There can’t be many foreigners in Guangzhou who could simultaneously kick your ass and explain the whole process to you in fluent Cantonese – but Keith King can. For the past 13 years, he’s been tirelessly studying the art of kung fu.
Hailing from Portsmouth, England, King’s martial arts training goes way back to before landing in China. At the age of four his father – a student of jujutsu and kung fu – would throw beanbag balls at him from across the living room. King’s mission, he says, “would be to block them any way I could.”
In the ensuing years, King had formal training in judo, karate, kung fu, Thai boxing, kickboxing, sanda and ninjutsu, where he learned how to let fly with chopsticks.
Yet it was during a post-university teaching jaunt that King “stumbled across a wing chun master training down a back alley of Haizhu District.” Over a decade later and now married to a local girl, he’s been punching and parrying with the very same sifu ever since.
“At the age of four Keith’s father would throw beanbag balls at him from across the living room.”
Wing chun, for those that don’t know, is a form of kung fu that is reputed to combine Shaolin Temple’s crane and snake forms. In recent years it has become synonymous with legends like Yip Man and Bruce Lee.
Though some theories trace wing chun’s lineage back to the 1600s, King prefers a more recent antecedent:
“One hundred and fifty years ago, and due to a pretty severe revolution in the Cantonese opera world against the Qing government, opera was banned. At that time, a troupe called the Red Boat Opera Company had been traveling the Pearl River and had onboard 10 kung fu practitioners who’d been learning and refining their techniques using each other.”
King explains that following the ban, these 10 people returned to their hometowns to teach a method that is a precursor to wing chun today.
Contrary to martial arts movies, King says “many of the old wing chun masters were actually guys from very wealthy families with not much to do other than practice kung fu and pack their opium pipes.” Yip Man is a case in point.
Now teaching the combat style here in Guangzhou, King has a modest 20 students, as renting a room to teach in can be very expensive. The classes always draw a crowd of intrigued locals, many of whom are fascinated by King’s ability to wax lyrical on wing chun in their lingo – something that he credits to helping him “break into a secretive and often xenophobic Chinese art.”
“Many of the old wing chun masters were actually guys from very wealthy families with not much to do other than practice kung fu and pack their opium pipes.”
According to King, traditional wing chun classes last two hours, with training making up less than half an hour. The rest of the time is spent by the sifu critiquing students while sharing cigarettes.
For King, he forgoes the guanxi and temperamental peculiarities inherent in wing chun circles. “[I] want anyone ready to fight in six months,” the Brit explains, adding that the concept behind classes is for students “to quickly get the basics: distancing, timing and interception.”
He believes in avoiding textbook explanations and addressing real life situations – say, brawls in bars and nightclubs – where anything could happen. Some of the lessons actually do take place in drinking establishments.
An equal number of local and foreign students attend King’s sessions. Yet, like Bruce Lee in the 60s, he’s had his local detractors. “How dare you teach Chinese culture to Chinese people?” is a rhetorical question King is often asked, usually via the safety of Internet blogs. In typical on-set Lee style, he invites trolls to come down for a more ‘personal’ interaction. So far, they’ve yet to pay him a visit.
King’s top tips for self-defense:
1. Reasoning is always better at defusing a situation that a right hook.
2. If things are about to go down, monitor the opponent’s hands, as that’s what he/she is going to hit you with.
3. Stopping a punch is better than blocking it.
4. If reasoning doesn’t work, running away is the next best hand to deal.
5. Keep things simple. Even Bruce Lee wouldn’t fight like movie Bruce Lee.
Photo by Claire Zheng