Interview with Doc-Fai Wong
Special thanks to contributing editor, Sifu Neil McRitchie
FS: We are honored to have with us tonight Grandmaster Doc Fai Wong. Grandmaster Wong hails from a very rich tradition of legendary Chinese Kung Fu masters. Grandmaster Wong is a fifth generation grandmaster of the Choy Li Fut system of Kung Fu, descended from the founder Chan Heung. He is also the Grandmaster of the Yang style Tai Chi Chuan (Tai Ji Quan) by way of his own teacher Hu Yuen Chou, who in turn learned from legendary Grandmaster Yang Cheng Fu.
Grandmaster Wong has dedicated his life to the martial arts and as a result he has become famous worldwide for his martial arts talents and attributes. He has written numerous articles for martial arts magazines and publications including Black Belt and Inside Kung Fu. He has performed countless martial arts demonstrations, including numerous radio and television appearances. Grandmaster Wong's students travel from every corner of the globe to seek him out for his knowledge and in depth understanding of Kung Fu. Thank you for being with us tonight and welcome.
Grandmaster Doc Fai Wong: Thank you.
FS: Grandmaster Wong this is perhaps a broad question, however, can you tell us what are the necessary steps for proper advancement in the martial arts? In other words what are the key ingredients to building a solid foundation in Kung Fu?
Doc Fai Wong: Achievement in the martial arts is basically this…consistently train everyday and work very hard.
FS: Obviously you have instilled this among your students because I have seen them training very hard. Do you believe that the student should learn the hard physical training combined with internal development or, do you recommend beginning with either one or the other method first?
Doc Fai Wong: The student must learn the external movement first. The beginner has to have some kind of physical work out because it is easier to understand than the internal workout. The students like to see results and by doing the physical workout they can see results right away. Eventually, they can gradually progress into internal development. However, you have to have both internal and external to have a complete system.
FS: Now over the course of your training you have learned many varieties of physical and spiritual training techniques from masters of the highest regard in the martial arts world. Which of your teachers had the greatest influence on you and what particular skill or character development did you achieve at that time in your training?
Doc Fai Wong: Actually I would say that was my second teacher Hu Yuen Chou. He is the one that gave me my life in the martial arts. I learned a great deal from two other masters also, but Hu Yuen Chou is the one that actually made me understand what the internal is and what Qi is and what the power is in the martial arts. Without the internal martial arts, without the strength and Jing development all the forms and fighting techniques would be useless. Hu Yuen Chou didn’t actually teach me many of the Choy Li Fut forms. Don’t get me wrong. He taught me plenty of forms but, what he really taught me was the essence of the system. I am more thankful to him than anyone else for really explaining to me how the system works. He taught me how to develop Jing and how to incorporate that power into the fighting movements. He taught me body mechanics and how to transform that into an effective fighting system. He taught me the scientific understanding as well as the artistic side of the fighting movements. His whole life was devoted to martial arts. He had a very deep knowledge of the martial arts and he knew how to bring that into his training and his teaching.
FS: What started you on the road to the martial arts?
Doc Fai Wong: When I was a little kid say about four or five years old. When I was in China I had been watching Chinese operas with my mom. By watching the Chinese opera I was able to see a lot of fighting scenes and a lot of acrobatics and a variety of traditional Chinese weapons. Particularly watching the Monkey King I became fascinated by all the fighting movements. When I came to San Fransisco in 1960 at that time there were not many Chinese living outside the confines of Chinatown. There was some discrimination between the non-Chinese and the Chinese when I was growing up. There were obvious cultural differences and the non-Chinese kids liked to pick fights or make fun of the Chinese kids. As a small boy being faced with these challenges I had to think…What is the best fighting? And I realized that it was Chinese Kung Fu from being exposed to all the things that I saw in Chinatown. But, I was so young at the time that I could not afford martial arts and my parents wouldn’t pay for me to study. So I had to seek out anyone that knew martial arts and ask them to teach me. Eventually, I had to get a part time job so that I could make some money and join a school.
FS: Did your parents encourage you in the martial arts.
Doc Fai Wong: No, in fact it was quite the opposite. My grandfather on my mother side was an herbalist and martial artist. My mother learned some herbal medicine from him, but she had no interest in the martial arts. You have to understand at this time most of the parents in Chinatown did not look at Kung Fu and Kung Fu schools as very respectable. My parents were afraid that the Kung Fu schools might be like the Triads or Chinese Mafia and they did not want me to join such a school for that reason. Their thought for me was that I should get a good education and that I should stay away from Kung Fu because fighting was for gangsters and hoodlums. That’s why many parents didn’t allow their children to learn at the martial arts schools. And I really couldn’t blame them because at one time it was really like that.
FS: What was your training like when you were a child? Can you give an example of your earlier training in the martial arts?
Doc Fai Wong: Right after school I would go directly to the kung Fu studio. At that time the studio was only a block away from where I lived.
FS: And who was your instructor at that time?
Doc Fai Wong: That was great grandmaster Lau Bun. In the traditional Chinese school at that time there was no formal class training. So you would go there and they would show you a couple of moves and you would have to work on those moves all day. You could stay as long as you liked or you could leave and go home if you wanted to. So, you had to be really self-motivated to get through this type of training program.
FS: Can you tell us what types of things you did in your training as you progressed?
Doc Fai Wong: So when we followed Master Lau Bun’s teaching. We were allowed to work on our own on different forms or we could train with our buddies. We started first with horse stance training. It was very hard a lot of students did this for maybe three months and then get tired and then drop out. After you trained the horse stance training long enough then they would teach you the first form. Once you learned the first form then you would learn a couple of fighting drills and you would work on them over and over again.
FS: Now did you carry on that tradition of teaching or did you modify this for your own students.
Doc Fai Wong: Actually, the way that we teach now is much better than in the old days. I have tried to improve upon tradition. For example, if you go to school you can learn Math or English or Science. But, in school you don’t have to learn the whole English language before you can do Math and with the martial arts it’s the same way. Nowadays we teach the stance work like in the old days, but at the same time we teach the basic forms and self defense techniques and other movements for the beginner so that they really feel like they are learning something instead of just standing around being bored.
FS: So, in teaching in this way do you believe that you can elevate your art to a higher level and attract more students at the same time?
Doc Fai Wong: Attracting students is not the main emphasis. What I want to do is make it fun for the student so that they can enjoy the martial arts training.
FS: You have many students and they all look up to you as someone to emulate. Who were some of your martial arts heroes when you were growing up?
Doc Fai Wong: There were many masters in Chinese history that we learned about. Some of these were fighters for the revolution. They were many past masters that I highly respect like Yang Cheng Fu.
FS: You descend from some of those great masters in your own lineage. How have you passed on their tradition?
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, my master Hu Yuen Chou, who learned from Grandmaster Yang Cheng Fu, told me not to hold back like some of the older masters did. He said go ahead and teach the students, regardless of race or cultural background. As long as they are good human beings with a good heart they must be taught the whole art.
FS: Its funny you should say that because about twenty years ago I was visiting San Fransisco’s Chinatown and I was able to observe you at your school. I was honored that you allowed me to observe you perform a highly advanced spear set as well as other forms and techniques. This was unlike many other schools that I happened upon in Chinatown where I was told I was unwelcome because I was not Chinese. In fact, one school had several senior students escort me to the outside where I was told I was not welcome because I was not Chinese.
Doc Fai Wong: That’s too bad. To me it is very important that I teach students with good character because they are going to be the ones that are going to carry on my name.
FS: Previously you mentioned Master Lau Bun. I had heard that he did not like to teach non-Chinese students. Was there any truth to this rumor?
Doc Fai Wong: It was not that he didn’t want to teach non-Chinese, but you have to understand that in those days in Chinatown there were different associations with many members. Those associations would put pressure on anyone that didn’t go along with their wishes. So, Lau Bun himself didn’t have any trouble teaching outsiders, but the Chinatown association at that time did not want outsiders learning Kung Fu. He did have one Hawaiin student in the old days, who was referred by someone of good character, but he did not have any White or African American students in those days. Unfortunately, he died before he was really able to have the opportunity to teach Choy Li Fut to non-Chinese students.
FS: Did you encounter any hostility for teaching non-Chinese students from the Chinatown associations.
Doc Fai Wong: No, when I began teaching in 1960s I didn’t belong to any associations and I felt free to teach whomever I wanted.
FS: Grandmaster, Choy Li Fut is a very dynamic system, and looks very challenging. Can older people, say 50+ begin to learn the system? And if so, what concessions are necessary for the more senior student?
Doc Fai Wong: I would say that anyone who is 50 or older could learn Choy Li Fut as a health system. But unless they had some physical training or martial arts training earlier in their life it would be very difficult to learn Choy Li Fut as a fighting art. Also, for someone of more senior age if they were to get hurt it generally takes longer to recover from injuries than someone who is much younger.
FS: Do you direct the more senior students into Tai Chi.
Doc Fai Wong: No, I give them the choice of which direction they want to go. But, if I feel they are not physically strong enough I will tell them not to push too hard so as to minimize any potential health risk.
FS: Do you consider weapons training to be a necessary skill for individual advancement in the martial arts? If so, why?
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, because the weapons training is good for developing the Jing and also for example; the Gim or sword movements help to develop the strength in the wrists. The staff helps to develop strength in the forearms. Different weapons have different body parts that they help to strengthen. Also, the weapons training preserves the traditional aspects of the art. Ultimately, it helps to bring your skill to another level. If you really like the martial arts then I think you will enjoy weapons training. It makes the art more complete.
FS: What is your favorite weapon?
Doc Fai Wong: The straight sword, also known as the Gim.
Interview with Doc-Fai Wong
FS: What is your favorite fighting form?
Doc Fai Wong: I have many. There is no particular form that is always my favorite. Any form that one does well becomes a favorite form. However, if I had to choose I would say that I really enjoy “Buddha Palm” and the “Choy Li Fut Snake form”. Also, “Lo Han Taming the Tiger” also I love Choy Li Fut fan forms at this time.
FS: What is your favorite internal form?
Doc Fai Wong: I like it all. Tai Chi of course and all Choy Li Fut internal forms, of which there are many, I enjoy them all.
FS: You follow in a great line of traditional martial arts. With all the distractions in the modern world do you feel that the students of present day can achieve the same level of skill such as achieved by Master Yang Cheng Fu, Hu Yuen Chou, Profesor Peng-Si Yu or yourself?
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, because even though we have the high tech distractions of today people are still people. In the olden days they didn’t have video games or computers, but they had other types of fun and entertainment. If people really enjoy the martial arts they will find the necessary time to do it. If they don’t like it, then if they don’t excel…well the distractions are just an excuse.
FS: Could you tell us some of the differences between Tai Chi push hands and Choy Li Fut sticky hands.
Doc Fai Wong: Choy Li Fut doesn’t have sticky hands like in Wing Chun. We have a rubbing hand called Nor Kiu that is more like Tai Chi single push hand.
FS: I spoke with a well known sifu with many years of sticky hands practice who told me that he was greatly humbled by your ability when he crossed hands with you. This sifu is larger and would appear to be physically stronger than you. How can you explain the apparent contradiction?
Doc Fai Wong: I can’t really talk about another system, but the sticky hand principle is not the same game as push hands, which is what I do. For example one time Bruce Lee ran into a Tai Chi master and he tried to push the Tai Chi master over. It ended up that Bruce Lee could not push the Tai Chi master over and so he punched the Tai Chi master and said I’m a puncher not a pusher. It’s really not fair to be playing one game and then do another because you aren’t winning.
Maybe with the person who tried to test me it was more of a case that I am able to unbalance that person. If you try to unbalance me I will try to redirect your energy and unbalance you. Someone may have great physical strength or may have a background in sticky hands, but maybe that person needs to work harder at rooting himself and develop a greater sensitivity as to where the opponent is trying to direct his energy. Maybe in the case you are talking about I was just able to take better advantage of him. For example; why would Brazilian Jiu Jitsu be so special? They just learned the same Japanese Jiu Jitsu , which both Brazilian and Japanese arts have their origins in Chinese Chin Na. When I watched a Gracie Jiu Jitsu match I was able to observe that he learned how to relax and move out of a hold and he was able to change the force similar to push hands and reverse the advantage in his favor. So, if you understand the principles of Tai Chi push hands or Aikido and develop your sensitivity then you can take any energy like in Jiu Jitsu or other grappling arts. You know how to redirect them before they get a hold on you. I believe that is why the Gracie’s are so successful at getting out because they are able to relax and redirect the opponents energy, whereas most people would become tense and they loose their ability to detect an opponents energy. It is not that this form or that form is better or that if you have a better kick or better punch then you will win in a fight. For example; many people were critical of Yang Cheng Fu for watering down the Tai Chi system. They said you took out this kick or dropped that punch. What difference does it make? Let’s say I took a Tai Chi form and added ten or more Choy Li Fut punches to that form. Would that Tai Chi form be any better or more effective for martial arts? No. In the same way if you had a karate master who taught someone forms everyday for many years without freestyle or fighting technique do you think that person would really know how to fight?
It’s not the form that makes you effective. You have to train yourself and you have to make the form effective. So, therefore in Tai Chi Chuan we do the form to learn about ourselves, the balance, the shifting of the weight and the difference between empty and full with the footwork. And, then we learn relaxation and the connection of the Qi (Chi). See how high or low you can move the waist and shoulder. And how you synchronize the whole body as one unit. So, in doing parts of the Tai Chi form or actually when you practice any martial arts form you must know about yourself. And then in push hands and things like that you can learn about your opponent. Is that guy too loose, too stiff or too tense? Once you know both together, then you will make the system effective. If you learn a thousand techniques but if you don’t have the ability to feel and sense your opponent then those thousand techniques won’t be effective. Especially, nowadays I see a lot of people doing Aikido. But, they aren’t doing it correctly. Like for example if they do a locking technique, they automatically “boom” fall over. But when it comes to a real fight that guy isn’t going to fall over. So, if that’s the case your technique is not going to be effective against a real live opponent. You need to be able to change your movements right away. That’s what Tai Chi push hands teaches you. Don’t use force against force. If I want to go to the left and that person doesn’t go to the left then I need to change to the right instantly. If he goes to the right I go to the left or the opposite direction. If he won’t go up then I go down, or in or out. I need to find the right angle from which I can apply leverage to make him off balance. This must be done without the use of physical strength.
FS: That’s fantastic. And I know you gave the example of Gracie jiu jitsu and obviously you have been able to instill that same sensitivity in your own system and your own style in order to defeat other people.
Doc Fai Wong: Of course that is only part of the martial arts training. You know, back about thirty years ago, when they first started Full-contact Fighting and then Kickboxing and then Shoot Fighting. I kept telling my students at the time that this is only a sport and it is not real fighting. I told my students that eventually you will see this sport adapt locking and Chin Na techniques because that is an essential part of fighting. At that time no one believed me. Remember the fight when Muhammad Ali fought the Japanese wrestler. I felt at that time that the Japanese wrestler should have won the fight, but because of the politics in the fighting at that time they gave the decision to Muhammad Ali. The Japanese fighter kept kicking Ali in the back of the knee and this caused some bruising and blood clots in the leg. At the same time Ali could not get close enough to the wrestler to cause any real damage. Of course if you score the fight with only boxing rules then the boxer is going to win.
So again I told my students Kickboxing is only one side of fighting. Now everyone talks about Gracie Jiu Jitsu and says that is the greatest art in the world. But that is not the greatest art in the world. That is still only a partial art.
FS: Yes, we know that Jiu Jitsu has its roots in Chin Na.
Doc Fai Wong: With all the grappling arts you can only real deal with one on one fighting. You can not deal with a group as effectively. So you need everything and not just wrestling or Jiu Jitsu.
FS: And you yourself have a long tradition of Chin Na training in your system of fighting.
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, and that’s another reason why I am so grateful to master Hu Yuen Chou because Chin Na was almost lost in the Choy Li Fut system. It was resurrected by my teacher Hu Yuen Chou.
FS: Well I am glad to hear that you are bringing it back within your system.
I understand that you are also very skilled in the healing arts as well. Did you receive much of your training in Chinese Dit Da medicine?
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, I learned from several Dit Da masters. The first was Lau Bun. I learned from him by being his assistant and carrying his case when he made house calls. Later I learned from a couple of private Dit Da practitioners in Hong Kong. My final teacher was grandmaster Hu Yuen Chou. He was a famous healer known in both Hong Kong and China. His father was one of the top four Dit Da practitioners in Guangdong province. He lived in Guangzhou and he learned his father’s healing. After the communists took over China he moved to Hong Kong. He was a medical doctor, but because the British took over Hong Kong he could not practice as a western medical doctor, so he practiced his Chinese medicine and his Dit Da.
FS: Do you feel that Dit Da or healing techniques are an essential part of martial arts training?
Doc Fai Wong: In the old days I believe it was necessary. But nowadays I don’t think it is absolutely necessary. In the old days the martial arts school was like the local clinic for martial arts injuries. But nowadays in China there are hospitals and clinics that are well equipped to handle injuries and emergencies. Sure if you want to learn I believe it can be very helpful, but it is not necessary. Because you can not be Boon Tung Soy. Do you know what is Boon Tung Soy?
Doc Fai Wong: The translation would be like a half bucket of water. Do you understand.
FS: Do you mean like half full or half empty?
Doc Fai Wong: No, it really means you are half-assed. In Chinese it is a half bucket of water, but half-assed is the closest American translation I can think of. In other words if you aren’t that great and just know a little bit then you can’t give the best treatment.
FS: Can you give us some examples of how you treat martial arts injuries using Dit Da?
Doc Fai Wong: Actually, I use Tui Na, which is a high level of Chinese massage. And I also use acupuncture for Dit Da. I have found that I can give successful treatments using acupuncture. Sometimes the results can be much faster.
FS: Have you incorporated your Qi Gung (Chi Kung) practice into your Dit Da and acupuncture treatments?
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, I do use Qi with acupuncture. I feel that it can give the patient a much better treatment in this way.
FS: What kinds of results have you seen in your practice with use of Qi Gung and acupuncture?
Doc Fai Wong: Well with Qi Gung you can develop your energy for martial arts and you can also use it for healing. When I treat…my mind is calm and relaxed and I can feel the patient and when I transmit my Qi to the needle the patient will feel a strong sensation.
FS: So you feel you are able to give a higher level of acupuncture treatment because of your background in Qi Gung?
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, After I had my Qi opened up by Master Peng Si Yu’s wife my Qi Gung skill and acupuncture level both became very different.
FS: Could you please describe for us that experience of having your Qi opened up by Peng Si Yu’s wife (madame Ou Min Yang).
Doc Fai Wong: In professor Yu’s teaching method the goal is to get the pupil’s Qi to open up. The breathing point is three acupuncture inches under the navel. And most of the people practice to bring the Qi to that point three inches below the navel called the Dan Tian. But, they can not get their Qi below that. So after you are standing and working on the Qi Gung and practicing for many days, maybe you can get the Qi to open, but with the help from a teacher you will know for sure that your Qi is open at that moment. So after I had been working for a couple of years with professor Yu and his wife, and after he passed away Madame Yu saw that I was at the level where I was ready to open up and so she opened it up for me.
FS: So is that a necessary part to have a qualified teacher that can open up the Qi for you?
Doc Fai Wong: Well otherwise you can train for many years day after day and not know if your Qi is open or how to do it.
FS: Did you feel that your Qi Gung training elevated your Kung Fu to a much higher level then?
Doc Fai Wong: With professor Yu his I Chuan was more geared to the healing aspect rather than to the martial arts aspect. So with my teacher Hu Yuen Chou I learned the push hands and greater details about the fighting aspects. When I asked him questions he would explain things in such detail that I was able to understand things in different ways that later on I could make more sense of the Qi Gung and what was happening.
FS: Now in the I Chuan empty force technique are you trying to channel your energy to a small point or do you use a more broader application to a larger target?
Doc Fai Wong: O.K this is something you really need to work on for quite a while before you are going to pick it up. For example, if I wanted to direct my Qi to a student then the student would basically have a reaction that would be like in bouncing out. So, in making your opponent bounce out, for example, it is like a ball bouncing off of a wall.
So the other reaction is like if you throw mud onto a wall and the mud will stick to the wall. For example; if I project some Qi into somebody that person may not bounce out or bounce away, but instead he could feel very sick. He could vomit or get headaches or get dizzy or some reaction like that.
FS: So in I Chuan you want to learn to absorb that energy and bounce away from you opponent as part of your training?
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, I train the student to become like a Qi shield. To project a shield outside and around the body so that they will receive that energy and have a bouncing reaction rather than have the energy go into the person. Or, I can focus the Qi so that it will pass through the person’s body without hurting the person.
FS: That is very interesting. Now, grandmaster Wong your son Jason has successfully followed in your footsteps and he has achieved recognition as a highly skilled Kung Fu master. What were some of the challenges that you faced in teaching your son?
Doc Fai Wong: The biggest challenge was when he was very young. As a father we always expect a lot from the son. We expect them to do better than everybody else. But, the son always thinks Oh, it is always there. Maybe I can learn that next time. So eventually I had to have my staff and senior instructors to teach and work with my son until he can build up his foundation. Then I can teach him myself once he gets to a certain level. Once he is mature enough that I can teach him and he will listen.
FS: So that may be good advice for other martial arts instructors.
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, don’t treat your own children right away. Let them join in and fun first until they really want to learn and gain the knowledge. Just like with professor Yu. After I studied with him for a while and after class if I wanted to learn more he was glad to help me and answer my questions. So the knowledge was not so freely given. You had to work hard and earn it. It was hard, but it had to be that way with my son also.
FS: Well, it is very inspiring to see a family doing martial arts together for a lot of our martial arts families out there.
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, I am very happy that my son that he has enjoyed the Choy Li Fut system and Tai Chi. Hopefully, my grandson will also be that way.
FS: Oh, you have a grandson also.
Doc Fai Wong: Well, no not yet. But I am hopeful.
FS: Grandmaster Wong this next fact I think is rather amazing I understand you have 70 schools worldwide.
Doc Fai Wong: Well actually, I think it is more than that now. Today we have more than 100 schools. We have expanded our school into Asia and the Middle East. Now we have a student who started studying by video tape and we have a student in Egypt and parts of the Middle East. So it started with one person and then it spread out where now his students are now teaching in other parts of the Middle East. Also, in the Philippines. After about ten years or so these students now have their own students teaching in about a dozen more locations.
FS: Now do these students come to your school and study from time to time with you?
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, most of the people from Europe and Asia come and study with me from time to time or else I travel over to there and teach seminars. Also, I take the time to teach the students private lessons so they can improve their level. But, there are some countries like Iran and Egypt and other third world countries they can not come to America so easily so I give them video tapes and then I go over to there to correct them later on.
FS: You travel to see them?
Doc Fai Wong: Oh yeah, in fact I am going to Egypt next February. This guy has been studying from my tapes for over ten years and finally he said that he would like me to go over there and even thought their income is very low but, enough students put together enough money that they will pay my way to go there.
FS: Well that is an incredible story and I would like to hear more about your travels there and hopefully we can keep in touch and maybe do a follow up story.
Doc Fai Wong: Sure that would be fine.
FS: The other thing I would like to discuss since you are talking about traveling around the world and I know that during the cultural revolution in China many of the Kung Fu masters were not allowed to teach the true art under the communist regime. As a result much of the knowledge of the martial arts was either lost or watered down. Have you been able to travel to China and help some of the masters there renew their martial art if they were not able to learn a complete system from their instructor as a result of the government’s older more restrictive policy?
Doc Fai Wong: Yes, in fact over the past few years a lot of the martial arts organizations in China have invited me to teach so for example the Choy Li Fut association in Jiang Men they have helped me to go there and give seminars. Because many of them had heard about Choy Li Fut, but they never actually had the chance to see it. So I went there to give seminars. Including other parts of Northern China and Beijing. The Wu Shu association hired me to go there and give a lecture on the traditional Yang style Tai Chi too.
FS: That’s fantastic. Well Grandmaster Wong I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to us this evening and I look forward to hearing about your future adventures.
Doc Fai Wong: Absolutely, you are welcome. Now you keep in touch as well.
FS: Thanks, and goodnight.