All the right moves

Martial arts grandmaster William Cheung still teaches the wing chun technique he once taught to Bruce Lee, writes Michael Lallo of “The Age”.

When Grandmaster William Cheung was a boy, his uncle scored him an invitation to the 9th birthday party of Bruce Lee, then a famous child actor in Hong Kong.  Beside himself with excitement, he knocked on the door of his hero, whom he idolised “because he never lost a fight in his movies”.

The handle turned, the door opened and there stood Lee … in a skirt.

Bruce Lee was a cross-dresser?

“No, no,” Cheung laughs.  “His mother was very superstitious.  Before Bruce was born, his elder brother passed away as a baby and the family suspected the devil would take the next male child as well.”  So Lee’s mother tried to protect him by dressing him as a girl and giving him a female nickname.  But while her ploy might have kept the devil at bay, it made her son a target of bullies.

It also set in motion a chain of events that led to Cheung moving to Australia and becoming a well-known teacher of wing chun, a Chinese martial art.

“I ran into Bruce a few years later when I was 13,” Cheung continues.  “By then, I’d been practising wing chun for two and a half years and I’d made a name for myself, so I became his minder and helped him with his problems.”

Eventually, Lee insisted on learning the techniques and became a formidable fighter.  Keen to hone their skills, the pair sought out the best martial artists in their neighbourhood and challenged them to a friendly match.

“Unfortunately, all the best fighters worked for the Triad,” says Cheung, shaking ihs head at his youthful naivety.  “We defeated them and they lost face, so they kept finding better and better fighters and we defeated them, too.  It got very nasty in the end.”

Fearing for his life, Cheung took a ship to Sydney in 1957.  What he didn’t know is that the Chinese mafia had dispatched a gang of thugs to sneak on board and kill him at sea.  Their mistake, however, was to ambush Cheung in a narrow corridor, meaning they could not attack him in unison.  One by one, he deflected his opponents until the captain intervened.  But he did not escape unscathed. “They were armed to their teeth with weapons and they stabbed me three times,” he says.

“One guy even had an axe so I hit his wrist and it came spinning and licked me on the knee.”

In 1973, he shifted to Melbourne and established his wing chun studio in Lonsdale Street, which attracts hundreds of new students each year.

“Because wing chun was developed by a woman, it does not emphasise brute force,” he explains.  “It’s very scientific; we teach you to watch one point on your opponent’s body and if you can control that point, you’ll win.”

It also seems to have gifted the 70 year old Cheung with the complexion of a 50 year old and the strength of a 20 year old – at one point, he holds up his palm, as though reciting a pledge, and instructs me to punch it back with my fist.  He’s old enough to be my grandfather, yet even as I force my six foot, 95 kilogram frame against his hand, huffing and grunting, he doesn’t budge.

“I want to inspire people to take care of their bodies,” he says.

“What’s the point in limping around when you’re 70 if you’ve got another 20 or 30 years to go?  People always ask me when I’ll retire and I always say, ‘never’.  I’m here seven days a week because I love it.”

There’s no doubting Cheung’s ability to inspire.  In his small office next to his studio is a wall of magazine covers – Blitz, Black Belt, Inside Kung Fu – all featuring him in a dramatic pose or tossing a hapless opponent over his shoulder.  There’s also a photo of him with a beaming Bob Hawke in a Chinese jacket, circa 1980, and another of him with Hollywood star Robert Downey Jr.  The troubled actor tracked Cheung down several years ago on the advice of someone he met in rehab.

“He was on crack and in very bad shape,” he says.  “Now he trains six days a week, every morning, even when he’s making his movies.  He’s so dedicated that he doesn’t even have caffeine.”

But to Cheung, wing chun is about more than just health – it’s a means of bridging the cultural divide between Ango and Chinese Australians.

“I think the worst thing in the world is racism,” he says.  “It affected Bruce because he was one quarter German so he didn’t belong completely to the Chinese community or to the West.

“There used to be racism from the Chinese in Australia, too; I copped a lot of flak for teaching kung fu to Westerners.  Some (Chinese) people said I shouldn’t teach them – or that I should teach them a version that wasn’t the real thing – and I said, ‘Come on, this is not about saying my culture is better than yours’.

“We’ve got to get people interested in our culture and martial arts is one of the best ways of doing that.”

Article by Michael Lallo
Pictures by John Woudstra
The Age, January 20, 2011 – Melbourne