Ip Chun maintains a demanding schedule for a man of 84, even if he is a wing chun grand master. It took a lot of energy to serve as consultant on Ip Man, last year's hit biopic about his father, starring Donnie Yen Ji-dan. This year promises to be even busier for Ip as the movie's success revives interest in the Chinese martial art his father modernised and introduced to Hong Kong. 'After Ip Man was released, many people came to us to learn wing chun,' says Ip, symbolic leader of the Ving Tsun Athletic Association, which links clubs teaching the technique. 'The impact of the movie has exceeded my expectations. All wing chun schools are now packed.' That's why the kung fu master, who was in Foshan earlier this month to help filmmaker Wong Kar-wai with research on his version of the Ip Man story, recently sealed a deal with a mainland television station to lend his expertise to a 40-episode series about wing chun. 'I agreed to serve as a consultant because I want to promote wing chun. Now not only people in Hong Kong but many people on the mainland are showing an interest in wing chun,' Ip says. 'These movie jobs can be a bit tiring, but I see [promoting] wing chun as my responsibility. Keeping that in mind, any weariness is easily overcome. 'And with more movies about wing chun in the pipeline, I believe interest in the art will continue.' A visit to the association's headquarters in Mong Kok, where Ip still supervises classes, bears out his observation. At 11am, the gymnasium is a hive of activity as a couple of dozen enthusiasts practise their moves under his watchful eye. Jude Mak Chun-hei, who has been studying with Ip for several months, has seen new students turn up every day since the movie's release. Even so, the 26-year-old martial arts fan from Canada says he's surprised it has taken Hongkongers so long to realise the top wing chun master lives here. 'I have always wanted to practise wing chun, but have never had the opportunity to do so [in Canada],' says Mak. 'I know Hong Kong is the best place in the world to learn wing chun and I want to practise under the best sifu [master].' Ip used to spend at least three months abroad every year during the 1980s and 90s, teaching in the US and Australia, and he commands a huge following among martial arts enthusiasts such as John Dougall. The travel agent started learning wing chun in Britain and was delighted to be able to join Ip's classes when he moved to Hong Kong last year. 'I grew up on kung fu movies. I grew up watching Bruce Lee,' says Dougall, who turned up for one session in an Ip Man movie T-shirt. 'I come here to train every day before going to work. [Wing chun] is good for self-defence at close range, such as when you get attacked in an elevator. It is also an exercise that you can do in a confined space, so one can easily practise it at home.' Wing chun originated in southeastern China about 300 years ago, based on kung fu techniques devised by women for self-defence. Hence its focus on speed, agile reflexes and quick thinking to outwit opponents. The style was introduced to Hong Kong when Ip Man and his disciples set up the Ving Tsun Athletic Association, one of the city's first registered martial arts organisations, in 1967. It groups about 40 schools in Hong Kong and hundreds of certified masters around the world. 'During the 1970s, kung fu was a popular pursuit among young people, many of whom were influenced by martial arts movies,' says police combat instructor Edmund Fong Wing-hong, who is also a wing chun master. 'There were all kinds of kung fu schools along Nathan Road, and one school may have had as many as 80 students during the evening.' The enormous popularity of Bruce Lee, who was a student of wing chun, didn't hurt either. Kung fu's appeal later waned, however, because of the promotion of more formalised martial arts such as karate and taekwondo and the negative image created by martial arts schools with triad links. 'Some martial arts schools were controlled by triads, and many parents began to associate Chinese kung fu with improper activity,' says Fong. 'But karate and taekwondo, which adopted an exam system, were welcomed by teachers and parents as they gave people the image of a healthy sport.' As rents rose and enrolment dropped, many martial arts schools were forced to close in the 80s. Nonetheless, devotees have persevered in passing on their martial arts skills. Younger sifus continue to teach in their spare time, setting up gyms in industrial buildings, where rent is cheaper. Leung Kwok-fung, a master of the Hung and mantis styles of kung fu, tries to keep the art alive through the Shaolin Martial Arts Society, based in Kwai Shing. The society began as an interest group at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 1995 and has since grown as Leung established a grading system similar to that of taekwondo and karate. 'There was a break in the development of martial arts on the mainland due to the Cultural Revolution, when many grand masters flocked to Hong Kong to make a living,' says Leung, a salesman by day. 'I am fortunate to have learned from these masters and try to pass on my knowledge. But I don't know whether anyone will take the baton from me after I retire,' he says. 'Times have changed.' Ip says Chinese martial arts must move with the times if they are to be practised by successive generations. Instead of emphasising combat skills, instructors should focus on promoting the health and spiritual benefits of their art. Tai chi is perhaps the martial art that has benefited most from an emphasis on health and stress-management benefits. Enrolment at Wudang Academy, a tai chi school in Causeway Bay, has swelled despite the economic downturn. 'I have recruited many students this year,' says Huang Songjun, who set up the academy in 2005. About 100 people signed up for classes in January alone, including seasoned martial arts practitioners. 'People usually neglect their health when business is booming. It is when setbacks hit that they start to pay attention to their spiritual and physical health,' says Huang, a mainland-trained instructor. 'Practising kung fu is not like boxing. It gives us a clear head.' Financial planner and wing chun enthusiast Raymond Fong Ping-yiu says martial art concepts such as 'countering hardness with softness' can be applied to other areas of life. 'The principle of wing chun is that when someone throws a punch at you, you shouldn't counter the attack head-on but nullify the force in a roundabout way or make use of it to your advantage,' says Fong. 'The same principle can be applied to different situations in life - when a problem occurs, you should relax and handle it tactfully, turning a crisis into an opportunity.' Ip says the Confucian idea of zhongyong, which also guides wing chun, is useful in the current downturn. It calls for practitioners to be balanced yet flexible during a fight, being ready to improvise while adhering to a main axis. 'It's like running a company. If you don't adjust your operations according to the situation, you and your staff will eventually suffer,' he says. 'But you should also be careful not to lose sight of your core values while seeking flexibility.'