The following interview was conducted by Bey Logan and appeared in Martial Arts Illustrated Magazine.
Bey Logan - Okay, let me hit you with the standard interview opener: how did you first become involved in training in martial arts?
Joseph Lee - I started training when I was about nine years old, in Hong Kong. I was living in an old village in Sai Kung, and I started learning kung fu with an old Chinese master. That was the tradition: to learn kung fu so you can protect your village. I only trained very basic punching, kicking and sparring, and then when I was fifteen we moved to England. I had trained in some judo, karate and Tae-kwon-do in Hong Kong, and later I trained in praying mantis kung fu after I’d come to England.
Bey Logan - Why did you come to England?
Joseph Lee - My parents were already here, so when I was fifteen I came here with my brother.
Bey Logan - Is he your older or younger brother?
Joseph Lee - Younger! My brother was training under Grandmaster Lee Shing, so he introduced me to him. He accepted me as his indoor student. I came to train at his house seven days a week. Lee Shing never accepted many closed door students
Bey Logan - Why do you think he took you on?
Joseph Lee - Maybe because of the relationship between him and my brother. To begin with, he tested me. For the first year, all I learned was basic punching and the first form, Siu Lim Tau. I didn’t learn blocking, sparring or anything like that. Just the basics.
Bey Logan - So what made you stay with it?
Joseph Lee - I was determined to train myself to become as good as my brother.
Bey Logan - Where did this training take place?
Joseph Lee - In my master’s house
Bey Logan - What was his teaching method like?
Joseph Lee - Basically, How to kick and punch. then you’d move on to stance and how to walk and then you had to finish all the forms, Siu LimTau, Chum Kiu, and Biu Gee etc.
Bey Logan -Was he into teaching people how to fight or into preserving the artistic nature of the style?
Joseph Lee - Both. He wanted to balance the technical side and the fighting side. He always used to emphasise that when you hit you should hit for real. It wasn’t just playing around. Sometimes I would train with him for eight hours a day, practising Chi Sau. We’d perform sparring or Chi Sau together, or he’d show me how to train on the wooden dummy that he had in the extension room.
Bey Logan - Even though you were much younger and stronger than him, could he beat you in sparring and Chi Sau?
Joseph Lee - Not ‘beat’. Just tapping me to show where I’d made a mistake. That taught me always to defend, and not to make that mistake again. But it was only a tap.
Bey Logan - Grandmaster Lee Shing never had any foreign students. Was that because of the language barrier, or did he just not trust foreigners?
Joseph Lee - I think he didn’t teach foreign people because of a promise he had made to Yip Man. Yip Man didn’t like foreign people because of the Second World War. When Bruce Lee went back to Hong Kong to ask Grandmaster Yip Man to teach him the wooden dummy, he refused, even though he bought Grandmaster Yip Man a flat and paid him a lot of money; he refused, because Bruce Lee had been teaching foreign students in the United States.
Bey Logan - Joseph Cheng told me that Bruce Lee once came to London and met with Lee Shing. Is that true?
Joseph Lee - Yes. That’s true. In the Canton restaurant. It was just a friendly visit.
Bey Logan - Joseph Cheng was the most famous of Lee Shing’s students, the first one to come out and spread the art…
Joseph Lee - Once Grandmaster Yip Man died in Hong Kong in 1972, my master started writing a book on the wooden dummy, and Joseph Cheng performed the techniques in that book. You see, while Grandmaster Yip Man was alive, he had told my master not to teach anyone without his permission, so he kept it a secret and taught behind closed doors without publicising it. After Yip Man died, he decided to let the whole world know about Wing Chun, and he wrote that book. That was the first book ever on the wooden dummy. In his younger days, Joseph Cheng did a lot of physical training. He loved sparring. He met a lot of karate black belts like Terry O’ Neill and Steve Morris and a lot of foreign karate champions.
Bey Logan - Several of Lee Shing’s other students have publicised themselves very effectively, but you’ve always stayed quiet. Why is that?
Joseph Lee - I was just interested in the art. I wasn’t practising kung fu to earn a living. A lot of people do martial arts as a full - time job, but I already had a job. I did teach close friends privately, but that was it.
Bey Logan - When your started training in Wing Chun it was completely unheard of. Now it’s the most famous kung fu style in the world. Has this been good or bad for the art?
Joseph Lee - There are some very good instructors out there today, some have changed it now to be more like kickboxing. They bring in the boxing elements, rather than sticking to the traditional Wing Chun system.
Bey Logan - You kept very quiet when the Wing Chun war of words was going on a few years ago. How did you feel about it?
Joseph Lee - I felt it was a terrible way to promote martial arts! If you learn kung fu, you should respect the art, respect your master. Instead, people came out and fought with other styles or with their own style…it gives the art a very bad reputation.
Bey Logan - When guys like William Cheung and Wong Shun Leung were coming up in Hong Kong, they had a lot of challenge matches with other kung fu schools, and Yip Man didn’t seem to mind. Was that different?
Joseph Lee - I don’t know about that. My own master taught me respect other styles and not to go out and cause trouble. He would choose his closed door students very carefully. He wouldn’t like them to go out fighting with the other styles. If I did that, I don’t think he would have accepted me as a student.
Bey Logan - but as a young guy, didn’t you ever want to go out and test the effectiveness of the art?
Joseph Lee - I could already tell from training with my older kung fu brothers that the art was very useful for self defence.
Bey Logan - So how long have you been teaching openly?
Joseph Lee - I started about twelve years ago, in Peterborough. To start with I only taught people in the Chinese community. Once Grandmaster Lee Shing died, I decided I should promote his real art and let people know what Wing Chun is. While he was alive, I had to tell him who I was teaching.
Bey Logan - There’s a big difference between teaching one - on - one and teaching a class. Did you find it hard to adapt?
Joseph Lee - It was all in my mind, everything I had learned before. I just came out and taught it step by step. I teach Wing Chun exactly the same way that I was taught it by my master.
Bey Logan - Do young westerners have the patience to learn the art that way?
Joseph Lee - We do get some people who come for a couple of lessons and then drop out, because the training we do is difficult. It’s hard, and some people can’t stand it. It’s physically hard. When you first train your Pak Sau (slapping block), it’s painful. We begin the class with stretching exercises, to loosen up the body from head to toe. After that, we do some kicking to loosen up the legs. Then we move on to footwork and stance training, and the various hand movements. From there, we move on to two man drills. We also do pad work, so that you can see the power behind the kick and punches. We train Chi Sau, of course, and also Chi Gerk, sticky legs. We go through the Wing Chun forms. Finally, senior students can learn the dummy, the pole and the knives.
Bey Logan - You were telling me that you inherited a pair of butterfly knives from Grandmaster Lee Shing, and they had been given to him by Yip Man…
Joseph Lee - When my Grandmaster lee Shing emigrated to Canada, he gave me a set of knives that had belonged to Grandmaster Yip Man in Hong Kong. When my master had left Hong Kong, Grandmaster Yip Man gave him those knives and said: “this pair of knives is for you to protect your school, and promote my art all over the country”. However, they’re only practise knives. I think anyone who has trained in the knives with Grandmaster Lee Shing will recognise these knives. Grandmaster Yip Chun recognised them when he visited my master’s house. “Oh, those are my father’s knives!” he asked my master if he knew the whole knife form, and my master said that he did, and then Grandmaster Yip Chun kept quiet. The next time he came to England, he brought my master a beautiful pair of knives, and said “here’s another nice pair of knives for you!”
Bey Logan -How long do you think it would take someone to learn the whole Wing Chun system under your instruction?
Joseph Lee - I have some closed door students who have been training with me intensively, sometimes for ten hours a week or more. They learned the three hand forms in six months. It depends on the effort of the student. If they really have an interest in the art, then of course they will learn quicker. You can actually learn the three forms in one week. What takes time is learning how to apply the movements in Chi Sau.
Bey Logan - Is one of the problems with Wing Chun, from a western point of view that the first thing you learn, Sim Lam Tau, doesn’t look like fighting?
Joseph Lee - I don’t want the students to get bored, so within a one - and - half - hour class they’ll do punching, footwork techniques… As much as they can learn in a given time. It’s true that the forms don’t look effective. It’s only when you learn how to apply the techniques in Chi Sau and sparring that you see how effective the art is. With any style, you have to work hard before you can use it.
Bey Logan - Now Grandmaster Lee Shing passed away a little over ten years ago: is there any story you can tell about him that highlights his character?
Joseph Lee - He had many friends in this country, because he opened a restaurant in Chinatown. All the older Chinese people in Chinatown were his friends. When he walked along the street, everyone would say “Sing Suk!” (Uncle Sing) or “Sing Sifu!” A lot of Chinese people learned from his students. Many of the waiters and cooks in Chinatown were his Grand students. His character was such that he was gentleman towards everybody. He was always kind and generous to people. He did a lot of charity work, both in china and over here. He had money, so he would give it out.
Bey Logan - So you’ve come out now teaching openly. What are your plans?
Joseph Lee - My plan is to pass on Grandmaster Lee Shing’s style and try to expand his association. My master already had an association here before he emigrated to Canada. It was called International Lee Shing Wing Chun Federation. When he left England, he asked me to take care of it. I had learned a lot from him, and he put a lot of effort into teaching me, and that’s why I want to promote his art. I don’t want him to die, and then a few years later everyone will forget his name.
Bey Logan - Thanks for talking to us.
Joseph Lee - You’re welcome!