How a French wing chun master in Taiwan trained by Ip Man’s nephew went from wayward youth to focused man of wisdom
Thierry Cuvillier arrived in Taipei in 1999 with just a backpack and the address of the wing chun master he wanted to learn from. Now, nearly 20 years later and having taught over 200 of his own students, he is planning his return home
It is a late winter’s night in Taipei, a light drizzle affecting a slick sheen on the clean-swept streets of the city’s affluent Daan District. In a small alley off Si Wei Road, near a traditional wet market hanging on amid a growing crop of glitzy new apartment buildings, another place holds true to ways honoured for decades.
The Thierry Cuvillier International Wing Chun Academy has the air of a secret society to it. To get in, visitors must buzz the basement floor of a nondescript residential building. Walking down a flight of stairs, the sights, sounds and smells of the martial arts gym invade the senses: the bright overhead tube lighting, the gleaming hardwood floor, the musk of sweat, and the sound of flesh thudding against the wooden arms and legs of the muk yan jong.
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On this night, half a dozen students of varying skill levels in wing chun kung fu, a Southern Chinese form of close combat, go through their paces. Individually they work various aspects of their craft, then pair off to engage in hand-fighting exercises of focus and technique. Watching over them, providing guidance on proper form and mindful execution, is the man after which the academy is named.
Thierry Cuvillier, 45, is the sifu – the master. He is a man sought out by students from around the world, some of whom have made the journey to Taiwan just to study under him at this humble training ground. But there was a time when the affable Parisian was like those who have come to find him – not much more than a kid with the name of a master on his lips, the address of a Taipei gym written down on a scrap of paper, and a dream of taking his training to the next level.
As a child growing up in the Parisian suburb of Villejuif, just a few kilometres from the city centre, Cuvillier was, by his own admission, a restless youth. By the time he was in his teens, it was clear traditional schooling held little for him.
“In school, it was not so easy for me to follow the class,” he says, a wry smile punctuating most sentences, amplifying his friendly features. “So it was a problem for my family, and the teacher. I couldn’t concentrate on the class. That’s why my father said I didn’t need to keep going to school.”
Dropping out, the young Cuvillier earned a certificate in bread baking. Then, age 18, again at the urging of his father, he went to complete his compulsory year of service in the French military.
“In the army you can’t be who you want. You can’t do what you want. The discipline helped me to be more focused. I liked it, actually, all the exercise. It was a challenge, to prove what I can do … The discipline helped me to change.”
As part of his training, Cuvillier was sent to Germany for his first instruction in the ways of close combat, learning how to defend against knife attacks with only his limbs. Once prone to getting in street and schoolyard fights, Cuvillier had found a way to channel the aggression and agitation he once felt into something useful.
“When I went back to Paris, I started looking for a martial arts school,” he says.
For six years following his time in the military, Cuvillier trained in taekwondo. After class one day, a friend told him about “Chinese boxing”. Intrigued, Cuvillier found a wing chun master to study under in Paris. After two years practising wing chun in his hometown, he set his sights abroad.
“I was looking for something more difficult,” he recalls of his motivation for moving to Taiwan in his mid-twenties – a time when he spoke no English, let alone Mandarin or Hokkien.
“My teacher in Paris was good, but from the research I did about wing chun and what I saw in books, I didn’t really see that inside the training. My dream was to go to Asia to try to find a master to learn the real thing.”
The master Cuvillier had in mind was Lo Man-kam – nephew to the famed Ip Man, who had been sifu to young student Bruce Lee in the late 1950s.
Cuvillier had enough money to live on for a while, and to pay tuition for a Mandarin course at Tamkang University. He also had Lo’s address on Bade Road in central Taipei. With little else but a backpack, he set off for the Taiwanese capital in 1999. Soon after arriving, he knocked on Lo’s door, and started on the path that would become his life for the next two decades.
“When I met sifu, he asked me if I had trained in wing chun, and I said, ‘Yeah, little bit. I studied two years in France.’ He said, ‘Good, good, good. You change your clothes and you go on the roof. We start today.’”
Training under his new master was unlike anything he had experienced in France.
“The sifu came up and he said, ‘OK, we do the first form,’” Cuvillier says, demonstrating the basic ready stance, knees bent, fists poised at his sides. “So I kept that position. He stayed maybe two minutes in front of me, said, ‘OK, it’s good,’ and then he left. And then [I stood] two hours, like that.”
Such were the lessons imparted from master to student with an agonising but necessary slowness. It was a crawling pursuit of perfection only the most dedicated see through to the end, pushing past pain, frustration and a dissolution of the ego. It took 13 years for Cuvillier to reach the level of senior instructor (seventh degree), a plateau only a fraction of wing chun practitioners attain.
From assisting his master, Cuvillier progressed to training students of his own. By 2004, he was teaching wing chun at the Taipei European School. He opened a series of academies around Taipei, usually cramped quarters that drew noise complaints from neighbours. Eventually he settled on his current location.
He has taught more than 200 students, most of them young adults, charging a modest fee of NT$3,500 (US$120) a month for them to attend six classes a week.
Apart from daily wing chun training, Cuvillier developed a daily meditation habit and aims to have a good night’s sleep every night to help his body recover and clear his mind. He also practises yoga to keep flexible. Weekly swimming relaxes him while giving him a good cardio workout.
Now, after nearly 20 years in Taipei, the Frenchman has a longing to return home.
In November, Cuvillier will travel to Montpelier in the south of France, just a few kilometres from the azure waters of the Mediterranean. There he hopes to open up the newest branch of his academy, taking advantage of the city’s tourist and expatriate draw, the latter of which is comparatively lacking in Taipei.
“It’s not that I’m old, but time passes,” he says of making this difficult decision. “Do I really want to live here [in Taipei] forever and do a school like this? Do I want to do five more years? Ten more years, and move after? But if you leave Taiwan and you’re 50, 55, it’s not the same thing to restart something.”
The move is a continuation of a lifelong process that has seen a wayward youth grow into a focused man of skill, even temperament and wisdom.
In the age of the quick fix – the fad diet, the spot reduction workout, the get-rich-quick scheme – Cuvillier and many of the students who have come to find him have discovered the calm, clarity, and confidence martial arts provide. No doubt more will continue to seek out these gifts – and the man himself, no matter where his journey leads.