Who is Sifu Ben Der? How does Wing Chun training work? How important is lineage and what should you look for in a Wing Chun school?
These are some of the questions Sifu Ben Der answers in the following interview by Art of One Dojo.
At Art of One Dojo we like to take a look at a lot of different martial arts. Not just their history, but often in the way that they are practiced and teaching is approached. Now Wing Chun is an art with a rich past and a diverse and sometimes divided community. So instead of doing just a single history episode we’re choosing to look at Wing Chun through different perspectives of practitioners in the hopes that little by little we can explore what the art has in common and leave all the politics outside.
Today’s guest is Sifu Ben Der, the founder of San Jose Wing Chun and Director of Bay Area Wing Chun’s student association. He founded the association in 1968 but his journey into the art began in 1958 when he started training in Hong Kong. Sifu Ben Der gives us his rich history, beginning at Yip Man’s school, having Bruce Lee as a classmate, and he provides a valuable perspective taking the authentic teachings of Wing Chun and spending a lifetime teaching and adapting the art for his students.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background, how did you get started with Wing Chun and who did you start training with?
When I was a teenager at the time I went to catholic high school, which was St. Saint Francis Xavier College in Hong Kong, Kowloon, 1956. And then about 1958 at that time a lot of my friends, were very interested in martial arts. And the group of friends I hang around with mostly are Wing Chun guys. And Bruce Lee, you know, in the same school too. In 1958 my friend went to Yip Man’s school in Kowloon, in that area to start. That was December of 1958 I start over there, ok. And during that time you know, the school fee was $15 a month, ok. As a matter of fact, Yip Man never taught that much, we just paid the school fee and then some of the seniors show us what to do and things like that. After the class they all come to my house and then, you know, start working out on ourselves. I don’t only train about, 3 months, that’s why I never dare to consider Yip Man is my real, real teacher ok? Even though I pay him, you know, to me the name does not mean anything. Who you really learn from is the real thing ok? So you know I don’t care, a lot of people never learn from him and say “hey he’s my Sifu” like that ok, I’m not that type of guy you know. I left Hong Kong about April of 1959.
And you know, Bruce Lee that time, he used to be my school mate in Hong Kong. So you know like, a lot of the time after school a lot of my friends came to my house.
One day Bruce Lee came to my house and uh he told me, Hey, you know uh, hey Ben, I’m going to USA pretty soon. I said really? I get approved to USA too, you know! So both of us are very happy to find out we are going to USA. And then we exchanged address and we also so excited we came, we were going to San Francisco, and we exhanged addresses and he stay at the same address, he same street with me in San Francisco. So even though we both are very very excited, and then he arrived later than I was because I took the plane and he took the boat, ok.
So you know like, when he and I get together that time he took me to his place and then he showed me his Wing Chun and then in Hong Kong he was showing some of his Wing Chun too and dancing, that kind of thing.
And then my father he was in Tampa. Florida, and then he wants me to go over there with him, I could go to school over there. Then I took the train to Tampa, Florida. And then, from then on I lost contact with Bruce Lee. In Tampa Florida at that time there was nobody doing martial art, all they do is Karate. Then in high school, I have no friends and nobody to talk to, I was so bored. But every day I spent time on the laundry, at the small business, in the laundry room I practiced myself with first set and things like that, and then straight punch. Whatever I know ok?
And then by 1961, you know, two years later, I flew back to San Francisco and I go to City College at that time. I met somebody who’s in Wing Chun too, and then by accident we were fooling around in the cafeteria trying to grab something and then I noticed “hey you know, I could do this and he did the same thing” we were both so happy you know. And then we both start doing the Wing Chun together. I met another friend who is from St. Francis college to San Francisco too, and he was in Wing Chun too. I started asking, where do you learn from? How do you know this? He said “oh I learn from the guy in the main store, in the basement. He’s doing Wing Chun”. I said “really?”. So I went down to the basement of the main store, the bakery area, and his name was Felix Ho. So both him and I are happy you know, to get together. So from then on we both work out in the basement and then after a while we’re hitting and killing each other and sparring and all these things, when you are young right? Until 1968 one of my buddies introuced me to a guy called Kenneth Chung.
Kenneth Chung is from Hong Kong, and then he used to…he told me he was in Leung Sheung lineage. Leung Sheung was the number one student of Yip Man. He’s the top top student of Yip Man. He learned from Leung Sheung directly. So you know like uh, when he came, when Kenneth Chung met me on the second day ok, so I brought him to see the Wing Chun friend and this and that. So right away, Ken asked me, hey Ben let’s do something. So I do Chi Sao with him. And then when I did it, I tried my best but I cannot to anything. He was throwing me back like a yo yo ok? So you know, I said “that’s it”, so I’m going to learn from you. But at the same time I brought about three or four guys and have an instant class for him, in my garage. So from then on until like all the way
until 1973 and then you know, Sifu Ken went to Hong Kong and then “hey Ben, why don’t you take over my place, I’m going to Hong Kong”. So I took over
his San Jose school, and from then on every time when he come back from Hong Kong to San Jose we always get together. Visit and work out Wing Chun. Whatever he knows and experienced he shows it to me. Until today, we still get together all the time. And today I am 81. I’m 81 year old and I’m still training people and still work out. And that’s my whole story about the Wing Chun, ok.
So we live in a time where there is a lot of different lineages of Wing Chun and sometimes people try to argue one is better than another. Is lineage important and how can a student educate themselves on choosing one over the other?
In the beginning, at the beginning when a group of people learn from Yip Man, Yip Man still had a hard time because Wing Chun style, you know, a lot of people don’t have the patience and Wing Chun is really boring, very painful at the beginning.
So you know like, people a lot of people quit and then Leung Sheung kept on trying to find people to maintain the Wing Chun system. Carry on. After Leung Sheung learned from Yip Man… about seven years I think, and then he…Leung Sheung and his buddy Lok Yiu, the number one and number two student of Yip Man they start to go outside to teach and then a bunch of people learn from Yip Man at that time. That’s why at that time afterwards we have so many so called lineage. People learn from Yip Man but of course Yip Man had so many many students, you know. You know, I think he only have a handful of main students that he considered his very…certifiable to teach. Good enough to teach. But afterwards everybody know a little bit, every body claim “I learn from Yip Man” one or two years they start teaching because of the popularity of the market. Everybody start teaching Wing Chun now. In China, in Hong Kong, everywhere. Even in America there are so many people teaching Wing Chun. The main thing that Yip Man really teach…the old tradition way, they don’t only show the top students what to do and things like that. For the young kids they don’t even care. I think Wing Chun most important is the knowledge. The second is how dedicated you are. You have to be 100% you, you can eat the bitter, then you get the sweetness. That means you really have to train hard regardless who teach you. If you don’t train of course when somebody train you, that person must have the knowledge. The guy has to know what he’s doing, know the Wing Chun concept, now the Wing Chun skill, and he is very honest to show you whatever he knows. If the guys is not honest, you still don’t learn anything. Even though he’s good. Or even in Martial arts, not talking Wing Chun, if you find a really good martial arts teacher and he shows you the proper way and the correct way plus you work hard all the way, you will be successful. Otherwise if the guy doesn’t have knowledge and even if he shows you everything you’re still learning a lot of garbage.
Like you said there are many lineage in there because, you know, they want to make a living, they want to be marketing this, marketing that, every body have different purposes. Some people just emphasize MMA and want to learn Wing Chun a little bit and use MMA to make a living. So many lineages…they have their own opinion. They have their own goal. Some people “my goal is to make a lot of money, I don’t care if you learn or not.” Or “My goal is to make you a champion in MMA” or whatever. Other ways. I don’t teach people to make a career out of it. I want, my own goal is I want people to be dedicated to the traditional way and then to have a good way of life. One thing Wing Chun is about is it’s good for health. And also Wing Chun is good for the thinking too. You know, to make people alert. Not just physically but alert in your mind. So you understand that Wing Chun is not just helping you physically it’s helping you mentally too. How you treat people.
So you said in a previous interview that when it comes to Wing Chun, simplicity is the key to brilliance. What does that mean?
In Wing Chun, all the movements we are doing, we eliminate all the fancy stuff. So you know like, the whole thing is, we only have 3 sets. Very simple, very direct. And all the Wing Chun movement is very logical. I would say very scientific. You now, that’s why Wing Chun we do not emphasize on brutal forces.
We don’t emphasis weight lifting and all those things. We want them to be relaxed. You know, Wing Chun…we always tell people that Wing Chun was invented by a woman. A woman’s physical size, there is no way they are as big as the guy so that means in order for them to survive in fighting they must be…have a very relaxed, very good in position. The accuracy. The position and simple. For real fight there is no way you can fight a guy for a half hour with no stopping. Two minutes is a lot already, you know? So that means you have got to be fast and quick and simple. You cannot be jumping around like all those Wushu techniques. I mean they look so beautiful. Wing Chun was never designed to show on a puppet. We don’t have much performance on the stage. Because when we do the first set as a performance, all the martial arts people they will laugh at you. How can you fight like this? They don’t realize that, because the first set we are doing…nothing but standing still and hand movements, that’s all. So like Wing Chun was never designed to show people, we’re designed to use it. That’s it. That’s why everything is so simple and direct.
Can you tell us the importance of core structure and functional energy?
Yeah, the structure we have…we have the stance. The way we are doing it we always emphasize on the centerline. From here all the way down. When we want to attack it’s the guys centerline. And we also want to protect our own centerline. Number two, we don’t want to struggle with the person’s energy. When the person uses a lot of force on me I don’t want to be blocking him so heavily, I want to delete him. But of course talking is easy. Doing it is hard ok? But that’s why in Wing Chun we have Chi Sao. Chi Sao is the kind of training that’s two person…to work on our sensitivity and position. The Chi Sao is similar to the Tai Chi ok. Tai Chi has pushing hands but the Chi Sao the way we are doing it, we are like…doing the defense and the attacking at the same time. At the beginning we want to get the position and endurance and build up the coordination of the whole body. It’s not just the upward energy. 90% of the energy of the American people are upper heavy, but in Wing Chun we want to be balanced in the whole body. The Sifu has to be able to spend x amount of time with the student by their hand and by working out together with technique. It’s not just like killing yourself with no structure in there.
Are there any ideas or principles in Wing Chun that work with other Martial Arts. So if someone has experience in a different art what kind of compatibability is there with Wing Chun?
Ok, you know like, as far as I know, that people in other martial arts you know, they want to combine with Wing Chun you know. That might help them a little bit in fighting experience. You know, for my opinion when you are in a different style for so many years and suddenly you come to this style you my find yourselves in a lot of movements that contradict each other. So it might not be a benefit to you, when you are in critical movement, sparring and then very normally you go back to your old habits. It’s a good idea to know a little bit. I mean it depends on how, what a person wants ok? You know, even though I don’t learn Karate or do not learn Muay Thai or whatever, I still open my eyes, what is the favorite, what is the style to learn… what is the major thing… what is their speciality. How are they doing it, to get myself an open mind about what other styles would do, do you know what I mean?
What is the five element theory and how is it used in practice?
Well the five elements is, in Wing Chun, is you know…my head has to be up. When I fight with you I will not put my head down like those in boxing. They do this. We don’t do that. We want to have head up. My eye to look at your eye. I don’t look at your…my eyes do not look at your hands, do not look at your kicking. I focus to your eye and eye contact. Because when I look into your eye I can tell your whole body’s position. Number two, lower down my stance. That means I would not be using upper energy. I lower down my stance and I squeeze my knee. Lower down my stance is number two. Number three, I squeeze my knee. You know, squeeze my knee we call “Kim Sat”. When we squeeze the knee that means I build up my knee energy. You know, because this, the knee energy we emphasis on the wrist energy, the elbow energy, and the knee energy. Ok. We don’t use the head butt that kind of thing. The power comes from ground. It comes from the ground, that means the power comes from the knee. Standing up and then coming from my hand, that kind of thing. It’s not from my shoulder. In Wing Chun we are not using the shoulder energy. And then elbows in. That means elbows in, that means we do not punch people this way. Not this way. We don’t punch this way. You know, when I do the punch this time to the center that means I’m blocking all your center…all your movements coming to my center already. I’m going to the center like this. So that means whatever your punch comes to me, my elbow is blocking half of your movement already.
This is the five elements. That’s Maai Zhaang. Maai Zhaang is elbows in. Kim Sat, that means I squeeze my knee. Lok Maa that means I lower down my horse. Dang Tau, that means my head’s up. Teng Yiu, Teng Yiu means my back is straight. I will not be leaning I will not be backwards like this. To make your whole body posture correct. This is very important.
So can you tell us a little bit about your school, how do you find a balance in preserving the core principles while teaching the student to adapt the art for themselves?
Whatever….the way I do it you know, my school is like this: I am very honest to my students. I open up for all kinds of questions. Even I emphasize to people to ask me questions about anything. Martial arts…anything about martial arts, Wing Chun, movements, whatever. I will tell them why we do this, why we don’t do this. And then I will give them the example and prove it to them, you know. Supposed “Why I do this?” “Because I say so!” I don’t say that, because I say it, and I’m going to prove it to you. Some Sifu say “I tell you to do this because I say so!” “Why?” “Why not? You don’t trust me?” they yell at the guy, you know. To me, it’s not like that. I tell them why because of this.
Your son Francis is a Sifu as well. Can you tell us about his teaching and how is he carrying the art forward with his own influence?
My family rule…all my kids must learn Wing Chun regardless they like it or not when they are twelve years old, ok. I want to make them become more uh… not afraid and not easily intimidated by other people, you know. And Francis you know, is the person you know who really trained a lot. And he work out in a lot of classes. And also Francis he has a lot of patience. You know. He… I think he has a lot of patience and he explains really well, so he can carry on my Wing Chun pretty good.
What is your advice for somebody who is just starting Wing Chun. What are the first and most important things they should focus on?
The first thing… the people first learning Wing Chun I want them to focus on the body relaxed. But to me, Wing Chun is more… is very internal. Not like other styles with brutal force. We’re relaxed and we want to be humble.
So what do you hope for the future of Wing Chun? Are there any changes or adaptations that you would like to see in the future?
I hope everything will carry on Leung Sheung way… to make the person, to become Wing Chun… the movement to become more effective. But in Yip Man’s place all they do is the Chi Sao movement and they start hitting each other, that’s it. But Leung Sheung had a system to train system on how to apply the Wing Chun movement…adapt it correctly and effectively.
So I just want to thank you so much for your time today and giving us a look in your history of Wing Chun, the way you teach it and the imporant aspects of it and giving us such great advice for all those out there looking at the art and want to start so thank you so much for spending your time with us today.
Yeah, and also I want to let you know too, a lot of people look for to learn martial arts to look at the teacher. To not just blindly go to the internet and go to the marketing you know, to look for the name. But it would be the best to go search the person’s background. And then to go to the school to see how the teacher teaches. The teacher has to have the…number one the teacher has to have the knowledge. Number two, the teacher is willing to teach honestly. Is not just for the money, it’s very important. And also the teacher is spending time on the student, willing to you know, to answer all the kind of questions.
Excellent advice Sir, thank you so much!
A great big thank you to Sifu Ben Der for spending his time with us to give us a glimpse into his world of Wing Chun training. Also an extended thank you to Francis Der, Mark Leong, and Rain for their help providing footage and making this episode happen. And there is so much more to explore with this art and it’s interesting to see different points of views that we can appreciate without all the toxic debate that we often find in the martial arts. So we’d like to continue down this road and hear from different teachers in the art so please let us know, you know, what you think down in the comments, any questions, thoughts, or experiences that you have to share. Please the discussion civil, we’re all about growing, not trolling. Thank you so much for watching and we’ll see you next time.