In studios..and in basements here in the Bay Area...authentic kung fu is being taught as it has for centuries. Sifu, or master, Chris Chan explains, "If you train Wing Chun system Kung Fu, you will become the strongest person in the world!" Originated thousands of years ago, Kung fu is one of the oldest forms of hand-to-hand combat. For generations, it was shrouded in secrecy in China....known only to kung fu masters and their students.
But one masterful martial artist changed all that....bringing the ancient art of kung fu out of the Far East for the world to see. His name was Bruce Lee. His friend, Greglon Lee, recalls, "He could be 6 or 7 feet from you, and get you before you knew what happened. He'd just come in, like a fencer!" Although Bruce passed away in 1972, his influence on the martial arts world is still undeniable...and some of those who trained alongside him continue to pass along his memory...and the art of kung fu...right here in the Bay Area.
I didn't realize until doing this story that Bruce Lee was actually born in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1940. He grew up in Hong Kong, but his real name was "Jun Fan Li", which translates into "Return to San Francisco", which he did as an adult. And his legacy here, lives on.
Chris Chan is a kung fu master, who learned his moves, with Bruce Lee, as a boy in Hong Kong. Chris says, "That's where Bruce Lee and I, when we were little kids, were practicing. Practicing on rooftops in Hong Kong. Same place." Chris and Bruce studied martial arts together in the 1950s with a Chinese master named Yip Man...before bringing the art of kung fu with them to the Bay Area. Chris explains, "It's originally the Bay Area! And I came here, and Bruce Lee came over, and it was born here in San Francisco."
Before Bruce moved to LA and became a famous film star....Bruce and Chris opened their own kung fu schools here. 40 years later, Chris is still teaching students in San Francisco a kung fu technique called Wing Chun in his Sunset District studio.
Wing Chun is a powerful martial art form...that uses direct and quick kicks....blocks...and punches to defeat an opponent. Chris teaches, "I don't even care the most powerful man in the world, the mind is stronger!" Chris shows his students to find their opponent's weak points on an ancient chart. He points at the dots on the human body chart, and says., "All the motions, all the movements, is attacking those positions." Then, his students practice their kung fu combinations on wooden dummies, constructed to imitate an opponent in fighting stance. "It's a fighting machine. It shows how I get in, how I attack, and based on the map I showed you, it shows all the motions I have in here", he says.
But the most powerful part of Wing Chun is a technique called Siu Nihm Tao...a way of focusing the mind...and tensing the body...to improve circulation and internal strength. Chris demonstrates his internal power by having all of us, his students and myself, squeeze him as hard as we can. He keeps on yelling for us to squeeze him harder, until we quit, out of breath. To our astonishment, Chris is unfazed.
Wing Chun has made Chris a very powerful man. It's hard to believe he's in his early 60s, and it's amazing to hear how practicing this style of kung fu can affect one's health. After a serious accident, long-time student Tito Pedruco was left badly injured. Tito explains, "My doctor said if I didn't get operated on immediately, I might be paralyzed for the rest of your life." Tito decided not to have surgery...and picked up his training with Chris.
"For the first time in many many years, I was pain free. And to this day, I'm feeling really really good", he says with a smile, explaining that he owes his life to Chris!
Chris is proud of his students...and proud that he's honoring the memory of his childhood friend, Bruce Lee. He says, "Now I want to carry on his legend. That you can become the strongest man in the world, and self respect and self master."
But Chris isn't the only local man carrying on Bruce Lee's legacy. Greglon Lee has a veritable Bruce Lee museum in a trunk, which he explains are family heirlooms. Greg isn't related to Bruce...but he grew up around him when Bruce came to live with Greg's family in the East Bay in the 1960s. His father, James Lee, and Bruce were pals. He explains, "Oh, not just pals, I would actually say comrades. They were each other's best friends. Unfortunately when Bruce moved in with us, my mother had just passed away. But fortunately, Bruce was able to take care of us. So we called him "Uncle Bruce" and "Auntie Linda", his wife. He really helped to raise us." Bruce and Greg's father, James Lee, taught kung fu in the family basement...a tradition that Greg continues to this very day.
Now a kung fu master himself, Greg teaches a small group of dedicated students in his Berkeley basement the same kung fu that Bruce and his father taught some 30 years ago. He showed me how he ducks and dodges, dealing with a number of opponents around his wooden kung fu training dummy. He says, "Maybe when I'm on here, all of a sudden, you make a move at me, then I have to deal with you too! Because in real life, people do attack from the back."
Continuing to teach..and to train in kung fu helps Greg keep the memory alive....of his father.. and Bruce Lee. He reflects, "I feel their presence. I still keep my Dad's old gravestone underneath the bench. I was able to meet Bruce, and my father, and I learned quite a bit from them, and it's time to pass it on to other people. So that it can keep living on."
Although Bruce was only in the Bay Area, and in the world, for a short time, he left a big impression.....that can still be felt today in the classes taught by his fellow kung fu masters... and those who knew him well.