During the early sixties, I watched a lot of television. My parents always said I watched too much. I caught an episode of the Ozzie and Harriet show, a situation comedy of that period. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson had two sons, Ricky and David Nelson. Ricky went on to become a teen idol rock and roll singer. One episode portrayed them as karate experts. Their trainer on that show was karate expert Bruce Tegner who wrote paperback books in that period. However, the story goes that Ricky Nelson also trained with Kenpo karate master Ed Parker.
Another early influence was Bruce Lee who starred on the old Green Hornet television show as Kato, the Green Hornet’s butler, chauffeur and body guard.
Way back in my early teens and twenties, I was a fan of kung-fu and karate movies, the few that were on American screens in those years. I watched everything that came along. I seem to remember a movie that had a lot of publicity, a crude feature called Five Fingers of Death. As some of us remember what was common in those movies, the action was so fast, the stunts were crazy, and the amount of fake blood was absurd. It might have been Five Fingers of Death that had one scene where a man had a hatchet imbedded in his back while he fought off attackers for what seemed like twenty minutes of the film.
In the late sixties I started in the martial arts with an 8-week course at my old high school in East Detroit, Michigan. A few months after the course, I went on to join the school located in Detroit on the famous 8 Mile Road of the movie “8 Mile,” loosely based on the life of the singer Eminem. Conveniently, the movie Five Fingers of Death later appeared on the drive-in movie theatre across the street from the karate school!
The school taught the Korean art of Tang Soo Do. My instructor was, at the time, 3rd Dan Black Belt David Praim. I tested for and passed my dual black belt tests in 1970. I was required to test twice, once in advance of the arrival of the Grandmasters from Korea and again in front of the Korean Grandmasters who came all the way from their home country. Chuck Norris was at the test, testing for his 4th Dan. Since then Norris switched to Tae Kwon Do and ranked in that style as well.
The requirements for rank beyond 1st Dan Black Belt were partly based on tournament participation, and I had already participated twice. My mind was not on tournaments but rather on improving and deepening my knowledge and skills. I was disappointed in what I found was that larger, more athletic persons had the biggest advantage with what I had been learning. I secretly longed to study from the source – the Chinese martial arts. Without advancing to the next dan ranking, I instead, helped my teacher, teach outside of his school at Parks and Recreation Departments and YMACs to draw interest in the school. In 1975, I left Detroit for Phoenix. Early on, I had thought I might find a deeper, more profound martial art outside of Detroit, perhaps to the west! Once there, however, I was consumed with finding work. After eight years of martial arts, I thought I was done with it. An ad for a black belt instructor in the newspaper changed that. I stumbled upon a person with some knowledge of a Chinese system. It is there that I started my personal journey for depth in martial arts study and I found it, first in a Wing Chun lineage. During the seventies I sampled another Wing Chun lineage in San Francisco and later in Master Leung Ting’s Wing Tsun system. Those other lineages still did not solve the issue of using a stronger, more athletic person’s force. My quest for quality and the thirst for expansion was what led me to Master Leung Ting’s Wing Tsun system in the late 70s. He showed through my research, that he wanted to expand his art “though it is contrary to the wishes of the founder,” to quote him in his book, Wing Tsun Kuen. To find out about this Hong Kong instructor, Master Leung Ting, I did my research which was in books and Hong Kong magazines (long before the internet). I purchased his big book Wing Tsun Kuen from a tiny mail order company in New York.
What I found was an upfront examination of the reasons for Wing Tsun’s existence, both from the stand point of its founders 300 years ago and that of the author’s research which pointed to its probable origins, contradicting the popular Wing Chun books of the time. It included (and still does) detailed photos, reasons, explanations, and applications of almost the entire Wing Tsun system. Master Leung Ting used the Wing Tsun spelling to separate it from the Wing Chun spelling as his unique teaching method.
Most of my journey after discovering Wing Tsun is detailed in my biography. In this writing, I wanted to explain my motivations for a life-long study of this Chinese martial art. Wing Tsun is an achievable goal for any westerner because it is a bit westernized due to its growth period in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was owned by Great Britain for 156 years. Many oriental martial arts are weighed down by much eastern culture. Wing Tsun is not. It is sometimes called the non-traditional, traditional martial art. None of its content is missing. Much of the redundant techniques in the forms have been removed by its successors and made the content more streamlined. It is a skill-based system which really does use an attacker’s force. The technical reasons are there in the training.
Despite its simplicity, it can easily be a lifelong study. When you have reached the equivalent of black belt, you have only just begun, unlike so many commercial presentations of traditional martial arts today.
This is what I was looking for but did not know it existed officially until my first day of class in 1980. This is the discovery that has kept me going for 38 years.
-Sifu Keith Sonnenberg