I know Kung Fu

January 15, 2010

Roadshow stop: Kung Fu Instructor
Roadshow mentor: Sifu Ralph Haenel, Wing Tsun Kung Fu Vancouver

The air in the narrow studio was sticky from sweat and laboured breathing. Slightly worn from an intense round of sparring, sixteen men lined up before me awaiting instruction. They ranged in ability from beginner to 2nd grade instructors, but even the newest of the beginners was more experienced than me. (Since I don’t think six months of watching Bruce Lee films with my post-college boyfriend counts as Kung Fu training.) And there was no way to fool them otherwise — I had already made a rookie mistake of greeting them with a hand gesture that implied I wanted to fight, not say hello. (My right fist pressed into my left palm with knuckles facing inward instead of outward.) The class stood patiently waiting for me to tell them what to do. I stared back at their expecting faces wishing secretly that I could instantly upload Kung Fu fighting into my neuroreceptors.

Leading the Wing Tsun class

This Roadshow stop was at Wing Tsun Kung Fu Vancouver. The Sifu, which loosely translates to “father master”, Ralph Haenel started the school in 1994 after immigrating to Canada from former East Germany. Ralph isn’t what you would expect from a martial arts instructor. He laughs constantly, has a jovial demeanor, and his classes are fun and informal. Unlike what is often depicted in the movies, his students don’t cower before him obediently as he yells out military style drills. Instead, he offers encouragement and support. He playfully teases his students. And they tease him back — not at all the quiet deference I had imagined.

Sifu Ralph Haenel

But it’s clear, despite this level of familiarity, Ralph’s students respect him and take his teachings seriously. They know that in the midst of a demonstration, while he’s poking fun at them, or possibly making a joke about himself, he could switch gears in an instant to deliver a powerful blow (which he sometimes does.) And they understand that what he teaches them could potentially save their lives in a violent situation.

Much like Ralph isn’t your stereotypical Kung Fu instructor, Wing Tsun isn’t your typical Kung Fu. It doesn’t look like the stylized stuff you see in films. (Although Bruce Lee did train in Wing Tsun.) At first glance, it looks sloppy. But a closer examination reveals that seemingly sloppiness is actually a calculated (and potentially deadly) fluidity. And Wing Tsun is all about self-defense. It’s not a sport martial art. People don’t train for scenarios involving a referee and a rulebook. They train to protect themselves from harm.

2nd Grade Technician Sifu Brian Yam sparring with a student

After introducing me as a ‘guest instructor’, Ralph led the class through a series of sparring exercises to work on improving reflexes, speed, and strength. In his demonstrations, Ralph selected a volunteer and encouraged the student to hit him with all their force. This is also unique to Wing Tsun — in other martial arts a student is usually forbidden to hit his teacher. But in order to simulate a real life physical confrontation and trigger adrenaline, actual contact is necessary. Ralph sustained blow after blow from his students. But according to him, it doesn’t hurt.

“You just get used to it after a while,” he says. “The body can handle a lot more than we realize.”

And Ralph has handled a lot more than most. As a young man in East Germany, Ralph’s interest in martial arts raised suspicion among the Stasi, East Germany’s Secret Service. Unbeknown to him, he had been under surveillance for years. In the summer of 1988, because of his involvement with Wing Tsun and his interaction with martial arts organizations in the West, he was thrown into jail as a political prisoner.

“As a political prisoner, I was among doctors, lawyers, pastors, artists, a wide range of people who had collided with the cold inhuman communist dictatorship. We were placed in one of the secret service controlled prisons and purposely put into a population of criminals, who where each time rewarded when retaliating against a ‘political’.”

Sifu Ralph doing a demonstration for the class

But Ralph’s imprisonment only spurned a dedication to the very thing that caused his incarceration in the first place. When the Wall finally fell, and Ralph was freed, he moved to West Germany to train as a certified Wing Tsun instructor—and he’s been doing it ever since. This past December he celebrated his 25th Wing Tsun anniversary.

My Kung Fu fists of fury

During the exercises, Ralph encouraged me to wander the room and join in. I would pair up with a student or a trainer and awkwardly fumble through the drill. I couldn’t help but involuntarily squeal and apologize every time I actually hit my partner.

As the end of class approached, Ralph gathered the students around and handed the class over to me. I was floored. Even after three hours, I didn’t know a single thing about Kung Fu — or at least I didn’t think I did. As the ‘guest instructor’, it was the scenario that I had hoped most to avoid. But it was as if Ralph sensed my dread to be in the spotlight and decided I needed to overcome my fear.

Sparring with Brian

I looked to Ralph for help. He smiled back at me encouragingly. It was clear to me that Ralph’s not just in the business to teach his students how to deliver a punch or dodge a blow. Instead the core of what he teaches his students is to believe in themselves—to have the confidence to deal with whatever life throws you—be it a violent attack or an unwanted turn in the spotlight.

I looked at the faces of the men and boys lined up in front of me. I knew there wasn’t going to be an instant upload of Kung Fu techniques to my brain. So I picked a punching drill I had seen Ralph do earlier and decided to just wing it.

Sifu Ralph Haenel, the Wing Tsun Trainer Team and me

Click here to learn more about Wing Tsun Kung Fu Vancouver. To try out a class for yourself, check out the Wing Tsun open house on February 1st and February 3rd.

Some kickass Wing Tsun action by Sifu Steve McMinn 1TG.