Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Tales of a Grandmaster

An uninvolved person

Who am I? A twenty-eight year student of Sifu Rick Spain, who was for a while Grandmaster Cheung's highest ranked student. I achieved my tenth level / instructor credentials in 1995, while Rick was still aligned with GM Cheung's World Wing Chun Kung Fu Association (WWCKFA). GM Cheung's signature and Chops appear on my instructor certificate.

Rick and his students parted company with the GM Cheung and the WWCKFA in 1996. I was there and know EXACTLY what happened. Recently, Rick and GM Cheung reconciled on a personal level, though the two organisations remain separate.

I also trained with Sifu David Crook, who has taught his own Bac Fu Do (White Tiger) style of Kung Fu in Canberra, Australia for nearly fifty years. David was a student of Grandmaster Cheung in the late 1960s.

I have only met GM Cheung at seminars. My relationship was only that of a grandstudent living in a different city to him.

I hope my background will show that I am not coming at this as a hagiographer or hero worshipper. I have great respect for the man and his Kung Fu. Like all of us, he is an imperfect creation.

These are just stories I've been told. The people telling them to me had no incentive to lie or embellish them.

Why am I writing this? To hopefully clear up some misconceptions about GM Cheung, his fighting skills, and his style of Wing Chun. I try to relate stories exactly as they were told to me, and to avoid judgements or editorialising as far as humanly possible. My intention is to inform, not inflame.

Early Days in Australia

Grandmaster Cheung emigrated to Australia from Hong Kong in 1957. Several accounts, including one by Duncan Leung, have him fighting between four and ten sailors at once on the boat. This was the subject of newspaper articles. I recall seeing a description of the encounter by a Wing Chun stylist who was also a passenger on the fateful trip in a photocopied newspaper article on the web, but am unable to find it again.

I was told that this might not be as miraculous as it sounds as the narrow gangways of the craft made it difficult for anyone to outflank such a person, and that cramped quarters would suit a Wing Chun fighter. Be that as it may, this shows impressive fighting skill.

I started my martial arts career, such as it is, in 1977, with David Crook, who studied with William Cheung in the late 1960s. I remain friends and in contact with David to this day. He was and is right up there with the very best martial arts teachers I have encountered.

David told me on several occasions that in his opinion William Cheung was among the best fighters and martial artists he had ever seen. David witnessed the vanquishing of numerous challengers back in the day.

Upon witnessing a demonstration by a fourth dan karateka, William Cheung told everyone present that, "I could beat that ... blindfolded". He was called on it, a date for the fight was set, and he made good on his prediction. He took a beating on his legs and arms until the gap was closed, but once contact was made, touch reflexes took over, and the karateka meditated horizontally.

He ended up accepting a similar challenge from another karateka after making similar statements. This time GM Cheung did no special training, but the other guy trained like a demon. This time, hard work beat out talent. [Edit: I have been told the karateka in question was Joe Meissner.]

David claimed that he had once tricked GM Cheung into throwing a sidekick which he was able to catch, and flipped the GM on his head, knocking him out. David was extremely worried about the ramifications of this but when GM Cheung came to he told David, "Good technique". David told me that he regarded this as nothing but a huge fluke, and that the other 999 times out of a thousand GM Cheung would be all over him like a swarm of fire ants.

He described the usual sparring experience as shaping up to the GM, then finding himself being propelled backwards and chased at high speed with his arms tightly crossed and pinned to his torso while his face and torso were peppered rapid fire with punches and palm strikes.

As an outspoken Asian in those times, GM Cheung found no shortage of big white guys who wanted to have a go at him in bars and other social venues. Not something he exactly shied away from. David recalls following GM Cheung into such a place and having the first challenger being propelled backwards out of the entrance door before David even reached it.

The Grandmaster was by many accounts a difficult man to work for. The list of those who trained with him for long periods and then parted ways, sometimes acrimoniously, presents a conflagration of burned bridges.

David Crook eventually felt the Grandmaster's wrath personally. David was a Nidan in Goju Ryu karate and a shodan in Japanese Jiu Jitsu before he decided to switch to Chinese arts. He felt the softer Kung Fu styles had more to offer, and were better suited to multi-opponent situations. He made no secret of the fact that he was studying with teachers of other Kung Fu styles like Choy Li Fut and Northern Sil Lum, as well as Wing Chun with William Cheung.

My understanding was the lack of exclusivity did not sit well with the Grandmaster. William Cheung showed up while David was performing a public demonstration, and started arguing with David and badmouthing his Kung Fu. That was the end of that association for a long time, though they buried the hatchet in the 1980s.

A more detailed account of what occurred then, though second hand, is here.

GM Cheung moved cities and opened his own, very successful, academy. He dispatched many challengers there, including another prominent Chinese Kung Fu instructor from that city who attacked him without warning.

His students fought many official kickboxing matches against students from Zen Do Kai karate, an organisation headed by the fine martial artist and actor Richard Norton and Bob Jones, and those of other organisations, including Sifu Jim Fung's students.

Rick Spain had over 100 amateur kickboxing matches and 37 pro fights. He retired from pro kickboxing undefeated after suffering a serious car accident involving significant damage to his ankle.

Rick and Joe Moahengi fought in the World Invitation Kung Fu Championship in Hong Kong, which had competitors from Britain, Europe, the US and all over SE Asia. Both won their respective weight divisions, Rick winning the final with a broken hand he had suffered in the penultimate match.

The matches were full contact with padded jackets and boxing head protection, and had few rules - elbows to the back of the head were just fine. They fought with weird gloves that offered about as much protection as regular bag gloves. The competition was not held again because the number of injuries suffered was the kiss of death for attaining any future sponsorship. This was not competition chi sao or point sparring.

There was plenty of underground interschool challenge fights and a plethora of street encounters as well, which seem to be obligatory. These guys were bouncers, bodyguards and fighters on every level, several of whom lived in the Kwoon 24/7 and trained like maniacs.

The picture I am trying to draw of GM Cheung is a man of proven high level fighting skill, who produced a considerable number of exemplary students whose fighting skills in the ring and on the pavement arena are beyond reproach. It is also fair to say that his outspokenness and uncompromising, confrontational nature resulted in many fights and much bad blood that could and should have been avoided.

And, derision for him and every one of his students and theirs, by some, ever since.

No one fights for real at the top of any fight game and wins all the time. If they are, they aren't facing real opposition. If you're beating up everyone in the Kwoon, you need to find a harder Kwoon.

Cologne Incident 1986

If you do Wing Chun and haven't lived on another planet for over thirty years, you have heard about this. There are videos. I will say nothing more other than this was an incident from which no good came for Wing Chun as a whole.

A while after leaving the WT organisation, probably more than ten years after this incident, Emin Boztepe was interviewed in Blitz Australia magazine on a visit to this country. He claimed in that article that the attack was not his idea but was orchestrated by his seniors in the WT organisation. He was sent. He claimed it was nothing personal, and that he did not regard William Cheung as an enemy.

New York Incident 1996

In, I think, 1996, Sifu Andrew Draheim of the WT organisation started posting derogatory statements about TWC and a number of its principals on the old rec.martial-arts newsgroup. He also set up a WT Kwoon in the same building where Victor Parlati, a TWC instructor aligned with GM Cheung, had already been running his Kwoon for some time. Victor complained that Draheim was also removing Victor's flyers from various notice boards, etc. around the place. Victor invited Draheim for a beer to see if they could come to some agreement without things turning ugly.

The war of words on the newsgroup, most of which I saw in real time, escalated. Draheim issued a challenge. Victor begged off due to recent surgery but said he would find someone else who could accommodate Draheim. After some toing and froing Draheim and Keith Mazza fought in Victor's gym. There is no video and the result was hotly debated. Draheim claimed victory, but also admitted he went to an ER after the fight, under his own steam, claimed to be due to symptoms of diabetes.

Both were thrown out of their building by the landlord, and Victor was caught up in some legal issues as a result. The same may have been true of Andrew Draheim, I don't know.

Andrew Draheim later left the WT organisation and posted on Kung Fu Online, admitting that he, like Emin Boztepe, had been put up to these actions by his WT seniors. I respect him for making those statements.

Third and fourth incidents in the Ten Year Cycle, 2006 and 2016 ...

Did not occur!. The UFC starting in 1993, where skilled martial artists had fair full-contact fights in the cage, made challenges and kwoon-storming look stupid and immature, and most people started to come to their senses about the absurdity of such.


This has been done to death as well.

However, David Crook taught me in 1977 the Sil Lim Tao and part of the Chum Kil he had learned from William Cheung in the 1960s. He used the toes-in, character two stance, used by the preponderance of Yip Man lineages. Also the bon sao with the bent wrist. Chum Kil was like that performed by many other Yip Man lineages.

GM Cheung claimed that he only started to teach the formerly secret, Leung Bik, system in 1973 after the death of Yip Man.

Rick Spain, who started with GM Cheung in 1974, learned Sil Lim Tao with the feet parallel, the bon sao wrist straight, and the TWC-specific Chum Kil and Bil Jee forms pretty much as they are taught today and which he taught me in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Something happened around the early 1970s that caused GM Cheung to change things up. The story is certainly open to challenge, but this part of the timeline certainly fits.


When HFY was made visible to the world after the publication of Complete Wing Chun and the involvement of the Wing Chun Museum, many people remarked at the apparent similarities between the two arts. It was postulated that GM Cheung had perhaps spent time on the mainland having incurred the wrath of the Triads in Hong Kong due to some legally ambivalent activities there ... or perhaps just from being his usual outspoken and confrontational self to the wrong people.

HFY is a mainland style, and the timeframes we have allow for him to study HFY there for a considerable period.

So is there a link between HFY and TWC? I strongly doubt it because:

  • If it were so, the time that it was being discussed would have been the perfect time for GM Cheung to drop the Leung Bik story. There would arguably have been considerable advantages to William Cheung admitting the link, and explaining that he had concocted the other story due to legal concerns or family shame due to nefarious activities.
  • I met up with HFY's Alex Oropeza, known to some of you as duende on KFO, when he visited Sydney in about 2011. We had a great chat over coffee and compared forms and some technique. We were both convinced afterwards that there are major differences and the two styles have little more than a few, largely superficial, details in common.

Does it Matter Any More? After Three Decades?

Since parting ways with GM Cheung in 1996, Rick Spain has gone on to become a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Kyokushin karate black belt. The student body, past and present, include IKBF world kickboxing champion and successful pro MMA fighter Nick "Whiplash" Ariel, and successful international pro MMA fighters Ethan Duniam and Rhiannon Thompson, among others.

Earlier successes include Maurice Llewellyn and Jon Church as nationally ranked kickboxers and state champions.

Even I have diversified and hold a black belt first degree in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Even if TWC were utter rubbish (which it isn't), I'm quite happy with that to fall back on in a, um, "real fight".

We've moved on from a single "fight" lost over thirty years ago. Hopefully other people can too.