Barry Pang is one of the pioneers of Kung Fu in Australia, establishing his school in 1974. His major challenge was not learning the Wing Chun system in Hong Kong, it was fending off rivals and shaping a brand of kung fu that could stand up under pressure.

When one of the most feared direct students of Grandmaster Yip Man relocated to Melbourne just as Pang was establishing his school, it could have spelled an early end. Competition for students was intense and there could be no bigger competitor than William Cheung. At peak hostilities, the 37-year-old master came in person and requested a challenge match to decide the future of Pang’s fledgling school. Four decades later, Barry Pang Kung Fu lives on.

News of the long-running problems reverberated back to Hong Kong. That Pang’s school remained open was a source of intrigue to Yip Man’s other first-generation students. They knew the scale of reputation he was up against with Cheung. How Pang withstood this pressure is a multi-part story.

Kick practice (1975)

The 60’s and 70’s were a different era of martial arts compared to today. As a teenager obsessed with kung fu, Pang wanted to pursue Wing Chun but practised what was available locally at the time. He trained in Taekwondo under Jack Rozinszky in the 1960’s, a decade before the South Korean Government declared the art a ‘national sport’ in 1971. Sparring was a focal point, and it was brutal. Broken bones, especially ribs, were common. Pang developed survival skills and kicking as a major weapon.

This sparring experience was in stark contrast to the traditional kung fu training that Pang was to experience in Hong Kong. Sparring was absent. But this being the height of the Bruce Lee craze, the training intensity was far beyond what many students would be prepared to suffer in later periods. Pang’s first experience in receiving Wing Chun instruction was no exception.

When Hong Kong instructor Stanley Cheung, from the Moy Yat school, spent time teaching in Melbourne, Pang experienced hours of leg-breaking Sil Lum Tao practice followed by chain punching to exhaustion. This was the routine just to get the classes started. Pang progressed through to the second form and began developing his trademark lightning-fast hands thanks to the punishing routines. The emphasis on building super-strong fundamentals, not chasing “advanced techniques”, would later become a theme in his own instruction.

Now in his early 20’s with a decade of martial arts experience, Pang gained an introduction to Wong Shun Leung and was accepted as a student. This was two decades before an association in Wong’s name was created. His school was simply part of the Wing Chun Athletic Association.

Board break demonstration (1975)

Pang left Melbourne in 1973, spending everything he had to live and train in Hong Kong full-time for more than half a year. He trained 6-hours per day across two sessions, resting only on Sundays. Held at Sifu Wong’s apartment, the Cantonese instruction was not structured, and students came and went as they pleased. Unlike most, Pang stayed for every minute of all available sessions, making the most of Wong’s availability.

Gaining the respect of the senior students took time but was crucial to access the best training partners. As the only overseas student, he was tested daily during aggressive Chi Sao sessions. He eventually gained acceptance and was able to join the top students on excursions to the local challenge match scene.

The challenge fights were typically Wing Chun versus Choy Li Fut, per the preceding decades. Though not picked to fight on these occasions, Pang observed the matches closely. He saw that whilst Chi Sao partner work gave Wing Chun people an edge, it was no substitute for free sparring experience. He also noticed that straight-line attacks were not a guaranteed formula for success against the fast-moving circular strikes and footwork of Choy Li Fut and wanted to find out more.

Pang met with a Hung Sing Choy Li Fut practitioner, “Uncle Keung”, who was a student of master Ho Ngau 何牛. It made a lasting impression on him. Keung invited him to attack. Pang obliged by moving in quickly, attacking with chain punches along the centreline. But Keung was gone. He was behind him. Pang tried again with the same result. Keung said: “If you only learn one thing in Hong Kong, it is footwork”. Although not planned, Pang added a third training session to his daily routine, raising it to 9-hours.

Pang completed the Wing Chun system and had Sifu Wong’s blessing to instruct. Pang had demonstrated his passion for applied kung fu and Wong suggested that few people could stretch his abilities in Australia. The exception Wong made was William Cheung, a close training partner of his who had left Hong Kong but was still in close contact with Yip Man’s senior students.

Returning to Australia, Pang designed a training program for the school he planned to start. It included careful adherence to the Wing Chun forms, but the overall format was nothing like the informal Hong Kong model. It would involve structured training routines that included sparring, long-range kicks, and extensive footwork training drills. The goal was to give students experience in fighting, high degrees of mobility to either evade or attack, and kicking options regardless of range.

Newspaper report about the challenge

Pang started teaching in the Melbourne suburbs in 1974, but when he moved to Chinatown near to William Cheung’s school, the rivalry came to a head. After Pang had dismissed previous visits from representatives, Cheung appeared in person with a group of his pupils, demanding that he shut down. He proclaimed that Barry was not qualified to instruct. Shocked students looked on as a direct challenge was laid down.

Newspaper reporting quotes Cheung as saying: “If you are a man, you will accept my challenge or close your school”. When asked to respond, Pang said: “It all sounds like a cheap Hong Kong movie”.

Barry brushed off the challenge and kept his school open. By his estimation the best measure of a good instructor was the quality of students produced. He felt his task was to give students a combination of excellent technical skills and a hardened, fearless mindset to help them react correctly under pressure. Pang worked his students hard in sparring. But he needed to find a way to expose his top students to bigger tests.

Pang and Cheung working together

When relations eventually improved, it was a collaboration between Cheung and Pang that delivered the challenge being sought as well as mutual respect. In 1981 they created a landmark martial arts tournament in Australia: The Australasian Kung Fu Championships. As an open-style, full-contact elimination tournament with prize money on offer, there could be no better way to pressure-test skills and showcase Wing Chun’s potential as a practical art.

After two decades of work, Pang had created a school that could withstand the toughest challenges, earning him students and some notoriety back in Hong Kong. Next it would be his students’ turn to make a name for themselves in competition, helping to put kung fu on the map in Australia. This is covered in the follow-up article, “Beyond Wing Chun”, together with Pang’s evolution in the decades that followed.

See also

Article: Written by R Zandbergs
Main photo: Barry Pang with Sifu Wong Shun Leung (Hong Kong, 1974)

en_AUEnglish (Australia)