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Wednesday, October 30, 2019, 12:42
Kung fu master wings his way to success
By Wang Kaihao
Wednesday, October 30, 2019, 12:42 By Wang Kaihao

During the forum that hails Chinese martial arts, two of Duncan Leung Shiu-hung's disciples display the techniques of Wing Chun. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

When Duncan Leung Shiu-hung takes to the stage to deliver a speech in Beijing to share his decades of experience promoting Wing Chun, a southern Chinese form of kung fu, the man from Hong Kong says: "I'm a practitioner of martial arts, not someone good at talking."

As a keynote speaker invited by streaming platform Tencent to a recent forum on the contemporary significance of kung fu, Leung has a resume that would make the younger generations envious. As a childhood friend of Bruce Lee, Leung, at age 13, was introduced to Ip Man, the Wing Chun master. That meeting followed years of intense training and Ip taught him to realize the importance of adopting kung fu as a practical skill, rather than as a means to show off.

"Ip told me: 'If you cannot use kung fu in battle, why bother learning it?'" says Leung, now 77. "During social upheaval, kung fu can help us protect ourselves. But in the current era of peace and stability, we can use kung fu to build up our strength. It was never meant to be 'performed' in the first place."

Nevertheless, thanks to Lee's films, kung fu gained a global following during the 1960s. For most Americans, kung fu remained a mystery, and they had no idea where to learn it.

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Leung, who moved to New York in the early 1970s, then decided to open a martial arts school in the city, which was soon crowded with visitors.

"People kept coming to the school because they wanted to learn more about Bruce Lee, and not because they were attracted to Wing Chun per se," he says with a smile.

Still, Leung considered cross-cultural communication as essential to spreading a deeper understanding of kung fu, rather than relying on the way it was depicted on the screen.

"Martial arts are a key cultural root for us Chinese," he says. "It's also an important intangible property in Chinese culture. We have to preserve it and ensure it's recognized around the world.

"Popularizing kung fu in other countries can't be done by one person only; every martial artist needs to contribute."

Sometimes it needs an opportunity to arise, just like they do in Bruce Lee's movies. Leung's opportunity finally arrived when a scuffle broke out in a restaurant where he was dining. He narrowly missed being shot twice, yet quelled the tense situation with his bare hands in front of two police officers. News of this encounter swept New York like wildfire. He was even invited to train police officers in the art of Wing Chun. The course later expanded to special force units of the US Navy, and earned him great acclaim.

Nevertheless, cultural differences were still common. Leung recalls that while his Chinese apprentices would never question their masters according to Chinese tradition, many of their US counterparts would do so regularly.

"I was often asked 'Why?' when I taught the Americans. They wanted to satisfy their curiosity before they agreed with what I was saying," Leung says.

In recent years, Leung has frequently returned to China to launch Wing Chun courses in the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. There he found that the traditional master-apprentice relationship had also changed, and many young Chinese who come to learn martial arts now tend to ask questions, too.

Leung shared his decades of experience in his 2018 book, 60 Years of Wing Chun, which got a rating of 9.3 out of 10 on review site Douban for its relevance to younger practitioners.

And the guru who once used to shun the movie limelight has changed tack and embraced the idea for the sake of spreading the message about Wing Chun in his homeland.

During the shoot for The Grandmaster, the 2013 biopic about Ip Man, he recruited Tony Leung Chiuwai, the Hong Kong film star, as his student.

"I didn't expect him to take it so seriously," Duncan Leung says. "However, he really did, and the film turned out to be a success."

But he did not agree with everything in the production.

"In real Wing Chun, you don't have as complicated movements as you see in the movie," he says. "But the audience is king-so what choice do we have?"

The Grandmaster is considered to be one of the best kung fu films in recent years. It scored 7.9 points out of 10 on Douban, and was widely acclaimed by many moviegoers.

Duncan Leung's another wellknown student is Xu Haofeng, the Beijing film director known for his kung fu in art-house style, like The Master (2015).

Wing Chun master Duncan Leung Shiu-hung speaks at a recent forum on kung fu in Beijing. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

"I learned a lot from Leung, who in turn learned it from Ip Man," Xu says. "If you really go deeper in kung fu, you will find it is essentially about morals and rituals, not violence. It can also hone a person's patience and wisdom."

To Xu's delight, his master agreed to be the martial arts consultant of his next movie, where he persuaded Duncan Leung to appear in a cameo.

Speaking at the forum, celebrated martial-arts blogger Wang Xiaolei, says: "In China, martial arts are connected with chivalry and justice, and also has cultural connotations with patriotism.

"However, kung fu is also often portrayed as something purely metaphysical and spiritual."

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"I could feel Leung Shiu-hung's confidence as I watched his movements," says the online critic who also goes by the pseudonym of Liushen Leilei. "He taught people today to stand on solid ground."

Xiong Liang, a cartoonist for children's books, also shares his experiences of practicing martial arts while attending the forum.

"After learning kung fu, one may become more responsible about his or her work. Young people won't keep complaining and may think through their own problems," he says. "It will also help them to be more open-minded in interpersonal relationships."

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