Living heritage of Hong Kong

Bureaucracy may be wing chun kung fu master's biggest foe

Ip Chun has helped the martial art pioneered by his father, Yip Man, thrive. But help from the authorities has been severely lacking

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 September, 2014, 3:42am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 September, 2014, 7:41am

At the age of 90, Ip Chun is as passionate and relentless as ever in keeping his father's kung fu legacy alive - and the fight with bureaucracy is proving as tough as any opponent.

Ip, who still teaches scores of students every week, speaks of the warm welcome he gets abroad when promoting Yip Man wing chun, the martial art developed by his father, Yip Man. The Guangdong provincial authorities built a lavish memorial for Yip Man, he says, while the Hong Kong authorities have been slow even to recognise Yip Man's most famous pupil: Bruce Lee.

He had better news in June, when Yip Man wing chun was identified as one of 480 living items of heritage recognised by the city's government. But Ip Chun is still not convinced.

Watch: Ip Chun, son of Ip Man, reveals the secret of Wing Chun

"We applied to Guangdong and Hong Kong for intangible cultural heritage status in 2009. While we were granted the status by the mainland authorities in just three years, it took Hong Kong five years to give us that recognition," Ip Chun said. "Compared to many Western countries, and in particular the mainland, the Hong Kong government's support for the development of martial arts is extremely inadequate."

The list of intangible cultural heritage aspects was drawn up after a seven-year study, but how the heritage items will be protected remains undecided, and the government is still trying to identify those most at risk of extinction for urgent preservation.

For Ip Chun, there is no help for the classes he teaches at Sha Tin Town Hall every Saturday. Not only is there no financial support, but he must also pay the government HK$650 per hour - in advance, with six months' payment up front - for each two-hour session. Twice a year he hands over about HK$31,000.

"Of all the cities I have taught and held seminars in, including London and the United States, Hong Kong is the worst," he says.

While Western countries encourage him to put on free wing chun displays, his ancestral hometown of Luocun in Foshan , Guangdong went even further, building a 13 million yuan (HK$16.4 million) memorial hall to Yip Man. The local government covered most of the cost.

By contrast: "It took exactly 40 years for a five-year Bruce Lee exhibition to be built in Hong Kong," Ip Chun said, referring to the display of Lee memorabilia running at the Heritage Museum in Sha Tin until 2018.

Yip Man moved to Hong Kong from Foshan in 1949 and began teaching wing chun the next year. He began tutoring Lee when the latter was a teenager. Lee's surge to international stardom took wing chun to a global audience. But Yip Man would die a few months before Lee in 1972.

Yip Man's popularity and that of wing chun have enjoyed resurgence since the release of a series of biographical films beginning with 2008's Yip Man, starring Donnie Yen Ji-dan.

"We have seen our student base increase by more than 50 per cent since [2008]" Ip Chun said. "The reason wing chun has attracted more overseas students than other martial arts is that my late father would only teach high school pupils, because you need to be highly knowledgeable to grasp its concepts."

Many of Yip Man's protégés studied overseas in the 1960s and 1970s, devoting themselves to promoting and teaching the martial art on campuses. Some taught more than 100 students.

Now many foreigners come to Hong Kong for in-depth training and get certified by the local association before going back to teach in their home countries.

"While the majority of those teaching wing chun overseas were university graduates and spoke English, many instructors of other forms of martial arts worked in restaurants in Chinatown, so their scope of teaching was confined to one place."