Death of a Legend
by David Peterson
ollowing what doctors in Hong Kong described as a 'subarachnoid haemorrhage' and lapsing into a coma lasting 17 days, wing chun's "King of the Challenge Match", sifu Wong Shun Leung, passed away peacefully on January 28th, 1997... he was just 61 years of age. Wong had been with a group of friends at the "Wing Chun Athletic Association" on Sunday January 12th, enjoying a few games of cards and Mahjong when he complained of feeling unwell. Soon afterwards he collapsed into a coma from which he never awoke.
Known as Gong Sau Wong in Cantonese (literally the "King of Talking with the Hands"), Wong Shun Leung demolished dozens, some say hundreds, of opponents during the ages of 17 and 32, testing his skills and knowledge on the streets and rooftops of Hong Kong. He faced opponents of many disciplines, from kung-fu, karate, Western boxing and many other fighting styles, and it was said that he never took more than three punches to finish a fight. Wong sifu, it has been stated by all who knew him, never lost a fight in all his years of beimo, or "comparison of skills".
As a result of these experiences, Wong became the means by which Grand Master Yip Man made changes to the system for the benefit of all wing chun practitioners. Many modifications were made by Yip Man to forms, drills and techniques following Wong's matches with other stylists, such as after one memorable fight that took place in Taiwan where Wong sifu was unable to completely deflect one particular low attack thrown by a crouching opponent. After much discussion with his teacher, Wong was shown a technique which could be added to his basic siu nim tau form so as to take into account the particular shortcoming in his repertoire. Wong continued this tradition throughout his life, always prepared to make changes to his teaching methods or techniques when real life experiences showed that a weakness existed in wing chun's ability to deal with particular situations.
Sifu Wong was also widely known as the man most responsible for the early development of the late Bruce Lee, with whom he trained during the late 'fifties. At that time, Yip Man was doing less and less teaching and left Wong sifu with the responsibility of looking after many of the classes (in fact, Wong taught for Yip Man from the mid 'fifties through to 1969 before finally teaching in his own right, following his teacher longer than any other disciple, giving him a far greater insight into the system than any of his contempories). The result was that Lee, who was around five years Wong's junior, became his student as well as his classmate. Later on, after moving to America, Lee corresponded with Wong, seeking his advice and guidance over the years, and many of Lee's fighting concepts reflect the concepts taught by Wong Shun Leung.
Whenever he had the chance, Lee would meet with Wong when in Hong Kong, and they would spend hours discussing and testing ideas. Sifu once spoke of an occasion when he and Lee began discussing martial arts one evening, commencing at around 7.00pm. They were still at it at 7.00am the next morning, having talked, trained and tested their ideas all night! When Lee was shooting "Enter the Dragon" in Hong Kong, he even invited Wong sifu on to the set to discuss the fight scenes and there is footage of Sifu "sparring" with an extra on the set contained within the documentary "Bruce Lee: the Legend" to verify this.
Most people have heard of a young Bruce Lee sitting on the steps of his teacher's home, telling his classmates that the teacher was too ill to teach them. What most people do not know is that it was Wong's house that he sat outside of, turning away his friends so that he could have a private lesson. It turns out that Wong knew what he was up to and Lee turned up at his very next training session sporting two black eyes. Wong sifu had indeed given him the hard, realistic lesson that he had wanted, much to his classmates amusement!
As well as his achievement in wing chun, Wong Shun Leung was also highly regarded in Hong Kong for his traditional medical skills. A herbalist and tit dar (bone-setting) specialist, following in the tradition of his father and grandfather before him, Wong spent much of his time treating patients from all over the Colony when not teaching wing chun. There was many a time that his students, myself included, benefited from his knowledge of easing the pain of bruises and sprains gained during training sessions at his Hong Kong kwoon.
Also noted for his calligraphic skills, Wong sifu spent hours writing classical Chinese poetry as a form of relaxation and active meditation. His expertise in this area was outstanding, most especially considering the fact that he had left school quite early and much of his skill was self taught. From time to time, both individuals and big businesses engaged his services as a calligrapher and he could command a high price for his work. I spent many hours watching him and talking to him about his brush writing, and he loved to demonstrate the depth of his knowledge, especially his knowledge of ancient forms of characters known to few Chinese these days.
Wong Shun Leung was also a talented linguist, speaking several dialects of Chinese, and his command of the English language was greatly improved in recent years through his travels around the world teaching wing chun. In fact, Sifu would attempt to pick up whatever he could of languages in all the countries he visited, and was quite adept at using what he had learnt. Many times he had promised to one day present an entire seminar in English, rather than relying on translators, and he was close to doing just that when he passed away.
I had the honour of translating for him on his five trips to Australia over the years and we had a deal that if I could improve my command of Cantonese (Mandarin is my first dialect), that he would promise to improve his English. Over the years, whenever I was in Hong Kong, Sifu and I would sit at his table, armed with pen, paper and dictionaries, discussing the usage of English words. I am the first to admit that as a student, Sifu was more determined than I was, and his English was certainly more fluent than my Cantonese the last time we talked.
Since the early 1980's, Wong sifu had travelled to Europe and the United Kingdom on a regular basis to present seminars and workshops to his devotees, and his itinerary took in Australia from 1985. He became a seasoned traveller and loved recounting tales of the places he had visited. His favourite destination was apparently Spain, where he fell in love with the people, the food and the customs. He often said that if he could speak Spanish, it would be the place in which he would like to settle later on. He also made trips to Canada and the USA, but he always called Hong Kong home and had decided to remain there despite not being too keen about the handover taking place later this year. For a while he had thought about living here in Australia, something which all here were quite excited about, and his sons spent time studying here, but in the end it was Hong Kong that was to be his final resting place.
Just a few months ago, Wong sifu was invited to travel to China by the "China Wushu Research Institute" in Beijing. Sifu headed a five day seminar for China's top Police and Special Forces instructors. This was an unprecedented honour bestowed upon Sifu by China's "Public Security Bureau" which, although having many 'in-country' experts to choose from, chose him to coach their top experts in the field of martial arts and personal security. The exchange of information was an overwhelming success and he was given an open invitation to return anytime by an enthusiastic and grateful audience. He was also featured on Chinese television, as well as in the Chinese print media, including many high profile martial art journals published in that country. Accompanied by a number of his Hong Kong and overseas students, Sifu made a lasting impression in the 'Peoples' Republic'.
It seemed that Wong sifu was finally about to reap the rewards that had eluded him for so long, with book, film and video projects all being negotiated. The most significant of these was probably the planned "Legend of Yip Man", to star Donnie Yen in the principal role, and Wong Shun Leung had been approached to be the consultant and fight choreographer, a task I might add, which he had undertaken on at least two occasions in the past, but for much lower profile projects. Unfortunately, Sifu won't be there to add his guiding hand to the film should it still go ahead. Past student of Wong sifu and comedy film superstar, Steven Chow Sing Chi, was one of many who had planned projects involving Sifu, in his case to do with the "Hong Kong Bruce Lee Club" of which he is president. Just a few months earlier, at the unveiling of a life-size statue of Bruce Lee commissioned by the Cantocomedy star himself, Chow and his former teacher discussed the possibility of a series of interviews and books concerning Wong's recollections of Lee. Sadly, none of these projects will now benefit from Wong sifu's vast knowledge and experiences, nor will the recognition that was long overdue be forthcoming.
Wong Shun Leung's funeral was a very moving affair for his family, friends and students. Taking the form of the traditional two-day ceremony, the funeral service contained much in the way of imagery and ritual, the immediate family, Sifu's wife, two sons and daughter donning the traditional white robes worn on such occasions, as did his brother and sisters. His students, both local and overseas (including men and women from England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Poland and Australia) also wore a white sash and badge indicating their relationship to their teacher. Our main task was to act as an honour guard for Sifu, greeting mourners as they arrived at the service and escorting them to the signing of the official attendance record, to the altar and, in some cases, to the rear of the altar to pay their respects to Sifu in person as he lay in state.
The entire hall where the ceremony was conducted, and the entrances and hallway leading to it, were filled with floral tributes of all shapes and sizes, from Hong Kong and places all around the world. Reading the tributes written upon the wreaths and banners was like reading a who's who of the martial arts, indicative of the respect that Wong Shun Leung commanded amongst his peers. I was personally honoured to be able to address the gathering on behalf of all of the foreign students, as well as having the great honour of providing the photograph to serve as the official funeral picture of my late teacher. It goes without saying that we all shed many tears over those days, with even the toughest amongst Sifu's students feeling the enormity of our collective loss. The funeral service culminated in Sifu's burial at a beautiful location overlooking the ocean at an area known as Junk Bay, situated on Kowloon-side.
Wong Shun Leung is gone, the man has passed into legend but his influence will live on through the efforts of his students, both in Hong Kong where it is hoped that classes will continue to be run by his senior disciples, and around the world in the many places where the "Wong Shun Leung Wing Chun Association" has set up schools dedicated to spreading the skills and knowledge given to us by our dear departed Master. While Wong Shun Leung was not one to take titles seriously, preferring to be known simply as Sifu by his students, in our humble estimation he was one of the greatest Masters of wing chun in this or any other century.
There are fighters, and there are teachers, but few individuals have the experience and expertise in both areas that Wong Shun Leung had. He was renowned for his unparalleled fighting skills and for his depth of understanding and uncanny ability to impart this knowledge to his students. His passing now leaves a incredible void that is unlikely to ever be filled by another person with the same enthusiasm, skill and, most importantly, integrity and honesty for wing chun that Wong Shun Leung displayed throughout his life. My respected sihing (senior brother), sifu Barry Lee, himself one of Wong sifu's most skilful students, now teaching in Australia and Germany, made the following observation at the time of our teacher's death: "There have been many 'pretenders to the crown'(of wing chun), some with money and influence, others cunning and manipulative, but those of us who knew him in the early days, and those more recently touched by his brilliance, know the truth."
Charlatans will continue to come and go, people will continue to be fooled by men and women who lay claim to having amazing martial skills, but those of us lucky enough to be touched by real greatness will always consider ourselves the most fortunate. Teachers like Wong Shun Leung are "one-in-a-million" and the chance of meeting another of his calibre in our lifetime is next to impossible. Above all else, sifu Wong Shun Leung was a man of great integrity, a man whom we loved, and a man we will remember forever. We were incredibly fortunate to know him, and we will strive to keep his memory alive in everything we do from this time onwards. We love him and we miss him dearly.
About the Author
David Peterson has been training in the Chinese martial arts since 1973. He became a student of Sifu Wong Shun Leung after travelling to Hong Kong in 1983. He is a teacher of the Chinese language and principal instructor of the ‘Melbourne Chinese Martial Arts Club’ where he instructs in the "Wong Shun Leung Method". Peterson is one of only two authorised and qualified instructors of Wong’s system in Australia, and a fully endorsed member of the world-wide ‘Wong Shun Leung Wing Chun Martial Arts Association’ and the Hong Kong-based 'Ving Tsun Athletic Association'. He is also a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in many local (Australian) and overseas journals, including "Combat", "Inside Kung-fu", "Black Belt", "Masters of the Martial Arts", "Impact: the Action Movie Magazine", "Eastern Heroes", "Australasian Fighting Arts", "Blitz Australasian Martial Arts Magazine", "Australasian Martial Arts Magazine", "Traditional Martial Arts Journal", "Impact Martial Arts Magazine", "Qi Magazine", "Martial Arts Illustrated", "Kicksider" and "Kung Fu Illustrierte". More recently, his articles have featured on several international Web sites in both the English and German languages.
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