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    Greater China
     May 16, 2009
BOOK REVIEW
Bruce who?
Wing Chun Warrior by Ken Ing
Reviewed by Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - The story of Duncan Leung - childhood friend of Bruce Lee and disciple of Wing Chun master Yip Man - is valuable not only for the insights it offers into Chinese martial arts but also for its portrayal of the lost Hong Kong of the 1950s and 1960s.

Reading Ken Ing's Wing Chun Warrior, which chronicles Leung's Kung Fu escapades, will be a jarring revelation to anyone familiar with the manic but orderly and largely peaceful city of seven million people that is Hong Kong today. The city described by Ing is a place where Kung Fu practitioners wielded eight-chop knives in the streets and literally battled their way from one martial arts

 

studio to another to prove their fighting prowess.

These men would probably all be in jail today, but the last man standing back then was almost always Leung. The unspoken question hanging over Ing's narrative is: Who would have prevailed if Leung and Lee had ever gone toe-to-toe? But that match was
not meant to be as the world's most famous Kung Fu star died in 1973, at the age of 32, while Leung went on to fight many more battles.

Ing's book, a collection of dramatic tales of combat related to him by Leung, is the story of a genuine Wing Chun artist who grew up fighting in Hong Kong but later traveled the world, laying out opponents wherever he landed. There are also photographs - some of them not very good - of Leung with students he taught and special military and police force units he trained in the United States. In addition, veteran comic-book illustrator Siu Hoi-on has done his best to capture some of the extraordinary fighting scenes described by Leung in the book.

Wing Chun, according to tradition, is named after a beautiful young woman who was tutored in Kung Fu by a Shaolin nun so that she could fend off an unwelcome suitor. The young woman subsequently experienced a vision that resulted in a new Kung Fu order.

Lee took the Wing Chun he had learned under Yip Man and fused it with other forms of martial arts to create a new school, which he called Jeet Kune Do. Meanwhile, Leung remained more true to his master, who died a year before Lee, at 79.

Now approaching 70 himself, Leung describes genuine Chinese martial arts masters as a dying breed because Kung Fu has been turned into a kind of non-contact gymnastics in which no student is truly allowed to apply what he or she has learned - that is, to engage in actual combat.

Ing, a retired medical doctor, first met his subject in 1999 in Guangzhou, capital of China's Guangdong province. For two years, he knew Leung only as a businessman, but then the stunning stories started to flow and the book was born.

While the first-time author is not a gifted writer, his book is nevertheless full of fascinating tales related in simple, unadorned prose. Quotations from Confucius, Sunzi's The Art of War and classical Chinese literature begin each chapter as Ing seeks, sometimes with an almost audible strain, to elevate his subject to the status of heroes of the ancient past.

Interest in Ing's book will no doubt be enhanced by the release last December of a popular film on the life of Leung's mentor. Titled Ip Man (Ip being an alternate spelling of the legendary sifu's - master's - name), it is directed by Wilson Yip and stars Donnie Yen. A rival Yip Man biopic, directed by Wong Kar-wai and starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai, is scheduled for release this year.

As Ing tells the story, Lee may have been Yip Man's most famous pupil, but Leung underwent more intensive training with the great man - four years of daily private lessons that started in 1955, when Leung was 13. During this time, Leung virtually forgot about regular schooling and devoted himself to learning Wing Chun from the master, training six hours a day, seven days a week.

How did a mere boy command the daily individual attention of the world's greatest Wing Chun sifu? It was all thanks to his gullible mother, who agreed to give her son HK$300 (US$39) a month for "private tuition" with no questions asked. That was a lot of money in the 1950s, but Leung came from a well-to-do family that tended to indulge him.

So while regular students paid Yip Man HK$8 a month, Leung gave his teacher nearly twice the salary of high school graduates employed by the Hong Kong government at the time. According to Leung, Yip was keen to take the money to support his opium addiction.

"Duncan Leung is the only disciple Yip Man taught personally and privately at the student's home over a period of more than four years," the author writes.

To become a formal disciple of Yip Man, Leung was obliged to perform the ritual of three kneels and nine kowtows as part of the traditional sifu worship ceremony, which is described in Leung's own words in the book.

Soon the eager student began applying his lessons on the streets and in the Kung Fu studios of Hong Kong, and this is where Ing's book is hard to put down.

At one point, a young Leung comes across two triads (underworld figures) raining blows on a defenseless old man outside the long-defunct London Theater in Kowloon. His Wing Chun principles and reflexes immediately kick in, and the two toughs are quickly dispatched.

As a reward, the mysterious old man teaches his youthful savior several deadly fighting techniques that involve applying pressure to vital points of the body. Why didn't the old guy apply these same techniques to the triads who had been thrashing him?

That question is never clearly answered. But it is clear that, after Leung's encounter with the old man, he now knows how to "finish off" an opponent once he has him in his grasp.

Did Leung ever kill anyone? That also is left unclear - although one day in 1959, after learning how to use eight-chop knives, a reckless Leung provokes a street fight with a fruit vendor and stabs the man in the stomach before fleeing the scene.

"To this day I do not know whether the vendor survived or not," Leung tells the author. "I certainly hope so. I vowed then never to use the knives in public again."

Leung also describes how in 1958 he and the still-unknown Lee, after two years of Wing Chun lessons under Yip Man, began venturing to studios where other styles of Kung Fu were taught looking for fights. One day, their cockiness and arrogance cost them. At a Cai Li Fo studio, a seasoned instructor first leaves Lee lying in a crumpled heap on the floor before also sending Leung flying with a ferocious kick.

But Leung then reports his humiliation to Yip Man, who schools him in the strong and weak points of Cai Li Fo - which, like Wing Chun, flourished in the Kung Fu capital of Foshan in southern China. Two weeks later, Leung returns to the scene of his abasement and promptly breaks the instructor's ribs.

Leung's tutelage under Yip Man is followed by four years in Australia, where boxing gloves are no match for his skill in Wing Chun and where, in a billiards parlor in Sydney's Chinatown, he employs chopsticks to disarm an attacker brandishing a pool cue.
Later, Ing recounts Leung's years in the US, which involve an encounter with a formidably large opponent known as "The Bear" and also stints as a martial arts instructor to the US Navy SEALs (Sea, Air and Land Forces) in Norfolk, Virginia, and to the Virginia Port Authority Police.

Ing's book ends with Leung, in his sixties, frustrated by the decline of martial arts in China - a decline for which the author blames the Chinese government, which since 1949 has banned the practice of Kung Fu for combat:
China produces many performing Kung Fu instructors whose unproven fighting techniques are becoming increasingly more difficult to perform, though spectacular to watch. However, they are not qualified to teach combat when they themselves have no genuine combat experience, and the effectiveness of the fighting techniques remains untested.
So Leung is now watching Chinese combatants who are regularly defeated in free-fight competitions by other practitioners of the martial arts, especially Thai boxers. And, even worse, stung by defeat, these combatants are abandoning their own traditions and beginning to fight like Thai boxers and wrestlers.

Sifu Leung has dedicated what remains of his life to reversing this trend. Ing's chronicle will serve to help him in that quest.

Wing Chun Warrior by Ken Ing. Blacksmith Books (November 1, 2008). ISBN-10: 9881774225. Price US$14.95, 260 pages.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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