Eastern art, Western way

  • People
  • Thursday, 26 Dec 2013

An unlikely teacher is helping to popularise the graceful martial art of Wing Chun in Malaysia.

THE worldwide popularity of the martial art known as Wing Chun has certainly been felt in Malaysia, and the tremors of countless punching bags resonate through the walls of training halls and gyms throughout the country. It is strange, though, that despite the cultural ties shared between the Malaysian Chinese community and Hong Kong, the birthplace of modern Wing Chun, a direct and verifiable connection with this fabled martial art made popular by Bruce Lee, has never been established. Until very recently. And in the unlikeliest of forms.

David Peterson arrived to live in Malaysia from Melbourne, Australia, almost three years ago. He brought with him three decades of experience in Chinese martial arts, most of it practising Wing Chun, as taught to him by Sifu (master) Wong Shun Leung, a direct pupil of the legendary Ip Man (the subject of worldwide hit biopics starring Donnie Yen and Anthony Wong).

Bruce Lee may have been part of the Ip Man school in Hong Kong, but the actor was taught directly most of the time by Sifu Wong, Ip Man’s top fighter, who purportedly never have lost an encounter. Peterson, who studied under Wong directly in Hong Kong, came to Malaysia with impeccable credentials, having taught around the world at seminars and coaching sessions.

With a professional background as a teacher of the Mandarin language at prestigious independent schools in Melbourne, Peterson’s command of the Chinese language along with the Cantonese dialect learned during time spent in Hong Kong, enabled him to communicate efficiently and fluently with Sifu Wong. This graduated to the point where Peterson accompanied the master on worldwide teaching tours, acting as translator and demonstrator for Wong. It was a traditional Chinese martial arts student-teacher relationship in the classical sense.

Peterson demonstrating the chum kiu form to junior students from INTI college.

Peterson’s aim now is to “teach Wing Chun to anyone who wants to learn it properly, in the same way it was taught to me by Sifu Wong”.

While courting his now-wife Norintan, Peterson made several visits to Malaysia before getting married and settling here. The local Wing Chun community learned of his visits and invited him to present seminars, and with each visit, the number of attendees grew.

“Eventually, we did a full-on public seminar in Kuala Lumpur which attracted some 70 plus Wing Chun aficionados from all over the country, many of whom are still training with me today as my most senior students,” says Peterson, who is in his 50s.

“One of them, Chua Jon Dep, who had been running his own class in KL for a number of years, and who’d been involved in Wing Chun for over 10 years when he met me, basically handed over his keys and said, ‘Sifu, please run the class and teach me,’” says Peterson.

Peterson’s approach to Wing Chun – or Ving Tsun, as it is spelled in the Sifu Wong lineage – takes the core tenets of efficiency, directness and explosiveness to what may be described as the most concentrated expression of those concepts.

While most martial arts styles and schools are called forms of self-defence, Peterson prefers to refer to Wing Chun as a “personal protection” system. This is in keeping with the art of Wing Chun itself as a form of combat, first developed at least two centuries ago in Southern China as a way of quickly training effective fighters to combat the Manchurian Qing Dynasty, by the native Han Chinese.

When asked about the obvious juxtaposition of a Western or white Sifu teaching Oriental martial arts, Peterson says, “Overall, both WSLVT (Wong Shun Leung Ving Tsun) and myself have been extremely well-received in Malaysia by the general public and the local martial arts community. There was some initial negativity that brought on comments such as ‘What would a gwailo know about real Gung-fu?’, but that has pretty much died down now.

Peterson working with a French student who travelled to Malaysia specifically to train with him in Seremban, Negri Sembilan. — Pics by PEIN LEE

“Some who had claimed to represent WSLVT before I came here have miraculously disappeared from the scene while our school has gone from strength to strength.”

The main school is situated in Seremban, where Peterson lives with his wife, a doctor at a local specialist hospital. Juggling the roles of husband, father and prolific columnist, Peterson also oversees the training of over 60 students at his school, or mo-gwoon, three days a week, and twice weekly in Kuala Lumpur at Taman OUG.

His fluency in Mandarin and Cantonese means he can communicate effectively and without hesitation with the majority of the students who are Chinese, but the classes also contain a sprinkling of the diversity that makes up Malaysian society, so the sessions are conducted primarily in English.

The students range from primary school children to senior citizens looking to add a spring to their step – Peterson adheres to the principle that nobody should be turned away provided they are willing to learn and demonstrate dedication.

The classes are run in a unique fashion according to Peterson, who says, “In Australia, my classes were always around 50-50 with regard to Asians and Westerners, so the balance is only slightly different overall.

“My method of teaching here in Malaysia has also remained the same: a mixture of formal, structured training sessions, and informal ‘Hong Kong-style’ training sessions.

“I believe that this blend of instruction brings out the very best from the students and with over 40 years in the martial arts, some 36 years of that as an instructor, this blend has proven to deliver the best results.”

According to Peterson, Wing Chun is easy to pick up, but takes a lifetime to master, and with even over three decades in the art, Peterson is constantly sharing knowledge with colleagues the world over.

Within weeks of beginning, one can expect to utilise certain key skills in real life situations, but to progress beyond that requires a sensitivity to one’s body and one’s mind that is not prevalent in other styles of martial arts.

At its essence, this is due to Wing Chun’s uniqueness as a concept-based art as opposed to one where systems of execution are predefined according to scenarios.

“In a real fight, you don’t know what your opponent is going to do,” says Peterson, “and in Wing Chun, we let the opponent show us how to hit him.”

The best analogy would be that Wing Chun provides the practitioner with a set of tools, and it is then up to him or her to put those tools into practice given the situation at hand. For this to be successful, physical and intellectual competencies have to be developed.

This results in an art that is constantly evolving according to each person’s body and mind, which in some way explains the multitude of lineages of Wing Chun that exists today.

The future of Wing Chun is bright in Malaysia at this moment. Peterson speaks fondly about his students and the school, stating: “We even proudly represented Malaysia on the international scene by entering a small squad in the 2012 Ip Man Cup Invitational Tournament held in Foshan, China, in February of that year, returning with a bronze medal for our efforts.

“Most recently, we appeared in the documentary Wing Chun: The Art That Introduced Kung Fu To Bruce Lee, again proudly representing Malaysia and Malaysian Martial Arts to the world.”

In addition, Peterson says, “We’re even doing our bit for the Malaysian economy, with a steady stream of international visitors from all over the globe who are now regularly coming to Malaysia for intensive training in WSLVT for periods up to two to three months at a time. Malaysia is quickly becoming a key destination for Wing Chun instruction and that is something that I am very proud to be a part of and to promote.”

With his intensive schedule of overseas seminars, there have been students from all over including Pakistan, Britain, the United States, France, Qatar, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Croatia, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Holland and even Hong Kong coming to Seremban to train at Peterson’s school.

Local students have benefited from this international exposure, and with the training and instruction of such calibre and renown available, the art of Wing Chun can only grow and flourish in Malaysia.

 For more information, visit wslwingchun.my.

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Eastern art , Western way


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