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My Wing Tsun Story

My Wing Tsun Story

by Keith Sonnenberg

I was inspired in my mid-teens by martial arts stars like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris to take karate classes when they were offered at my high school in East Detroit Michigan. Eventually I became a karate instructor at my instructor’s school on 8 Mile Road in Detroit and was awarded a black belt in Korean karate in 1970. I have been very lucky to have had GREAT instructors and have always wanted to bring my interest in the martial arts that I have learned to the public. I taught many a YMCA and Parks and Recreation Department classes in the Detroit area in those days.

I became a student of Grandmaster Leung Ting

Despite my black belt in Korean karate, I was mainly interested in finding a school of Chinese martial arts. None were available in Detroit in those days aside from some Tai Chi classes that were far away from me on the other side of the Detroit area.

After moving to the Phoenix area in 1975, I was excited to meet a student of Wing Chun kung-fu. Just a couple of months of learning basic moves of Wing Chun, convinced me that this would be a very big factor in the martial arts community, being many times more efficient, faster, smarter than martial arts currently offered. Soon I also became a student of his Wing Chun instructor. The instructor had a school in Tucson but opened a school on 15th Avenue and Indian School in January 1976. In the coming year, I became an instructor of Wing Chun myself and later taught Wing Chun in my own school in my own location in Phoenix at 29th St. and Thomas. Some of the gallery photos on my web site are of that 70s period. Looking back, I believe I inspired a great class of excited and dedicated young people and adults.

In 1980, fortune was again upon me as I began learning a more sophisticated version from a great Wing Tsun Grandmaster, a direct student of Bruce Lee’s teacher, Yip Man, who is a resident of Hong Kong. That teacher, Great Grandmaster Leung Ting, is still my teacher today. I had written several snail-mail letters to him in Hong Kong in 1979. I was bowled over to get a reply from him by phone while I lived in southern California while I was there on another business venture.

‘To-dai’ ceremony

In the early 80s, as a 30-year-old, I moved back to Arizona from California, no longer interested in pursuing a different business. I wanted badly to teach Wing Chun or Wing ‘Tsun’ for a living. I attained several instructor-ranks in Wing Tsun in a very short time and appeared in Grandmaster Leung Ting’s book “Dynamic Wing Tsun Kung Fu.” I am named in the book as his first American disciple. I was also conferred the title of “Sifu,” or teacher of Chinese martial arts. I officially became his disciple in a formal ceremony in absentia in the early 80s. It gradually became apparent that America wasn’t ready for a technical art like Wing Tsun, even though Bruce Lee had embraced it. Bruce Lee passed away in the early 70s, well before Wing Tsun was a real entity in the U.S. I was more than ready, however and went on to teach Wing Tsun whenever and where ever I could.

In 1987, I studied Filipino Escrima from a Filipino-American instructor as part of what was then, the world-wide family of Wing Tsun practitioners and obtained the rank of probationary instructor.

In the late 1980s, I began teaching a one-credit-hour class at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona. Two of my students from that experience are, today, high ranking instructors themselves. One of them, John Brusstar, 4th Level Technician, teaches his own classes in his school in Chandler, AZ. The other, Frank Jones, Primary Level Technician, assists me in southeast Mesa, AZ. I am proud of their passion and the fact that they are still with me today these many, many years later! I believe the experience at M.C.C. was influential in my progress as an instructor of this unique martial art which is totally unlike the martial arts commonly offered.

The ‘to-dai” ceremony was repeated …

In 2002, I was conferred as Grandmaster Leung Ting’s disciple (to-dai) again in San Francisco at his 55th birthday celebration and promoted to 4th Level Technician.

Since that day in January 1980 when I first met Grand Master Leung Ting at the Los Angeles Hilton Hotel, The American WingTsun Organization has morphed into the IWTA, North American Section with 18 branches in 8 states.

As Great Grandmaster Leung Ting’s first American disciple, my senior kung-fu brother is Grandmaster Keith Kernspecht, 10th Level M.O.C. of the European WingTsun Organization (EWTO), Germany which was founded five years prior to the American association. This is a large association of Wing Tsun practitioners and schools spread throughout western Europe and some middle eastern countries. Leung Ting WingTsun® is also very big in Eastern Europe in the Eastern European WingTsun Organization (EEWTO), mostly in Hungary and Poland. It is led by Grandmaster Norbert Mayday, 9th Level M.O.A. They all come under the umbrella of the IWTA, Hong Kong which has over 63 branches world-wide.

Since then I have had the benefit of learning from European instructors of Wing Tsun who traveled here to the states and I have traveled extensively to further my training in the U.S. In addition, I have been excited to have taught at several different locations in the Phoenix area. Among them are:

2001- 2010 - Teaching at the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center.

2004- Teaching at a Mesa location in addition to Scottsdale.

2017 - Began Teaching Leung Ting WingTsun® in Gilbert, AZ.

It seems that now, adult martial arts have a new life. Among a few different adult martial arts, Wing Tsun has broad application for fitness, mental focus, serious, long-term study and remarkably effective self-defense applications. Movies are coming out showing off Wing Tsun (chun) in action. The Ip Man series of movies, all theatrical releases in the United States, the first one and two sequels are chief among them.

Today I have a great class in Mesa in a nice, clean space in which to present and teach the remarkable martial art of Wing Tsun kung-fu to the public. It has been a life-long dream to, once again, own a martial arts group that is worthy of the name and pack it full of dedicated and hard-working teens and adults learning this healthy and fascinating martial art. It will be part of my life-long effort to spread it to the world.

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