Wing Chun illustrated interview – August 2011

Here is the full version of the interview by Alan Gibson of Wing Chun Illustrated Magazine.

Kevin Chan: A Passion for all Things Martial

Master Kevin Chan portraitby Alan Gibson

Whatever Lineage they come from, Every Wing Chun practitioner in the UK will have heard of Kamon and Kevin Chan. Kamon is one of the largest Wing Chun organisations in England and Kevin, it’s founder, is just as passionate about his personal training as he is his coaching. Quite apart from his credentials in the Wing Chun world, He trains in Western Boxing and Thai Boxing and also holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. For Kevin, martial arts are an intrinsic part of personal development, a philosophy that underpins everything he stands for.

What is your age?

44

Can you tell me something about your childhood background?

My parents are HaKa Chinese from Hong Kong. I was born in the UK after they immigrated here in the 50s. They worked in takeaways and restaurants. Life was tough for my family; with a lack of money, working long hours seven days a week and contending with a language barrier. I moved nine times by the time I was 10 years old. At one point our family of six lived in a rat infested bedsit. However, although constantly arguing with each other, my parents never felt bitter or felt life owed them a living. They taught me the value of hard work, education and the importance of honesty and integrity.

 

Please tell me about your sporting and martial background?

As a kid I enjoyed sport but was not very good at it. I was not a natural sportsman. I started martial arts at 11 years old with my uncle in Hong Kong. He taught his own HaKa style Kuen Mo. Since then I have practised; Gung Lik Kune, Tong Long (Mantis) as well as Boxing, Thai Boxing, Wrestling, and of course Wing Chun, plus I have also gained a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Mauricio Motta Gomes in 2008.

Where, when and from who did you learn your Wing Chun?

I first learnt Wing Chun from my Sifu Steve Mair who was James Sinclair’s student at the time. He was a very talented practitioner and teacher. I remember mentioning him to Ip Chun’s students back in 1990 when they asked me who my Sifu was. They started scratching their heads and Ip Chun jumped in and said ‘Ho Choong Ming’ which translates as ‘his Sifu is very bright and intelligent’. What struck me was that whilst Ip Chun normally seemed quite reserved, he talked very enthusiastically about Steve to his loyal students. To this date with his explosiveness and understanding I believe Steve to be an excellent exponent of Wing Chun and a gifted Martial Artist. Steve subsequently left James Sinclair, and joined the Sam Kwok Association in around 1989. I was already well into the Wing Chun syllabus by this point and was one of Steve’s instructors. I used to train with him in his garage, twice a week, sometimes with my friend Ross Mockaridge and Steve’s training partner Mark Hyland (my Sihing). Steve Mair and Mark Hyland taught me the complete Wing Chun system; the dummy, knife, pole and 3 hand forms as they themselves had learnt from Sam Kwok, Ip Chun and James Sinclair. Sam Kwok was my Sifu later, for about 2 years, during which time he tidied up my rough edges and gave me life membership of the Ip Man association, signed by Ip Chun.

Is there anyone in the current Wing Chun world that you consider an inspiration?

Steve Mair was my biggest inspiration; I aspired to be like him which drove my personal development. I still respect and admire Ip Chun. Whilst I was never Ip Chun’s student myself, and have only trained with him a few times, I always valued his comments and views during the times that he has taught and helped me. What really impresses me about him is that he doesn’t profess to be anything he’s not. When I visited him in 1994 in Hong Kong, he said there was nothing more he could teach me. It felt much the same as getting my BJJ Black Belt. His statement overwhelmed me at the time. His honesty was very fresh for a traditional master. I haven’t been in contact with Ip Chun for many years now, but hope to visit him and Patrick Leung later this year.

When and why did you decide to brand your own style as Kamon?

kevin Chan cao saoWhen my Sifu left the UK and moved to Denmark in 1990, I took over his venue in Croydon and Northfleet. I remained part of the Sam Kwok Association at the time but with a James Sinclair background. The skill sets of the two organisations merged into one. I valued James’ explosive and dynamic approach as well as Sam’s more classical training. I was also heavily into other martial arts at the time. I felt I could not give my heart and soul to the Sam Kwok Association neglecting what I wanted to do, or forsaking what I had learned previously. Calling it Kamon Wing Chun, a derivative of my name, allowed me to do what I wanted, remaining true to what I believed and valued. In many ways the formation of Kamon was very liberating; it was the turning point that allowed me the personal freedom to develop as a martial artist.

You state Kamon is progressive, what does this mean?

Whilst I value the classical framework of Wing Chun and the foundation that it provides, at the same time I believe very strongly in; progress, improvement, reform and individuality. I see classical training as a vehicle for self realisation and development, and not as a hindrance or a restriction. As a martial artist you should embrace creativity and personal expression. In doing so through the resulting progression both the student and the style grows, and the style takes on a new identity, remains fresh and exciting, and in accord with time. If the system doesn’t evolve and improve it will just eventually become watered down and no longer be fit for purpose. Stuff will get lost and nothing new will get added. It amuses me how Ip Man cut what he thought was unnecessary or over-complicated out of the art and added in new elements, but for some reason if anyone else does, it is considered sacrilegious! At which point does the traditionalist think is the cut off point of the evolution and change – Ip Man? It is ridiculous. They just contradict themselves. There wouldn’t be Ip Man Wing Chun or indeed any Wing Chun if evolution or progression did not occur.

You state that Kamon classes have a positive atmosphere and aim to promote self confidence and fitness. You clearly see these elements as important in martial arts. Can you explain further?

Kamon is as much about attitude and lifestyle as it is for self defence. Wing Chun should be seen as a vehicle for self development. The skills you acquire and the challenges you face whilst training should develop a positive mindset that incorporates skills such as; self discipline, persistence, problem solving, versatility, appropriate use of force and adaptability. The same skills become applied to fighting life’s daily battles. Practising Wing Chun should help you become more; motivated, focused and balanced in all areas of life.

Where and when did you learn BJJ?

I grappled since 1995 with one of my students Arthur Lutkis, a Sombo competitor and coach from Latvia, and later with my Kung Fu brother Ross Mockridge who is now 5th Dan Jui Jitsu and Sombo coach before BJJ. BJJ was a natural progression from this, and I began to learn BJJ with Chen Morales in London back in 2000 and later studied with Mauricio Gomes (Roger Gracie’s father) in 2001.

You achieved a high rank in BJJ (Black Belt) Can you tell us something about why you decided to go down this path?

I practiced BJJ for my own personal development in the martial arts. Ground fighting isn’t something that is addressed in Wing Chun and I felt that it was one of the areas that I needed to practise to be complete.

How have you integrated BJJ with Kamon Wing Chun classes?

Although I cover the clinch and use take down defence in Kamon Wing Chun I always advise my students if you want to learn to grapple, learn BJJ. Kamon Wing Chun is primarily a stand up style. How I integrated BJJ with Kamon Wing Chun is more conceptual. It has reinforced my value of non compliant partner training and live training. I try to reinforce the idea that making a mistake in training, like getting submitted in Jui Jitsu, is exactly that, a mistake, it is not failure. Everyone makes mistakes, it is how you learn from your mistakes that you grow and develop. You need to have the freedom to play and make mistakes and not to confuse mistakes with failure. Otherwise you will live and remain within your comfort zone playing it safe and growth won’t occur or will be heavily restricted. The BJJ practitioner also learns the value of evolution and deconstruction early on together with fundamental training. I teach my Wing Chun students the same values as the BJJ practitioner, not to be dismissive of; new ideas, techniques, or concepts, even if it’s from a rival academy or whatever. I share the idea with my BJJ colleagues that the style should adapt to a person’s mindset, framework and natural ability. What works for one individual could be a hindrance to others.

Would you say Kamon is comparable to JKD in many ways?

Kevin Chan kicksKamon Wing Chun is not comparable to JKD, this is a misunderstanding of what Kamon actually is. JKD was founded on an incomplete, partial understanding of Wing Chun. Bruce Lee was a legendary martial artist; however gaps in his knowledge of Wing Chun were addressed through the assimilation of other arts guided by his intelligence and artistry, as opposed to through the realisation and deeper understanding that can be attained through completion and dedication to Wing Chun itself. Answers to questions he was asking were already appropriately addressed within the system. Wing Chun is a complete stand up martial art and Kamon Wing Chun is firmly rooted in the complete classical Wing Chun system. I really value the whole Wing Chun system and ethos. It is a fascinating art to learn and I enjoy all aspects of it, and enjoy sharing it with my students. The art, after absorbing the fundamentals allows the practitioner to become creative. Like for all artists, this process should be dictated by passion and feeling. Rather like a painter you should paint according to intuition and let it come out from the soul, rather than trying to copy or imitate someone else’s work. The skills, other than Wing Chun, that I acquire have broadened my spectrum as an artist, and allowed me to paint my wing Chun picture accordingly. I teach all my students to value and learn from within the framework of the system and I am a strict disciplinarian when it comes to key aspects such as the forms, in which I pay particular attention to detail and try to instil this in my students . Whilst I believe in the heritage and preservation of the art itself and the philosophy and deep rooted Chinese culture it originates from, I also believe that every practitioner should not only have the opportunity to appreciate the art but to participate in its ongoing development. What we do today forms what becomes passed into the future. Heritage preservation should be combined with progression and evolution.

You have added elements of other martial arts to Kamon such as boxing and Thai influence; can you tell us how these fit in the mix at the class?

Wing Chun is an excellent system and I really appreciate all aspects of this unique style. It has depth and substance as well directness and efficiency. It truly combines the soft and hard of a traditional Kung Fu style. I genuinely enjoy both practising and teaching Wing Chun. However, I believe very strongly that it is an expressive system and should be taught in a practical, progressive manner to achieve effective results. Learning boxing and Thai Boxing has helped me greatly improve both myself and my understanding of the art. Boxing and Thai Boxing add practical value and realism. When I first sparred I used to hate it because of an underlying fear of not doing well and potentially being exposed as incompetent. I often felt overwhelmed. My partners could hit me and I could do nothing in return. I felt inadequate. As a result of this I stopped sparring for approximately 10 years, yet was still practising and teaching Wing Chun. I found myself avoiding the discomfort of sparring and came out with clichés like ‘my strikes are too deadly for sparring’ or ‘it is different in a real street fight’. I eventually faced up to this and found myself in a boxing gym, ‘The Park Tavern’ in Streatham and later boxed with my student Paul Webber, who is an excellent Boxer, and was the same age and weight as me. He made me feel relaxed and comfortable with my sparring. He made me realise the world did not fall apart when I got hit; it was merely part of training. I found myself Thai Boxing shortly after. I met Dino Meringou (who is now coach Lion Pride MMA and head coach at Keddles MMA) at the London Gracie Barra School and Dave Van Gass (who is now coaching at London Shoot). The three of us used to train twice a week – mainly just kickboxing sparring for about 5 years. It was a war every session! Particularly with me and Dave. The fear of fighting and sparring was replaced by nervous excitement and liberation. From my experience as a non natural fighter I really flourished with the right people around me developing my confidence and overall skills.

Boxing teaches you to get over the shock and fear that a fight induces. It is this that normally stops us from performing, not pain. We simply confuse it with pain. You begin to understand rhythm, timing and movement in a non compliant way. It teaches what constitutes effective striking, and not just looking busy. Sparring and getting over the fear of it has really accelerated my development both mentally and physically. In class we box and spar only 50%. I always monitor my students closely and match them according to physical and mental ability. I am very aware of the shock and fear of sparring and the impact it had on me, but at the same time the very practical rewards.

With this mix of skill sets it strikes me that you could soon have a large team of competition ready fighters. Do you have any ambitions in this direction for Kamon style?

Whilst I do train with and teach MMA fighters, this is separate for the purpose of the school. My goal is not to teach MMA or build a team of fighters. I enjoy the development of the individual through the Wing Chun style. That’s what is gained most from learning martial arts overall. I appreciate more, now than ever before that Wing Chun is a complete martial art rather than just a fighting system. The last thing I want myself is to get into a physical altercation. Not because of fear, but because it just isn’t conducive to being a balanced human being. The mix of skills has given me the creative scope to understand Wing Chun’s strengths and weaknesses and explore the art by deconstructing it. I find the more literal interpretations of Wing Chun to be rigid and inflexible. I think this stems from a constant excessive use of energy, an over reliance on forward movement and an overly aggressive mentality. I don’t do Biff Chun! Instead energy use should be sophisticated and direct, with the appropriate use of force for any given situation. This results from a balance between natural footwork, positioning, energy, structure and relaxation of mind and body. When you get this mix right and add explosiveness combined with appropriate timing the results are extremely effective. This in turn develops the same mindset, to be a balanced individual. My students would struggle to hurt someone without good reason. They are not trigger happy, but can handle themselves effectively when necessary. What I am trying to achieve is to bridge the gap between literal Wing Chun and natural movement. How Wing Chun fits the individual not the other way around through individuality and creative freedom. Ultimately I want my students to realise their own Wing Chun. You can’t tell them what this is; you can only really help them with the journey. They have to realise it themselves. I don’t want to create imitators. Twisting your body structure imitating Yip Man with elbows tucked right into the centre is simply unnatural for most guys over 60kg, or those with broad shoulders. It is like wearing Ip Mans clothes. It may look good on him, but it’s not going to fit you. And you certainly wouldn’t want to fight in them. It’s not one size fits all. Where Wing Chun doesn’t work it is often clearly a misunderstanding or an overly literal interpretation desperately clinging to tradition, possibly because it worked in the past.

Kamon has a very commercial model underpinning it. Can you tell me something about your background in business and marketing?

The true success of Kamon is not because it has a commercial model; it is a commercial success because it appeals to people’s intellect. That’s why people join and stay. Kamon’s reputation has grown organically more through word of mouth than marketing and advertising. I have never watered down or adapted what I teach to appeal to or attract a wider student base. Much of what I do is through instinct and as such what I teach must feel right. I am after all a martial artist first and foremost. I believe in teaching honestly and professionally at all times. I detest time wasting or just going through the motions. It is through these values that I have had commercial success. I value my students as individuals. I talk and listen to them respectfully and I give them my experience whole heartedly. I really believe in treating people how you would like to be treated, that the win win formula will happen naturally. I don’t hide behind a persona and have never used someone’s name directly to build my own reputation. I believe in myself and am comfortable in my own skin. That’s why Kamon is a commercial success.

What are the future plans for the development of Kevin Chan and Kamon?

Training and teaching Wing Chun and martial arts for me is a point in time. What Kamon Wing Chun will be in 5 years time will be different from what it is today. All the fundamental and classical elements will remain the same, but it will evolve and develop and take on an exciting new form. Ask any of my long term students and they will tell you that Kamon always keeps developing and there is no doubt that today we are better than we were 5 years ago. Just like I am getting better than I was myself 5 or 10 years ago. The school and myself will keep developing in this way, moving forward, because we do Wing Chun as a passion and a lifestyle, not as rule. It would sadden me greatly if the next generation or the generation after was not better and more rounded and evolved than the current.

 Read also Martial Arts Illustrated interview Feb 2011