Barry Pang’s martial arts journey from the 1970’s to today faced pressure at every step. After challenges establishing his school, he set about proving his students in aggressive “Kung Fu versus Karate” tournaments. Ultimately, he learnt that being a style purist was limiting. After all, the development of martial arts has a long history of adaptation.

Pang’s school was founded despite pressure to close from one of the best-known (and feared) Wing Chun Kung Fu exponents in the world. William Cheung had established his legend alongside Bruce Lee and Wong Shun Leung in Hong Kong, where they dominated the challenge match scene. Cheung was fiercely opposed to other instructors operating near his new base in Melbourne Australia, as documented in the previous story “Pressure-tested Kung Fu”.

As the dust settled on his long-running conflict with Cheung in the 1970’s, Pang looked to consolidate the reputation of his young school by testing his top students on the Australian tournament scene. There were two open-style events that would serve this purpose, including one he helped create together with Cheung. The experience shaped his Wing Chun instruction. Ten years later, it would be a chance meeting with the Grandmaster of a related style that would transform it.

Fight, learn and adapt

TKO at the Kung Fu Championships

The tournaments in this era would require Pang to adapt the ideals of Wing Chun practice to a more chaotic, aggressive environment. He knew that pride in technical perfection, lineage and superior theories would be the first casualty of competition.

The American scene was dominated by tough ex-servicemen trained in martial arts during their tours of duty. Most notably were champions Chuck Norris (before his movie career) and Joe Lewis. In Australia the big tournament in the late 70’s was one that most schools dared not enter. With a reputation as a blood bath, it was run by Bob Jones together with martial arts icon Richard Norton.

People entering these tournaments were serious fighters with practical experience. Jones’ nationwide karate enterprise was huge. He ran security for touring rock acts, had connections into America and sponsored demonstration visits from big-name tournament fighters like Chuck Norris and Benny Urquidez.

When Pang started entering his best students into these tournaments it was a first for kung fu in Australia and Jones started billing them as “Kung Fu versus Karate”. Pang’s students put kung fu on the map by winning their fair share of divisions, changing the perception that kung fu was only about wushu performance. When Jones praised Pang’s top student, Anne Pang, it was clear that respect had been earned.

Pang refereeing full-contact match

Pang’s rivalry with William Cheung had thawed by the early 1980’s and together they established the Australasian Kung Fu Championships. These were open-style full-contact elimination tournaments. With prize money on offer, they were the first of their kind in Australia and a precursor to the kick-boxing scene that emerged later. They attracted dozens of teams, including an international contingent.

Styles represented included Praying Mantis, Wing Chun, Kick Boxing, Viet Vo Dao, Rhee Taekwondo, Choy Li Fut and professional boxers. Instructors included Phillip Lam, Lawrence Lee and Malcolm Sue, who entered their top students along with Pang and Cheung. There was John Will, who is now a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu legend. In the women’s division was Christine Ferguson, who later became Karate World Champion. In the lightweight division was boxer Sammy Grasso, rated number one Australian challenger to World Champion Barry Michael.

Set inside a boxing ring at Melbourne Town Hall, the 1981 event was filmed for television. Both Pang and Cheung were involved in refereeing duties and provided some exciting demonstrations to warm up the crowd. Dan Inosanto was a special guest on one occasion, giving a sticks versus butterfly swords demonstration with Cheung. Overall, the Wing Chun practitioners competed well, adapting to gloves and making the finals in all four men’s weight divisions. Pang’s students won the light and flyweight divisions.

Pang had now become known to a wider group of Grandmaster Yip Man’s first-generation Wing Chun students. Whenever able, he travelled Asia not only to visit Sifu Wong Shun Leung but also to meet with others, including Yip Chun, Tsui Sheung Tin, Leung Ting and Lo Man Kam. He wanted to gain insights into the Grandmaster’s kung fu, from the many and varied perspectives of his direct students.

Knockout event – collaboration with William Cheung

Related style, new advantages

A contemporary of Yip Man was Lung Ying Grandmaster, Lam Yiu Gwai. When Pang was introduced to Lam’s top student in 1990, the learning accelerated. His name was Wu Hua Tai and at almost 80 years of age had a lifetime of diverse martial arts experience to share. This included learning from the best people he could find in Southern China, testing his skills against all styles and searching for anyone that could demonstrate the magical Chi powers claimed by some (No-one could).

Lam Yiu Gwai
Lam Yiu Gwai

Wu was an accomplished martial artist by the 1930’s and had never been beaten in a challenge match. This all changed upon his introduction to Grandmaster Lam and his Lung Ying. Wu recounted not being able to raise a guard before being flung backwards across the room and landing with Lam holding a fistful of his shirt. He became a faithful student for the decades that followed.

Not having Wing Chun’s “Bruce Lee-factor”, Lung Ying (Southern Dragon Shape) was not world-famous but considered a very prestigious style in China. Both Grandmasters cited Ng Mui as the historic founder from Shaolin Temple days. Whether you believe the legends or not, the styles exist and share compatible techniques. Compatibility was critical to Pang because he hadn’t imagined adapting his Wing Chun focus. The other requirement was that it must add advantages.

Pang was around 40 years old when Wu urged him to learn Lung Ying. Wu had spent his lifetime in China developing and testing his kung fu against all comers. He knew of Wing Chun’s reputation, but the split between Hong Kong and the mainland had prevented access. Now was his chance to unite Ng Mui’s core style with her efficiency-focussed offshoot.

Pang saw three major points of compatibility between Wing Chun and Lung Ying. First, both styles operate front-on and emphasise hand strikes. Second, both were close-range styles (Lung Ying, more so). Third, both use hand-sensitivity training (like Chi Sao) to control opponents.

Wu Hua Tai, pole weapon

Sifu Wu said that his master’s hands were “Soft like water. You couldn’t trap them”. Obsessed with improving his own techniques, Wu looked beyond his style. He was already no stranger to learning multiple systems. He wanted to develop his full potential and sought out Tai Chi and Liu He Ba Fa masters to learn from, eventually integrating their partner work into his Lung Ying. His training program developed immense stance strength and coordination, allowing the hands to soften. He later produced multiple push-hands champions of China.

Having felt Wu’s strength, Pang clearly saw the benefits of integrating Lung Ying into his Wing Chun. The first was improved stances and stepping. Lung Ying’s forward stance could generate enormous power and had a built-in method of transitioning between back and forward positions. Second, enhancing sensitivity through the arms. Lung Ying offered greater freedom of movement compared to the Chi Sao format. Third, was more attacking options, including rotational forearm strikes and guard-breaking techniques.

Learning new partner drills

Of course, acquiring these skills required a return to foundational hard work. Countless hours of Wing Chun Sui Lim Tao were now replaced with leg-burning Na Ma and Yiu Shun stance and stepping routines. Plus, there were six new forms to learn and four partner exercises to master. The forms emphasised access to lower body strength, coordination, and supple hands. Wu often emphasised that “Good” could be seen in the basics. When advanced students wanted to showcase their ability, he only ever wanted to see their basic stepping to assess them. An advanced form built on flawed basics was useless.

Pang’s journey from the 1960’s through to the 1990’s saw him learn from multiple sources, test techniques and adapt his style. Martial arts have always evolved and improved in this way. Every notable style today has been built from masters putting together learnings from previous generations. Goju Ryu Karate combines White Crane Kung Fu techniques. Taekwondo merged three earlier styles when originally formed. Wing Chun’s Grandmaster Yip Man did not stand still either. He combined the influences of two instructors to put together his version of the style, including updating the forms and re-creating the standards for Wing Chun wooden dummy construction.

You could say that today Barry Pang Kung Fu looks like Wing Chun but feels like Lung Ying. When contact is made, you can feel the extra gears in the system. The updated stance-work and partner exercises were transformational. Being open to influence, knowing how to bring elements together and putting in the hard work is what keeps martial arts alive and growing.

See also

Article: Written by R Zandbergs
Main photo: Barry Pang (Melbourne, 2022)

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