By Cliff Au Yeung and Lewis Luk
Translated by Buick Yip and David Peterson
Since Grand Master Ip Man began teaching the Ving Tsun style of Chinese martial arts in Hong Kong, his lineage has developed for over 50 years, and Ving Tsun has grown from relative obscurity in China, to a practical martial arts system renowned and practised throughout the world. As such, the achievements and influence of the late Grand Master are well deserving of legendary status. Our teacher, sifu Wong Shun Leung, who learnt from the Grand Master with diligence, intelligence and dedication during the 50s and 60s, representing Ving Tsun victoriously in some 60-70 “comparisons of martial skill” (beimo) in Hong Kong against devotees of many other fighting systems, laid the groundwork for the eventual expansion of Ving Tsun that has taken place. His life story is equally deserving of legendary status.
The telling of his life story is possible after his untimely death by virtue of his lifetime of achievements as recalled by his peers, students and friends. Ving Tsun brothers and friends such as Chu Shong Tin, Chan Chi Man, Wu Chun Nam, Leung Man To and Wong Tak Chiu were all more than willing to share their memories of his life to ensure that this essay provide a truthful account of the man and his deeds, thus preventing future rumours or miss-truths emerging which would otherwise cause him to seem supernatural or unbelievable, rather than the practical and realistic person that was Wong Shun Leung.
Descendant of a community-minded scholarly family
Wong’s ancestral home was the small village of Songma, Hangtaan Town, Sundak (Shunde) County in Guangdong Province (where incidentally, everyone had the surname Wong), and he was born the second son of a respected family. His father, Wong Kay Yat, was a famous doctor of Chinese traditional medicine, well known in the region (prior to WWII, one of the 10 most famous doctors in Guangdong) and just as famous for his expertise in treating women’s health problems after moving to Hong Kong. As part of a family which included an older brother (who passed away early on), a younger brother (who incidentally also studied Ving Tsun from Wong), and six younger sisters, Wong Shun Leung was born in Hong Kong on the 8th June 1935. At that time, the former British colony had a population of less than half a million, and the lifestyle of those who lived there was generally simple compared with the Hong Kong of today.
1935-1952: the Warring Years, where truth was sought through martial art
When Wong was a lad, he received adequate family discipline, learning obedience, literature and calligraphy, and was a gifted student who easily picked up both academic and cultural knowledge. He responded especially well to literature, from which he developed an extensive knowledge of Chinese culture and history, and then later on he also expanded his studies to include a Western education by attending an Anglo-Chinese school. At this stage of his life, those who knew him saw how his natural ability to adapt and adjust to his surroundings began to surface.
From very early on, Wong developed a strong sense of racial pride, with the true-life experiences of colonial inequality and foreign invasion at the hands of the Japanese in WWII fuelling his hatred of those who hid behind meaningless talk. He despised unjust behaviour and had strong principles, which he was prepared to defend. He proceeded to seek the truth through real grit, and martial arts offered an open path by which a young and restless youth could express his personality and opinions.
In the summer of 1942, a bunch of boys gathered in discussion, with a boy about his age boasting of being some kind of spiritual superhuman. Wong could not stand such nonsense and argued with the boy, resulting in a reckless fight breaking out between them in which the two boys ending up rolling all over the ground, tearing each others clothing as they wrestled about. At such a tender age, Wong was already exhibiting his fearless desire to defend the truth.
According to Wong himself, way before he began actually learning martial arts, he had countless “contests” with many under-qualified sifu, whereby he made them lose face, proving that they had more talk than actual ability.
Another story was that while Wong had started learning Wu style Tai Chi from an uncle, he eventually switched to learn some Tai Chi and hard fist forms from a teacher named Wong (no relation). One night while Wong Shun Leung was practising, this sifu Wong and some guests were swapping martial tales with each other when the teacher said that while in the Sichuan Province city of Chengdu, he had witnessed an old master stop a moving car from running over a fallen child by exerting chi through his two palms. On hearing this, Wong put on his jacket and left without as much as a backward glance and never returned, deciding that a person who told such tales could not possibly possess any true gung-fu.
Wong had already started to learn boxing while in junior high school, and according to his own account, once knocked out his instructor while sparring in the ring. A few days later, however, the instructor tried to exact revenge by using heavier punches to cause Wong to bleed all over. Feeling that this instructor was especially mean and having such a negative attitude towards a student, in order to avoid further ill feelings or unhappiness, Wong once again quit his training.
Wu Chun Nam, who was a classmate of Wong’s from the third year of their high school studies, recalls that Wong Shun Leung already had basic training in both western boxing and Tai Chi by 1952.
1953-1960: meeting the Grand Master
While there have been a number of different versions of Wong’s first meeting with Ip Man, the account given below is based on what Wu Chun Nam and Chu Shong Tin recall of Wong’s own account of the events:
Ip Man first began teaching at the ‘Hong Kong Retaurant Workers Union’ in 1950. From 1953-1954, the class relocated to Hoi Tan Road in the Shamshuipo district of Kowloon before eventually returning to the original location in 1955. It was around that time, while Wong Shun Leung was in his youth, that he often pitted his skills at western boxing against fighters from various disciplines. In one of these matches, which took place at Kadoorie Hill, an exponent of Tai Chi Praying Mantis defeated Wong, and he swore that he would be back for a rematch in three months. At that time, a friend of his cousin by the name of Law Bing had been learning Ving Tsun for a while, and through him, Wong met several other Ving Tsun practitioners. It is believed that he actually saw Lok Yiu competing successfully in a challenge match and came to admire the Ving Tsun method, so much so that on February 1st 1954, two days before the Chinese Lunar New Year, Wong Shun Leung, accompanied by his cousin, finally came to the school at Hoi Tan Road with a view to become a student of Ip Man. (According to Wong, he hadn’t known the name of the style at that particular time, only that it was a form of boxing from Fatsaan (Foshan) in Guangdong Province. Only after he began studying it, did he learn from Ip Man what it was called.) As it was so close to the Lunar New Year, there were few people present when Wong arrived at the school, just two or three relative beginners. Being young and keen to seek genuine gung-fu, and lacking an understanding of the protocol expected of him, Wong asked if he could try out against those present, not realising that this could be considered a challenge. Ip Man was polite enough to allow him to go ahead, only to see Wong defeat two of the students easily, one after the other. Without as much as raising his voice, Ip Man gestured to Wong to try out his skills with him saying, “I’ll have a play with you.” Wong Shun Leung began the attack, using his boxing skills to throw punches at Ip Man, but Ip Man calmly faced Wong, hands forward of his body, and using his forward footwork, stepped inside Wong’s guard forcing him back onto the wall. Making use of taan da to nullify Wong’s technique, Ip Man then threw a burst of light punches to Wong’s head and chest, not inflicting any damage, but clearly indicating to Wong that he had been controlled and beaten. Once this has taken place a second and then a third time, Wong was amazed by such skill and control, deciding then and there to become a student of Ip Man. He commenced his training four days after New Year, on the 6th February. It is also worth mentioning that on that first visit, following the exchange with Ip Man, Wong Shun Leung also had a match with senior student Ip Bo Ching, with neither one being able to totally dominate the other.
Translator’s note: When retelling this story in an interview not long before his death, sifu told the funny tale of how, when Ip Bo Ching arrived at the school, Ip Man took him into the kitchen area on the pretext of making him a cup of tea. Sifu’s cousin turned to him saying, “What a nice teacher this man is, …look, he even makes a cup of tea for his student.” Sifu responded, “He’s not making him a cup of tea, …he’s telling him how to come out and give me a hard time!” Apparently the ensuing match was quite full-on, but neither Wong nor Ip came out looking too bad. - David Peterson
Hard work and perseverance leads to success
Wong Shun Leung himself recalled that shortly after he commenced his training in Ving Tsun, he began learning how to strike the wallbag. One day, while he was hitting the wallbag, Grand Master Ip Man was talking to Leung Sheung and said, “Look at the way this kid is looking at the wallbag as he hits it, …it’s as if he’s hitting a person, not just a bag. I reckon he’ll create a stink in Hong Kong within a year (Ip Man referring here to Wong stirring up Hong Kong’s martial arts community through challenge fights).” Ip Man of course turned out to be correct, except that it only took Wong three months before he began creating an impression!
Chan Chi Man started training under Ip Man in 1955, and was one of the last students of the ‘Restaurant Worker’s Union’ period. According to him, Wong Shun Leung was very dedicated to his training. He imposed a strict training regime on himself, and refused to rest until he had completed his daily programme of techniques and drills. For example, he would strike the wallbag with five hundred punches on each hand, then five hundred times with both palms, or he would move up and down the room throwing punches fifty times in succession, and so the routine went on. He would maintain himself in fighting condition around the clock, always prepared for action, and when working out with his classmates in chi sau practise, Wong was very serious, often treating training sessions no differently from a real fight.
Wu Chun Nam was Wong Shun Leung’s schoolmate, as well as being his first Ving Tsun student. He recalls how, in order to find more time for practising, Wong would skip school classes to go to the gwoon, often spending as much as ten hours there. On arriving home at night, Wong would be so exhausted that he couldn’t even eat his dinner, and would simply crawl into bed and sleep. Eventually, Wong weakened himself to such an extent by such a rigorous training routine that both the Grand Master and his father had to prescribe herbal remedies to build his strength back up.
Wu often went to Wong’s home to do both schoolwork and practise Ving Tsun. Once, while the two of them were training within a large room in the house, Wong Shun Leung got a little too serious while using the po pai jeung technique, sending Wu flying backwards, smashing an antique bed belonging to Wong’s mother in the process. That of course raised the ire of Wong’s father, resulting in a large portion of family discipline.
Contests and challenge matches around the town
Masters such as Chu Shong Tin, Chan Chi Man, Siu Yuk Man, and several others, have all mentioned the late Grand Master’s attitude towards his student’s training at that time. He would say to his more experienced students, “After you have practised for a time, you should go out and test yourself to gauge your level of skill.” In those days, there was little restriction placed by authorities on such semi-open contests, compared with today. As a result, there were several members of the Ving Tsun school who engaged in such “tests of skill” at that time. The one person who had more challenge matches than anyone else was Wong Shun Leung. While he certainly wasn’t the only member of the Ip Man Clan to fight in these matches, according to Wong Shun Leung himself, because of his small stature (around five foot six inches tall, and weighing around 105 lbs), many of his opponents chose to fight him, thinking that he would be an easy adversary (there were no weight classes applying in these challenge matches of the fifties and sixties), thus Wong ended up having somewhere in the vicinity of sixty to seventy such beimo during this period in Hong Kong. Many newspapers and periodicals of the time, such as the ‘Hung Luk’, ‘Ngan Dang’ and ‘Ming Bo’ newspapers, and the popular 70s ‘New Martial Hero’ magazine, reported on Wong’s exploits. Fortunately, some of these reports still exist today and diehard Ving Tsun devotees and those interested in this period of martial arts history, can seek out these accounts for themselves as there are far too many of these stories about the “Gong Sau” exploits of Wong Shun Leung than this brief account will allow for.
The 1960s: teaching Ving Tsun as a hobby
At the beginning of the sixties, Wong Shun Leung and his family resided on the third floor of a pre-war apartment building at 466 Nathan Road, Mongkok. As Wong Shun Leung was totally engrossed with the study of Ving Tsun, he incessantly sought out training partners to practise with, eventually choosing people to teach and train with according to their body size and strength so as to provide himself with a greatest variety of partners possible. Because his primary goal wasn’t to teach, or to make a living from his training, Wong chose his students very seriously and as Wu Chun Nam recalls, many people of various backgrounds found their way to Wong Shun Leung’s door at that time, becoming his students, such as Yeung Yi Choi, Lo Min, Chang Yip Kau, Lau Man Kwong, Cheung Chan Ching, Wan Kam Leung, and so on. While the relationship between Wong and these people was largely that of a teacher and his students, Wong wouldn’t allow them to refer to him as sifu, preferring that they simply call him Leung Goh (“Big Brother Leung”), which was appropriate as their ages were all quite similar, and Wong also invited several of Ip Man’s students to train at his home, such as (Henry) Pang Kam Fat, Wong Tsok, Chan Chi Man, (Andrew) Ma Hang Lam, and others, so it was inappropriate for Wong to be addressed as sifu. The very first time that Wu Chun Nam took part in a beimo match was on Wong’s rooftop with Wong acting as an official in the proceedings. This was a time of great historical importance in the development of Ip Man’s Ving Tsun in Hong Kong, and was the first time that such a match was recorded on film. On the 10th of May, 1969, Wong Shun Leung officially opened up the first ‘Wong Shun Leung Ving Tsun Gung-fu School’ in the Yaumatei district of Kowloon, on the first floor of a building there, and began recruiting students from the public. We believe that between 1969 and 1971, he conceived the establishment of the ‘Wong Shun Leung Ving Tsun Martial Arts Association’ for the promotion and development of his beloved Ving Tsun. During this time, Wong had many, many people coming to him wanting to be his student, but while this was pleasing, Wong couldn’t accommodate them all, so he would have prospective students register their names and come back at a later date.
The 1970s: lessons of the past handed down to the next generation
Because of reconstruction on the building, Wong moved his school from the original Yaumatei premises to a new location on the 5th floor of another building on Reclamation Street on the 16th August, 1971. He continued teaching at that location until 1975. During that period, he and his students took part in countless tournaments in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region, with outstanding results. At that time, with the help of friends, Wong moved his school to Granville Road in the Tsimshatsui district and continued the advancement of Ving Tsun. In 1976, Wong Shun Leung left Tsimshatsui and commenced teaching in the front apartment on the 9th floor of 506-508 Nathan Road, Yaumatei.
Thus, from the end of the 60s through to the 70s, Wong Shun Leung threw all his efforts into developing and refining his Ving Tsun. He taught many, many talented students during those years, many of whom are now famous Ving Tsun instructors in their own right both in Hong Kong and overseas, such as Wan Kam Leung, Ng Chun Hong, (Tommy) Yuen Yim Keung, (Lawrence) Leung Chi Sing, Ko Kwong Nin, (Gary) Lam Man Hok, Chan Kim Man, Ko Kin, and so on.
The 1980s: roots in Hong Kong, flowers all over the world
By the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, Wong Shun Leung had come to something of a low point in his life, having struck hard times in keeping his school running. Then, towards the end of the summer of 1983, a German by the name of Philipp Bayer came to Hong Kong with the aim of becoming Wong’s student, and studied the Ving Tsun system under him there. Bayer invited Wong Shun Leung to travel to Germany and Europe, with a view to conduct seminars there for the promotion of ‘Wong Shun Leung Ving Tsun Pugilism’, and he then set about organising everything on behalf of his teacher. In December of the very same year, an Australian by the name of David Peterson (who also goes by the Chinese name Ding Chaochen) also came to Hong Kong specifically to become Wong Shun Leung’s student in Ving Tsun. From then on, Peterson returned to Hong Kong at least once every year after that until 1992 in order to study at Wong’s school. During that time, Peterson also arranged for Wong to travel to Australia for the purpose of conducting seminars. It really could be said that this presented Wong with a dream opportunity in his lifetime, and both of these students did much to promote Wong Shun Leung and Ving Tsun overseas. Wong took advantage of this opportunity and through his trips to European countries, was able to establish the “Wong Shun Leung Way” in Europe. He then travelled to Europe for seminars every year, staying there for up to two months at a time. As for Australia, Wong first went there in February of 1986 to conduct his inaugural seminars there. In total, between then and 1994, Wong Shun Leung travelled to Australia four more times. One could well say that this was a high point in Wong’s Ving Tsun career, moreover, it remained so on into the 1990s.
From the mid-1980s onwards, foreign students from many different nations came to Wong Shun Leung’s school in Hong Kong for training. One of Wong’s student, Cliff Au Yeung (one of the authors of this article), became Wong’s chief translator in order to overcome the language barrier, both in Hong Kong and in his teacher’s travels to Europe for seminars on at least two occasions. Several of Wong Shun Leung’s students of this period, such as Chiu Hok Yin and Li Hang Cheong, became successful Ving Tsun instructors in present day Hong Kong.
The 1990s: a Dragon returns home, a Hero goes to heaven
The school in Nathan Road had to be closed in 1988 because of rental problems, so Wong began using the ‘Ving Tsun Athletic Association’ premises for running his classes, remaining there until 1997. Mr Leung Man To, a good friend of Wong Shun Leung as well as a famous martial arts researcher especially interested in Chinese wrestling, respected Wong very much indeed for his knowledge, ability and experience in Ving Tsun Gung-fu. With his connections in China, in 1996 Mr Leung organised a seminar in Beijing, China. It had been Wong’s long time desire to reacquaint the Chinese people with the Ving Tsun system, especially since it had become so successfully introduced to Hong Kong by Ip Man, and eventually to the rest of the world, yet little known to the Chinese people in its homeland. By doing so, Wong hoped to see Ving Tsun regain the fame and popularity that he felt it deserved, and so he made his first trip to the capital, Beijing, on August 12th of that year, accompanied by his student Li Hang Cheong and Mr Leung Man To. It was a very successful trip, with many famous Chinese martial artists amongst his audience, while a well known martial arts magazine, ‘Martial Soul’, ran a series of articles about Wong Shun Leung and his exploits. While in Beijing, Wong was also able to demonstrate his theories on the‘ Science of Ving Tsun Pugilism’ as well as presenting his article ‘A Discussion of the Science of Ving Tsun Pugilism’ which described the essence of Ving Tsun theory, based upon his many years of practising and researching the system.
By October of the same year, the ‘Chinese National Sports Control Centre’ and ‘Martial Soul’ magazine, together with the sponsorship of the Hong Kong ‘VTAA’, again invited Wong Shun Leung to Beijing to conduct the first ever such presentation which was named the ‘1996 All China Ving Tsun Gung-fu Short Course’. This historical event was headed by Wong who was accompanied by ten of his Hong Kong and European-based students (these included Chan Kim Man, Ma Chung Sing, Li Hang Cheong, Wong Kwong Yung, Law Wing Tak, Fong Si Lai, Wong Fei, and others), and they all played an important role in bringing Ving Tsun Gung-fu back to the mother country. (Note from the translator: I met si-suk Wong on the street in Mongkok shortly after his return from this trip and he exclaimed, “I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, but they really tested me out and showed no mercy to this elderly man.” - Buick Yip)
According to Mrs Wong, before her late husband made his trips to China, he prepared everything with great care and attention, while at the same time still carrying on with the teaching of his classes. All of this, plus a lot of social activities, left Wong extremely fatigued. On January 12th, 1997, while at a gathering of his Ving Tsun brothers at the ‘VTAA’ , he collapsed into a coma and was rushed by ambulance to the Kwong Wa Hospital where he remained until his death some 16 days later. During this time, many of his friends, students, both local and overseas-based, came to show their concern of his situation, and ultimately, pay their last respects at his funeral after he passed away on the afternoon of the 28th of January, having never regained consciousness in his 62nd year.