Interview with Sifu Donald Mak

Interview with Sifu Donald Mak - by Darrell Jordan

1) Can you tell us how you got started in Wing Chun and why you choose Wing Chun over all the other Kung Fu Systems in Hong Kong ?

DM : I was interested in kung fu when I was a kid. However, in the late 60's and early 70' s, kung fu people gave a bad impression to the general public that they were mafia. So, even though I was interested in kung fu, I did not start learning any kung fu not until I was 17. When I was 15, I watched a Wing Chun movie called “The Warriors Two”. I was so impressed by the actions and techniques shown in the movie. It was that movie that made me determine to find a Wing Chun teacher. Lucky enough, one of my classmate's brother's classmate called Leung Ping Sang was Chow sifu's student. So, I was brought to Chow sifu's school by this indirect relationship in 1979.

Even though Hong Kong is a mecca of Kung Fu, I have not practiced any other Kung Fu style other than Wing Chun. Why I chose Wing Chun, firstly, it is because of Wing Chun's characteristics of directness, economy of motion, using opponent's force to against its own force, flexibility, close range of combat … etc which is more suitable to my size. I am only five feet and six inches tall.

Secondly, I have such a good luck that I can study under my sifu Chow Tze Chuen. Chow sifu is such a respected master that I have ever met.

Chow sifu is a devout Wing Chun practitioner and master. Ever since he started doing Wing Chun in the early 50' s and became teacher in the mid 60' s, he has never stopped practicing and polishing his skill. Despite the fact that he is 80 years old now, he still practices Wing Chun and does Chi Sao every day.

He teaches Wing Chun is not for money! He teaches Wing Chun is solely for spreading Wing Chun and keep the family tree of Yip Man Wing Chun growing. He used to working in a Bus company in Hong Kong . He made use of his after working time to teach Wing Chun. So, he only teaches Wing Chun privately and never makes any advertisement for his school.

My relationship with my sifu, Chow Tze Chuen is not that “Buy-sell” relationship. It is really a master and student. That's why I can keep the relationship with my sifu for over 20 years. Even though there are so many Kung fu sifus in Hong Kong , it is not easy to find a good master in terms of his Kung Fu skill and integrity. Because of my sifu, I stick to my choice.

Third, it is not easy to practice and master well any particular style of Kung Fu. Since I have chosen Wing Chun, I want to dig out and master the most profound essence of Wing Chun that my sifu always demonstrates to us. So, I have devoted and committed myself to Wing Chun.

2) What was it like training in your early days with Grandmaster Chow?

DM : It was like this. I learnt Siu Nim Tau first and it took about 1 month to learn all three sections. Then he taught me single hand Chi Sao. After about 2 weeks of doing single hand Chi Sao then I started double hand Chi Sao. At the first month of learning double hand Chi Sao, we just did Rolling Hand (just roll without any sparring or defending techniques applied during the process of Chi Sao exercise). After one month of rolling hand, Grandmaster Chow would lead us to apply the sparring and defending techniques learnt from the Siu Nim Tau form. I did these for about 8 months, then learnt the Chum Kiu form. Learning the Chum Kiu form would take me about 3 months time. After 2 years, he taught me Biu Jee form which would take about half a year. After Biu Jee, I learnt dummy form, it took me another 2 years time to learn the full set of dummy form. In about the fifth year, I learnt the weaponry including the Baat Jarm Dao and long pole. Totally, it took about 3 – 4 years to learn the full set of weaponry forms. Admist this, I was also taught the drilling of Lap Sao-punch against Bong Sao, triangular footwork, Jin Kuen, Mui Fa Joang and Chi Gerk. Sifu Chow would lead us to apply the attacking and defending techniques learnt from the forms all the way during the Chi Sao exercise. The way of our Chi Sao exercise is doing rolling hand and sparring alternatively. So, I completed the whole system in about 8 years time.

3) Are G/M Chow's training methods any different today compared to when you first started?

DM : Curriculum-wise, there is no much difference. Emphasis-wise and teaching time-wise, there are some differences. For example, Chow sifu teaches quicker than my time. Students of him can start learning dummy form after one year training with him. He put more emphasis on training of long range combat.

4) Did G/M Chow tell you any stories about Yip Man that isn't widely known?

DM : What the stories about Yip Man I know from my sifu is widely known.

5) I understand that Yip Man passed down to G/M Chow a specialized kicking set which is performed on the wooden dummy. Can you explain this ?

DM : The kicking set is actually the collection of kicking techniques from the original dummy set plus 3 more kicking techniques.

The whole set is just the practice of all wing chun kicks.

6) You are the owner and Chief Instructor of the Hong Kong Wing Chun Institute. Do you teach any differently than G/M Chow?

DM : Different people have different interpretation and experience. It is natural that I may have something different from my sifu. Having said that I pass down my sifu's teaching intact to my students. Anything is from my own style and/or interpretation, I will add them on top of my sifu's teaching and tell my students that is my added stuff. So, in a strict sense, I don't teach differently than what I have learnt from him.

7) In your opinion, what are the most important attributes to be developed through Wing Chun training?

DM : Relaxation, Centerline concept, Static elbow, Simultaneous defense and attack and footwork and stances.

8) In your book, “ Willow in the Wind, Wing Chun's Soft Approach”, you talk about the shoulder path. Would you explain this theory?

DM : The shoulder path concept is a key idea and foremost mechanism within the Wing Chun system for yielding to a stronger force. This key idea calls for the Wing Chun practitioner to lead the opponent's force to fall into emptiness by using the shoulder path. It's fundamental principle is to use body structure and footwork to divert an oncoming attack away from the vulnerable areas of the body and redirect it towards the relative safety of the shoulder path. This idea is first adopted within the Chum Kiu form during the pivoting motion from the Ching Sun Ma to Pien Sun Ma stance.


Shoulder Path under Pien Sun Ma


Shoulder Path under Ching Sun Ma

9) You mention in your book, the phrase “Ying Siu Bo Fa', Structure neutralizes, footwork dissolves. Would you talk about this?

DM : This is a Wing Chun maxim. It goes “ Ying Siu Bo Fa, Ying Fu Sung Yung ” , meaning Structure neutralizes, Footwork dissolves, the opponents can be handled with less effort spent . This maxim points out the importance of having good body structure and footwork .

Good body structure calls for :

  • static elbow positioning
  • the use of the slanting body structure
  • the single weighted leg distribution
  • waist springing


G/M Chow, Slanting body structure and single weighted leg distribution

Good body structure allows the Wing Chun practitioner to yield like a willow in the following manner :

  • remain in the same spot while absorbing the opponent's strength into the Wing Chun practitioner's body through the creation of a force path vector directly from the receiving point to the ground where the opponent's strength is re-channelled harmlessly
  • pivot the body while controlling the centreline and guiding the opponent's attacks to fall onto the neutralizing shoulder path defined by the two-dimensional equilateral triangle where the opponent's strong force becomes harmless

However the dynamics of an actual combat is such that sometimes the Wing Chun practitioner have to step, more so if faced with an opponent who can move swiftly or is exerting much more power than what the Wing Chun practitioner's static body structure is able to absorb. This is where the use of footwork in the second part of the maxim “ Ying Siu Bo Fa” comes into play.

In our Wing Chun the use of footwork enables the Wing Chun practitioner to remove his body totally from the path of the force or by following the direction of the opponent's force vector.

The use of footwork requires the Wing Chun practitioner to move to a more strategic position from which to counterattack while keeping the body weight distributed 100% on the rear leg coupled with the shoulder path alignment.

The use of footwork in Wing Chun has other purposes. Its introduction expands the range of movements available to the Wing Chun practitioner not only neutralize but close the gap, chase, adhere, stick and follow the opponent's movements in all directions. At the same time the opponent constantly finds his movements cut off, restricted or falls on empty space without having the opportunity to use his strength to strike back at the Wing Chun practitioner.

10) When I watch people Chi Sao, it is easy to detect the tension and reliance on strength during his training. Would you explain in your words the meaning of relaxation and how to relax in Chi Sao?

DM : Proper relaxation is not the same as letting the body go limp. In my words, I define relaxation as “not using unnecessary muscular exertion that does not contribute to the efficiency of the movement in achieving its objective”.

To me, Wing Chun is no doubt a Noi Gar Gung Fu (internal martial arts style). Actually, by achieving the requirement of Noi Gar Gung Fu which will be explained in detail in the next question, can already achieve relaxation during Chi Sao.

11) There has always been debate as to whether or not Wing Chun is an internal, or external martial system. Would you mind telling me what your thoughts are on this?

DM : The debate is mainly due to different definition on what is internal or external martial system. To me, an internal martial art is defined by the four criteria as below :

  • Yuk Yau But Yuk Keung ” ( 欲柔不欲強 ) – this means that the Wing Chun practitioner should yield rather than resist against the opponent through the use of muscular strength. The key word for this criteria is “Soft”, viz being able to absorb and neutralize strong force.
  • Yuk Shun But Yuk Yik ” ( 欲順不欲逆 ) – this calls for the Wing Chun practitioner to move in harmony rather than against the opponent's flow of force. The key word for this criteria is “Harmony” viz join the opponent's movement and from there lead the opponent's movement to emptiness. It implies economy of motion.
  • Yuk Ding But Yuk Luen ” ( 欲定不欲亂 ) – this requires the Wing Chun practitioner to move steadily rather than erratically in order to maintain the centerline at all times. The key word for this criteria is “Steadiness” viz maintain the centerline in the face of an onslaught is crucial in the strategy of Wing Chun. Also, moving steadily and calmly rather than erratically. This also implies the concept of economy of motion.
  • Yuk Jui But Yuk San ” ( 欲聚不欲散 ) – this is translated into application to ensure that the Wing Chun practitioner is using his body mass properly by converging rather than spreading out his body resources inefficiently. The key word of this criteria is “Convergence”. The use of the Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma and Body Squaring allows the practitioner to focus his entire body mass by convergence.

From the characteristics of Wing Chun, it should perfectly match with the criteria of internal martial system. So I regard Wing Chun as internal martial arts system.

I also heard other definition of internal style. It is said that open-armed techniques of a style is classified as external while close-armed is internal. From this definition, Wing Chun should also be categorized as internal martial system.

12) Pole training today is obviously not well suitable for self defense, as carrying around a 9.5 feet pole is out of the question. What benefits are gained from pole practice if not for self defense?

DM : To me, any old style weaponry in Chinese martial arts like spear, pole, knives, long bench… are no way to compare with today's fire weapons. The value of weapon training in Wing Chun is just to supplement our empty hand techniques in the way of stance, positioning and power. Pole practice can mainly benefit the training of power of arm and waist.

13) Can you explain what attributes are developed for each of the three forms?

DM : Basically, the three empty hand forms are a sort of “Kuen Chung” (Seeds of Fist) which mainly for conceptual training. Applications needs to be learned from Chi Sao.

Siu Nim Tau trains a Wing Chun practitioner's concept of relaxation, centerline, body-squaring and static elbow. It also introduces the basic Wing Chun stance, Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma and Wing Chun's basic defending and attacking techniques.

Chum Kiu further trains one's concept of shoulder path, single weighted stance and Yiu Ma Hop Yat (concurrent waist and stance). It introduces 2 more Wing Chun stances, Pien Sun Ma and Ching Sun Ma which are evolved from Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma. Footwork like biu Bo, Tor Bo and body pivoting techniques are introduced in this form.

Biu Jee introduces more deadly attacking techniques like Gwai Jarn, Man Sao, High-low Gaun Sao, Biu Sao and double Lap Sao and Chap Kuen. Long bridge power and the other footwork technique, Huen Bo are trained.

14) I understand that your particular method of Chi Gerk training is done without initially holding each others arms for support and balance. Can you explain how your teach Chi Gerk training to your students and the basic premise of Chi Gerk training?

DM : The way I teach Chi Gerk training to my students is shown in the following pictures :

G/M Chow and Donald Mak doing Chi Gerk

The purpose of Chi Gerk are :

  • cultivate the balance of the supporting leg
  • train the waist, kua and knee to become supple and smooth
  • train the sensitivity of both legs
  • achieve the stage of using hands and legs interchangeably.

The basic premise of Chi Gerk training is to have good single legged balance trained from the Chum Kiu form.

15) What aspects of Wing Chun training do you have your students work on the most?

DM : Forms and Chi Sao


16) At what point is a student ready for free sparring in your school? Also, what is the process for teaching this.

DM : Actually, our way of Chi Sao is quite close to free sparring. Free sparring is our next step of training after Chi Sao called Lut Sao. Let me elaborate this further. Our Chi Sao is divided into two parts, the first part is Pun Sao (rolling hands) and the second part is Guo Sao (attacking and defending with the wing chun techniques with each other). Please note that the Guo Sao part is not preset or situational drilling of techniques. It is a sort of fighting using the techniques within the boundary of wing chun. Both Pun Sao and Guo Sao are still have contact with the partner's hands. Up to the Guo Sao part, it is already a simulated fighting. The next question you may ask is how to avoid injury if it is so similar to fighting. Our way is that we shall hit the opponent with the finger if a plam strike is used. If punching is used, we shall not grip our fist tight when the punch is touching the opponent's body. Hit on the target is still needed otherwise the practitioners will not know if they can really apply the techniques or not. Elbow strike and kicking can be used when the practitioners have reached a certain high level that they can demonstrate their good control of power.

Chi Sao is to :

  • reinforce the concepts or principles of wing chun,
  • train the sensitivity and flexibility of body,
  • train the techniques of wing chun including hand, leg, footwork, stance, facing, attacking and defending techniques.. etc. in a free flow manner,
  • learn the 12 hand-to-hand situations.

After some time of training on Chi Sao (about 2 years), if the practitioners can demonstrate they can reach certain level of the objectives of Chi Sao mentioned above, practitioners can progess to the Lut Sao stage, ie free sparring. Lut Sao means without contact with the opponent's hand, just fight in whatever way you like. According to my Sifu, Yip Man always encouraged Lut Sao training. Yip had said "Lut Sao Kin Kung Fu" (meaning : the real kung fu can be seen from free sparring). So, free sparring is the last stage of training after Chi Sao. In my school, Chi Sao is trained every lesson because it is an important training for using the wing chun techniques and concepts in a simulated fighting situation. While free sparring will not be trained very often. It will be trained once or twice every 3 months. Free sparring is also not for beginner's level. The main reason is that free sparring can allow you to do whatever you like. If the wing chun practitioner does free sparring in a early stage and very often, one will tend not to train the wing chun stuff. Then it will become a free fighting training. It becomes no point to learn wing chun. However, free sparring training cannot be skipped because it is the real life situation.

17) I find that many students that are involved in chi sao are more concerned with hitting. can you comment on this? Also, please explain the meaning of chi sao and what should the emphasis be while pratising chi sao?

DM : I understand why students are more concerned with hitting as they already treat Chi Sao same as free sparring. So, they tried hard to hit others. As I mentioned in Question 16, Chi Sao should have two parts, Pun Sao and Guo Sao. During Pun Sao, emphasis should be put on :

  • the sensitivity of hands,
  • "listening" to the partner's energy (Note : "listen" is the traditional wing chun terminology for feeling the opponent's energy),
  • understanding the 12 hand-to-hand situations
  • the proper posture of the 3 wing chun basic hand techniques, Tan, Bong, Fook.
  • the concepts of relaxation, centerline, static elbow (elbow down and in), body squaring

During Guo Sao, emphasis should be put on :

  • the practising of simultaneous defense and attack,
  • the using distraction while attacking,
  • stickiness and control,
  • the practising of "Lut Sao Jik Chung",
  • the training of using structure neutralize and footwork dissolve.

18) I saw some people chi sao on a table top and while sitting on stools to train certain attributes. Do you utilize these training aids as well?

DM : No, we do not utilize these training aids. However, I was taught to practice Chi Sao on Mui Fa Joang. The Mui Fa Joang is arranged in a pattern like this :


Mui Fa Joang 1

Mui Fa Joang 2

Each pole is of 8 inches height and 6 inches in diameter. We also practice footwork on Mui Fa Joang.


Copyright © 2010 Donald Mak International Wing Chun Institute (IWCI). All rights Reserved.