The Martial Art of Wing Chun Finds a Home in Penang

By Enzo Sim

October 2021 FEATURE
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Master Aaron Boey demonstrates the use of the Butterfly Swords, used in a similar fashion as Wing Chun's hand techniques.

WHEN IP MAN – the first of a tetralogy starring Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen – debuted in cinemas late 2008, it became an instant blockbuster. The movie tells the story of the eponymous grandmaster and his dedication to Wing Chun, a martial art that originated in southern China during the Qing dynasty.

The Shaolin nun Ng Mui had one day witnessed a struggle between a large rodent and a stork who, to her amazement, used both its wings and legs to simultaneously attack and defend itself against the rodent. The event inspired Ng Mui’s crafting of Wing Chun which she later taught to her pupil Yim Wing Chun, for whom it was named, to fend off an unwanted suitor.1

Unlike other martial art styles, Wing Chun relies not on a practitioner’s physical strength alone. By also relying on the body’s bone alignment and balance, the practitioner’s centre of gravity is focused in delivering blows and strikes.2

Over the following century, only selected pupils were taught Wing Chun. The Leung family, which Yim Wing Chun eventually married into, also mastered the kung fu style. It is from the Leung family that Ip Man trained in the martial art form,3 but Wing Chun was by then on the brink of disappearing as a result of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War.

Boey had the honour of training with the late Ip Ching, the son of Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man, in Hong Kong.

However, in 1949, having moved from his native Fo Shan in the Guangdong province to Hong Kong, Ip Man established his own Wing Chun school, and would later become renowned as Bruce Lee’s master.

Ip Man has been credited for consolidating Wing Chun’s popularity worldwide.4

Here in Penang, in the quiet neighbourhood of Datuk Keramat, operates one such school, the Ip Man Wing Chun Penang. Master Aaron Boey, already a kung fu enthusiast in his boyhood, took up taekwondo in 1993 while still in secondary school. This training later opened for Boey more opportunities to become adept in different kung fu styles, including the Monkey Style kung fu.

But he found a deeper resonance with Wing Chun. “It was,” Boey describes, “a complete immersion. I trained for two years before I was able to become an instructor.” Boey headed to Hong Kong next to meet Grandmaster Samuel Kwok, who he previously had connected with at a martial arts seminar in Singapore. Kwok agreed to teach Boey, who to sharpen his techniques, would make the trip to Hong Kong once every two months. “I’d train with Grandmaster Kwok for a fortnight each time, and it was also here that I had the honour to train under Ip Ching, the second son of Grandmaster Ip Man,” Boey says proudly.

Boey demonstrates the use of the wooden dummy, used for regular trainings.

Mastery of any martial art form demands patience and fortitude. “Tai Chi, for instance, takes a student at least 10 years to truly master.” But in today’s fast-paced world, it is very common now to see many, despite being talented, throwing in the towel just a few short years later, sighs Boey.

Wing Chun is regarded as a stricter style of kung fu, where a practitioner’s progress is determined by levels. There are no short cuts to learning it. But to keep with modern attitudes, Boey has allowed for some flexibility at Ip Man Wing Chun Penang. “Unlike the traditional way of learning which prevents students from knowing what will be taught at the next level, I’ve decided to bend the rules in my teaching in the hope of keeping the interest level up among my students.

“But beyond self-defence, I think it would also be healthy for youths to learn some basic martial arts skills. It does wonders to one’s self-confidence too.”

Boey teaches a young Wing Chun student on the wooden dummy.

On the topic of how Chinese martial arts schools in Penang have evolved, Boey recalls how these schools used to depend on word-of-mouth to draw in students. “Back then, there were no print brochures to introduce them, let alone social media pages for information on their opening hours. I remember travelling quite a distance during high school to scout out a martial arts school only to find it closed when I arrived.”

Boey hopes that with the establishment of Ip Man Wing Chun Penang, and in stoking interest in the young, the 300-year-old Chinese martial art will be preserved in Penang.

Enzo Sim

is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards international relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.