AN INTERVIEW WITH GRANDMASTER VICTOR KAN WAH CHIT
to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Grandmaster Yip Man
QUESTION: Sifu Kan, tell me about your training under Yip Man in the 50's.
VICTOR KAN: When I was young, street fighting, violence and crime were common in Hong Kong.As I grew up in such a troubled society I felt that I needed to learn some form of martial arts to protect myself and my family. In 1954, one of my friends took me to the Kowloon Catering Union headquarters in the ShamShuiPo area. This was to be my first experience with the Ving Tsun system. Upon entering I saw that many people were punching. kicking and grappling each other. After the class my friend took me to see a middle-aged bald gentleman who was teaching at the school. I remember that he was wearing the traditional Chinese long dress. He looked at me and said "You are rather big and well-built for your age. I will call you Big Boy." Everybody laughed at his remarks. I later found out that Grandmaster Yip Man always liked to address his students by their nicknames. After this encounter, with my parents permission I joined the school at Lay Dah street the following year. I continued to train under Grandmaster Yip Man until I travelled to London in the 1960's to further my studies.
QUESTION: The late kung fu star Bruce Lee also trained with Yip Man at that time. Did you train with him?
VICTOR KAN: Six months after I started training, the late Bruce Lee joined the school. As a Si-Hing I was told to help Bruce with his basic training. In fact I spent a lot of time with him on the first form SIL LIM TAO, the little ideas. Bruce was talented and picked up things fast. Unfortunately, he could only train from time to time as his film work kept him busy - he was filming the old Cantonese film "The Orphan".
QUESTION: In the 50's who were the most dedicated and loyal students that you can recall?
VICTOR KAN: Leung Sheung who was the Chef of the Kowloon Catering Union was the earliest student. He was the one who invited Yip Man to instruct the fellow workers in the Union Canteen. Then Lok Yeo, Chu Shen Tin, Williams Cheung, Wong Shan Leung and myself became the top five studentsat that time. Bruce Lee was only a junior member then.
QUESTION: How did Grandmaster Yip Man become popular among the local people?
VICTOR KAN: In the mid 50's, Yip Man was not very happy. He had a lot of personal problems. Two of his sons were still inside mainland China and he had a lot of financial burdens. The latter incidents virtually forced him to move his school into a very rough area of Hong Kong called Sab Gik in May 1957. I and only a few other loyal students were constantly at his side, helping out teaching and repelling many 'cross-hand' callers. These were very valuable experiences for me and I learned to apply my skills in all kinds of situations. I remember one particular occasions when I went to train and found a large crowd was gathered a few streets away from the school. I made my way up to the front and saw a woman was lying on the street pavement crying. There was blood all over her head. I also witnessed a stocky man who appeared to be her husband abusing her. Suddenly a small, slim figure appeared and confronted the bully, telling him to stop beating his wife. To my suprise I saw that this was my own Sifu. The bully told Yip Man to mind his own business but Sifu Yip replied, "It is wrong to beat up a weaker person. This is my neighbourhood hence it is my business". The man then suddenly started to throw punches at Sifu Yip who responded with a right Lap Sau punch and a left Pak Sau punch. Within seconds the dispute was over and the man ran away holding his head with his hands. Sifu Yip then helped the woman back to her feet and saw her safely home. After this public display of courage and skill people came to study Ving Tsun from all over the place. The school became so crowded that we had to train Chi Sao out in the street! I virtually became his assistant helping with new members. From then on Sifu Yip never looked back.
QUESTION: When did you start teaching Ving Tsun in England?
VICTOR KAN: I came to study in the early 1960's but I did not teach publicly until 1974. In the 1970's Bruce Lee did much to boost the Ving Tsun system worldwide. At that time there were not many qualified Ving Tsun teachers around. The system became a victim of its own publicity. Virtually anyone could become a Ving Tsun master overnight. Unfortunately, this ridiculous and sad situation still prevails today.
QUESTION: Many Ving Tsun practitioners are now also training with weight-lifting. Nun Ng Mui founded the system based on deflecting and evasive theories. Would the modern day followers of our time tend to train against the principles of the Ving Tsun style?
VICTOR KAN: I personally do not train with weights but some of my students do. I believe that such a method of body building can complement the Ving Tsun system.One of my instructors, who is a European weight lifting champion feels comfortable with the style. Isn't this a good example of combined training? Ultimately if one has a good teacher to guide him/her then one can achieve good results.
QUESTION: Towards the later part of Bruce Lee's training history he had changed not only the name of his system but also his fighting theories. What is your opinion on the subject?
VICTOR KAN: Although I was the one who actually started Bruce in his first form training I did not train with him much because his attendances were very irregular. Nevertheless, in the early 60's although Lee did emigrate to the U.S. he did come back to Hong Kong to further his study in the Ving Tsun system seriously for two years. As far as a superior standard of kung fu was concerned I would say that it was definately the Ving Tsun system that enlightened Bruce and took him on to the levels beyond. Lee was an intelligent and ambitious young man who realised that the only way that others would acknowledge his own talents and achievements was to break away from tradition and establish himself as a figurehead of his own right. Hence he took a big gamble and founded his own version of martial art: JEET KUEN DO, the intercepting fist etc.
QUESTION: Many Ving Tsun teachers of today have modified the traditional style one way or another - the consequences are there for us to see.Do you think that the work of the late Bruce Lee contributed more merit to the Ving Tsun system or not?
VICTOR KAN: I personally think that Lee's work has given the Ving Tsun style more credit than any past Ving Tsun practitioners could have done. In his book JEET KUEN DO (JKD), he mentioned that his JKD was mainly based on the Ving Tsun system. I respect Bruce to the point that although he had established his own status, he never failed to acknowledge his 'family tree' within the Ving Tsun style. At this point I would like to recall what Bruce Lee said regarding high level kicking. "These are purely for spectacular shows and for film cameras. They are not practical in any street fight situation." Recently some so-called JKD instructors tried to establish that JEET KUEN DO was a complete system which would be more effective than Ving Tsun. In Chinese we have a saying for this, "... a son trying to teach his father how to make a baby".
QUESTION: Can you tell us about the funeral of your Sifu Yip Man in Hong Kong in 1972?
VICTOR KAN: Near the end of 1972 I was told by my kung fu brothers from Hong Kong that Sifu Yip Man was very pale and thin and he could hardly talk. Yet he was quite pleased to see me rushing back to pay my respect to him. He tried so hard to comfort me, he even tried to put on a little smile. Yet the more I saw him suffering, the more I felt the sadness. I just broke down and cried. I stayed with him as long as I could until he passed away two days later. He was seventy two. Since Grandmasetr Yip had many friends, his funeral became one of the biggest events within the Chinese martial arts community of that time. Many other masters came to pay their respects. However, there was one prominent figure who was missing amongst the morning crowd - Bruce Lee. The worst part was that Bruce was actually in Hong Kong at that particular time. It was interesting to see that Bruce acted so passionately, loyal to the dead teacher in his film 'Fist of Fury', yet when his real Sifu died he did not even bother to show his face at the funeral. When the rest of the martial arts community found out that he was so disrespectful to his own Sifu they planned to boycott all his films. It was not until Raymond Chow, the managing director of Golden Harvest Films put out a full front page apology in three top newspapers that the situation eased down. Whatever the reasons could have been, Lee should have been there with us paying out his last respects to our beloved Master.
QUESTION: Sifu Kan, since you are the highest authority of the Ving Tsun style in Europe, how do you see the future development of this popular style worldwide?
VICTOR KAN: I could say that the Ving Tsun style will flourish and attract more followers. However, since there are many political differences among the leading figures of the style I cannot see any chance of witnessing a reconciliation and unification of the system internationally. I can predict that there will be more branches and sub-branches beginning to emerge all over the world. Each teacher will teach his own version like myself, the Victor Kan version etc.. Maybe this trend is the only peaceful acceptance and honorable future development among the Ving Tsun system.
QUESTION: Sifu Kan, tell us about your own teaching methods and syllabus.
VICTOR KAN: Some people criticise me for being too fussy. In reply I say to these people would they want the Sifu to guide them correctly though slowly or do they want some messy tuition? Any style of kung fu needs good foundation work without which the students will be unable to reach the higher levels training. The speed of progress actually rests on how much a student is willing to put themselves into the training. A teacher can only show them the way to enlightenment which guarantees future success. This is similar to the English saying "More haste, less speed". On the other hand only a responsible teacher will press for the perfection of techniques, the quality of the student is what counts, not quantity. As far as my syllabus is concerned, I will teach all that I learned from my Sifu Yip Man. Obviously they have to show their own dedication and loyalty before they earn their status among us. With my past twenty years of teaching experience I have devised my own grading system. There are ten grades of progressive syllabus with each having its own training methods.
The main characteristics of what became known as the Ving Tsun system are its economy of movement, directness of action, its vertical straight fist, its sticking hands and its use of centre-line theory. This theory is based on the fact that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so techniques move from the centreline of the body. Ving Tsun uses no wide, flowing or circular techniques so each attack involves the minimum of movement. Therefore energy is conserved and distances are shortened. Ving Tsun also combines blocking with striking and has refined this skill to a high level. Ving Tsun practitioners consider it initially more important to develop skill with hand techniques because they are immediately useful for self-defense.
There are only three forms in Ving Tsun. The first is Siu Nim Tao, which means 'little idea'. The second is called Chun Kiu ('searching arms') and the third is Bill Tze ('thrusting fingers'). Siu Nim Tao is an important form because it contains most of Ving Tsun's hand techniques. It also trains students in stance work and helps them develop their chi. Students should spent at least 15 minutes practising Siu Nim Tao.
The value of Siu Nim Tao in developing internal energy is illustrated by the following example. When I was 45 years of age, I decided to practise the form while on holiday in the ski resort of Val d'Isere. Despite a temperature of -15 degrees, I stripped off my jacket and prepared to practise. At first my toes went numb, so I couldn't feel them. Then an icicle formed on the end of my nose! Gathering my concentration I began the form and within minutes I could feel warm blood circulating through my body as my chi began flowing. The icicle melted, I could feel my toes again and I was wreathed in steam! It was a tremendous feeling! I felt so invigorated that afterwards I was able to ski over three mountains.
After practising Sil Nim Tao, the student should move on to sticking hands or chi sao. First the student uses just one hand ('dan chi'), then he goes on to use both hands ('sern chi'). Embodied within this unique form of training is the core Ving Tsun principle of using the opponent's strength against them. Unlike many other styles, Ving Tsun does not oppose the opponent's force with force because in that case the stronger person will nearly always win. Instead through sticking hands practise, students learn to develop sensitivity in their arms and wrists. This allows them to predict what an opponent is going to do, so thay can respond at a very early stage. Sticking hands practise develops timing as well as reflexes.
Once the student has become proficient with sern chi, he should next learn how to use sticking hands to both attack and defend against the partner. This is known as 'qor sao' and it eventually develops into a full-blown fighting format. In class all techniques are used with restraint. However it is no problem to to use them at peak force when circumstances require it.
After qor sao, the student moves on to learn Chum Kiu. This is basically a defensive form, teaching students how to turn and simultaneously block in response to attacks and then immediately counter them. Two blocks that are used extensively with this form are 'bong sao' and 'woo sao'.
Kicking techniques are next to be practised. Ving Tsun's two basic foot techniques are a front kick and a side kick. Both are delivered through the centreline of the body and strike home with the heel. Neither kick is delivered above waist level because low kicks are the quickest to perform and the most practical in a true fighting situation. Typical targets are the groin, shin and knee. Ving Tsun's kicks are mainly used in addition to the hand techniques.
The wooden dummy is intended to resemble a human opponent. It is used by more advanced students to develop their ability to fight with control. Proper use of the dummy involves an understanding of and skill in the Ving Tsun principles mentioned earlier. Novices do not know enough about Ving Tsun theory, footwork and stance to be able to use the dummy and must wait until they have more skill. Techniques used against the dummy are taken from Ving Tsun's forms. They were selected because they are highly effective and practical techniques.
The final Ving Tsun empty hand form is the Bill Tze form. Unlike Chum Kiu, Bill Tze is mainly an attacking form.
As well as the empty hand forms, the complete Ving Tsun system uses two weapons which are the butterfly knives and the long pole. The long pole was used in a large space against multiple opponents while the butterfly knives are short range weapons. Nowadays neither weapon has any practical value as such, though the movements used in their deployment are important to Ving Tsun practise. Additionally, Ving Tsun is a traditional system and one cannot claim to know it without having knowledge of its weapons.
Nowadays, students frequently ask to be taught more advanced forms before they have learned the first. They seem to think that the more forms they learn in a short time, the better they will become. This is of course nonsense! It is essential that students learn and understand the first form before progressing, otherwise their depth of knowledge will be shallow and they will develop bad habits. An old Chinese saying is that it is pointless having many knives in one's pocket if none of them cut.
Students come to my club for more advanced training. They say they know and understand all the forms but when they participate in real chi sao, their shallow knowledge shows itself. Their hand positions are wrong, they lack sensitivity and respond too slowly, and they can't block their opponent's strikes. This is the basis of the old saying that one minute's chi sao allows you to determine who is the better performer.
So a correct mental attitude is essential to success. To see whether the student has this attitude, the good sifu will test him and look for humbleness, willingless to learn and perseverance. Those without these characteristics never develop real skill in the system. Remember, one thousand hours of training for one minute's use.
LOOK FORWARD TO OTHER INTERVIEWS WITH VICTOR KAN WHICH WILL APPEAR IN THE NEAR FUTURE