Recalling the Life of Bruce Lee’s Teacher
by David Peterson
January 28th 1997 was a very sad day for the martial arts, and indirectly, for fans of Hong Kong cinema, specifically, for fans of the legend that is Bruce Lee. On that day, wing chun kung-fu master, Sifu Wong Shun Leung, 61, teacher and friend of the late martial arts superstar, lost his fight for life following a massive stroke and ensuing coma that had befallen him some 16 days earlier. Considered by many to be a fighter and instructor of unparalleled skill, Sifu Wong was renowned for earning the title of Gong Sau Wong (“King of Talking with the Hands”) after surviving countless beimo, or “comparison of skills”, throughout the 50s and 60s, emerging every time as undefeated and undisputed champion.
These were not tournament fights as conducted in the West, with rules, protective equipment or time limits. Instead, they were full-on fights between representatives of the various schools of combat in Hong Kong, and Sifu Wong is said to have “let his hands do the talking” by winning the majority of these “contests” within just three punches! In one such match, arranged by a reporter working for a prominent Hong Kong newspaper of the day, Wong (who stood barely 5’6” tall and weighed in at around 120lbs) easily defeated a visiting Russian boxer named Giko, a giant of a man who weighed over 250lbs and stood some twelve inches taller than the dynamic wing chun exponent.
Wong almost single-handedly put this previously low-profile martial art in the public spotlight, gaining great prestige for his teacher, the late grandmaster, Yip Man. Wong’s reputation as an invincible fighter also attracted the attention of the young Bruce Lee, who had only recently joined the Yip Man wing chun school after having been introduced to the system by his friend, William Cheung, who was later to become a prominent, some might say controversial, spokesman for the wing chun clan. Initially, Lee had trained with his friend Cheung, but when Cheung left for Australia to further his education, Lee became the protegé of Wong Shun Leung who, at almost six years his senior and assistant instructor at the school, commanded the young (around 16 years of age) Bruce Lee’s unwavering respect.
In the beginning of their student/teacher relationship, Wong found the young Lee to be quite lazy in his approach to training, consequently his progress in the art was relatively slow. It wasn’t too long, however, after witnessing first hand the devastating effectiveness of Wong’s skills, that Lee began to take his wing chun training far more seriously. In fact, Lee was so keen to learn from Wong that he even found devious ways of monopolising his sihing’s teaching time. Wong was, at the time, running training sessions out of his home (his father had helped him to set up a small area for this purpose), as well as helping his teacher Yip Man conduct the classes at the kwoon. After unsuccessfully approaching Wong for private lessons, the young “Little Dragon” found another method of getting his own way.
On more than one occasion, after school was finished for the day, Lee would rush over to Wong’s house in order to arrive before his sihingdai. Later on, Sifu Wong would often recount this story to his students, this writer included, saying how Bruce would check that he was indeed the first to arrive, afterwhich he would make up some excuse to leave for a while, whereby he would head downstairs to wait for his classmates to arrive. Sitting on the steps, looking dejected, he would greet his friends with the news that Wong was ill, out on an errand, or otherwise indisposed, then walk with them down the street, even going as far as to help them board a bus for home. Once he was sure that they had all departed the scene, Bruce would double back to Wong’s to take advantage of what was now a private lesson. Eventually, Wong became aware of this little ruse and, according to others of that era, gave his young disciple an especially realistic lesson, complete (so the story goes) with black eyes, split lips and a bloody nose!
Despite his awesome reputation as a fighter, Wong was not a violent man per se, but he revelled in the chance to test his skills and the effectiveness of Yip Man’s art. “I didn’t actually learn wing chun just to go out and fight. Kung-fu should really be used as a way of protecting yourself in circumstances where you are physically threatened”, he was quoted as saying in an interview conducted in Australia some years ago. “After I learnt the skills of wing chun from Yip Man, I often had the opportunity to test them. By experimenting with my skills I could discover their limitations and how they compared with other disciplines and so improve myself.” It was during this period of “experimentation” that Wong Shun Leung first introduced Bruce Lee to the experience of the beimo and in the very first of Lee’s matches, Wong (who was actually refereeing the fight) coached him between rounds, urging him to continue when it had appeared that Lee was about to give up the fight.
It could be rightly said that the resulting victory changed the course of Bruce Lee’s life, certainly it heralded the beginnings of the training regime that would see him become the martial arts superstar that the world was to discover many years later. It is reported that grandmaster Yip Man, on learning about what had transpired, took Wong aside and said, “Fortunately you accompanied him to the venue and encouraged him to go on with the match. This trial of martial skill may well be a decisive influence on him in the future. If someday, Siu Lung (Bruce) succeeds, the credit should rightfully go to you.” In writing about this period in Lee’s life, Jesse Glover (his first American student) stated, “Wong was four years senior (in training) to Bruce in Yip Man’s clan and Bruce studied privately for a year and a half under both him and Yip Man.” Glover also wrote that Wong was “...the man most responsible for the development of Bruce Lee”, and that “In ‘59 Bruce told me that Wong was the greatest fighter in the wing chun style, and that he had successfully defeated all challengers.”
As fate would have it, circumstances arose that lead to Bruce having to leave for a new life in America, curtailing his opportunity to train with Wong. For the next several years, apart from the occasional visit by Lee to Hong Kong for filming or family visits, his relationship with Wong was restricted to a steady stream of letters between teacher and student. Many of these letters still survive today, and in one such letter Lee wrote, “Even though I am (technically) a student of Yip Man, in reality, I learned my Kung-fu from you.” Over the years, Lee would strive to be able to overcome the skill of his teacher, using Wong’s level of expertise as the yardstick by which he measured his own development as a fighter, but try as he might, Bruce Lee was never able to defeat Wong Shun Leung in combat.
Many of the personal fighting concepts by which Lee would eventually become famous for can be traced back to the lessons that he learnt from Sifu Wong and, even after obtaining both fame and fortune from his martial arts and film careers, Lee never forgot where his roots were, spending whatever time he could with his teacher when back in Hong Kong during the final years leading up to his own premature demise. Sifu Wong once spoke to me of an occasion when he and Lee began to discuss their favourite topic early one evening, retiring to the hallway while their wives sat with their children watching the television. At 7.00am the next morning they were still there, having talked, trained and tested their martial theories right through the night!
Lee was keen to involve Wong in his movies, offering him a part in “Game of Death”, specifically the role that was later to be played by basketball star Kareem Abdul Jabbar, that of Lee’s final opponent at the top of the “Tower of Death” at the end of the film. “My character was to have beaten Bruce,” Wong told Bey Logan in a 1986 interview for Britain’s ‘COMBAT’ magazine, “...but he would still have managed to kill me! I told him that I didn’t want to go and die in my first movie!” Wong also added that, “...(besides) I wasn’t in dire financial straits at the time, so I didn’t have to do the film (just) to make money.”
However, Lee wasn’t one to give up easily and, when shooting “Enter the Dragon” in Hong Kong, he invited Wong to come “on location” to discuss the fight scenes. Anyone viewing the documentary “Bruce Lee: the Man and the Legend” can briefly observe Wong on the “Han’s Weapon Room” set, “sparring” with an extra, and reacting to punches thrown by Lee himself. Over the years Sifu Wong was involved in a number of film and television projects, including the movie “Bruce’s Fingers” in 1976, starring Bruce Lee look-alike Bruce Le (Lu Hsiao-lung), in which Sifu simply played himself, the hero’s instructor. He was also the wing chun consultant and action choreographer for the film “Stranger From Shaolin” (aka: “The Formidable Lady From Shaolin”) starring Michelle Yim, and a Hong Kong television mini-series called “The Story of Wing Chun”.
Sifu Wong Shun Leung also “starred” in a training video on his style, entitled “Wing Chun: the Science of In-fighting” which was produced as part of a series of instructional tapes in the early ‘80s. He also occasionally authored articles on his beloved wing chun for a number of Chinese-language martial arts magazines, and was the subject of several articles and interviews in magazines all over the world. A number of these articles were concerned with his famous pupil, Bruce Lee, and delved into the relationship between the two of them, attempting to determine his role in the career of the superstar, and often attempting to extract controversial views on Lee and other wing chun practitioners. Always the diplomat, Wong would never allow himself to be drawn into such discussions, preferring to either restrict himself to positive comments, or else choosing to make no comment, dismissing the enquiry with a wry smile.
On the whole, Wong preferred to downplay his role as Lee’s instructor, not wishing to take advantage of someone else’s achievements. Instead, he just got on with the job of passing on the skills of wing chun which he constantly tested and refined over the years, adhering to the motto “To improve myself with each days training.” In addition to teaching Kung-fu, Sifu Wong was a practitioner of the ancient Chinese art of tit dar (“bone-setting”), the traditional method of treating sprains, bruises, dislocated and broken bones (a very useful skill, considering his line of work!) He was also an accomplished self-taught calligrapher with a profound knowledge of ancient forms of writing unknown to many modern Chinese, with which he would spend many hours writing classical poetry as a form of relaxation and self-improvement.
Rather than standing up on his own personal soap box, proclaiming his own greatness as many of his contemporaries in the martial arts have tended to do in recent years, Wong made no such claims and rejected the many grandiose titles which others attempted to bestow upon him, preferring to quietly set about destroying the myths and “kungfusion” associated with the Chinese fighting arts. He taught a devoted band of followers who travelled from all corners of the world to obtain his instruction, and he regularly travelled to Europe and Australia where he conducted seminars and workshops for the students of his representatives there. Sifu Wong shared his knowledge with great enthusiasm, believing that anyone, regardless of race, colour or creed, was worth teaching. As long as a person was prepared to work hard, Sifu was more than willing to call them his student.
Refusing to cash in on his connection with Bruce Lee, or on his own formidable reputation as a fighter and instructor par excellence, Sifu Wong insisted that he was a simple man, with no special talent, and was never one to “blow his own trumpet”. You were more likely to hear of his past exploits from other people and on those rare occasions when he did speak of such events, he would always refuse to name names or criticise rival styles, his only real gripe being with instructors who wasted their student’s time with endless, useless techniques and combat drills. “You can always get more money (if you run out)” he would say, “...but you can’t get more time.” On the subject of wing chun, his most common advise to his devotees was, “You must be the master of wing chun, not it’s slave”, meaning that one must take the concepts of the system and make them work, rather than get bound up in unnecessary analysis and potentially dangerous limited thinking.
It appeared that, after so many years, Sifu Wong was finally about to gain the recognition and rewards that had long eluded him. All manner of book, film and video projects had been discussed in the months leading up to his untimely passing, the most significant of these being the proposed movie, “Story of Yip Man”, starring none other than comedic sensation Steven Chow Sing Chi, himself a former student of Wong Shun Leung and a lifelong Kung-fu fan and Bruce Lee aficionado. Chow had been in training with his former instructor in preparation for the upcoming role and had negotiated for Wong to be the technical consultant on the film. There was also a distinct possibility that Wong would have an on-camera role and would most likely be involved in the choreography of the action sequences.
At the time of Sifu Wong’s death, the 25th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death was fast approaching, and there had been much talk of interviews and book projects, including one arranged by Steven Chow. Writers and producers from Hong Kong and around the world had approached Sifu with a view to include him in their proposed ventures and preliminary work had been done on at least two of these. Australian producer, martial artist and Bruce Lee aficionado, Walt Missingham, was already set to begin shooting at the beginning of April that year when I had the sad task of informing him of my teacher’s death. Sadly, this and all the other projects will now either not take place, or else will be completed without the input that Sifu’s vast knowledge and experience would have added to them. More disappointing still is the realisation that Sifu Wong will now not be able to personally enjoy the recognition which was long overdue.
The man whom was often referred to as “Wing Chun’s Living Legend” is now no longer with us, but his influence will be felt for many years to come through the efforts of his many students, both in Hong Kong and around the world. The members of the world-wide “Wong Shun Leung Wing Chun Martial Art Association”, this writer included, are dedicated to spreading the skills and knowledge that has been passed on to them by this outstanding teacher and exponent of the art. While Wong Shun Leung was not one to take flashy titles with any seriousness, always insisting that to be called Sifu by his students was sufficient recognition of who he was, in the hearts and minds of all who witnessed his awesome talent or benefited from his wisdom and instruction, he was one of the greatest Masters of wing chun (and the Chinese martial arts in general) in this, or any other century.
Tragically, like his famous student Bruce Lee before him, Sifu Wong left us far too early in life, but like Lee, those of us fortunate to have been touched by his greatness, whether directly as his students, or indirectly through the cinematic exploits of his famous pupil and friend, are all the more richer for having known him. The “Legend Behind the Legend” may be gone and will certainly be greatly missed, but Sifu Wong Shun Leung, father, teacher and friend to so many, will definitely never be forgotten. The next time that you enjoy watching your film hero Bruce Lee on the large or small screen, spare a thought for the great man who inspired him to such greatness.