Wing Chun Time Machine

by Michael Nedderman
Photos by Peter V. Serracino

Pan Nam gives instruction to Eddie Chong.

[chronological note: This article was originally published in Inside Kung-Fu July 1993 (Part 1) and August 1993 (Part 2) about Sifu Chong’s 1991 experiences. Since then, he has returned to China every year for four to six months each visit to train with Master Pan Nam and, more recently, to learn from another instructor a rare form of Bak Mei, White eyebrow kung fu.]

(“Author’s note•: The following is presented in the interest of preserving and promoting the history and practice of Wing Chun Kung Fu. The information contained in this article was obtained from a recognized Master of the art and is in no way intended to offend anyone or to disparage any organization or in any way to demean the history and practice of Wing Chun as it is taught by the disciples of Yip Man. It is recommended that, before conclusions are drawn, both Part I and Part II should be carefully read and even reread because most answers are contained in the text).

• Who really originated and developed Wing Chun?
• Exactly which martial arts did its originator draw upon when formulating Wing Chun?
• Since it is supposed to have originated in the Shaolin Temple, did any internal arts influence its development?

The information which follows addresses these intriguing questions, and is derived from a small book commissioned by Master Pan Nam, from information told to Sifu Eddie Chong by Pan Nam, and from the observations and opinions of the author.

Wing Chun’s unusual approach to empty hand fighting has generated much speculation regarding its origin and practice. Some have tried to draw parallels with the techniques of other fighting arts, speculating that in the past there may have been some cross-influence. Due to the lack of information, these and other questions have remained unanswered. The fact that the history and practice of Wing Chun has literally come down to us from one individual, Yip Man, has in itself caused speculation, debate, animosity, and on occasion, even violence.

Anyone who has been fascinated with Wing Chun, studied its “family tree” and read or heard its history, knows about the legendary figures who developed and refined this amazingly effective fighting art. As the accompanying chart “A” indicates,some of the notables are the Buddhist nun Ng Mui, Ng’s student Yim Wing Chun who taught her husband, Leung Bok Chau, who taught Leung Lan Kwai, who taught both Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tei each of whom taught the great Dr. Leung Jan who became known as “King of the Boxers” because he defeated all challengers. Leung Jan taught, among others, his son Leung Bik and Chan Wah Shun, who each taught the world renown Yip Man, the undisputed Grandmaster of the Wing Chun system generally known outside of China today (often referred to as “Hong Kong Style” to distinguish it from several others).

While training for the past half dozen years, this author has often contemplated what those individuals must have been like both as people and as martial artists. Unfortunately, except for just a handful of stories, there are few details regarding the lives of the early practitioners or regarding the development of this unusual fighting art.

One cannot look at the chart hanging in the Sacramento Wing Chun school for very long (reproduced in part as “Chart A”) without wondering what it would be like to travel to China and find the descendants of the “others” referenced as having been students of Leung Jan or to find students descending from other unrecorded “branches” of the Wing Chun family tree. How fascinating it would be to see how their Wing Chun compares to that known to us here in the West and to hear the history they have preserved.

Sacramento based Wing Chun instructor Eddie Chong has done just that. Sifu Chong (who taught in San Francisco from 1972 to 1990, has been teaching in Sacramento since 1981, and currently has affiliated schools in several states) has recently returned from a lengthy trip to Fatshan, China where he traced the “roots” of his martial art to Wing Chun Master Pan Nam. Master Pan is very well known in the regions around Fatshan by the nickname “Blackface Nam” due to a large birth mark on his right cheek. (Author’s note: Fatshan or “Fat Shan” is Cantonese. On many maps the City, about 20 miles Southwest of Canton, is referenced by its Mandarin spelling, “Foshan” or “Fushan”.)

Pan Nam also was known as “Blackface Nam” because of the large birthmark on the right side of his face.

From the age of thirteen until he was about 30, Pan Nam was a practitioner of Sil Lum Kung Fu. He then changed to the Wing Chun System which he has been practicing and teaching now for over fifty years.

Pan Nam’s first Wing Chun instructor was Chiu Chau who learned from Chan Wah Shun’s son and Yip Man’s classmate, Chan Yu Mint. Pan Nam’s second teacher was Lai Yip Chi, who was another of Yip Man’s classmates under instructor Chan Wah Shun (in fact, Lai was Chan’s live-in apprentice). When Chan became an invalid as the result of a stroke, Lai Yip Chi continued training for a time under senior classmate Lui Yu Chai, while Yip Man followed Ng Chun So. Subsequently, Lai Yip Chi apprenticed to teachers whose lineage goes back to the founder of Wing Chun on a branch of the family tree about which most practitioners are totally unfamiliar (see chart “B”).

Lai Yip Chi (above) was Pan Nam’s second wing chun instructor, was Yip Man’s classmate under Chan Wah Shun, and introduced Pan to the sil lum system of wing chun and to “Painted Face” Kam.

The Shaolin Temple nun, Yi Chum, is said by Pan Nam to be the true founder of Wing Chun. Yi Chum taught Tan Sau Ng who taught Dai Fa Min Kam, Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tei (Leung Jan’s teachers). “Dai Fa Min” is a nickname meaning “painted face” and refers to the makeup he wore as an actor. “Kam” is all of his true name that has survived. Painted Face Kam taught Lok Lan Koon and his nephew who taught Pan Nam’s teacher Lai Yip Chi.

This branch of the Wing Chun family tree has not only preserved a different, possibly older, form of Wing Chun but has preserved the chi gung exercises that Master Pan says have been a part of the Wing Chun System from its inception. When Sifu Chong learned that there still lived a Wing Chun practitioner who had preserved this older form of the art, he fairly jumped at the opportunity to meet and become his student.

Prior to meeting Master Pan, Sifu Chong’s dedication to his art brought him to the realization that something was lacking. While it is obvious that, at the highest levels, the proper execution of Wing Chun involves characteristics that fit the definitions used by internal stylist to describe that which makes their systems “internal,” there existed a missing “connection” with regard to history, theory, and, to some degree, technique.

In the West, Sifu Chong observed that the fighting art taught at many Wing Chun schools varied, sometimes dramatically. Although a highly effective martial art, he recognized that the system had been modified, and therefore resolved to trace back and find as original a form of Wing Chun as possible. Obviously, the closer he could get to the system’s founder, the more pure the art would be. Eddie Chong realized the possibility existed that a practitioner might still be living who had been trained by one of the early masters. With China now open to travel, Sifu Chong decided to seek him out.

On a trip to his Singapore school, Sifu Chong took an excursion to Fatshan, the traditional home of Wing Chun. While in Fatshan, his inquires regarding local Wing Chun instructors brought information about 81 year old Master Pan Nam, the last known disciple on Painted Face Kam’s branch of the family tree. Sifu Chong learned that Pan Nam had ceased teaching in 1990 and had, in fact, “closed the door” to his gymnasium. Unknown to Sifu Chong, Master Pan had delayed officially retiring (involving certain formal rituals) because he had a premonition that someone, his final student, was coming.

There are great changes occurring in China today, everyone is busy trying to make money, and sadly, interest in the martial arts has declined. Because of this, Pan Nam had nobody outside of Fatshan he felt could or would perpetuate the art entrusted to him by his teachers, an art which, while a young man, he had gone to great lengths to trace back to Painted Face Kam, and which he has spent 50 years perfecting. And so Pan Nam waited for the last student to whom he intended to give his knowledge.

When they finally met, Master Pan recognized Eddie Chong’s desire and sincerity, and accepted him as his final student and, eventually, as the heir (outside China) to the original Sil Lum (Shaolin) Wing Chun system of his teachers. Sifu Chong told Master Pan that, in order to promote a better understanding of this very popular fighting system, he wanted to let the people in the United States see the difference between the Wing Chun they had been practicing and the original Sil Lum Wing Chun system preserved by Master Pan.

Mr. Chong went through the traditional Chinese ceremony of kneeling and giving a cup of tea to the old Master, asking to be accepted as his disciple (see photo 1). This was followed by a special meal. Afterwards, Master Pan took out his family tree and entered Eddie Chong’s name as his closed-door student, the last he would accept.

Eddie Chong gives the ceremonial cup of tea to master Pan Nam, asking to be accepted as his student.

Having fulfilled his desire to train a successor, Master Pan Nam officially hung out the scrolls that proclaimed his retirement when Eddie Chong left Fatshan in late Spring of 1992. Sifu Chong has returned to visit Pan Nam every year since (Author’s note: Pan Nam died in 1995).

This article (Part I and Part II) will discuss the fighting art of Wing Chun as it has been preserved by Master Pan Nam, and now by his designated heir, Sifu Eddie Chong.

Motive is everything

For those who may be wondering, Pan Nam has not been in hiding. Many well known Wing Chun instructors came from Hong Kong and the West to see Master Pan in Fatshan but, apparently, none were prepared to “empty their cup.” They listened to the history and saw the art preserved by Pan Nam and, for one reason or another, decided not to accept this knowledge (some of these visitors borrowed and never returned irreplaceable books depicting the historical and technical aspects of Wing Chun). It is unknown whether they were merely comfortable with their own system or too proud to acknowledge the possibility that, just as there are different styles of Tai Chi, White Crane, etc, there exists another style of Wing Chun which has preserved a somewhat different practice and history.

Being comfortable with one’s martial art is understandable and will not cause malicious contention. However, the unfortunate nature of ego is often to favor the protection of vested interests, and to reject anything that does not conform by attacking and by “playing politics.”

Sifu Chong sincerely hopes that his efforts to preserve this significant part of Wing Chun history and practice does not meet with such animosity. He hopes that the information presented here and in subsequent articles and books will be met, if not with acceptance, at least with the open mindedness and tolerance befitting mature martial artists. After all, this isn’t a religious discussion.

The conflict between the stories of the origins of Wing Chun and between the theories and techniques of the various Wing Chun systems is not really a problem when understood and considered objectively. Though at first glance some of the differences are dramatic, each system in fact complements the other, and knowledge of the theories and techniques of the Wing Chun taught by Master Pan can only improve one’s martial skills. Understanding the differences and the reasons for any changes that have occurred gives us our only glimpse into the martial minds of the early masters, a type of “martial arts time machine,” if you will.

Certainly, the history Pan Nam has preserved fills in many gaps and explains much. Even the renown Dr. Leung Ting expresses doubts about the traditional story of Wing Chun’s origin (sometimes spelled “Wing Tsun” or “Ving Tsun”):

“I have some doubt about the authenticity of Buddhist Mistress Ng Mui’s creating the Wing Tsun System after seeing a fight between a fox and a crane, of Miss Yim Wing Tsun’s encountering the local bully, of the fire at the Siu Larn Monastery or even of the existence of Ng Mui herself! …of course, the final decision on their authenticity still rest with the reader.” From WING TSUN KUEN, eighth edition (1986), pages 30-31, by Leung Ting. (note: others record the legend of the fight observed by Ng Mui as being between a snake and a crane).

Similar opinions regarding the story of Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun are expressed in an article entitled “Researching the Origins of Ving Tsun” by Yip Man’s son, Ip (Yip) Chun, that appeared in the recently published GENEALOGY OF THE VING TSUN FAMILY, 1990, pages 27-29, edited by Leung Ting, and published by the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Athletic Association Ltd. On page 28 of that article, Ip (Yip) Chun reports having visited Pan Nam in Fatshan, and that Master Pan credits Tan Sau Ng as bringing Wing Chun to Fatshan “from the North” (“Tan Sau” is a nickname meaning “dispersing hand,” and refers to a particular technique unique to Wing Chun). On page 29, Ip (Yip) Chun also notes that Painted Face Kam was a contemporary of Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tei.

On page 28 and 29 of his article, Ip (Yip) Chun reports independent substantiation in two books of the historical existence of Tan Sau Ng and of his martial skills. First, from A STUDY ON THE HISTORY OF THE CANTONESE OPERAS, by Mak Siu Har:

“In the years of Yung Cheng (Manchu emperor, 1723-1736), Cheung Ng of Wu Pak, also known as Tan-Sau Ng, brought his skills to Fat Shan and organized the Hung Fa Wui Koon (now the Chinese Artist Association)”; (author’s note: Hung Fa Wui Koon is literally, “The Eight Harmony Union”).

and from the same book:

“Besides being very accomplished in Chinese opera, Cheung Ng was especially proficient in martial arts. His one Tan-Sau was peerless throughout the martial arts world.”

And, secondly, from A HISTORY OF CHINESE OPERA, by Mang Yiu, Vol. III, page 631:

“For some reason, Cheung Ng could not stay on in the capital, so he fled and took refuge in Fat Shan. This was during the reign of Yung Cheng. This man, nicknamed Tan-Sau Ng, was a character “unsurpassed in literary and military skills, and excellent in music and drama.” He was especially proficient in the techniques of Siu Lam. After settling down in Fat Shan, he passed on his knowledge in traditional opera and martial arts to the Hung Suen (Red Boat) followers, and established the Hung Fa Wui Koon in Fat Shan. Today, Cantonese opera groups revere him as Jo-Si (Founding Master), and refer to him as Master Cheung.”

It is highly probable that Tan Sau Ng had to flee the capitol because of his revolutionary activities. Also, note that the reference to “Siu Lam” (Sil Lum or Shaolin kung fu) and not to Wing Chun is probably because, as will be explained, the system did not receive its name until sometime after Tan Sau Ng.

The photos above illustrate techniques from Pan Nam’s wooden dummy form that are much different than the dummy form familiar to most wing chun practitioners. These involved techniques from the eagle claw system.

What conclusion did Yip Man’s son, Ip (Yip) Chun, draw from this astounding information? “Comparing the legend of Yim Ving Tsun with the information on Tan-Sau Ng, I consider the latter more acceptable in our examination of Ving Tsun’s origins.” From “Researching the Origins of Ving Tsun,” page 28 of the GENEALOGY OF THE VING TSUN FAMILY, 1990.

Even though there are some differences and inconsistencies (especially regarding dates), if Sifu Chong’s introduction of this information is objectively considered by each of the contending factions of the Wing Chun community, perhaps the individuals involved will reconsider any animosity felt and be drawn closer in the realization that each system’s history and practice is a legitimate part of Wing Chun tradition.

As for the story of exactly who originated Wing Chun, Yi Chum the nun and her disciple Tan Sau Ng, or Ng Mui the nun and her disciple Yim Wing Chun, Dr. Ting’s advise is sound: let the reader consider each version with an open mind, and then decide which makes more sense. Actually, no decision is really necessary. Whatever its origin, both histories are a part of the art’s tradition, and both tell us important things about the old masters and the forces that shaped Wing Chun. Personally, this author likes the story of Ng Mui and of her first student, Miss Yim Wing Chun. At the very least, it is romantic. However, intellectual honesty demands open-mindedness, and an objective review of the details of the history Pan Nam has preserved and of the independent corroboration of the history discovered by Ip (Yip) Chun cannot permit an out-of-hand dismissal of that information.

From the wooden dummy form, this technique illustrates the nerve strikes contained in Pan Nam’s system

Perhaps the examples set by Sifu Ip (Yip) Chun and Sifu Eddie Chong will be followed by others, and further efforts can be made to trace this fascinating history so that the Wing Chun community can better know its illustrious founders and the fighting art to which they were dedicated.

Critical to the following discussion of the two systems are these facts:

• Pan Nam’s association with instructor Chiu Chau gives him intimate knowledge of the system of Wing Chun taught to Yip Man by Chan Wah Shun (Master Pan refers to this as “fast hands” Wing Chun); and

• Pan Nam’s association with Lai Yip Chi gives him not only intimate knowledge of the earlier version of Wing Chun as it was practiced by the opera actors (Painted Face Kam, Wong Wah Bo, Leung Yi Tei, and Lai Fook Shun) of the Eight Harmony Union, but because of his own and Lai’s knowledge of “fast hands” Wing Chun, he has a solid basis for comparing the two.

Therefore, Pan Nam has the rare qualification to authoritatively comment on the Wing Chun practiced by both branches of the family tree. In Pan Nam, and now in Eddie Chong, this knowledge is perpetuated, and a better understanding of the differences between the two histories, and between the fighting theories and techniques of these two great systems of Wing Chun, is now possible for the first time outside of China.