me and accepted me as his disciple, I still had no interest in learning Wing Chun. I was only there out of respect for my dad.
I was more interested in having fun with my friends than training hard in Kung Fu. So in my ignorance and youth, I began to excuse myself from training at the school. In the afternoons, I would sneak off and have fun with my friends while I told my father I was training at SiFu’s school. This continued for some time.
One day while at a movie instead of training, I discovered my bicycle was stolen as I came out of the theatre. This caused me to get home very late. My father became suspicious and questioned me. I tried to convince him that I had spent extra time training at the school, but he knew that class was over hours ago; and it should not have taken so long a time for me to get home.
He did not believe my story and decided to call SiFu Lok Yiu to find out the truth. SiFu Lok Yiu explained that I had not been in class and that he hadn’t seen me in weeks. My father was very angry and disappointed. He then granted SiFu Lok Yiu full permission to do whatever was necessary to discipline me, and further my training in Wing Chun. Of course this meant that I would be in deep trouble when I returned to SiFu’s school. This fact did not deter my father from punishing me that night as well.
When I returned to school the next day, SiFu Lok Yiu was extremely strict with me. I shamefully remembered my promise when he accepted me as his disciple. He said, “Kong Jai (Little Kong), you’re having fun, enjoying yourself, but you’re actually cheating yourself because you’re not doing anything worthwhile with your time. Whenever you work hard, that’s when you’re helping yourself. Yes, you fooled both me and your father, but in reality you’ve cheated yourself.”
SiFu continued to lecture me and gave me my first glimpse into the philosophy of Chinese Martial Arts. It would be many years before I truly understood what he shared with me. He said, “Martial arts cultivates your confidence and allows you to develop a spirit of perseverance so that you can accomplish worthy things in your life.” He also emphasized that martial artists should maintain good conduct and are obligated to maintain a high moral standard.
He asked me to contemplate what I have accomplished in my lifetime and told me that he had the full authority of my father to do whatever was necessary to shape me.
As punishment, I was ordered to practice in the corner of the room by myself. Here I would sit in the horse and practice only the first part of Sil Lim Tau for hours. SiFu was now very strict with me, and I was taught very slowly and meticulously.
While all my other Kung Fu brethren were taught new techniques, I was still doing basics. When mistakes were made, SiFu would make certain that I would not repeat the same ones again. For example, whenever there was a mistake with my horse, he would correct me and make me stand in the corrected horse for an hour. If I repeated the same mistake, I would have to stand in the corrected position for two hours. This type of training was grueling and long, but highly effective in building a solid foundation in Wing Chun.
Seeing the light
One day, after about nine months had passed, SiFu Lok Yiu made me do sticky hands with the other students. All of my Kung Fu brothers beat me up badly, even the junior students. All the other students were learning new things while I was left behind.
The time I spent at the school doing the basics allowed me time to reflect and see how respected SiFu Lok Yiu was by his students and members of the community. People only had positive things to say about him. His students would return to the school with stories of winning the sparring matches they had been in. These stories fascinated me. In addition, the newfound popularity of Bruce Lee and the fact that he was part of our Wing Chun family made him like an Idol to us. All of this contributed to my growing interest in Wing Chun.
It was then that that realization dawned on me. As my fellow classmates were working hard to learn and progress, I was fooling around, getting punished and therefore denied the chance to progress with them. I realized what a great lesson SiFu Lok Yiu was teaching me. He was punishing me for being disrespectful and ignorant, and out of this punishment I saw that Chinese Martial Arts was really something special. It was not just the theory of fighting, but a philosophy based on discipline and dedication.
I realized that I had a good teacher in a great Martial Art system. Now I had a chance to change my ways. I became eager and sincere. I started to do things without being asked, out of appreciation and my newfound sense of pride and work ethic.
A new beginning
I decided to learn Wing Chun by spending more time and effort to work hard and diligently. SiFu Lok Yiu continued to make me do long arduous drills, but now I was willing to work hard, and trained in earnest.
SiFu made me train for months on just defense while others would attack me and I was not allowed to attack back. Then I trained for months on offense without being allowed to actually hit my opponent. This taught me control. I used to be the one that had always been beaten badly in Chi Sau training. However, I made my decision and told myself that in one year, I would defeat everyone in Chi Sau training.
I trained hard every day for at least 5 to 6 hours. Sometimes I would even sleep on the wooden benches at the school using my kung fu shoes and clothes as a pillow. I was determined to work as hard as I could to achieve my goal.
Many of my Kung Fu brothers were really instrumental with my training. There were three elder students in particular with whom I trained - Poon Tung, Lee Wah Chek and Chung Kwok Wing. There were also three senior students, Kong Keung, Kwan Keung and Lo Chi Lai, who were already teaching elsewhere but came to SiFu Lok Yiu’s school occasionally to help me practice. Another was Pang Kam Fat, a high ranking police detective. He was a student of Grandmaster Yip Man, and one of Bruce Lee’s classmates in the early 1950’s. I am truly grateful to all of these people for their patience and guidance.
After two and a half years of training, my foundation was very strong and SiFu made me his assistant instructor. I helped him teach wherever he needed me to. His main school was located in Kowloon, on the eighth floor of 659 Shanghai Street. SiFu also had two other branch schools, one of which was at my home in Kowloon City on the first floor of 50 Nga Tsin Wai road. (This has since been donated to Grandmaster Yip Man’s eldest son Yip Chun, for the Yip Man Wing Chun Martial Arts Association Ltd. Headquarters). The other branch school was located in Wanchai, Hong Kong.
SiFu Lok Yiu’s opinion of me improved as time went by. One day, he took me aside to give me a demonstration. He sat in his horse and raised one leg with the knee close to his chest as if about to kick and said, “Try and move my leg.” So I grabbed his leg and pulled but I could not move it. I tried to push his leg but it still would not budge. I used my entire body weight and full power but still I could not move him. His horse was like a rock. I was truly amazed. I realized that SiFu really had something special in his martial arts training. I also understood his lesson; I had a long journey ahead of me.
SiFu Lok Yiu was my SiFu who gave me my first understandings of Wing Chun. He taught me the “a-b-c’s” of our style. His severe criteria and hard working ethics allowed me to gain the fundamental understanding of Wing Chun theory and methods. He gave me a very solid foundation and legitimate reasons for why we have to learn Wing Chun.
SiFu opened my eyes to another world. This new found understanding and insight drove me to practice harder than I’ve ever practiced before. As a result I was enamored and fascinated with the Wing Chun system.
Traditionally it is the duty of a student to show his respect and appreciation for his SiFu for what is being taught. One-way I fulfilled my obligation was to clean the school before and after practice. I would clean and shine the windows, polish the mirrors, clean the bathroom, empty and disinfect the spittoons and mop the floor.
Meeting Grandmaster Yip Man
Often, I would stay after classes had ended to clean up. At this period of his life, Grandmaster Yip Man was retired and spent some evenings playing Mah-Jong with some of his students at SiFu Lok Yiu’s school after classes had ended.
Sometimes the Grandmaster would ask me to run out and buy him some food. One terribly rainy night, after I had finished cleaning and was practicing alone, no one showed up to play except Grandmaster Yip Man. I remember very clearly that he kept pacing around while I was practicing. After some time, he called me over by my nickname, Kong Jai.
“Kong Jai show me what you’ve learned!” At first I was hesitant, but I played the First Form. “Ah, very good,” he told me and invited me to do some sticky hand. Later on, the guests gradually started to show up, and he said, “All right. Pretty good. Keep practicing hard.”
An unexpected offer
Most of the time, Grandmaster Yip Man’s students and their relatives would get together to socialize or play Mah-Jong. Among the attendants were Wong Shun Leung and his wife; Tong Jo Che; Lee Wai Che; Wong Che Ming; Tam Lai and Ko Sang and Ho Kam Ming. On certain occasions Poon Tung and his wife and Lau Wing also show up for the party gathering. SiFu Lok Yiu would normally go out with his friend Mr. Yee Wing to the teahouse or to some other form of entertainment.
On another occasion, Grandmaster Yip Man called me over again to see how my Wing Chun was progressing while he was waiting for other guests to show up. After some chi sau and lop sau, he told me, “Hmm, your foundation is pretty good…” Then he asked me, “Kong-jai, why do you want to learn Wing Chun?” I told him that I wanted to learn something practical that I could use to defend myself in case of a dangerous situation. I also told him that I felt Wing Chun was a good style, and that it fitted me, and I was crazy about it.
Grandmaster Yip Man told me, “I like you. You are honest, you work hard and you did not tell me that you wanted to learn Wing Chun for some other reason besides self defense. If you really want to learn Wing Chun, come see me tomorrow at 6:00 a.m. at Hoon Lin Restaurant (tea house).”
I was so excited and felt it was a great fortune that I had a chance to learn directly from Grandmaster Yip Man, the one who made Wing Chun famous, and the one who held all the power and authority in the Wing Chun Style. This was an unimaginable opportunity.
It was that very morning that Grandmaster Yip Man offered to take me as his student. I was both delighted and nervous. This was such an honor. However, I told Grandmaster Yip Man that I didn’t want to be disrespectful to my SiFu Lok Yiu.
The Grandmaster told me that I shouldn’t feel bad because Lok Yiu was his student. He said that everything that SiFu Lok Yiu taught came from him. He told me that because he is the leader of the Wing Chun family in Hong Kong, he has the right to choose me as his private student.
However, the other problem was that I was unsure how I was going to afford lessons with the Grandmaster. I had heard that he only teaches privately at a high cost. I told him that I needed a little time to think about it. In my heart I didn’t think I would be able to accept this generous offer.
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