A lesson in Wing Tsun

Nyree Barrett follows in the footsteps of Bruce Lee to try the little-known Chinese martial art


Legend has it that Wing Tsun was born in the 16th century. It all started when a beautiful young Chinese woman named Yim Wing Chun rejected a marriage offer: she was then forced to defend herself in a martial arts duel (as you do), so she asked Buddhist nun Ng Mui to show her some moves. The nun had survived the Qing Dynasty’s overthrow of the Shaolin people and had invented an unnamed style of martial art that allowed smaller and weaker people to defend themselves.

After a spot of mentoring, Yim Wing Chun defeated her sleazy suitor and the martial art came to be named after her. It sounds a bit too much like a Michelle Yeoh movie (in fact, there is a Michelle Yeoh movie about it), but many people swear there’s truth to the tale.

The modern history of the karate-esque art stars Bruce Lee: Wing Tsun (well, its harder-to-learn predecessor, Wing Chun) was the martial art that the quick-hands legend learnt before he broke off and invented Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist). I’m a huge Bruce Lee fan, so I decide to take a lesson in the martial art, which works on the principle that an attack is the best defence. It’s fast and it’s all about going forward and pre-empting the attack, although it’s not particularly elegant. ‘It’s not a competition martial art,’ explains the ‘sifu’, or teacher, Amir. ‘It’s for the street.’

Most martial arts are stronger at one distance: Tae Kwon Do and Muay Thai hone your skills from kicking and punching distances, while wrestling-based martial arts teach you to grapple up close. Like MMA, Wing Tsun acknowledges all five fighting distances in a real-life situation: a kicking distance, a punching distance, a kneeing and elbowing distance, grappling and ground fighting.

I thought I’d get a good workout at the lesson, but no – I start with technique and spend a while static, learning the hand movements, stances and somewhat awkward foot moves. I spend most of my time learning simple shuffles while more advanced students around me spar with each other and attack punch bags while sweating their socks off. The Wing Tsun moves do look odd at first – they’re scrappy and erratic (and kind of like a catty girl fight) – but they’re actually very finely tuned.

The key move is ‘Chi Sao’, or sticking hands, which at first looks like two people slapping at each other, but is actually the very intuitive art of tactile reflexes. It’s all about learning to defend and attack judging on the sense of touch alone, without ever really disconnecting from your opponent. Masters of ‘Chi Sao’ can defend themselves with their eyes closed.

If you’re a mad Bruce Lee fan and like the idea of a scrappy martial art that’s fast and effective, or you’re just a little guy who wants to be able to defend yourself, this is for you. You’ll need discipline to stick at it, though, as you start out with slow technique lessons and have to build up to the fun stuff.
Classes run at Dubai Karate Centre on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7.30pm-9.30pm. It costs Dhs300 per month for unlimited sessions. www.dubaikarate.com

Other martial arts to try

Dubai Karate Centre runs three to four classes at a time and they go way beyond karate. Here are some disciplines we’re keen to try…

A Japanese grappling art that is characterised by throws.
Taught on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays from 7pm-9pm, Dhs450 a month

A Filipino art that dates back to 1520 and reverses the usual teaching order: students learn how to fight with weapons first (traditionally a rattan stick), then progress to fighting with their hands.
Taught on Sundays and Tuesdays from 6pm-7.30pm, Dhs250 a month

This Japanese swordsmanship doesn’t involve sparring or aggression; instead, it’s all about precision and control. It focuses a lot on the drawing of the sword.
Taught on Thursdays from 6pm-7.30pm, Dhs220 a month

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