Martial arts history has trouble when it comes to separating man from myth and that’s why there’s still a sense of mystery surrounding the life times of Wong Shun-leung.
Outside faithful followers of the arts and a collection of Hong Kong historians, the wing chun master’s tale remains pretty much an unknown, despite the massive impact Wong had during his lifetime both as a teacher, and as a man.
The world knows just about all there is to know about Bruce Lee, Wong’s friend and disciple. And the story of Ip Man, mentor to them both, has been well documented over time, most recently through the eponymous Hong Kong-produced film franchise which notched up a combined box office take of around US$300 million across its five installments.
But what of the “King of Talking Hands”, as Wong was known, a man who claimed to have won more than 100 fights, of both the legal and not-so-legal variety, and who is often credited with setting Lee on the path that would eventually take kung fu global.
Thanks to the grainy and sepia-soaked clips that have surfaced on YouTube, we can see that Wong was a man surprisingly small in stature, given his legendary combat skills, standing at just five-foot-five and weighing in at around 120 pounds. He talks with passion, and humor, and his eyes seem to light up when he’s talking about his craft, or reflecting on his past.
But these clips leave you wanting to know more about what Wong was like as a man. And that’s why today we’ve come to a shiny and very modern mall in the outer suburbs of Hong Kong.
Yuen Long is situated in the New Territories district that became home to the generation of martial artists – Ip Man among them – who fled mainland China in the 1950s, here to escape either repercussions from the civil war that left the communist party in charge up north, or from various crimes and misdemeanors. They brought centuries-old martial arts traditions – and tales – with them when they did.
Tim Chiu Hok-ying is among those keeping those lineages alive through his nearby Ving Tsun Martial Art Association. It’s where the 60-year-old passes on the knowledge Wong Shun-leung shared with him, and it’s here that we are meeting to find out a little but more about his master.
“The stories you hear about him are true,” Chiu says of his master. “The reason so many students went to him to learn is because he had really fought all those fights and because he had won so many fights. He used to go around and ‘kick the shop’, which means challenge fighters from other schools. Sifu Wong was always challenging himself and this is what rubbed off on us. You never know how good you can be – as a martial artist and in life – unless you are challenged.”
Wong was born in Hong Kong on May 8, 1935, and first trained as a boxer before being swept up in the re-emergence of martial arts – and kung fu in particular – through the 1950s. A growing community of local youths eager to explore the ancient traditions of Chinese martial arts had appeared as teachers such as Ip Man made Hong Kong home.
Roof-top schools became a common sight around the city, mostly left alone by its colonial British masters, although they still enforced a ban on public combat contests. The thinking among the cops was that it was far better to know where most of the kids who liked to fight were – at least once a day – than to have to chase them all over the streets if the need arose.
Before taking on students of his own, Wong had gravitated to Ip Man’s school and had soon found growing fame among martial artists. He competed for Hong Kong, officially, while at the same time showing a keen interest in both street fights and match bouts against other disciplines through which he could showcase his skills.
“[He] was drawn to Ip Man simply because he discovered that Ip Man was the best,” says Chiu. “At first he wasn’t sure. But he was also interested in expanding what he learned from Ip Man. He was a bit of a showman so he liked the reputation he built as a fighter, and he liked the attention of the press. But that never distracted him when it came time to sharing his martial arts knowledge with others. What I found I had learned from him, when it came my time to teach, was that you have to provide an example, in training and life. He helped me think about not only what I was doing but why I was doing it.”
There were individual contests that have become the stuff of legend, such as the time he took on and laid waste to a Russian boxer who weighed-in at over 250lbs and stood around 6-foot-6. There were also hundreds of secret “beimo” bare knuckle challenge bouts in and around his hometown.
“He was very quick,” laughs Chiu. “Many opponents underestimated him but he always said that you learned the most from your opponents, not training in the gym. Every time you fight, you find out about something you are not doing the right way, and you become better. Your best teacher is your adversary. That’s an important lesson I learned from Wong sifu.”
It was Wong’s willingness to learn from other combat sports, and incorporate what he learned into his kung fu, that attracted students such as Bruce Lee. Over the years Wong would variably describe the “Little Dragon” as “mischievous”, “cocky” and “arrogant” but he said also there was no doubting the young man’s abundant charisma. Wong would also often turn to a specific anecdote to highlight how quickly a connection was made between the pair.
The teenaged Lee had across the 1950s been developing quite the reputation for his willingness to engage in battle with fellow students and out on the streets. The local police had their eye on him, and in 1959, it would be their friendly warning to Lee’s parents that precipitated his move to Seattle and (they had hoped) out of harm’s way. While Lee and his friends were apparently often right terrors out on the streets, they had also started to open their minds to the teachings and the discipline of martial arts.
Lee had become a student of Ip Man and was fast developing his skill set but he had also been curious to learn more about the style – and attitude – Wong was developing. One day Lee and his mates decided to try out Wong’s classes. When they arrived at the gym, Lee bounded up the stairs only to quickly reappear with the bad news that it was, in fact, closed.
Lee then told his friends he was going home and stood at a nearby bus stop while they all went their separate ways. Truth was, Wong’s gym was open, but Lee wanted his teachings all for himself. Once his friends dispersed, back up the stairs he flew for private tuition that would develop into life-long friendship.
Once Lee started to develop his own Jeet Kune Do style, he would sometimes write back to Hong Kong explaining his plans and asking advice. Wong was said to have kept one of these letters in his wallet until the day he died.
Another entertainer to learn from Wong — briefly — was Hong Kong actor and director Stephen Chow Sing-chi. He’s famed for his mo lei tau (nonsense) mix of kung fu and comedy, and box office hits including Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004) that have collected more than $1 billion in receipts.
“Bruce used to write, asking about this and asking about that,” says Chiu. “Wong sifu’s teachings were part of the style Bruce Lee developed and they were similar because they wanted to expand and develop their styles. They thought that as a martial artist you should never stop learning.”
What made Wong a little different from the likes of Ip Man, was his willingness to go public, to court the press, and to build on his own reputation. He was also quite fond of a smoke and a drink and of holding court in one of Hong Kong’s countless dai pai dong cafes. In terms of lineage, the teaching of martial arts went from those who avoided the limelight completely (Ip Man), to those who started to see its benefits (Wong), to those who fully embraced it (Lee).
“He had a very good relationship with some parts of the media,” says Chiu. “Not many teachers had done this before, but they helped tell his story and to attract students. The more he talked, the more his stature grew but he always backed up his words with action.”
Wong went on to guide generations of martial artist before passing away, after suffering a massive stroke on January 28, 1997, aged 61. His wife, Wong Chow Man-fong, told the South China Morning Post she believed students were drawn to her husband’s classes because he was “a thinker as well as a fighter.”
“He was a true master,” says Chiu. “He fought his way to the top whereas most teachers inherited their positions from their own sifus, or were promoted to those positions. But he was more than just a fighter, he taught us all about how to face life.”