Wing Chun Wisdom from Lo Man Kam
by: Bradley Temple
Interview conducted by Bradley Temple and John Kang
Sifu Lo Man-Kam is the nephew of wing chun grandmaster Yip Man, and the only student of the grandmaster teaching in Taiwan. He recently took some time to discuss what makes a good student, and what to look for in a good teacher—a dialogue done with the hope of passing some of his wisdom onto the wing chun world. Those interested in contacting sifu Lo Man-Kam about studying in Taiwan, or for questions about wing chun in general, can write him at 4F, No. 31, Alley 51, Lane 12, Pa-teh Rd., Sec. 3 Taipei, Taiwan, R.O.C.
INSIDE KUNG-FU: Could you first tell us a little about your personal background?
LO MAN-KAM: Yip Man was my maternal uncle. When I was very young in Mainland China, my mother told me many stories about Yip Man, so I already knew he was very good at kung-fu. At that time though, he only taught a few good friends, and never considered teaching young people. Therefore, neither Yip Man’s own sons nor I had a chance to learn from him. However, in 1950, after The Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan, Yip Man immigrated to Hong Kong. It was there that he first started teaching wing chun for a living, and I had the opportunity to learn, starting from the age of 18.
There were not many students in the first class. Leung Sheung and Lok Yiu were the first two students, and I was the third. Leung Sheung passed away many years ago, so now, only Lok Yiu and I remain from the original class. Though I was not in Hong Kong at the time, Yip Man’s sons came to Hong Kong around 1960. The classes had gradually become bigger and bigger.
IKF: What did your training entail?
LMK: When I first started in 1950, the night classes ran from about 8-10 p.m. Sometimes, we would stand in the high horse stance for 20 minutes. Yip Man would walk by, and check your stances by suddenly pushing you. If your feet moved, he would make you do it all over again. Once we passed this stage, we had to stand in a single-leg stance. And once again, he would push your body or kick your leg to make sure you were stable.
After holding the stance, we would go through the siu nm tao, very slowly. Again, Yip Man would always test your hand positions to make sure they were strong, pushing the wu sao back, or pulling the tan sao down. So in these stages, we learned not only from watching, listening, and imitating, but from these random tests as well. Yip Man thought, no one will ever tell you, “I’m going to use my left fist to punch the right side of your stomach;” everything is random, so your kung-fu must be “live” so as to adapt to ever-changing situations.
From the form, we moved into single sticky hands, then lap-sao, repeating the sequence over and over again. Then of course, we would do sticky hands. Each person has a different feeling, so we would work with each person in the class. We would keep going until we were tired; if you stopped to read a newspaper or goof off, someone would pull you over to do chi sao. Yip Man would always be there, telling us which technique was best for a given situation; if your partner was tall, you should use this technique, if he was short, use that technique.
IKF: What did you do outside class to learn wing chun?
LMK: At that time in Hong Kong, food was very cheap, 1 HK dollar could buy snacks for six people. So after class, all the students would get together and buy some rice soup or fruit and talk about what we had learned that day. Yip Man would always come with us, and answer any questions we had, or tell us where we could have done better, or give us some insight to ponder. So we students had a great sense of camaraderie at that time, and great respect for our teacher.
IKF: What was your relation to Bruce Lee?
LMK: He learned from Yip Man in Kowloon. He did not study for a long time, because he later immigrated to America. Of course, I did sticky hands with him. His skill at sticky hands was not exactly great, but he had excellent feeling. His shoulders, elbows, and arms were very soft, and his angles were good.
IKF: What brought you to Taiwan?
LMK: I came to Taiwan about 30 years ago to enroll in military school, after which I worked in the Taiwan’s equivalent of the CIA for ten years. In 1975, after reaching the rank of major, I retired from the army and opened my own wing chun school.
IKF: Are you still doing anything for the public?
LMK: One of my original students was a police officer, and he told his precinct chief that I was a good teacher. They asked me to give a speech, and apparently were impressed. Through this introduction, I was later invited to teach martial arts to the police special forces—similar to the FBI of America. I wrote a book called, The Martial Art of the Police for them. It is like a text book, dealing with kung-fu, though not wing chun in particular.
IKF: How do you think Yip Man influenced your way of teaching?
LMK: In Hong Kong, Yip Man had many classes, and sometimes, Leung Sheung, Lok Yiu, and I had a chance to teach some of these classes. Yip Man taught us how to teach. He placed great importance on chi sao. Kung-fu is like a sport, a dead thing. You can perform a tan sao, or bong sao, but these mean nothing unless they can be executed based on feeling. How you learn to use these depends on your teacher. Maybe a woodworker can carve a bird. He can give you the carving, or he can teach you how to use a knife. And of course, your carving will be different from his, because you are a different person.
Yip Man said that just because you are good at wing chun doesn’t mean you can teach. If your students are good at wing chun, then that is testimony to your teaching skill! You might be a champion fighter, but if your students are bad, that shows you are a bad teacher. If a student has a good teacher, he will leave the school better than the teacher. Some people think that the student can never be better than his teacher. But if the teacher shows the student everything, and the student continues on his own, of course he will have both his teacher’s skill and his own. I hope that someday, all of my students surpass me.
IKF: What is your approach to teaching?
LMK: I use my own feeling, and push the student along. I must test his feeling, to see if it is good or bad. After the siu nin tao, I start with single sticky hands, and then move to double sticky hands, passing the correct feeling step by step. There is no set time frame for this instruction: some students move faster than others.
Being a teacher is like being a gardener— you must rend to the flowers to make sure they blossom. And some flowers take longer than others because of soil, lighting, water… the teacher must regulate factors such as the student’s own feeling, his frame of thought, his physical strengths and limitations.
Some students want to rush the process, but they can only absorb so much! It is like drowning a plant with water. Once, a rich man came to me and asked me to teach him the wooden dummy form. He said he would pay me NT $200,000 (U.S. $8,000). I refused, and he offered me NT $500,000 (U.S. $20,000). When I once again refused him, he asked why. I said, “If I teach you the wooden dummy form, I will be stealing your money. You don’t know what the dummy really means; you would just be moving your arms, but you wouldn’t be able to apply the movement.” People must learn step by step. This is the way I teach.
IKF: What is your method of teaching sticky hands?
LMK: I think sticky hands is the most important part of wing chun. Without it, you just have techniques, but you don’t know the when and why of using them. When I am doing chi sao with a student, I will always give him an opening. If he doesn’t find it, I must tell him that he had an opportunity which he did not take. I will tell him what technique works best for a given situation, or tell them if they are “chasing” hands. Some people say that the teacher must always do his best against the student. But this way, the student will never get the correct feeling. The teacher must give the student a chance! Maybe the student might hit the teacher, and onlookers will say that the teacher’s kung-fu is bad. No! He is giving the student a chance! He is not my enemy, he is my student! Yip Man always gave his students an opening.
I was told that at some school in Europe, the student must sign a contract, and if there is any contact, the student must say, “Yes, thank you sifu;” or “Yes, sorry sifu.” The sifu is scared that the student is better than him, so he beats him to scare away any potential questions the sifu can’t answer. This kind of kungfu and the sifu who teaches it are bad. If it was good, why does he need a contract? His student asks him how to use a particular technique, and “bam, bam, bam” (simulates hitting the student); then the student will be too scared to ask any more questions. Everything is, “Yes, sifu.” Even if the sifu knows nothing, if you don’t ask questions, you will always think he is great.
IKF: So the sifu is worried he will lose face?
LMK: What is face? If my students are no good, that is bad face; if they are good, that is good face.
IKF: Some people say Yip Man taught them secret, closed-door techniques.
LMK: I don’t think Yip Man kept any secret techniques. Why didn’t he show me? Why didn’t he show his sons? Yip Man didn’t teach his own son, but taught you? (laughs) Yip Man had private students, but I don’t think he taught them anything he didn’t show anyone else.
I always teach openly. If you have a question for me, I will give you an answer. Maybe I don’t have time today, but tomorrow I will answer. Maybe some people think that after class, I just go to bed. Of course at night, I will think about the question. Because you are my student, and want my help, I will help you! All my students are like my children. Even with my own son, I will tell him when he is right or wrong, even in front of other students. Why should I keep any secrets? It is better to have 20 good students teaching abroad than to have one old man in Taiwan! (laughs) This is my way. In my class, there is no first, second, or third place. Everyone is the same, though some move quickly, others slowly.
IKF: Do you have any last words, advice for students?
LMK: When doing sticky hands, do your techniques quickly, but don’t hurry. This means depending on your feeling to find an opening, not using your speed to force one. Quickly means going to college, getting an education, and finding a good job. Hurrying means robbing a bank. If you hurry with your techniques, you will not learn anything. In the end, you will have nothing.
Furthermore, you must remember that chi sao is not a freefight, not sparring. In a freefight, you hit my chin, I hit your chin; you break my nose, I break your nose. There is no winner or loser when both of you are missing teeth! Free chi sao, however, is with two friends, who want to learn from each other. You stop here (he punches at a student but stops before making contact) because you are afraid to hurt your partner, and he does the same because he is afraid to hurt you. If there is contact, it is only a little. Chi sao is not about winning or losing — it is a tool for making your techniques come alive.