Radio Free Asia Interview with Master William Kwok

Happy Chinese New Year Everyone!

rooster-2017CombativeCorner contributing author Master William Kwok was interviewed over the holidays (Dec.11th & 18th, of 2016) on Radio Free Asia (a sister radio station to Voice of America).  Since the interview was in Cantonese, Sifu Kwok enlisted the help of his student, Ji Chen so that we may benefit as well.  The topic of the interview is on martial virtue and  martial arts education.  Enjoy!  

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[Presenter] Dear audience, welcome to Radio Free Asia’s Sunday Special. Today’s topic is a little unusual. Those of you from the southern country, the Cantonese speaking region in particular, should have heard of Wing Chun. Today, we are delighted to have with us a Wing Chun Master William Kwok Wai Yin, who will share with us his experience in the United States, of promoting the traditional Chinese martial arts culture in general and teaching Wing Chun in particular, and the challenges he has had to grapple with in the process.

[Chirpy music plays]

[Presenter] Master Kwok, thank you very much for accepting our interview today.

[Master Kwok] The pleasure is mine.

[Presenter] I have noticed that you have quite a unique background. Nowadays you are devoted, on a full-time basis, to the promotion of Wing Chun, both the techniques and the philosophy of it, mainly in the United States. But you have a much broader background. In your past incarnations, you were a university lecturer and a corporate manager, among other things. What is it that triggered this decision you made, as if out of the blue, to pack up your career in the business world and start pursuing your dream in the martial arts universe?

[Master Kwok] I have been very fond of martial arts, of exploring them, since I was a kid, and was fortunate enough to be exposed to a great variety of kung fu back then. However, when I got to the age of 35, give or take, by which time I had been a teacher and worked in a corporate environment, I started feeling, well, especially in the context of American society, that the headroom I could grow into was rather limited. That was how I was feeling from a personal perspective. At the same time, I wished there were a goal I could strive towards in my life and I began wondering what I could do. Initially, kung fu was my part-time occupation, something I did in my spare time. That was only a short stint. Eventually, I asked myself, ‘Why don’t I just take the plunge and make it my bread-and-butter job?’ First of all, the job I had at the time was respectable, desirable in the eyes of the world. It was a personal thing. I felt unfulfilled. What really made me tick was martial arts. So, in 2007, I decided to become a full-time kung fu instructor. Me being a Chinese, teaching kung fu as a Chinese and contributing to the promotion of the Chinese culture was for me an honour. There were a lot of benefits to be had by teaching martial arts, be it physical, spiritual or otherwise. Many students found that studying martial arts at our school helped them improve their performance at work. It was such a joy to know that I was able to help people by teaching Wing Chun, which I enjoyed practising myself in the first place.

[Presenter] Speaking of Wing Chun, I actually came with a bag of questions. Could you please share with us the history of Wing Chun? I myself have watched a great many kung fu films from Hong Kong. In fact, it’s known to many that Wing Chun was created by a woman?

[Master Kwok] Let me explain. According to the books I have read since childhood and what my sifu told me, the legend has it that Wing Chun was indeed created by a lady – a Buddhist nun called Ng Mui. Ng Mui passed it on to a female disciple Yim Wing Chun. Yim’s husband, Leung Bok Chau, subsequently named this style of martial arts after his wife.  This story is controversial, as a lot of people say this is not the real history. As far as I know, the history of Wing Chun became a little clearer when Grandmaster Leung Jan of Foshan came onto the scene. It was widely known that Foshan Jan’s kung fu was formidable and he made a name with his Wing Chun skills. Grandmaster Ip Man received instruction from Leung Jan’s disciple and took Wing Chun to Hong Kong, which was then a British colony, a more liberal and multicultural destination. From there, Wing Chun spread to the rest of the world. The fact of the matter is, a lot of people are spending a lot of time researching the history of Wing Chun to investigate its genesis, to find out whether Wing Chun was indeed invented by female practitioners.

[Presenter] Compared to other styles of Chinese martial arts, is Wing Chun one of the younger systems?

[Master Kwok] In fact, Wing Chun goes back two to three centuries. I don’t think it’s that young per se. What defines Wing Chun is its emphasis on scientific principles and logic. Since it’s said to have been invented by women, it’s unlikely to be one that requires such physical strength as is necessary to engage male opponents in a contest of brute force. Rather, it explores an efficient approach to the art of combat based on the center-line theory, on principles of physics, whereby a physically weaker person has a chance to take on a stronger opponent. So we have the paradox of the less powerful overpowering the more powerful – that’s the approach of Wing Chun.

[Presenter] Your teacher is Grandmaster Wan Kam Leung of Hong Kong, founder of Practical Wing Chun. Why does the word ‘practical’ feature so prominently in his style of Wing Chun?

[Master Kwok] Being practical is the aim of our lineage. Grandmaster Ip Man took Wing Chun to Hong Kong and a great many outstanding disciples emerged under his instruction. Bruce Lee was one of them and so was Grandmaster Wong Shun Leung, aka King of Talking Hands. Grandmaster Wong was a very dynamic, highly motivated martial artist, very keen to hone his techniques on an ongoing basis. He earned the nickname King of Talking Hands after he pondered over what he had learned from Ip Man and then applied it in contests against other styles, the purpose of which was to improve his Wing Chun skills. My teacher was among the early students of Wong Shun Leung and, as such, was influenced by Wong’s idea that continuous progress and enhancement was key to martial arts. So he started making incremental improvements to the kung fu skills he had acquired. He observed other styles of martial arts and analyzed Wing Chun through the prism of physics. By and by, he developed a more practical system. As a result, in the 1990s, Grandmaster Wong Shun Leung baptized my teacher’s style as ‘Practical Wing Chun’.

[Presenter] Master Kwok, most of your students are non-Chinese, am I right? Is it very different from teaching Wing Chun in Hong Kong? When non-Chinese students came to you, did they already have some rudimentary knowledge of the Chinese culture? Did they at least know what Chinese martial arts are and what Wing Chun is, which motivated them to seek your instruction in the first place? Or did the Ip Man movie franchise bring them to you, like ‘Wow, Wing Chun looks awesome, let me find out more.’

[Master Kwok] My students come from a diverse range of ethnicities. Over 70 percent of them are non-Chinese. They cited different reasons when they first came to me. Some had practiced other styles of kung fu, but were very interested in Wing Chun. Or maybe they wanted to find out more about Wing Chun, Practical Wing Chun in particular, after reading about it. That’s one category of students. There are others who had watched Ip Man the movie or some other martial arts flicks – of which we have no shortage in the cinema these days – and were motivated or intrigued by them, so they wanted to know more about it. That’s another category.

[Presenter] Back in the olden days, there were times when challenging one’s rivals by gatecrashing their schools was considered cool, to shame the rivals and destroy their reputation. Are there such things going on nowadays, like beimo (duels) or challenge matches?

[Master Kwok] In this day and age, exchanging knowledge and skills, comparing notes, taking part in some form of competition, getting to know each other – that’s something we still do. But the culture of gatecrashing challenge is an undesirable, anachronistic legacy from the past, in our opinion. I once analyzed the phenomenon of gatecrashing challenge and the motivation behind it. In some sense, what the challenger wanted was to find out what your style of kung fu was all about. This is less common nowadays, because you can access some information, like video clips, about whatever you want to investigate: ‘Ah, I see, so this is how that style of Wing Chun or Karate works.’ You get to have a basic knowledge of these things through the media, so there is no need to challenge someone just to find out about what he practices. The next question is: Does this happen to my school? Some people tell me that they want to see what I teach. I say to them, ‘You want to find out? By all means. Just come for a trial session.’

[Presenter] You were saying earlier that Practical Wing Chun places a premium on scientific principles and incorporates scientific elements into the system. What do you mean by scientific principles? Are they the same as those expounded by Bruce Lee? Does it mean you apply the notions of sport science and explain to your students how each punch should be controlled and delivered based on such principles?

[Master Kwok] Let me give you an example. It is said that power should be generated from the ground. What exactly does that mean? It’s open to interpretation, depending on your perspective. I have my own reading of it: Okay, power is generated from the ground. Let’s just look at the stance that serves as our starting position and how a punch is executed. I’ll let the student experience, first-hand, the force of his own punch, how his foothold on the ground supports the transmission of the force through his body structure. My teacher has evolved Wing Chun to what we have today, the system of Practical Wing Chun, through continuous improvements. My job, which is simpler than what he’s done, is to explain to my students how it works using the concepts of physics and body mechanics. For instance, when you are in this stance position, your body structure is straightened. That’s just an example…

[Presenter] This is how you explain it…

[Master Kwok] Indeed, I can explain it using sport science. It works because the student can feel and experience it for himself. I can’t lie about it.

[Presenter] You were saying that modern-day martial artists tend to be more inquisitive, asking teachers all the whys and wherefores. But in the olden days, when your teacher told you to stay in a stance position or to punch in a certain way, you would just do it, no questions asked. You would just do as instructed. Am I right?

[Master Kwok] Yes.


[Presenter] So today’s methodology is totally different and so is today’s mental approach.

[Master Kwok] Indeed, totally different. My teacher leaves no question unanswered. But those who are a little older than him – normally, the students wouldn’t have the guts to ask questions. This is true of other styles of kung fu. This would result in some students going off the course in their understanding of the moves their teacher had taught. ‘As our teacher taught, so we learned, period. When I have students of my own, if they ask me why this why that, I’d say: This is how it is! This is how it always has been!’ But what used to work may not necessarily work now. Take 100-meter sprint for example. I compared how sprinters ran in 1956 to how they ran in 2016, six decades apart. In the past, the sprinters leaned forward slightly, but nowadays, the world’s best sprinters keep their torsos straight without exception. This is a result of research over the years. This applies to swimming as it does sprinting. That’s how records are broken. As martial artists, we should also keep on exploring, to find out how we can perform better. This is where we are going. But the older-generation practitioners did it differently. Maybe it’s to do with their level of education or the culture of ‘shut up and just do it’ or the scarcity of resources that was holding back the development of knowledge. Martial arts follow the same trajectory of development as sport science.

[Presenter] Master Kwok, you brought up the issue of Oriental people versus Western people, saying that alongside the trend of Chinese people adopting Western values, a lot of Westerners have come to embrace the quintessential Chineseness. I know nothing about martial arts, but am interested to dabble in them and learn some techniques. Mine is not a common case in Hong Kong. But in America, most of the instructors of Chinese kung fu, including but not limited to Wing Chun, are Westerners. I stand corrected, but I, being Chinese, consider Chinese martial arts inherently linked to the Chinese culture. It follows that maybe one is better off going to a Chinese master if one is to learn Chinese kung fu. What do you think of this? Am I wrong?

[Master Kwok] In fact, many of the non-Chinese teachers of kung fu are excellent. There is now a whole legion of Westerners teaching Chinese martial arts. In my opinion, qualities do vary among them as they do among Chinese instructors of kung fu. It all comes down to the individuals, how good they are. We consider lineage quite important, too. Lineage, or the ‘family tree’, was very much emphasized by the older generations.

[Presenter] You are a Chinese living in America. What I wanted to find out through this interview is: What challenges have you encountered and what opportunities have you seen in promoting the Chinese martial arts culture there? Given the broader educational context of America and that of Hong Kong, how do you do it there? How do you run your school there? The experiences must be quite different. Could you please share with us the challenges you face?

[Master Kwok] I don’t think the difference is that big. As I said earlier, we are living in a globalized world. The difficulties one encounters in Hong Kong are similar to those in America. I say that because many places in the world are Westernized now and the Western-style competitive sports are put on a pedestal in places like Hong Kong. The traditional martial arts from the East are more focused on self-improvement. It doesn’t mean the competitive aspect falls by the wayside, but relatively speaking, there’s a predilection for self-improvement at both physical and spiritual levels. Given the prevailing trend that glorifies competition, winning, and medals and trophies, I have the difficult job of having to explain that the main aim of kung fu is not competition or winning a trophy in an open contest. We are not going that way. I need to explain to them the difference.

[Presenter] I read an interesting news story earlier today that I’d like to share with you. You tell me what you think.

[Master Kwok] Go ahead.

[Presenter] This is pretty new, came out today. It happened in the America. After an MMA match, one of the fighters, feeling good about the rounds he had fought, was confident he had won the match. But the judges named his opponent as the winner. He suddenly got very agitated, turned around and punched the ring girl. He is supposed to be a martial artist – fighting in the ring is also a form of martial arts – but how could he fly off the handle so easily and hurt someone in the process? Does he serve as an example of what martial artists shouldn’t do?

[Master Kwok] The biggest problem facing the development of martial arts is the absence of martial ethics in the martial arts curriculum. You’ve heard of Yin Yang, haven’t you?

[Presenter] Yes I have.

[Master Kwok] The unity of the opposites. Balance between Yin and Yang has to be manifested in everything. Martial arts, being martial, are arts that have the potential to hurt people. So the techniques are there to cause damage. That’s the antagonistic part. You need to balance it with ethics, to control the damage you may cause. The problem now is overemphasis on the technical part. MMA is all the rage right now. It started in the Western world. The Western ideology does place a premium on competitiveness: I must triumph, I must win, I must come first. Stories like this really upset me. When the general public hear about such an incident, they would lament the violent tendencies of ‘kung fu men’, that they show no sportsmanship, lashing out when they lose. This guy does not represent all martial artists, but such behaviour tarnishes the image of other martial artists and gives the public the impression that martial arts are violent and there is something wrong with them. These people only make a display of their technical competence, but such competence is not balanced with ethical values. Take for example a country that has a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. If they press the button at the slightest provocation, like what happens in the world of martial arts, the whole planet would go up in flames. Without balance, it’s dangerous.

[Presenter] Thank you for your analogy with nuclear weapons. Come to think of it, physical power is exalted in the American culture, in the broader global context. It finds expression in the arms race, in how military might is glorified in the likes of G.I. Joe, in the slogans of winning and being the tough guy. This is very hard to reverse. It is entrenched in the collective psyche. When you teach kung fu in America, how do you inculcate your American students with notions of martial ethics?


[Master Kwok] In class, my students pair up to spar. I teach them to respect their opponents or training partners during the spar. This is crucial. In a drill, for instance, one student throws a punch and the other student practices his countering techniques. Through this process of exchange, they come to realize that my aim is not to hurt the other person and I need to consciously exercise self control. This is how they develop the ability to control their power. I would say, ‘When you throw a punch, you do it in earnest, but you don’t want to hurt your training partner. He’s the only partner you have. If he gets hurt, he would have to stay at home resting and you would have no one to practice with.’ That’s how I explain to them sometimes, by cracking jokes like this, to remind them that they should be more careful because there’s an element of danger here. That’s how I work on them, hoping they would get it eventually. I do my best to explain. If I see a good movie that has a good message, I would encourage them to see it so they can be positively influenced. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to the receptiveness and mental attitude of individual students. Why do I stress martial ethics? Because whether or not you have martial ethics affects more than just you. As I have said, while learning martial arts, you learn to respect your training partner, respect other people, by putting yourself in their shoes, by considering the consequences of hitting and hurting them. There are many things at stake. But it’s up to the practitioner to search their heart and find out if they have a natural urge to uphold such ethics. They need to know they do have a choice. They might not be aware that they had a choice. They may have thought that when they were cornered, there was only one way out. But I want them to know this may not be the case.

[Presenter] You currently have three closed-door disciples, don’t you?

[Master Kwok] Yes I do.

[Presenter] Are they all non-Chinese, are they all Westerners?

[Master Kwok] That’s not the case. They are from a variety of ethnicities.

[Presenter] Is it because you suddenly realized that you had admitted so many Western students, so you wanted to balance the mix with a few Oriental people? Or did you go purely by their abilities and their eagerness to learn?

[Master Kwok] Balancing ethnicities doesn’t come into the equation at all, because the American society is open to all racial and ethnic backgrounds. My decision to admit a student depends on his interest, on whether his heart is in it, and on the level of rapport or emotional bond I have with him. Take for example the disciples I have right now. They include Chinese kids who grew up here, Hispanics, African Americans and white people.

[Presenter] They are all male?

[Master Kwok] Males, yes. In fact, there will be four more joining the ranks of closed-door disciples in the coming year.

[Presenter] Plus one… that would be me, if you don’t mind me recommending myself. (Giggles)

[Master Kwok] (Chuckles)

[Presenter] Rest assured that if I went to New York, I’d definitely seek an audience with you, Master Kwok.

[Master Kwok] Thank you. So this ethnicity factor is of little significance, because I have no trouble communicating with them – everybody speaks English. What really matters is the rapport we have and that the disciple is keen to learn, to carry the torch and pass on the culture. I see this as of paramount importance. We have to be compatible, on the same page; there is rapport and loyalty between us. More than a decade ago, thanks to some serendipitous circumstances, I had the pleasure of meeting one of Bruce Lee’s foremost disciples, Dan Inosanto, who is now in Los Angeles. I had a nice chat with him once and he told me something that turned a light on in my head. He said, ‘Teaching is the highest form of learning.’ I could very much relate to that myself. I once taught in a university. When I was preparing my lessons, I had to figure out ways and means to let my students understand what I wanted to impart to them. This process required a thorough grasp of the subject matter on my part in the first place. For me, Mr. Inosanto’s message was loud and clear and made so much sense. In my own martial arts school, I encourage more experienced students, senior students, to mentor and advise their junior peers, through which they can learn a lot of things as well.

[Presenter] Do they listen to you and subscribe to this idea of yours? Do they not question why they have to waste time practicing with the juniors when they have gone past their level? Don’t they see it as a waste of time and effort? Shouldn’t they be practicing with people who are at a higher level?

[Master Kwok] There may be some who think like that, but most people understand this. Because I say to them, ‘Yes, you want to learn from the seniors who are better than you, but why should they be interested to practice with you?’

[Presenter] Yes, I do realize it’s a paradox, what goes around comes around.

[Master Kwok] Exactly. In fact, most of my students are aware that you benefit as much from practicing with peers at the same level as you would from practicing with seniors or juniors. Every partner offers you something unique and you can learn something different. My job as a teacher is to remind them and to see which way each of them is going. Some of them misinterpret the word ‘teach’. I have noticed that oftentimes, when they teach new students, they tend to get very talkative, shooting off their mouth nonstop.

[Presenter] What do they talk about? Theorizing?

[Master Kwok] Theorizing, yes. They over-explain.

[Presenter] That’s what goes on in the real world, too, interestingly enough. Usually those who talk the talk can’t walk the walk. That’s true of what goes on in the real world. That’s so interesting. I wonder why.

[Master Kwok] There are many dimensions to teaching and learning. I try to set them an example to show why nonstop talking doesn’t work when you try to explain something. You must learn to listen. The person you are trying to help may already know what you are saying, but he doesn’t understand the underlying principles, so if you keep scratching the surface, he still can’t get the explanation he is looking for. Maybe you are not a good listener; maybe you try to impose a uniform approach, regardless of the fact that personal approaches may vary. On top of the learning chain is the master. Then there’s the senior students and junior students. The challenge here is to enable the students, especially those who have been with me only a short time, to understand their responsibilities when they interact with junior peers. The highest form of learning is knowing how to teach. In the case of some students, when they reach certain levels, I might say, ‘Okay, you, Level 5, pair up with this Level 2 student and practice away!’ Initially, some of them are baffled and wonder why they have to go back to Level 2 and practice the techniques associated with that level. ‘I am Level 5. If I practice with him, he stands to gain at my expense.’ What they don’t understand is that one can learn in a great many different ways. When a Level 5 student explains Level 2 techniques to a Level 2 student, he is actually recalling, marshalling and re-organizing what he remembers of the Level 2 techniques.

[Presenter] Could you share with our audience some basic moves of Wing Chun? I know nothing about Wing Chun, but I have heard of certain routines or forms, san sau, chi sau, etc. Could you tell us a little bit about its basic system?

[Master Kwok] There are three forms in Wing Chun, namely, Siu Lim Tao, Chum Kiu and Biu Tze. One starts with Siu Lim Tao. This first form contains a great many moves. One of the first hand forms is called Kau Cha Sau, crossed arms. The center-line principle is at the heart of Wing Chun and Kau Cha Sau helps locate the center-line. The other techniques that we learn subsequently are derivatives of this Kau Cha Sau. That’s why a beginner must practice the forms in earnest. After mastering the forms, you practice individual techniques taken from the forms, called san sau, standalone moves. When you become reasonably proficient with san sau, quite good at the techniques, we let you move on to chi sau practice. With chi sau, your hands and arms are  in contact with those of your opponent. You sense your opponent’s force by picking up tactile signals and adapt and change accordingly. Adapt and change with what? With the techniques that you acquired through san sau practice. Put simply, the techniques that we apply in chi sau come from san sau, which in turn is derived from the forms. Therefore, although we seem to be practicing different things, they all point to the same source. Only the methods differ. Chi sau is interesting because change comes into play. The forms give structure to the techniques, but it’s change that brings the techniques to life. There is a fixed range of techniques, but the nomenclature associated with their varied combinations is extensive. Why did I bring up the topic of chi sau? Because practicing chi sau shaped my own outlook on life. I came to realize that there might be more than one fixed, exclusive solution to any given problem. When I approach a problem in a certain way and it doesn’t work, I know I have to modify my approach. In life, when we come up against some difficulty or problem, there isn’t just one way out, there are many possible solutions. You need wisdom or experience to change tack and solve the problem via an alternative route. This is what makes chi sau interesting.

[Presenter] Wing Chun relies heavily on hands. The lower limbs are stationary, locked in a stance, no kicking. Is that right?

[Master Kwok] That’s a misunderstanding. (Presenter giggles.) Where does this misconception come from? Siu Lim Tao is a static form, in which motionless stance is maintained. But when you get to the second form, Chum Kiu, there’s a lot of footwork actually. But why do people get the impression that Wing Chun is a hand combat system? That’s because when you first start, you learn the first form, Siu Lim Tao, which predominantly involves hand moves. Many people learn the form and realize that hand techniques are an important part of Wing Chun. Some people may quit before they progress to the second form, before they learn the footwork. Hence the wrong impression that Wing Chun is all about hands. But Wing Chun’s footwork is very effective.


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One Response to “Radio Free Asia Interview with Master William Kwok”

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