Published: 11:19, May 10, 2024 | Updated: 17:08, May 10, 2024
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Kung fu pilgrimage
By Chai Hua

US geologist’s devotion to Wing Chun leads him to the martial art’s birthplace, deepening cultural ties, and personal mastery. Chai Hua reports from Zhuhai.

Stanley Warden, a Wing Chun enthusiast from the United States, practices in Zhuhai. (PARKER ZHENG / CHINA DAILY)

In a training hall in Zhuhai, a group of foreigners immerses themselves deeply in practicing Wing Chun in front of a row of wooden dummies. One of the foreigners — Stanley Warden, a geologist from the United States — has been captivated by Chinese culture and martial arts for half a century. He finally fulfilled his long-cherished dream of coming to China to learn the Chinese martial art in Guangdong province.

Warden first learned about Wing Chun at a show when he was 5 years old and was amazed by it, but there weren’t any such classes in his hometown. His journey began in college when he started training in a martial arts school run by Duncan Leung Shiu-hung — one of grandmaster Yip Man’s earliest students. Leung is renowned for his expertise in the art and served as a Wing Chun consultant for the award-winning film, The Grand Masters.

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Recalling his association with Leung, Warden says he deeply admires Leung’s influence and refers to him as si fu, which means both teacher and father in Chinese.

He says Leung has had a profound impact on his life since then. “He’s like a father to me.”

Leung teaches “applied Wing Chun”, urging his students to question and test its effectiveness rather than blindly accepting his teachings. With a background in physics, Warden finds the principles and positioning of Wing Chun intuitively logical.

“Many Western martial arts focus on aggressive attacks but, in Wing Chun, we cover and defend ourselves when attacked. For instance, in boxing, the biggest and strongest person usually wins, but the wisdom of Wing Chun lies in its technique and positioning,” Warden explains.

Warden’s commitment to Wing Chun has remained steadfast. Even during his years in different college, he sought a school near his campus and dedicated his weekends to training. As a testament to his dedication, he has even assumed the role of teaching students aged from 14 to 60 the art of Wing Chun.

Leung’s principles have greatly influenced Warden’s life. “He taught us to set goals, dream about them and pursue them. I’ve lived my life according to those principles,” Warden says. He attributes his numerous achievements, including four university diplomas in geology, Russian language and law, to the motivation instilled by Leung’s teachings. During challenging times, such as writing his thesis, he drew strength from the words of his si fu.

“It’s the motivation that comes from having a dream. When you visualize your targets and make them a part of your life, it drives you to study and achieve,” says Warden.

Warden’s journey has not been without obstacles. He battled a debilitating illness for five years, which left him perpetually fatigued and struggling to stay focused. Leung’s words of wisdom provided him the strength in difficult times. “I rode out the storm with the support of his teachings.”

Warden’s passion for Wing Chun and deep gratitude for Leung have been unwavering over the years. As he approached retirement in his 60s, he seized the opportunity to visit his si fu in China.

He had originally planned to make the trip in June 2023 but learned that Leung had been seriously ill and had traveled to Los Angeles in the US for treatment. He then decided to visit Leung, despite not knowing the specific hospital to which Leung had been admitted. He traveled across the country from his home in Florida to Los Angeles and searched for Leung in several hospitals there until he found him and stayed by the latter’s side until he regained his health and was able to return to China.

“I stayed with him throughout that time because he has had such a significant impact on my life. It was no trouble for me at all,” says Warden.

“Frankly speaking, when he asked to visit me in the hospital, I couldn’t even remember his name because I’ve trained so many students. I was deeply moved by his care and support during that time,” Leung recalls.

In March, Warden finally had the opportunity to learn Wing Chun in its birthplace, Guangdong. Despite his busy working schedules, he practices Wing Chun diligently every day at Leung’s school in Zhuhai. Even when he had to work until 5 in the morning because of the time difference, he made every effort to attend all classes.

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Reminiscing about his years of teaching Wing Chun, Leung, now 82, says that while many foreign students have come and gone, Warden stands out as one of the most dedicated practitioners of Wing Chun, having devoted the most time to learning the martial art.

Although Leung’s physical condition no longer allows him to personally demonstrate positions and movements, he’s still actively involved in the martial arts school. He observes his students, corrects their movements, and guides them on-site even if it requires occasional assistance with supplemental oxygen.

Warden’s trip to China has been an “eye-opener” for him. He finds life in China amazing and safe, and greatly appreciates the friendliness of the people he has encountered. By sharing his experiences in China on social media, he hopes to spread awareness of and appreciation for Wing Chun culture across the globe.

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