Wednesday, 11 November, 2015
李师傅 Sifu Li welcomes us warmly into his school. He is not tall, but he appears strong and relaxed in his movements. He also appears jovial and excited to have visitors. We are excited that he is excited. What better way to come across a kung fu master? First things first, have a seat and have some tea! This is an auspicious sign in my book. There appears to be no class in progress, as I said, he had just turned on the lights.
The room is small. The wall behind the bench that we are sitting on is covered in weapons; rattan sticks, swords, wooden knives, chain whips. Above the weapons are calligraphy panels, the contents of which have some relation to his school or to wing chun. Across from us, on the opposite wall, is a large mirror, and two wooden dummies; but one is unusual. Instead of wooden arms and legs, it has bundles of black chopsticks where the arms ought to be. The back of the room, to our left, sits a good sized aquarium… yes… an aquarium, full of fish; kind of like a hotel waiting area. There were steps behind that, leading to someone’s living quarters on the upper level. Off to one side, near the back, was also a doorway leading to a small room, and rest-room. To our right was a pile of chairs and training equipment, and behind that, the glass wall and glass door which we entered through. Outside the room, past the glass, was the alleyway, a section of which, in front of the school, was covered by a tarp (a.k.a. tarpaulin, spell check doesn’t like “tarp.”). This was a reasonably large space, and on the side opposite the school entrance was a table, for tea and snacks (and other beverages).
Sifu Li had nothing but welcoming words to say. He then expressed that he wished to see what we know and do, and then he can inform us of the differences and demonstrate what he does. So, similar to our previous encounter at the university, I stand up, and perform my 小念头 Sil Lim Tau. This is already noticed as being significantly different than what he teaches. His form, though it goes by the same name, and possess a number of techniques which, likewise, go by the same name, has many more movements, and many which are not so linear. The elbows are tighter, and there are more circles and wrist bending.
After that, my friend, Christian, and I did some 黐手 chi sau together. Now, this is not a perfect representation of what either of us do, because we have both been practicing under different lineages – his, 梁挺 Leung Ting, and mine, 何金銘 Ho Kam Ming – however, as they are both 葉問 Yip Man lineages, it gives a pretty good impression. Sifu Li also said this is much different, but the differences were not as easy to simply discuss. Demonstration and practice were necessary.Sifu Li then demonstrated and taught us the basic movements of chi sau, which we spent some time practicing on and off. Slowly, other students began to arrive. There was, however, no formal group work. Instead, students all began practicing what they were working on, and occasionally did some partner work – usually chi sau, a 圈手 huen-sau drill, or a punch-to-punch drill. Sifu Li, and his students said that wrist mobility was very important, and a good way to develop that was in their huen-sau drill. So, I learned this as well. It is safe to assume, at this point, that though names were the same, and movements seem comparable, this system was fundamentally different, and therefore, so were the methods and training drills.
At some point, we looked at each-other’s wooden dummy forms, also quite different, and played a bit of single sticky hand. For a short while, I tried demonstrating how I had learned chi sau, but this was quite difficult, as it seemed no one was really willing to let go of what they already knew. Now, if I were to learn this method of chi sau, while sticking to my own ideas about wing chun, it would be a complete mess, and if I stuck really hard, it would be downright antagonistic. This is why it is so important to let go what you know, before entering a new system, or culture.
One observation I also noticed, with myself, which did this time and will later lead to some frustration, is that I’ve adapted what I’ve learned to myself. This means, that what I do doesn’t really represent what my teacher or school does. My experiences shape my method, to some degree. Namely, in practice, I like to test, or throw unusual movements in fun, or play psychological games, or even downright ignore certain things. This can be frustrating for others, and for various reason. People think wing chun is only about technique. People think someone practicing wing chun must stay within certain parameters. People often want some kind of acknowledgement of their own prowess. Namely, I noticed instances where I would leave things open and wait for the opponent to notice, and found that this was oddly frustrating to the opponent. Or, I’d slip a strike – slide past rather than defend – and this was also frustrating to the opponent. I also play the psychological games, which are more subtle, such as using jerking movements or playing off perceived frustration. This is definitely not appreciated (so I try to limit it).
What I found most frustrating of all, however, was the way in which the differences distracted other people so strongly. I felt like I had prepared myself well to take whatever comes, and accept it for the evening, and really, I spent most of the evening very carefully and slowly practicing what Sifu Li had taught us. But I found the comparative instinct of others to be quite pervasive. One student, who had mistakenly thought I had trained in the Leung Ting lineage, flat out said it was a waste of time. While this had no personal effect on me, I couldn’t help thinking that there were people out there who spent their whole lives in that lineage, and how such a comment might make someone feel. This is a common occurrence for travellers, in fact. Both the traveller and the native tend to be very quick to denounce everything which the other holds dear; and then they often expect the other to adopt what they hold dear, without realizing that this would take a lifetime of rearing (or a decade of practice in that art).
I won’t go in too deep to his roots, because I’m not too clear on them now. However, if my understanding is correct, he comes from the 姚才 Yiu Choi line, and this line is fairly prevalent in Guangzhou. There is another, much more well known teacher, who resembles a Taoist monk, and who also is in the same line, and teaches in Guangzhou, by the name of 米机王 Mai Gei Wong, or “Rice Machine King.”
Finally, the time came to catch the bus back home, so we made our way out. Sifu Li informed me of the tuition rates, but said he would rather see us return than avoid returning because of tuition (and the rates were quite low, actually). In other words, he said, come and hang out whenever you like (literally seven days a week).
Sifu Li, though his methods are different, felt extremely proficient at what he does, and, on top of that, extremely friendly. Though he knows a few words in English (and the variety of other languages he has picked up) we communicated primarily in Mandarin, and he spoke with our new American friend (his long time student) and the other students in Cantonese. His school is called 本能詠春 Instinct Wing Chun.
Good time! We’ll be back.