Forty-eight years ago

At one point I was surprised to find myself being slammed to the pool-deck’s astro-turf by a Kung-fu Grandmaster …but that is twelve years into my story.

I pretty much stumbled onto martial arts as a teenager in Detroit, Michigan where I grew up. The teacher of my Health Class mentioned that there was going to be an 8-week course in karate taught in the high school gym by a local instructor. Of course I did not know where it would lead. It did become the thing that allowed me to at least try to emulate my hero at the time, Bruce Lee.

The success of my karate career surprised me. I was never good at sports. It was hard physical training and I broke a bone and smashed my nose, got numerous bruises from falls on the hard tile floors but I passed my two First Degree black belt tests at the end of three years! I entered some tournaments but my interest was not in competition. My interest was something other than that but I did not know what it was, what drove me to go that far in karate.

After my black belt tests, I became an outside instructor for my karate school at YMCAs, Parks and Recreation Departments and the like. I mostly kept up my training for several years. Further rank promotions only came with tournament competition which was not a priority for me at the time, especially having a low income and attending community college while living at home.

It wasn’t until years later in 1975, after I had moved to Phoenix, Arizona, that I was shown some Wing Chun movements from a lineage, being taught in Tucson by a Chinese instructor that I do not currently follow. Learning those movements made me realize that I wanted to teach martial arts for a living but instead of karate, it was to be the art of Yip Man and Bruce Lee. This new martial art was free of the competition aspect that changed its nature so much. It did not reward great athletic skill and yet was faster by design. I had been on a mission to escape the confines of a wintry city in recession when I left Detroit. It was hard to find a job with a company that was not hard hit by the auto industry layoffs. However, I was now free and starting out on my own with my brother with just a couple thousand dollars and no job prospects in Phoenix!

The above introduction to Wing Chun came about when I was encouraged by my brother to answer an ad for a ‘black belt karate instructor.’ If it had not been for that, my life might have been considerably different. Another instructor applicant was there at the spa and having trouble gaining acceptance since he was only a brown belt in karate but he introduced me to Wing Chun and the movements of his Chinese instructor from Tucson. I began training.

Initially my Chinese instructor supported my opening my own school in Phoenix after the first couple years. Revolving business partners and certain troubles with bad actors made it difficult but I managed, by 1978, to get a clientele of 20 or so students until I was convinced to sell the marginally successful martial arts business in late 1978 and move to California. I thought it would be a turning point in my fortunes. It might have been the halt to my martial arts career but …

… I might finally be that independent business person I was wishing to be …

Big mistake – but I learned that I am, apparently not all that interested in money -or I would be rich today- but far more interested in showing people what I had discovered with the amazing martial art I was practicing. It is a martial art that has so much depth. It was a little known martial art in 1975 and it is still compared to others marketed today as mass entertainment. It is not the same at all, however …

… I suspected that I could do better.

After sending several letters to Hong Kong, I had heard back from a student of Yip Man, an instructor of ‘Wing Tsun’ who lived in Hong Kong and traveled the world teaching his martial art! He answered my letters. One thing lead to another and I became the first American student of Grandmaster Leung Ting of the Wing Tsun system. I ended up back in Arizona by 1980.
It was the beginning of a rocky road in teaching for a living including dealing with back and neck problems, financial problems, and having to self-teach and self-train with occasional help from my kung-fu brothers here in Arizona and Texas while my sifu, Leung Ting, was in another country spreading Wing Tsun.

I learned Wing Tsun for the first few years with my kung-fu brothers on a pool deck in a motel across the Salt River from Hayden Flour Mill in Tempe. Grandmaster Leung Ting would teach us the system in condensed form so that we could train for a few months before he would come back again and pick up the training. After I absorbed enough of the training I began to teach a few students in parks, my brother’s house and few other venues. For the next thirty-five years I would teach Leung Ting’s Wing Tsun system in various gyms, dance schools, martial arts schools, my own house and even at Mesa Community College and have never made a complete living at it. It must not be the money. It also must not have been to become the top tough guy capable of hurting people. My obsession must be to show others what I had discovered with this super-effective, economical in movement, straight-line, force borrowing martial art that would, at the same time, bring energy and vitality to a practitioner well into old age. It must be what some writers would call ‘passion.’ I have a passion for teaching Wing Tsun.

Those students and associates from 1975 have gone away but I have new students today and even one that has his own students and I am still showing new students what I have discovered. Come and learn what I have. You will only be two generations removed from the late Grandmaster Yip Man.

– Sifu Keith Sonnenberg