Ip Man’s Legacy

Written by David Peterson interview by Ben Stone

Sifu David Peterson & Ip Man the movie

In December 2008, Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen (Hero, Shanghai Knights) mesmerised Asian cinemagoers with his on-screen portrayal of legendary Wing Chun patriarch, Grandmaster Ip (Yip) Man in the film of the same name. Smashing box office records in China and Hong Kong, Ip Man went on to become one of the biggest Chinese films of the last 10 years and won Best Picture and Best Action Choreography awards in the recent 2009 Asian Film Festival. The Australian release of the DVD also features an exclusive Melbourne-made documentary, Wing Chun: The Legacy of Ip Man, featuring Melbourne-based Wing Chun instructor, Sifu David Peterson. Here, Peterson takes us inside the making of the film and unravels the fact from the fiction.


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The storyline in the film Ip Man is indeed based on the true-life exploits of the late Grandmaster, and the Wing Chun style is represented extremely accurately, not having looked so good on film since Prodigal Son back in the early 1980s. Missing are the usual special effects and ‘wire-fu’ that have dominated Chinese action cinema in the past. Instead, we see fight sequences where the action is fast, furious and largely (in the case of the Wing Chun used by actor Donnie Yen), very realistically portrayed.

Interestingly, Yen, who is a well-trained martial expert with years of experience in several other fighting systems, had never done any Wing Chun before starring in Ip Man, having barely nine months to get himself ready for the role. You wouldn’t think so when you see him in action on the screen – his Wing Chun looks a lot better than instructors with years of training under their belts. Going by the off-set footage that has been made available, he is familiar with not only the basic forms, but also the entire Muk Yan Jong (wooden dummy) set, and not half-bad at doing chi-sau too!

So, as far as the action is concerned, under the brilliant direction of veteran action star Sammo Hung Kam-Bo (Prodigal Son, SPL, Enter the Dragon), the Wing Chun system as portrayed in the film, looks great and the fight scenes are very memorable by virtue of their reality-based representation, even if there is a little of that ‘chop-socky’ razzmatazz going on here and there.

However, there are three main aspects in the storyline of the film that are very definitely not a truthful reflection of the Grandmaster’s life in China at the time portrayed. Understandably, the screenwriters have used a certain amount of dramatic licence to increase the impact and entertainment value of the film, but in doing so, have distorted the facts considerably. For those who have not yet seen the film, be warned that reading further will reveal aspects of the plot that you may prefer not to know.

In the film, we see Ip Man teaching the entire working population of the cotton mill owned by his friend, Chow Ching Chuen. In reality, Ip Man taught a very small group of students, mostly the children of some of the mill workers, after hours and in secret, at the rear of the mill for a period of around one year. He did not charge fees for this tuition and it is said that there were in total only six students who completed this training, two of whom, Lun Gai and Gwok Fu, are still alive today. The other four did not go on to teach the art and the best of them, Chow Guang Yiu, the son of the mill owner, gave up martial arts altogether and went into commerce, having never passed on his Wing Chun skills.

There is also the matter of how Ip Man was employed during the Japanese occupation years, after he lost his home and fortune. In the film, we see him working in a coal mine as a labourer, something that in reality he did not do. In actual fact, he was for quite some time a police officer who was very well respected in his community and involved in several daring exploits, one of which has been adapted in the screenplay, whereby in the film, Ip Man breaks the handgun of the police officer. This actually happened — only in real life, the gun was being held by a bandit and Ip Man was the police officer.

Finally, and most importantly, the final battle between Ip Man and General Miura, the Japanese military commander, did not take place, nor was he shot as we see at the climax of that fight scene. It is true that the Japanese approached him several times to instruct members of the occupying army, having learnt that for a brief time, Ip Man had actually instructed troops in the Nationalist Army (in fact, that was one of the main reasons why he eventually fled China, fearing a reprisal from the victorious Communist government for that and the fact that he’d been a police officer and a former member of the wealthy land-owning class). However, on each occasion that he was asked, Ip Man declined to take up the post.

Despite these seemingly serious inconsistencies, Ip Man presents an otherwise accurate portrayal of the man and his life in China, particularly in terms of his adherence to traditional social customs and courtesies, his easy-going manner and relatively modest personality, and his willingness to come to the aid of others — all things for which the real Ip Man was well known in his lifetime. One glaring oversight is the fact that he was a father to two sons and two daughters during the time shown in the film, but we are only ever shown his eldest son, Ip Chun, who is portrayed as a very young child.

It now looks like becoming a trilogy of films, with the upcoming instalments set to tell the life and times of Ip Man after he arrived in Hong Kong, teaching Wing Chun to the general public for the first time. And it will tell of the most famous students that gained instruction from him at that time, such as his very first student in Hong Kong, the late Leung Sheung, the legendary Gong Sau Wong (King of Challenge Fights), Wong Shun Leung and of course, the celebrated martial arts film star, Bruce Lee.

Production of Ip Man 2 commenced in August, with Donnie Yen reprising the title role and Sammo Hung appearing in the role of a rival Hung Kuen master, who is at odds with Ip Man teaching Wing Chun Kuen in Hong Kong at the beginning of the 1950s. Other characters appearing in the first film will also reprise their roles, with the two main ones being Fan Siu Wong as the bandit leader, now apparently reformed, and Gordon Lam, who played the part of the police officer and translator for the occupying Japanese forces. Expect to see Ip Man 2 in cinemas around Easter 2010, with production on Ip Man 3 to take place soon after.

I’m acting as a consultant of sorts for Ip Man 2, with star Donnie Yen and the scriptwriters using my book and instructional DVDs as sources of information for both the history and technical aspects of the storyline and action. Two former students and one of my former Hong Kong Wing Chun brothers are all currently vying for roles in the film, and I have been invited to visit the set in China to offer advice on the location. Having thoroughly enjoyed putting together the documentary for inclusion on the Ip Man DVD this time around, I am keen to be involved in a similar project on Ip Man 2 and hope to gather some behind-the-scenes action to utilise towards that end. If nothing else, it will be a pleasure to rekindle my friendship with Sammo Hung, with whom I worked as a script translator here in Melbourne when he was directing Mr Nice Guy with Jackie Chan back in 1996.

I was heavily involved in the promotion of the first film here in Australia, but local cinema chains were difficult to convince of the value of showing the film, so it was not given the exposure that it deserved. I was so determined that Ip Man got wider public exposure that I approached Madman Entertainment here in Melbourne on behalf of the Hong Kong distributors and helped broker the DVD release. When the film premiered in Melbourne, my school, the Melbourne Chinese Martial Arts Club (MCMAC) teamed up with the Hong De Lion Dance Team to open proceedings with both Wing Chun and lion dancing demonstrations at two major locations. As an added personal buzz, a photo of me taken while training in Hong Kong in the late 1980s appears on screen at the end of Ip Man — that was a nice surprise.

As far as the documentary Wing Chun: the Legacy of Ip Man is concerned, I was the creative force behind it and am the presenter of the material on camera, as well as being the presenter of the audio commentary for the film on the Australasian release. The documentary has also been bought by Bey Logan for Dragon Dynasty in the USA, which will also include it on its DVD release of the movie in a few months.

The documentary presents a brief history of Wing Chun, especially the Ip Man lineage, and discusses the outstanding legacy that the late Grandmaster left to the world. It offers a brief overview of what the Wing Chun system is all about, introducing the viewer to the various aspects of this unique art, including the forms, training equipment and drills, the weapons, chi-sau (sticking hands drills) and the basic combat theory of the system. There are lots of historical and contemporary photographs, and film footage of Ip Man, Wong Shun Leung and others, as well as selected clips from the actual movie.

An interview with David Peterson

David, despite being a devotee of the Wong Shun Leung Method of Wing Chun, you are quite active in training and sharing with instructors of other Wing Chun schools rather than just sticking to your own, as it seems a lot of Wing Chun instructors do. What’s your reason for this, and what do you get out of it?
For me, Wing Chun has always been my passion, not my profession, and I plan to keep it that way. I was extremely fortunate to have been instructed over a 15-year period in Hong Kong by the late Sifu Wong Shun Leung, one of the true legends of this combat system. He was particularly generous with his time and knowledge, making sure that I received all that he had to offer about this fantastic art, so since his untimely death in 1997, I have done everything that I can to share his legacy with anyone willing to listen. The man was a martial arts genius and the largely unsung inspiration behind Bruce Lee, and in his own lifetime never really received the kudos he deserved.

So, following his example, I try to have an open mind and interact with other Wing Chun practitioners, primarily to spread my Sifu’s wisdom, but also because everyone has something to bring to the table (no one person has all the answers). By talking and training with others, I too have something to learn and share with my own students. If nothing else, training ‘outside the family’ has given me a lot of insight into my own understanding of the system, as well as loads of experience that would have otherwise eluded me and kept me ignorant of my own, and the system’s, true potential.

Interestingly, the more I have written, taught and travelled, the more the ‘Wong Shun Leung Method’ seems to be gaining popularity and acceptance among other Wing Chun lineages as a legitimate and extremely practical and effective version of the art. Both my book, Look Beyond the Pointing Finger: the Combat Philosophy of Wong Shun Leung and my DVDs on the Siu Nim Tau [or Sil Lim Tao] and Cham Kiu [or Chum Kil] forms, have been praised by the Wing Chun community worldwide.

You’ve just returned from teaching in Osaka, Japan. I think most martial artists would assume that, given that China and Japan have their own martial arts and also a tense political history over the past century (and beyond), there would be little call for Chinese martial arts instructors in Japan, and vice-versa. Is that not the case — does Wing Chun have a strong following in Japan, in your experience?

Wing Chun, and Chinese martial arts generally, are gaining more and more popularity in Japan right now. The Japanese have always been a very astute race when it comes to adapting things from outside their own culture. They appreciate that much of what is modern Japanese martial arts originated in China centuries ago, so they see no problem in going back to seek knowledge from the source. Many are training in wushu and taiji quan, and now Wing Chun has become intriguing to them, gaining a steadily increasing following.

One of my students, Blair Johnston, has been running a very successful gym in Osaka for several years now, and of the things on offer at the facility, his Wing Chun classes are attracting ever increasing numbers. He even finds that Wing Chun devotees of other lineages living elsewhere in the country now regularly travel to Osaka to train with him. Just a little over a year ago, Blair was entered in an all-styles full-contact tournament held in Osaka where competitors came from all over Japan to compete. With no prior experience, Blair entered the tournament and, using purely and very recognisable Wing Chun skills, won the tournament outright. Last year he invited me to conduct seminars there for the first time, and this year the demand was there to do it again.
I now travel regularly to the UK, Denmark, Holland and Bulgaria, and have also taught in the USA three times in the past 10 years and in numerous Australian cities in order to pass on the WSL Method. All this has been a very happy accident, brought about by the simple desire to share my experiences with like-minded people who have read my writings or watched my DVDs. It has enabled me to make wonderful friends around the world and more importantly, play a small role in helping to preserve the legacy of both Grandmaster Ip Man and Sifu Wong Shun Leung, not to mention become involved, albeit in a small way, in the magical world of the cinema.