HK Profile: Master Sam Lau – Chairman of the Yip Man Wing Chun Association

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One of Hong Kong’s most successful cultural exports remains kung fu films. Since their introduction to the West in the 1970s, they’ve rarely fallen out of fashion and the genre has made martial arts stars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan international household names.  However, once stripped of the glamour and allure provided by the film industry, what was kung fu like before it gained its global appeal? Master Sam Lau, known to some as sifu Sam, the Chairman of the Yip Man Wing Chun Association, is one who knows.

Lau is a first generation disciple of Yip Man, the man most famous for acting as Bruce Lee’s kung fu mentor. “When Yip Man first brought Wing Chun to Hong Kong from mainland China in the 1950s, it was very much sneered at by other locals schools,” Lau recalls. “Wing Chun is rather understated and focuses on practicality. This emphasis creates relatively still motions, hence Wing Chun does not come across as imposing as other schools, who considered us incompetent.” It was an unspoken law in the kung fu community that a new school must be able to stand the tests (read: fights) presented by other local schools of kung fu in order to establish itself in Hong Kong. “People came to challenge us all the time, even in the middle of teaching sessions, and those were incredibly harsh, tough fights, as people were doubting whether Wing Chun was a good enough kung fu,” Lau remembers vividly. “Of course, we defeated them and survived.  But quite literally, we fought for Wing Chun’s existence in Hong Kong.”

Yip Man, also known as Ip Man, is without doubt the recent fan favourite character in the local entertainment industry, with Hong Kong actors Donnie Yen, Anthony Wong, Tony Leung, Kevin Cheng and Dennis To all portraying him in title roles in six separate films and a TV drama series throughout the past eight years. When asked his thoughts on Yip Man’s recent surge in popularity, Lau debunks the mystery of the legend. “A lot of what goes on in front of the cameras is fabrication. They tend to present Yip Man as if he was a superman, when in fact he was a ordinary person who happened to perform superb kung fu.” The Wing Chun seen in films is not particularly authentic either. The style is known for its speed and accuracy, as well as its simplicity andeffectiveness. Lau points out that, “Normally, within a fight, we could defeat our opponents in one to two minutes. That, together with the succinct moves, does not generate the dramatic tension needed in a film. Therefore, the fights in films are choreographed more elaborately to help create the intensity that draws in audiences.”

Despite Yip Man’s rise in popular culture, the promotion of Wing Chun has not been easy. “I have seen many so-called instructors out there who are teaching some Wing Chun that is neither fish nor fowl. They have added or detracted from the proper Wing Chun,” claims Lau.  Therefore, apart from teaching, the Association is working hard on organising Yip Man’s legacy systematically and aiming to establish a standardised Wing Chun for competitions and examinations in order to maintain an authentic tradition.

The situation is not helped by the lack of governmental support, both in Hong Kong and mainland China. “Unlike taekwondo in South Korea or karate in Japan, which are endorsed by their governments or large institutions, we can only rely on ourselves. The kind of kung fu supported by the Chinese government relates more to acrobatics, which has lost the original intentions of kung fu,” states Lau. In an attempt to promote Wing Chun, the Association developed Wing Chun kuen do in 2005, which serves as an introduction to Wing Chun proper and gives its instructors an extra source of income to help keep Wing Chun alive. Like a true kung fu master, Lau remarks with much determination, “Obviously, I still hope Wing Chun could be promoted by the government. I believe one day they will know the good of Wing Chun – but when? No one knows. Hence, we have to work harder!” Ambrose Li

Find out more about the Yip Man Wing Chun Association at yipmanwingchunasso.com.

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