Sifu Mike Arnold started Wing Chun back in the 1980’s after years of studying in Aikido and Jujitsu. He tried this practical Chinese fighting system and now at the age of 54, still trains regularly and is heavily involved in teaching in his Clubs based at Cardiff and Swansea. He has created the Wing Chun Wales Association that has been going for several years encompassing schools in Swansea, Cardiff, Carmarthen, Aberdare and Aberystwyth. The Sifu is a keen advocate of self improvement and he and his students visit Hong Kong annually where they train with local masters. In July 2014, I went to his Cardiff club to meet him.
As I entered the training hall fifteen minutes early, ten students were already practicing among themselves. Something was different here that I couldn’t immediately identify. It persistently side kicked the back of my mind throughout the evening until realisation eventually fell out. The place wasn’t charged with that primal electricity that you find in some other clubs. There were no exasperated sounds of pushing the limits of endurance, or of the heavy pattered thuds of meat on mat. This was something different. There was just the focused excitement of a NASA control room just before launch.
Every student worked-out their brain cells, determined to get the most efficient, most effective strike as possible. As I buzzed around the class snapping pictures all over the place, I barely got a second glance. There was a determined concentration of a specific goal that wasn’t apparent to me. I asked several students about this and each explained it the same simple way, “Wing Chun is addictive.”
Sifu Arnold warmly welcomed me into the club and expanded on this,
After about six months you think that you understand it. After a year you realise that you are only just starting to. Wing Chun doesn’t stop, it’s still growing and you can’t fathom its depth. It’s a system that can be adapted to fit the individual’s strengths and weaknesses.
The students performed slow looking hand movements on each other that at first glance looked a bit like Tai Chi. Some even performed it with their eyes closed. However, there was a hidden edge in the subtle movements. It was there waiting and camouflaged. Just as you thought you could figure out the rhythm, a lighting strike appears out of nowhere pauses an inch away from a throat.
It never matches force with force, rather it will ‘borrow’ that force from an attacker and return it….with interest. People come to the class and they watch the students practice and it is often unlike anything that they might have seen before. Sometimes it looks easy and we tell them that it is simple to learn, then they try it and after discovering that at first it is anything but easy. Rather than giving up, many of them realise it is their own preconceptions about energy and force that are making it seem so difficult.
To demonstrate this concept, I was asked to throw a punch as Sifu Arnold settled in to an apparently casual stance. His right arm out in front bent horizontally across his body at the elbow. (A posture that I later learn is called Bong Sau or Wing Arm). My strike, albeit at half speed was met and deflected by a sneaky forearm. The deflection caused me to stumble forward slightly and I realised that my own momentum was carrying me on to a previously unseen (and equally sneaky) left fist coming at me with the intention to spread my nostrils just that little bit further across my face. I was glad of the decision to throw a half speed strike. If I had put everything in to the punch, my momentum would have carried me on to that waiting fist. I decided to try a deflection of my own and asked about his training.
(Yiquan -A Chinese fighting system that utilises natural body movement)
The class informally started on the hour as another twenty students joined the ten. This was an impressive turn out for an adult class just before school summer holidays. Sifu Arnold explained,
I only take on students twice a year. I get a lot of emails through asking about the club. I email them all back and then invite them down when the time is right. The people that are more serious about learning will be patient. The ones that turn up on the (enrollment) day have already shown a commitment.
I watched the students as they went about their training. No one was barking orders. It was a relaxed learning work shop. Everyone was helping everybody else. The senior students mingled and helped where they could. A group splintered off and went into an adjoining side room to work on a specific set of movements without the risk of knocking into anyone else. The main activity was Chi Sau (sticky hands) whereby two students face each other and then link arms and practice defending and attacking from punching strikes. Instructor Steve Marshall from Aberdare said about this,
The attack and defence is often at great speed and apart from the odd slap, usually quite safe. The most important thing is that they learn to feel the flow of energy between themselves and their opponent, developing their own body sensitivity enabling them sometimes to move to a more advantageous position just as the enemy’s attack is being initiated.
Steve has been practicing Wing Chun under Sifu Arnold for fourteen years and has his own school in Aberdare. He is an ex rugby player with a strong build that contradicted my idea of what a Wing Chun practitioner looked like. I envisioned students with small wiry physiques doing back flips while screaming out the Bruce Lee battle cry. Steve took my observations in his stride,
My build is a benefit to me. I would have a different fighting style to someone with a smaller build, but for me, it is definitely a benefit.
Black sash in-training Donato Pompei (Don) will agree.
I have sparred with Steve before at the end of every grading. It is thirty minutes of extensive pain!’ The Swansea based hairdresser said, ‘I’ve been doing Wing Chun for about five years now. I don’t tend to tell people that I do Wing Chun as they either have no understanding about it or their only input has been through films and think we can run up walls and things. I got into it when a friend of mine showed me a DVD called IP MAN and I was blown away. It was like seeing that girl and falling in love for the first time. I got butterflies. Donnie Yen (Hong Kong action star) was sublime. When watching it, I thought it was great that this master, (IP MAN) wasn’t arrogant or a show off but let his Wing Chun do the talking if he had to. I actually thought he was fictional until I found out that he had taught Bruce Lee. Wing Chun is addictive. I can’t stop thinking about it. In May last year, I nagged my missus to go on holiday to Florida because Sifu Petree was doing a seminar there. I normally train in Swansea but also come to Cardiff whenever I can. I earned some brownie points this week so was able to come today. It’s a bit more difficult now we have a four month old baby.
The lesson continued and Sifu Arnold would intermittently break off a conversation to adjust (to the untrained eye) an imperceptible correction to a student’s form to perfection. Every now and again, he called for attention to demonstrate a move for the class to work and expand upon. He later explained to me,
Everybody here is equal and we all learn from each other. I love teaching beginners as they will give you so much. They won’t throw a technically sound Wing Chun punch. It is much more realistic as you are unlikely to face a trained person in the street. I just rely on my Chi Sau. It’s good for that. You can cope with everybody (by using it). There is so much to learn from one technique. Bong Sau is the hardest to understand and the most dangerous if not applied correctly. Siu Lim Tao (the first learned form) teaches awareness. Awareness of your body and of your surroundings, like a radar. Wing Chun is for self defence. No one here wants to get in a real fight but if it’s forced upon them in the street and they are cornered then they have a better chance of coping with the skills we practice. The way we teach it is that we don’t want to get involved in a prolonged fight. We want to strike and go.’
Some of the students donned cricket leg pads to prepare for kicking drills. There are no kicks above the waist in this particular style of Wing Chun. The kicks that I witnessed were good old solid shin stompers. In another corner, two senior students wore boxing gloves and were milling on each other.
I’ve used (training techniques requested not to be disclosed) to highlight one of our Kuen Kuits (Wing Chun Words of Wisdom) ‘What comes, we receive, what goes, we follow.’ The students learn good (defensive) form when being attacked and not to waste energy on ineffectual attacks but when an opening is presented we are constantly on the attack. We want to teach solid basics. Good stances, good punches. We want to keep things simple but powerful. My motto is ‘Walk softly..but carry a big stick!
I asked Sifu Arnold what advice he could give to people thinking of starting Wing Chun. He said,
I can’t say what had got me started in to it, it was nothing specific but when I did, I was hooked. I trained under an excellent Sifu, who is still teaching now. I would say to those people to go around different classes to watch. You don’t have to train. Just go and watch the senior students. They tend to mirror the instructors attitude. Are they helpful or arrogant? I try to get a family atmosphere going here. I would gladly call any one here a friend and go to the pub with them. I don’t want egos.
If you would like to learn more about Mike Arnold Wing Chun then please visit his websites at;
Wales wing chun www.waleswingchun.com/classes.html
Cardiff Wing Chun www.cardiffwingchun.com/