1. As a quick intro, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your school? When, where, how and why did you start practicing?
My name is William Kwok. I am the headmaster of Gotham Martial Arts, which was established in 2007 in New York City. I am also the 1st Regional Director for Wan Kam Leung Practical Wing Chun International in America.
My personal martial arts journey began at an early age in 1978. After practicing a variety of martial arts, including Wing Chun, from childhood up until college, I noticed that many techniques and practice relied mainly on the strength of the practitioner, so a larger person would always have an advantage over a smaller person. In my mid 20s, I realized that no matter how much I trained, it would be hard to defeat someone bigger or stronger than me.
I began to feel that I was missing something in my martial arts training. My early introduction to Wing Chun came back to my mind. It inspired me to study Wing Chun again in many different schools, but I was still not satisfied with what I learned. When I returned to my hometown of Hong Kong to do research for my master’s thesis, I met my Sifu, Grandmaster Wan Kam Leung – Founder of Practical Wing Chun. I finally found a style of Wing Chun that fit with what I was searching for and, more importantly, was more “practical” and better suited for today’s world.
Everyone should find the style that suits him or her best. To me, I like Practical Wing Chun because it makes logical sense. Also, because of the way we train, I know I can practice Wing Chun even when I turn 80 because it is not taxing on the body. It is a very scientific and practical martial art that gives me a lot of room to develop at any age. All techniques in the forms serve like different building blocks that can be combined in many different ways. It is interesting to find the most effective and efficient techniques in any given situation.
I respect most martial arts systems but I choose to focus on Practical Wing Chun because it gives me room to think and grow, as well as improve upon the current system based on original Wing Chun principles.
2. What are the most common mistakes, or assumptions, you’ve encountered during your years of teaching?
There is a misconception that Wing Chun is a static system or strictly “traditional”. Wing Chun is an evolving martial art. There is always something to be learned from our martial arts practice and there is always room for improvement of the system. While I fully appreciate my Chinese tradition, history and culture, I also think that we live in a different world and environment these days and Wing Chun needs to adapt and evolve in order to remain a high form of martial arts while maintaining the core of the Wing Chun philosophies. For example, we wouldn’t use cell phones from the 1980s now over modern smartphones, so why continue practicing obsolete techniques when we can modernize them?
When we watch Olympic events, we see new world records set every four years. It is because sports coaches and athletes always research and discover improved ways to perform. Martial arts should be the same. The schools that follow a “traditional” Wing Chun approach stubbornly adhering to the martial art as passed down to them from their teachers often miss out. On the one hand, it is a good thing because the martial arts system and culture are passed down and have survived for centuries.
However, even those that claim to be teaching traditional Wing Chun, you will find different ways of doing the same forms and techniques. It is natural for any instructor to interpret a detail-oriented and complicated martial art such as this with a different viewpoint from their predecessor, and so the quality of instruction and training, as well as the techniques themselves, can be very different.
Every lineage will have its own specific focus and interpretation. Then there are some, like my teacher, that have attempted to evolve the techniques based on practicality and suitability for modern times but retaining the core disciplines. I am not saying it is definitely better, just more logical in my opinion.
There is also a misconception that focusing on Chi Sau practice without fully completing Siu Lim Tao (the first Wing Chun form) and intensively practicing San Sau (techniques and partner drills). Chi Sau should be a partner drill practiced to learn how to change the San Sau techniques, not just to improve our automaticity. To me, it does not make sense for students to practice Chi Sau after studying Wing Chun for a short period of time because they have no techniques to practice and respond with.
Some even think that the Wing Chun forms don’t have much to do with Chi Sau. I find it unacceptable. Every single technique in Wing Chun should have a practical application. In my school, students need to learn part one of Siu Lim Tao and then practice extensively before learning part two of the form, and so on. After they learn and practice San Sau, they then learn Chi Sau. In order to understand Chi Sau, the student must first understand San Sau; to understand San Sau, they must understand the form. When we practice Chi Sau, we should be able to demonstrate what we have learned in the forms and drills, not only about developing better sensitivity.
It is important to remember that Wing Chun is a self-defense system designed to use our bodies efficiently. As I recently explained in the 1st Wong Shun Leung Ving Tsun North America 2017 seminar, we train our five sensory systems in order to utilize Wing Chun at a high level: our visual, auditory, and olfactory senses can be trained to increase awareness; our tactile senses can be used after making contact with an opponent, and trained to improve our ability to react quickly; and our proprioceptive senses, or our intuitive sense of where different parts of our body are in space, can be improved to allow us to adapt our bodies and change techniques quickly and efficiently. Heightening these senses, as well as studying the basics of movement science, can greatly increase our ability to improve our Wing Chun practice.
3. Movies such as “Ip Man”, “The Grandmaster” and such are probably one of the reasons many people start to practice at some point. Since reality is mostly not matching most of these movie scenes, what are some key aspects a beginning martial artist should focus on?
Learning any martial art is a slow process. You must understand the process, set small goals, and learn how to build upon these small ideas. Because of the modern-day ideas of on-demand, same-day delivery and overall instant gratification, practitioners have the tendency of putting greater emphasis on techniques, training, promotion, etc., while practitioners tend to neglect the cultural practice and the mental aspect of their martial art.
As a result, an imbalance between the training of the body and the mind makes the practice incomplete. Like Yin and Yang, both mind and body training should co-exist to complement and supplement each other. Self-control and humility are also required to balance our martial skills, which are ultimately intended for the purpose of hurting or killing. We must reinforce the culture and traditions that can help us achieve a healthy balance in our lives.
New Wing Chun students are often surprised or not prepared for the reality of slow and methodical martial arts practice. When prospective students visit my school, they usually have some preconceived ideas about Wing Chun and come with unrealistic expectations about martial arts training. Some of them may have watched the movies about Grandmaster Ip Man and expect to learn how Donnie Yen fights in those movies. Some of them see martial arts training as an alternative to their regular workout.
It is very important that prospective students understand that Practical Wing Chun is primarily a self-defense system. It is a system evolved and developed by my teacher, Grandmaster WAN Kam Leung, based on real-life fighting experience and what he studied for many years. Therefore, I usually suggest prospective students take a trial lesson before they make their decision to join my school. After trial lessons, they have at least the basic principles of Practical Wing Chun and are usually surprised by what it offers.
Most of them choose to commit to the training and sign up, while others continue to search for the martial arts system that satisfies their expectations and needs. It is important for students to choose a martial arts system that suits them the best.
4. How can Wing Chun be used in an educational, non martial arts setting?
Wing Chun Kung Fu has a lot to offer in an educational setting. The focus on the balance between training the mind and body mentioned before is something that can be cultivated through training Wing Chun. By incorporating important elements of Chinese culture in our Wing Chun practice, we can teach students to develop better self-control and balance martial skills with martial virtues, like Yin and Yang. A peaceful and productive mindset, rather than channeling our martial skills towards aggression and ego, can extend to all portions of our lives.
It has been ten years since my school was founded in 2007. A major reason I decided to establish a martial arts school was to share the experiences I have learned from my martial arts training over the past 35 years. “Improvement of Mind and Body” is the first school motto. Mind comes before body. This is the reason why it is essential for one to improve his/ her mind through martial arts training. Martial arts has taught me the important values of courtesy, integrity, trust, self-control, hard work and perseverance.
These values have helped me overcome hardships and also accomplish many personal and professional goals. I attribute much of my success to having the right work ethic and being able to make sound decisions – all things I have learned from my martial arts training. I have learned that no matter what we want to learn or achieve, it must take much hard work and time, the true meaning of Kung Fu. There is no short cut. This is an important lesson that my students should learn and use in their everyday lives.
Martial arts training provides a certain physical skill set that can be very powerful and can be used to either protect or harm people. This is a great responsibility and something that one cannot learn or experience in any sport. It is about exercising self-control and correct judgment to discern the correct scenario to use such powerful skills and with what purpose. We can use this ability to make better decisions in life.
When I started practicing martial arts at the age of seven in Hong Kong, the martial arts culture was very different. Training was very serious. People were more patient back then. Today, people live a more rapid lifestyle and often want instant gratification. If people do not get what they want sooner than they expect, they will quit and try something else. Like other martial arts school owners and managers, I want to build up my martial arts school.
However, there is one thing that I cannot change – the essence of martial arts and the spirit of a true martial arts practitioner. If I try to change it, then I am not teaching true martial arts to students. The true meaning of Kung Fu needs to be shown and introduced to the greater public, especially our future generations. In additional to self-defense abilities, a good martial arts program can surely help children and young people to develop leadership and social skills.
5. The Internet has completely changed our lives over the past 10-15 years. We now have access to lots of information (both good & bad) and connections like never before. How do you feel about this evolution and its impact on Wing Chun?
The availability of so much information has both positives and negatives. On the one hand, the availability and accessibility of information about different martial arts styles, helps us better understand our own practice. In the past, this form of information was harder to obtain unless you purchased DVDs, VHS tapes, martial arts magazines and books. But all of those sources of information do not compare with what is now easily found on the Internet – the countless videos and blogs of other martial artists demonstrating and showcasing their skills.
While the information is abundant and readily available, we cannot expect to learn much about any style or system by just watching videos. If we do don’t have the proper training and understanding, the images are somewhat meaningless. Yes, we can learn some things from the videos, but without a teacher to guide, train and, more importantly, correct us, the online videos only serve to distract from our personal experience that we get from training at a martial arts school.
Training at a school allows a practitioner to gain valuable feedback from his teacher and fellow students. That is the only way to learn any martial arts properly. Practicing a technique incorrectly for a thousand times learned through the Internet does not make sense. As with all aspects of martial arts, even the wealth of information, it is best to keep an open mind. Then, we may use the information as a way to improve ourselves.
6. What direction do you see Wing Chun or martial arts, as a whole, heading in?
I think that martial arts, as a whole, is alive and thriving. Some of the recent interest in martial arts seems to be connected to the growth of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I think the appeal of MMA has indirectly helped attract more interest in traditional martial arts. MMA is a combat sport and as it’s name implies, employs techniques from a mixture of different martial arts systems including, Muay Thai, boxing and Jujitsu. MMA as a sport has developed a set of rules that are for the fighter’s safety and has evolved into a legally sanctioned, full-contact fight.
There are positive and negative aspects to a sport like MMA. On the positive side, we see certain MMA fighters that bring respect and self-control to the ring. On the negative side, MMA does not emphasize enough the teaching of martial virtues. Without martial virtues, I feel MMA sports bring out human beings’ brutal nature. We can, and should however, embrace all types of fighting concepts and try find something within each that can perhaps help us understand our own martial art practice.
As far as Wing Chun is concerned, it is important to make efforts to improve the system for future generations. My hope is that Wing Chun will continue to become more advanced in the future. Each time the system is passed down to a new generation of teachers, it is incumbent upon the new generation to advance Wing Chun practice and not just become carbon copies of their teacher. Today, I believe with movement science and the study of body mechanics, there are a lot of resources available to advance Wing Chun practice. If we understand the rationale behind the movements from as many perspectives as possible, it allows us to make further improvements.
I also hope that martial virtue continues to be passed down. Wing Chun Kung Fu is not just about fighting. Kung Fu makes many references to Yin and Yang. To me, the Yang refers to the hardness or training/physical part of martial arts and the Yin refers to softness or virtues/mental part. In martial arts practice, these should not be separated. Quality development of both mind and body is essential and Wing Chun practice is not complete without it.
Finally, I would like Wing Chun to have a more formal education system in place that focuses on the development of Wing Chun teachers. We can be the greatest Wing Chun practitioners ever. However, if we can’t pass it down, all of the skills and knowledge that we attained will die with us and so will our legacy. If Wing Chun and its advancements cannot be fully passed on comprehensively, the martial arts we practice will become scattered and unable to flourish in the future.
To address this, I have begun to cultivate teachers in my organization earlier in their training, rather than later. This way, if they decide to become teachers of their own school or senior instructors of the system, the training and knowledge is already in place. Waiting for the student to complete the system before being sanctioned to teach is not beneficial for them as students and it lowers the probability that our systems can be passed on properly or, at all.
7. To end this interview in style, what is the best Wing Chun or martial arts advice you have personally ever received and what is the best advice you would give to our readers?
Keep an open mind. Be open to change and improving your chosen martial art. But the changes or improvements must be based on the core principles of the martial art you are studying. One of the best bits of advice I received was from Dan Inosanto when he wrote me “Teaching is the highest form of learning.” From this, I realized that educating intermediate and advanced martial arts students on how to teach others creates new perspective not only for me, but also for those students who are teaching as well as those who are being taught.
Often, people seem to think only about “their own physical practice” when training because they think that helping junior students takes time away from their practice. However, having taken Guro Inosanto’s advice to heart, I believe that when one person teaches another, there is a different but connected learning experience for both. The teacher should take the opportunity to think deeply about his/her instruction and advice, which will not only aid the junior student but will improve their own ability to convey and understand concepts.
Sifu William Kwok
Gotham Martial Arts – Wan Kam Leung Practical Wing Chun, 1st American Branch