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?
I am 54 years old and have been training in Wing Chun for over 30 years. I had always been interested in martial arts as a child. When I was 19 I watched a bunch of Bruce Lee movies and was fascinated.
I did a bit of research about his style of fighting and found that much of it was based on Wing Chun. It was a that point I started looking for a Wing Chun school. Unfortunately there were not many to be found in the Seattle area at that time.
After a few months of searching I was lucky to find an ad in the paper. Sifu Roy Undem had opened a school in the basement of his house after returning from training in Arizona with Master Augustine Fong.
I stayed with this group for about 7 years. At that time the school broke up and I moved on to train with Sifu Julio Ferrer. I stayed with his group for about 8 years at which time I opened my own school in North Seattle.
2. What are the most common mistakes, or assumptions, you’ve encountered during your years of teaching?
From a teaching standpoint one of the biggest mistakes and/or assumptions I have
made is to assume everyone has the same reasons and drive to learn martial arts as myself. This is far from true.
Many come to martial arts from a true desire to better themselves mentally and physically and have no desire to actually put it to the test. It is more of a cultural experience along with exercise and discipline. Others come to learn from a desire to be able to defend themselves and the ones they care about.
They care little for the cultural aspects and are only concerned with the efficacy of the system they are learning. For others it is a mix of both. As a Sifu you have to either accept this reality and adjust the way you teach or limit your student body to those who only embody your mentality.
3. Movies such as “Yip Man”, “The Grandmaster” and such and 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?
Martial arts movies are definitely a big motivator, as they were for me, to begin training in the martial arts. For the beginning martial artist I think it is important to first understand why you are training.
The movie may have been the inspiration but it is rarely the reason. Once the student understands this about themselves they can focus their training in an effective way. It is also important to instill a sense of reality in a student.
While most understand that a real fight is much different then in the movies it never hurts to drive that point home. A student should focus on developing strong basics along with mass repetition of technique so that when it is called upon it is a natural response.
4. How can Wing Chun be used in an educational, non martial arts setting?
Wing Chun emphasizes simplicity and economy. It promotes the redirection of aggressive force while simultaneously promoting direct engagement with the aggressor. These principals can be applied to any situation or problem we encounter in life. Don’t overthink the problem but do not run from it. Recognize the problem and redirect it as you move to the solution.
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 it’s impact on Wing Chun?
I think it is awesome. When I started searching for Wing Chun there was very little info to be had. A few books and an occasional article in a martial arts magazine but that was it. I assumed that my training in Fong’s system of Wing Chun was the only Wing Chun.
The internet has shown us that Wing Chun is as diverse as it gets. While the fundamentals tend to stay similar the training methods very greatly as do the actual movements in forms and drills.
I have trained in two different systems of Wing Chun and dabbled in a couple more mainly because the internet has allowed me to learn of these other branches. My understanding of Wing Chun’s history has also been expanded from what it was when I first started training.
6. What direction do you see Wing Chun or martial arts, as a whole, heading in?
Speaking from my own experience I have found Wing Chun, and martial arts in general, as a means to bring people together. In the past my school has sponsored “All City” Wing Chun gatherings. Through these gatherings we have expanded our personal knowledge of the art and met lots of really great people.
We have sponsored open sparring groups where practitioners of any art are welcome. These events have brought together practitioners of many styles allowing us to test ourselves and our skills. I like to believe that this is where martial arts is heading.
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?
I was once told that martial arts is a life long endeavor. One that should strengthen the body and mind throughout your whole life.
Do not train the body in a way that will leave you physically damaged in later life. Do not train the mind in a way that dampens your compassion or empathy for other living creatures.
This is the same advice I would give to others. Martial arts can be very positive personally and in society if trained properly.
Sifu John Lapham