Kung Fu Southside

Grandmaster Choi 1974 Australasian Fighting Arts Magazine interview.

The following is reproduced from an interview conducted by Mike Yates published in the 1974 edition of Australian Fighting Arts Magazine Vol 1 * No 2.

THE REAL KUNG-FU. Sydney Wing Chun Master who trained with Bruce Lee! part 1

I attended Francis Xavier College in Hong Kong and started to learn kung-fu when I was very young. I started Wing Chun later, but first practised Tai Chi. I was about 12 years old when I started Wing Chun. My first instructor was Yip Man-he was my only instructor. He has since died (in 1972) and his son has taken over his students but he is advised by a committee of senior instructors. This situation doesn’t look like changing.

In early 1972 I went back to Hong Kong to see my master, Yip Man, to obtain permission to teach Wing Chun publicly. (Up till this time Greg Tsoi had been teaching a very small class more or less privately). When I was first here I used to train secretly without letting anyone see me. But once in a while a room-mate would see me practising and was very curious and eventually begged me to teach him. He was my first student here, but is now in Canada.

Of course I used to teach in Hong Kong before I left there. When I first came here 14 or 15 years ago, when I was a student, I used to train privately.

What is kung-fu?

The first thing you learn in kung-fu is that it is for your health first and self defence second, whereas karate and boxing are more for sport. The less you fight the less trouble you will get into. When you are a great fighter you always have some people jealous of you so that is why it’s not good to be a well-known fighter. The Chinese have a saying “If you are a big tree you always have more wind to blow on you”. So you can get more trouble.

Kung-fu is usually just for your health – self defence is not the main aim. Kung-fu is a sort of an art – a martial art. Traditionally, kung-fu means you have the patience to learn and develop in any art, not only chinese boxing.

Do Wing Chun men practise kata (forms)?

No. Wing Chun doesn’t practise kata in the accepted sense. It has only three “kata” or pre-arranged forms; Siu Lim Tao, Cham Kuen and Biu Ji which contain all essential techniques found in Wing Chun. The first form, Siu Lim Tao which roughly translated means “Small Thoughts” is intended to instill the basic principles of the art into the beginning student.

Do the katas have any application in self defence?

Of course they have self-defence applications. When you do, for example, the form “Small Thoughts”. Many teachers know the mechanics of this form but do not understand the technical application of the moves properly. A lot of people teaching these forms do not even understand it themselves. He can’t do it properly – nor does he understand what it means. Small thoughts is not just pushing the hands out and in; actually it is concerned with internal strength. Once you can do the proper internal strength of Small Thoughts you can apply this to your body. You can resist and “lock off” sickness and “lock off” punches so that you can make a point in your body impervious to pain.

Is it good to practise lots of different kata?

Look at it this way. If you do a style that has 50 kata, then you have to practise these 50 kata all the time to be able to perfect them. The main thing is patience and training. If you practise a smaller range of techniques for a long period or a wider range of techniques for a long period you will still achieve a final goal. A good instructor knows how to advise, how to direct your training the proper way, how to show you different training methods.

Are there any techniques in kung fu like you here karate men supposedly use, that could be expressed as killing blows?

Yes, providing a strike is delivered to a vital spot. When I was in Hong Kong in 1972 I did a lot more advanced training on nerve points. But you cannot say every punch can kill a person because people who have been hit are alive.

Are students encouraged to use sandbags or punching pads?

Yes – provided they are shown the right way. If these are used the wrong way you wind up getting nowhere. You can’t just tell the student to hit the sandbag. You can’t just say: “There’s the sandbag; there’s the gym; there’s the equipment”. If you don’t show him how to use it he will do it the wrong way. Even with punching, you have many different ways. You must show him the right methods. You must know exactly what to do step by step. People are paying to learn how to do it; They are not paying for a gym.

Does Wing Chun do any breaking?

If you go to fight someone you don’t need to be able to break a brick to hurt an opponent. In kung-fu you are more concerned with nerve points of the vital spot. You must know exactly where the nerve point is and how to hit it. Just breaking techniques are not all that important. Some of the time they are done with tricks. I have seen people who break bricks and can break better than some other person. But the other person has been able to beat them in sparring. There is always the problem with breaking that in some cases, before you can actually break some item, you may actually break your own hand or whatever. Some of the people may break their hand before they succeed and then they may develop rheumatism later in life. Why should people use their hand as a weapon? Why don’t they use a hammer? Nowadays people aren’t as stupid as before. You should use your head and do something properly. If people want to kill you, they can buy a gun. Breaking techniques are only a specific part of overall training for most people.

Are there any breathing exercises in Wing Chun?

Not especially. Breathe in all the breath, try and force the breath right down to the base of the abdomen and then force the air, breathing strongly out, using the diaphragm muscle. This is very similar to breathing used in some styles of karate and yoga e.g. Sanchin breathing has actually come from Chinese martial arts breathing. Chi, most of the time, incorporates meditation. Meditation is very important. Chi comes from Budhist monks’ training.

Do you have sparring in Wing Chun?

Yes – we have several types. Students start of with padding. We have both contact and no contact. Students initially wear padding until they get used to the techniques. More senior people fight without the padding. Before moving on to free style fighting, students learn techniques such as Chi Sau sticking hand technique. It is from the continued training in “Sticking Hands” that the “feeling” – the high degree of sensitivity demonstrated by practitioners of the art in knowing where the opponent will move – is developed. In a lot of cases the sparring is directed by the ideas of the instructor or what he decides is the appropriate method to use.

Do Wing Chun (practitioners, Ed) enter tournaments?

Usually there is only one tournament. A national Wing Chun tournament in Taiwan, Formosa, etc but it is only one. As there is no real emphasis on tournaments, the styles have not had to adapt their techniques too much towards the sporting aspect. This often tends to dilute the art by concentrating on scoring techniques which, in a lot of cases, could be completely ineffective in real application.

Most people who take up Wing Chun seem to be more educated. They are not usually very violent types; they like to learn some art to keep good health and, secondly, they think about self-defence. Therefore they’re not really very interested in tournaments.

Weapon Training. Do Wing Chun use Weapons?

Yes. After students have been practising long enough to be able to do the kata properly, they are allowed to go on learning the pole, the knife, and the twin short swords.

What is the purpose of learning these types of weapons in a nuclear age?

The reason is that they are part of a complete system of a martial art. We are trying to hand down all the techniques that are applicable in the art, whether armed or unarmed.

Why have Asian martial arts survived and expanded whereas western types have diminished?

One of the main reasons is the health factor again. Proper training is able to prevent or relieve such things as asthma, rheumatism, heart attack, even psychiatric problems. In today’s society you see a lot of people who have high emotional stress. The martial arts require only a small amount of space whereas to play football or tennis you need lots of room, which these days is becoming hard to find.

Have there been any changes in Wing Chun over the last 10 years?

Not many. Whenever any of our brothers comes up with an alternative method of executing a technique or training method, discussion takes place and we weigh the pros and cons of any new techniques before we decide whether to incorporate them or not. Of course it is very difficult in the Chinese systems to break tradition and modify something which has been handed down for hundreds or thousands of years.

Do you teach any weight training?

No, not really.During class we are more interested in teaching technique to the students. Often we may see a person who is very skinny or needs to put on a bit of weight. But we do not like to build up bulk muscle, especially if someone is already quite muscular. We do not like them to become musclebound because they tend to become slower and more clumsy. Since I have started training I have never had one day off at all and since I have been in the country my weight has stayed exactly the same through 14 years.

How big is a normal class?

Normally a class is about 25 – 30 students.

Do you try and cater to each individual student or teach them as a group?

We work our classes mostly on rotation method. Over a certain period, after covering the techniques in specific order, we return to the beginning and go on again, giving them as much help individually as possible.

What is the grading system used in the Wing Chun System?

There is no specific grading system like Japanese martial arts. After a student has trained for some time he is allowed to do some practical teaching under the guidance of his instructor. When the instructor is satisfied with the student’s physical and mental standard, he is told he is free to go out and teach.

Does an Asian person have any greater ability in learning or mastering a martial art?

It all depends on the instructor and the student’s own approach and his desire to learn. The main thing is that the Asians who have learnt it, or that do martial arts, usually start of from a very young age. Also more westerners, because of their upbringing, tend to think they have mastered the art after one or two years of practicing. This in itself limits their degree of mastery as they do not have the patience to continue and improve.

What is the main difference between the way martial arts are practised here as compared to Asian countries?

When I was last in China, in 1972, both in Hong Kong and the mainland I noticed every morning at 4 o’clock one could see many people of all ages out practising their kung-fu techniques and exercises. They do not care about about people watching them practising. Their main concern is their own physical and mental wellbeing by the continual practise of their art. The big difference between Wing Chun classes here and in Hong Kong is that most instructors in Australia are unqualified. This does not exist to the same extent in Hong Kong. When I say unqualified they do 6 months here, 6 months there, only learning the basic techniques of several arts, not going into the more advanced techniques and training methods and then they rush out and teach their own style.

Is it worthwhile going to Hong Kong to study kung-fu?

I can only go on what one of my students has told me. After training with me for quite a while, he went to Hong Kong and practised in the schools there. He wrote back and told me that the training here in Australia was much better. This may be because training there is designed for the Asian student.

How can a person off the street find a good kung-fu school?

That is a problem. At the moment it is hard and things are not organised and people do not know enough. as students of real kung-fu instructors learn more and spread the knowledge, increasingly large numbers of people will come to have a better understanding of the art and not be taken in by the unqualified practitioners.

What do you think of the current kung-fu movies fad?

I think it is improving but I think it still has a long way to go. Hollywood is just starting to get into it and when there are more Chinese who can speak English and convey the meaning of martial arts to the English speaking movie companies, e.g. Bruce Lee, this should lead to an increase in improving the quality of martial arts techniques and philosophies used in these films.

Do you teach any methods of Asian healing or resuscitation along with your kung-fu?

Yes; we teach everything. We do everything for the people. In Taiwan, when I was doing Wing Chun I learnt healing and preventative measures for 7 years. When in China you had to know methods of healing because there were not ambulances and hospitals around the corner. If you went to visit a club on the other side of town there were invariably injuries. You cannot see the doctor straight away, therefore you have to know basic first aid. If one went to a doctor in that area, because you are not from that particular region, they would only attempt to patch you up crudely.

Do you advise your students on specific types of diet?

No. I personally don’t believe in smoking or drinking alcohol, as these are not good and can do your health no good. But I don’t force this view on anyone. As you see, I only advise them. You can’t force a human being to do anything. All you can do is teach them that maybe certain things are not necessary to their existence.

What would you do during a typical training session?

A basic class? We don’t have a specific series of items we do every class, but generally it follows the line of most martial arts classes where you do exercises to start with and then move on to practising basics, katas, pre-arranged and freestyle sparring; also special techniques like Chi training, sticking hands techniques.

In the VCK Centre here you have other styles taught, don’t you?

Yes. Tai Chi, Hung Kune, Praying Mantis.

Have you ever used Wing Chun or kung-fu for self defence?

Never. I have never been in any situation where things have deteriorated so far that I have had to resort to kung-fu techniques. Only when he will die or you will die is the only time I will resort to kung-fu. I have never reached this situation yet.

Do you have a specific training routine or do you do something whenever you feel like it?

Not ‘something I feel like’, but I don’t have a specific routine which I religiously follow each day. Depending on the occasion, I change what I train each day.

Do you have any favourite techniques?

No favourites – everything is a favourite. If you only concentrate on a certain technique you limit yourself. It’s like going to a restaurant and saying I only eat prawns; I don’t eat anything else. If you don’t eat other things, like chicken and fish, you miss out. You lack certain vitamins, certain proteins. You need variety. It’s the same in training; it is better to practise everything, rather than concentrate on one. Of course, for a demonstration, it’s better to concentrate on certain techniques. But if you are going to promote the art, you just can’t teach them one technique.

What was your association with Bruce Lee?

He and I both went to the same school, St. Francis Xavier College in Hong Kong. As he was born in the U.S. he had a good grasp of the English language, which meant that he was in one class higher at school than I was, although I was a year older.

Were you both practising Wing Chun at the same time?

I started Wing Chun a couple of years before Bruce did. Although we were all in the same generation of students, I was his senior, as I had started before him.

Did you instruct him at all?

Not really. No more than any other senior student does to a junior student. We were both students under our instructor Yip Man, who was the head of the style.

Whereas Bruce Lee started in Wing Chun and then modified his style substantially, incorporating techniques of other arts, do you intend to go to the same degree of change?

No. I am concerned primarily in training with Wing Chun. But, of course, I do other arts too. I study the martial arts all the time as my daily life revolves around kung-fu.

Have you ever trained in any other arts apart from kung-fu – judo, tae kwon do, karate for example?

No – not formal instruction, although we have talked and observed methods used by these disciplines. We still concentrate our basic training on kung-fu techniques. All these arts, if taught and learnt properly, lead to the same goal. It is like a big tree that grew out of the ground with all different fruit on it. All the fruit were different – sweet, sour, big and small, but they all come from the same tree, the same base. This is like the martial arts. Although they may be different, they all come from the same root. Just different variations and interpretations.

One of the things we would like to do with the club when we earn more money is to send promising students to Hong Kong to get varied and advanced instruction. Also, we would like to send handicapped children to China to get treatment. If you can enable the afflicted to walk they will be in a better position for life and also able to study kung-fu to a better degree.

When you first started training did you have any physical handicaps to overcome?

When I was born in the beginning of the second World War (34 years ago), I was very skinny from malnutrition. Doctors said I should die. When I was 8 years old I started my first kung-fu training, which was basically Chi training. For example, Tai Chi, which was primarily for my health and to build up my body, but it contained no techniques for self defence. When I went to school, because I was small I used to get hit. This did not bother me because I could take the blows, but I did not know how to apply self defence moves. This is how I came to start Wing Chun when I was about 12.

Did you take part in tournaments yourself?

No. My parents were very strict. I didn’t even let my parents know that I studied kung-fu. I was learning for 6 years before they knew. Any time the kung-fu club had a party or a tournament I would not take part, because I did not want anyone to know that I was training.

Should everyone do kung-fu?

If they want good health. Kung-fu only needs a small space and it is good for your mind and body. You can practise every day.

If you could change kung-fu in Australia what would you do?

The main thing would be to get all the good kung-fu teachers together to promote real kung-fu, so that the public won’t be taken in by the unqualified.

Do you have any interests outside of kung-fu?

Sometimes fishing, sometimes swimming. A little bit of everything.

What are your plans for the future?

I don’t have any major plans at this stage. The main interest of my life is kung-fu and its perfection.

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