JOSEPH WANG KIU WAS BORN ON THE 15TH OF AUGUST, 1923 IN HONG KONG. HE WAS ONE OF GRANDMASTER IP MAN’S FIVE “CORE STUDENTS”, TOGETHER WITH LEUNG SHEUNG, LOK YIU, CHU SHONG TIN AND WONG SHUN LEUNG.
“I am just a simple Chinese man doing Wing Chun. I’m not a professional.” Wang Kiu Sifu was a private person, to the extent that many in the Wing Chun world did not know of him for some years. Wang Sifu told me he started with Grandmaster Ip around 1950, when he had perhaps a half-dozen students in a back room of the “Third Prince” Temple. One of these students was an elderly newspaperman named Lei Man. Building enrolment for Grandmaster Ip motivated Wang Sifu and Wong Shun Leung to do the original dozen or so Challenge Matches (Beimo), which were highly illegal. Wang Sifu reported and promoted many of the matches in the Noi Mok Kun Tjat Po newspaper under the pen name “Water Dragon”, which was misread and published as “Little Dragon”, the characters for “water” and “little” being easily mistaken.
Wang Sifu told me he rarely came to Grandmaster Ip’s school later, but met him over lunch at the Long Fong (“Dragon Phoenix”) Tea House where they discussed Wing Chun. He said it was there at a table that he learned the Wooden Dummy form, by means of the partner version, because in those early days, no one owned a dummy. Around 1970, Wang Sifu moved to the Netherlands. He taught quietly and worked as a translator. One of his students was a graduate student named G. K. Khoe, who later took a faculty position in Canada.
I started studying under Wang Sifu at his now famous Wooden Dummy seminar for Dr. Khoe’s club at the University of Vancouver in 1986. Thoughts I spoke out loud caused Sifu to say he wanted me to write. Sifu and I fit together well from the beginning—he was a civil engineer while I was trained as an engineer and architect. This gave us a common language. My letter about the seminar was published immediately by Inside Kung Fu. Later, in 1986, I sent a draft article to Dr. Khoe, who forwarded it to Wang Sifu for comment.
My personal time with Wang Sifu began when I received a postcard from him complimenting the article Dr. Khoe had forwarded to him. I submitted that article to Inside Kung Fu, where it was finally published in March 1990. In 1987, Sifu and his family spent three weeks at my home in Texas, where he taught me the system very intensively. He lived in The Hague, Netherlands, so, for the rest of his life, we corresponded and got together whenever we could.
I have never studied Wing Chun under anyone else because I still feel I have several lifetimes’ worth of work to do on what Wang Sifu gave me. I treasure my memories of trying to keep up with him as he poured out a complex mixture of practical and theoretical Wing Chun. Sifu gave great detail of why he presented the art as a “bounded system”. This has served as a focusing beacon ever since.
Sifu had a gentle sense of humour that always avoided causing injury. On the first morning in Vancouver, we were lined up to start learning. He decided that we were all too serious, so he climbed up onto one of the dummies and started hooting and scratching like a monkey. When we were all laughing, he jumped down and said, “Good, now we can get to work!” Similarly, when he was at my house, one morning I came in whining that at the age of 33, I was feeling old. He fell to the kitchen floor and rolled around laughing, getting louder when I looked annoyed—he was almost twice my age!
Wang Sifu was, to my knowledge, always cosmopolitan. I treasure the fact that I never saw any sign of the restrictions or regulation I often hear about. He believed Wing Chun should be a roundtable because everyone has something to contribute. His contribution was to maintain the art as he first learned it in the early 1950s. His reasoning was that individuals could come up with variations, extensions, and special cases, but could not easily replace the experience of several generations. Replace is the key word here—teaching variations alongside the core was fine, as that can encourage critical thinking and understanding. However, he said it is incorrect to set aside something we do not understand today when we or our students might need and understand tomorrow.
Wang Sifu’s biggest message, in my opinion, was that “Wing Chun is not a style—it’s a theory, a set of principles that can apply to any art.” At the 1986 Wooden Dummy seminar, Sifu hung up five Kuen Kuit (Fist Principles, Kuen being “Fist”), saying that our entire week’s work would come out of these. On the third day, I was hooked! I stared at them, agreeing that every action he had shown us clearly expressed at least one of the five. I had found something utterly unique. This was economy “above and beyond” efficient movements. The five defined boundaries to the system, keeping it from wandering into unsupportable claims, and firewalling the universal temptation to graft on outside material to make it bigger than its nature. The system, at its core, is “a small idea”, teaching parsimony and critical thinking.
When Wang Sifu visited my house the next summer, he gave me a copy of that document (a blueprint, of course, being an engineer). He said those five could generate about 80% of the Wing Chun system. No extravagant claims of 100%—always modest and supportable. He shared two more that added maybe another 5-8%. Then, he hinted that there was another pair that took the total to the low 90%. Sifu did rather enjoy leading by teasing.
There were also sets of more general aphorisms covering judgment under pressure, and management of urgency, or of centreline. I realised eventually that behind each of these ideas is stress management—maintaining the “sweet spot” in one’s arousal curve, balancing the branches of the autonomic nervous system. More than any in isolation, the pairs and sets and trees of all these, like musical notes that make perfect chords, still amaze me with the Bach-like coherence of what Sifu called Wing Chun’s ESSENCE—the almost “mathematical proof” of it being a system comprising of interdependent parts.
Sadly, Wang Sifu passed away in 2009, at the age of 86. Knowing him, and being allowed to work closely with him, has been one of the biggest honours in my life. Several times Sifu said, “My generation took Wing Chun from the Earth to the Moon—you must take it from the Moon to Mars! If the student does not exceed the teacher, an art dies.” His memory is both inspiring and humbling, and it leaves me with promises to keep.