I think I know myself quite well. For instance, I know, and am quite proud of knowing, that I have never intentionally punched someone flush in the face.
So here's my dilemma, what if I needed to? After all, I’m part of the generation that’s all keyboard and no warrior. How could I come closer to knowing myself? Did I even want to know?
Master Wong is a Wing Chun Master. Like many martial arts trainers he’s taken his trade to YouTube, unlike his modern counterparts he takes a slightly more humorous approach or, to sum it up in his words: “On YouTube, you try to be serious people think you’re an idiot.”
His less than serious YouTube tutorials have given him more than a star quality; 200k subscribers and over 60m views more to be precise. The format for each of his videos is simple: he uses a variety of high speed trapping and base structures to expose the weaknesses in the oncoming attacks and exploit them with such ease as to inflict all sorts of grotesque locks and grimacing pins without ever seeming to have really done anything at all.
In many ways, Master Wong comes across in his videos as an East End hyperbole, a satirical take on a modern martial arts master. The tropes of which are so stretched and warped as to resemble a kind of Terry-Tibbs-cum-Bushido warrior. But would the man himself live up to his own hype?
I got in touch with Master Wong to arrange a tutorial. We agreed to meet at the Cult Café in the horseshoe heart of Ipswich’s redeveloped marina. It’s coloured windows and bewildering variety of plush divans, love seats, and recliners, gave a haberdashery twee feel to our first introduction. The Master looked entirely out of place in this percolated milieu, but I needn’t of worried about him not living up to the hype.
“How you see me on YouTube and how you see me now is the same. Because if you search me on YouTube and then you come down and you say ‘Yeah, what? You boring fuck. Forget about you.’”
It wasn’t just his personality that reflected his videos. It was also clear from the way he sat to the clothes he wore. His bandana, he showed me, could be used in many ways beyond keeping his head cool. He wrapped it around the knuckles on his right hand, and pulled both ends taught to make a choker. My laughter failed to hide the high pitch croak developing in my throat, and as he moved on to display, with a firm jab of the finger, the structural fragility of my Air Jordan’s compared to his work boots I found myself wondering again what I had got myself in to.
Before going into the training I pressed Master Wong on the metaphysical crisis that’d lead me to his videos in the first place. Am I someone that can punch another human in the face? Based on my education, he guessed not. But hope was not lost.
“When I put you in a very desperate situation the real you will come out. It’s dead or alive survival. Everything in school training is nicey-nicey. It’s no sweat. This [what Master Wong teaches] is very unique, it teaches you about you. It’s you saving your ass when you get home today.”
I am not the only one to seek out Master Wong’s unique approach; he trains people from all manner of backgrounds and professions. Naturally then, one of the most important things he establishes when he meets would be pupils is what they actually need from the training. For me, that need is clear, for others it may be a different thing entirely.
“If you say you’re in the military, you’re out there and you have a gun, you don’t use your hands. That’s the last thing you use and if you’re going to use your hands you’re going to make sure you fucking kill somebody.” He says. “Because, they’re going to have a bomb on them, a gun on them, we’ve got people serving in Afghanistan, they’ll [the enemy] fucking blow your arse up, and you think this stupid Wing Chun going to help you? You’re fucking dead! I’m not going to be responsible for their wife ringing me up and saying ‘Oh Master Wong you teach my husband for a full year and now he’s dead.’
“So normal people – I just play around with them. If people are aggressive I’m going to bust them up. If they’re very aggressive I’m going to use pressure points, pain control, I’m going to make sure they’re going to feel that. And, if my life’s in danger – you’re dead my son. You’re not going to wake up today. It’s two different mentalities. It’s not one size fits all. It’s applying it differently.”
I ask him how he decided to put martial arts into street practise – was he beat up as a kid? He’s reluctant to talk about it, he tells me: “I don’t like to talk too much about my background. I don’t want to blag about my background. The thing is, talk is cheap. When I’m young, I’m very naughty. Now into the age of 30 up, I try to become good, do something a little bit better, help people.”
It’s a redemptive sentiment. He seems, to me at least, reluctant to make himself an idolatry of violence. It occurs to me at this point that his teachings are open to more than dopey freelance writers and soldiers. His teaching extends to Lawyers, Doctors, Bouncers, Boxers, UFC Fighters, and gangsters. Given the scope of his tutelage it’s no surprise really that some of his pupils are now behind bars, serving bird for applying their training in the wrong way. Humour is the great mask of sadness, and it slips when he talks about those acolytes whose actions he regrets.
The moment lasts no longer than a few seconds, though, before the Master is back to his usual self, by which I mean: making barking noises and comparing the more-action-less-talk format for his videos as the same basis for chatting up women.
Before we agree to go behind the café and kick my head in we first cover the basics for which his philosophy is built upon. So if you learn anything from this article make it these five philosophies:
- Know yourself
- Know your enemy
- Know your ability
- Know your surroundings
- Know your system
To get me started I had to do some warm up exercises, this involved running up and down the marina boardwalk as well as a number of chest, arm and leg stretches with our on-hand attacker for the day, Nas.
To my surprise my training was to be filmed for their YouTube channel. Whilst humbled, I’m also a slight paranoiac who views my own presence with a similar scepticism as most customs officer.
That said, as soon as we got started I forgot about the camera and tried to focus on what I was being taught. After all, if I was going to learn anything about myself I had to throw myself in headfirst. Master Wong took me through 3 basic structures (3. Know your ability) that one could then apply layers to when proficient enough at repelling an attack.
First, I wanted to know how to get out of a headlock. Handily, you can watch how I got on, I certainly won’t.
Secondly, how to evade and supress a push. Again, watch and learn, from him at least.
And, finally, what to do when someone throws a punch.
As it happens, on this last technique, I discovered at last that I was correct - I’m not someone that rattles off head-body-head combos. No, it seems that in my know-yourself-moment I was a shin kicker, and with training, at best, an elbow blocker. Which seems, well, wildly appropriate, actually.
As we parted ways, me still trying to rub the soreness from my neck and the fugue of camera shy embarrassment from my cheeks, he said to me “I better not hear that you’re dead.” Which I think, it’s fair to say, is the nicest goodbye I’ve ever received.