Master Lo Man Kam
On Yip Man, Bruce Lee and the art of wing chun
WING CHUN IS A relatively young martial art originating in southern China that was made famous worldwide by Bruce Lee. It is known as a aggressive close-combat martial art without fancy moves or adornments. Despite being as common as dim sum in Hong Kong, it is almost nonexistent in Taiwan. There is, however, one Taipei rooftop that attracts Wing Chun students from all over the world: the school and residence of Master Lo Man Kam. Lo is the nephew of perhaps the most famous Wing Chun master in the world, Yip Man. He has taught Wing Chun for over 30 years, acted as a combat instructor for the Taiwan Investigation Bureau and is the founder of the Lo Man Kam Wing Chun Kung Fu Federation which has numerous branches in the US and Europe.
I interviewed Master Lo at his school one morning surrounded by yellowing photographs, certificates and calligraphy of his own creation. He is a small, older gentleman with a spry step and enthusiastic smile. His size seems appropriate for a marital art reputed to have been created by a woman and known for redirecting power. As he sat down to answer my questions I could hear the thump of one his students on the rooftop upstairs pounding away at the wooden dummy.
Fountain: How did you first get started studying martial arts?
Lo Man Kam: I began studying Chinese gongfu around the age of 13 until around 18 when I started Wing Chun.
F: Why Wing Chun?
LMK: Around the year 1950, my uncle Yip Man [Lo Man Kam’s sister’s younger brother] moved to Hong Kong from. He had been a policeman and couldn’t find work so he began teaching Wing Chun on the rooftop of the Kowloon Mess Union to earn money. Five or six of us started studying there.
F: Yip Man was a legendary Wing Chun teacher. What was he like?
LMK: He was very welcoming and laid back. There were so few students that we all got lots of personal attention. We paid 20HK a month rather than the 5HK that most people paid to study other kinds of gongfu but it was well worth it. Studying with Yip Man required an introduction which also kept the number of students small. I ended up studying 10 years with Yip Man at a few different locations.
F: One of Yip Man’s most famous students was Bruce Lee. What do you remember about him?
LMK: He started studying after getting an introduction from William Cheng, I believe, in around 1956. He studied for a couple of years and then moved on. He liked fighting and moving as fast as possible, but wasn’t the most experienced. I think he learned the first couple of forms while there [Wing Chun has three open hand forms, a wooden dummy form, a staff form and a butterfly knife form].
F: You hear a lot about fights between various styles during that time. Did you ever see any of those?
LMK: Not really. Actually, at that time many people studied different styles of gongfu. We all got along and would talk to each other and trade information. Most people were more concerned with learning than trying to determine who was the “best”. We were more like gongfu scholars than guys trying to outdo each other.
F: What originally brought you to Taiwan?
LMK: I was originally studying electronics and decided to go to Taiwan to be a soldier in 1960. I joined the military and did special forces military training for over three years in Taichung and later became an Army Major. During that training I learned a lot of hand to hand offensive and defensive tactics. I also did a lot of judo and qin-na [joint locks] and the like. I incorporated much of what I learned there into the training that I now do for the police.
F: When did you start teaching and how many students have you had?
LMK: I started teaching in 1975 after retiring from the military. I had a few Taiwanese students and got my first foreign student later that year since I could speak English. Since that time I have had thousands of students from Taiwan and all over the world. I also do a lot of seminars abroad.
F: What do you think is unique about Wing Chun and its training?
LMK: Many martial arts emphasize techniques and forms. Wing Chun is designed to improve a student’s actual reactions. It develops your feeling and ability to react to situations rather than depend on your memory of a series of techniques. Chisao [a form of fast push hands with punching] is non-cooperative so that students learn to react to any situation as it arises rather than simply doing choreographed movements.
It also helps improve circulation and overall health. Since Wing Chun focuses on skill rather than brute force, it can be practiced by anyone of any size at almost any age.
F: Are there other martial arts that you find interesting?
LMK: Of course there are many martial arts that are interesting and effective. Most martial arts are really trying to accomplish the same things, and the basic principles of movement have to be followed by everyone. I try to follow the natural movement principles and go as long and as deep as possible using the Wing Chun way. I don’t have time to use a variety of approaches.
F: You hear a lot about “internal” and “external” martial arts? What is the difference?
LMK: Most are really a combination of both. The external is the obvious part of what you do. It can be measured, copied or taught. The internal is what you are doing inside to make the external actually work. Science can’t measure or determine that. That is the art.
F: How does one go about learning Wing Chun?
LMK: When a student first learns Wing Chun, he or she learns a few movements and a form. The Wing Chun form is not flowing like the forms of most martial arts. It is more like a dictionary that provides the most basic movements. These movements act as “words.” Later the student does chisao with other students. This exercise is non-cooperative and is similar to learning to talk. The student is soon forming “sentences” and later having full “conversations”. Just as every person talks and communicates in different ways, so too does each person learn to chisao and fight in different ways. During chisao, the students also learn to trust the feeling in their bodies rather than their eyes. This improves the fundamental reactions in the body to any new situation. These improved reactions help you when it comes to fighting at the most basic level.
F: What do you think most attracts students to Wing Chun?
LMK: Of course they come to learn to fight. They start out that way, but Wing Chun can change the way you think. Wing Chun looks aggressive, but it is actually an extremely conservative martial art. It teaches you to only hit when you can’t be hit. The philosophy behind it is that you can never lose if you never get hit. I mean, you might see two guys fighting back and forth and trading blows until one goes down. The guy still standing might say, “I won! I won!” Yeah, you won maybe, but…well…look at your face. Winning is not getting hit.