Wing Chun the Wong Way
Taken from Bliz Magazine November 2012 issue.
The world of martial arts has thrown us a variety of characters throughout the years. Among the sea of tough guys and hard nuts, it’s easy to forget about the quiet and unassuming individuals who continue to strive to spread and develop their respective systems, day in, day out. You could say Western Australia’s Rolf Clausnitzer is one of those guys. Looking more like a school teacher rather than an instructor of martial arts, the Hong Kong born ‘kung fu tragic’ is a prime example that you shouldn’t judge a fighter by the kindness in his face. Introduced to the art by Bruce Lee himself, Clausnitzer is today one of the country’s most respected and experienced instructors of Wing Chun. He teachers at the Wing Chun Kuen Academy of Western Australia in Morley, Perth, continuing what he describes as his lifelong love – the Chinese combat art as taught by Ip Man’s student and Bruce Lee’s senior, Wong Shun Leung.
Rolf Clausnitzer’s martial arts journey began during his childhood in the Mecca of Wing Chun, Hong Kong, more than 50 years ago. Surprisingly though his first foray into fighting was not via the Chinese arts.
“Although I did a lot of wrestling and a little boxing with my schoolmates and friends while attending King George V School in Kowloon, Hong Kong in the 1950’s, my first involvement in the traditional martial arts began when I trained in Judo for a year under a formidable Filipino instructor, after school hours,” he remembers.
Like so many aspiring martial artists, Clausnitzer was ultimately inspired by the great Bruce Lee to learn the art of Kung Fu. However, while Lee’s movies provided the muse for most, Clausnitzer recalls a candid personal experience with the man himself and how that day changed his life forever.
“My younger brother Frank, who was attending a different school, came home one day and casually asked me to throw a punch at him. I did, and instantly found myself trapped with his fist under my nose. I tried again, faster and with more intent with the same result. I then tried a Karate Seiken Tsuki, self-taught from a book, which was even more ineffective. To cut a long story short, some weeks later he brought home his classmate, none other than Bruce Lee himself.
Bruce performed the Siu Nim Tau and then linked his arms with mine and invited me to hit him while he had his head turned right away from me. I simply could not score on him, as he would control me while landing controlled blows on my face. I was blown away.”
It wasn’t until a few years later that the young Clausnitzer began his formal training in kung fu, after taking a few years off to focus on his academic aspirations. His first instructor was none other than the great Sifu Wong Shun Leung, one of several teachers who guided Bruce Lee during his early development, and a student of Wing Chun’s most famous master, Ip Man.
“A few months later I watched Bruce Lee completely dominate my schoolmate, Gary Elms, in the 1958 Hong Kong Interschool Boxing Championships. From that point I was inspired to take up Wing Chun, but it wasn’t until 1964, after I had graduated from Leicester University in the UK, that I was fortunate enough to be accepted by Wong Shun Leung Sifu as his first foreign student.”
Although his time with Wong was relatively brief, Clausnitzer says his development during that period was priceless. Before returning to the UK for his postgraduate studies, Clausnitzer was lucky enough to become one of the Sifu’s closest students for 6 months, training with at a time when his kwoon was yet to officially open. Classes during these times were done at Wong’s informal rooftop school.
“He and I got on so well that he took a special interest in my training. The emphasis was more on fighting skills and the importance of Wing Chun concepts rather than on the forms training and drills so prevalent nowadays, on numerous occasions he had us don 16oz boxing gloves and spar. He would ask me to use my Western Boxing at times, and my limited Wing Chun on other occasions. After three months he thought I had already picked up the basic techniques sufficient to be invited to test my skills against his Western Boxing, with the assurance that he would not hurt me.”
Despite the hard 6 months of training under Sifu Wong, Clausnitzer says his most valuable lesson came towards the end of his time training on that hot Hong Kong rooftop, as a result of him noticing shortcomings in his own chi sau techniques.
Clausnitzer also acknowledges the influence of Sifu Wong in his own teaching methodology, which is underpinned by strong focus on constant improvement and self-development. “As Sifu himself stressed the importance of seeking daily improvement. I have some to rely on my own insights more and more, notwithstanding the help, for which I remain very grateful of quite a few different teachers over the last few decades,” he explains. “I know that, provided one has a deep and accurate understanding of the basic concepts and techniques of Wing Chun Kuen, one will become more independent and confident of finding solutions from within.”
After spending 18 years in the United Kingdom, Clauznitzer made the big decision to migrate to Australia with his wife and two young children. Seeking fresh and promising opportunities, along with better weather, he tossed up between several cities before deciding on Perth.
“We could have ended up settling in Sydney, but friends of ours who have travelled numerous times to Australia felt that we would find the open spaces, good weather, schools and outdoor lifestyle of WA more to our liking. So in 1981 we found ourselves in Perth, where we have been ever since.”
After having difficulties finding places to train after arriving, it wasn’t before meeting fellow Wing Chun Kuen instructor David Peterson that Clausnitzer began to further his kung fu knowledge.
“My linking up with David was a happy, fortuitous thing. The late Erle Montaigue, who was a correspondent of the now defunct Australasian Fighting Arts magazine, heard about me from a couple of my private students and wrote an article about me in the mid 80’s, in which I mentioned that I had not yet completed what I call the Wing Chun ‘syllabus’ for a number of reasons beyond my control. David happened to read the article, was thrilled about the Wong Shun Leung connection, contacted me, and that was the start of a lifelong friendship.”
With Wing Chun schools hard to come by following his arrival to Perth. It was his friendship with Sifu Peterson that allowed him to take his own Wing Chun knowledge to the next level. “The only school I could find after some searching was that of Roger Smart; respected, highly skilled, as well as the longest established public teacher of Wing Chun in WA. I wrote to him twice asking if he would accept me as a student, having mentioned the gaps in my training, but received no response. Fortunately David came to the rescue,” he says.
Clausnitzer is now one of several instructors teaching out of Perth’s Kiai Combat Fitness Centre, and its owner, Hakarac Martial Boxing founder Mannie de Matos, counts himself lucky to have met such a talented martial artist and teacher. The pair became friends over a decade ago after Mannie began one-on-one private lessons with Clausnitzer, seeking ways to develop his own system.
“One of the first things I have to say is that he is one of the nicest people you will ever come across,” de Matos says of Clausnitzer. “As a teacher, I haven’t met anyone more passionate about his art than Rolf is.”
A security veteran and martial artist with a plethora of experience in various styles, de Matos says that the Wing Chun Kuen concepts he has learnt have played an important role in the development of his own combat system.
“Rolf has had a lot of influence in the Hakarac system, which he helped me put together. A lot of striking concepts are based off the Wing Chun concepts taught to me by Rolf,” explains the Hakarac founder. “He has always been generous in making time for me and showing me the fine intricacies of Wing Chun and how effective it can be.”
Clausnitzer continues to be revered for his unique and somewhat ‘informal’ method of teaching, as well as his views on the state of Wing Chun in not only Australia, but the world. A self-confessed nonconformist with a knack for trusting his own gut, he concedes his beloved art has developed some problems since it began booming in popularity across the globe.
“I am quite disappointed with the ongoing politics, ego clashes, a preponderance, etcetera.” he laments. “Admittedly, it is a complex, controversial subject and I have no personal desire to enter the debate. I prefer to do my own thing and even have no urge to form strong links with other Wing Chun schools and lineages.”
This mantra is also reflected in his teaching methodology.
“My aim is to educate my students to think for themselves, under guidance and supervision, and not to compete against others but to develop their own potential and eventually to set them free to follow their own path. Thanks to some wise words from one of my best students, I have come to accept that the aim of a good teacher is to make him or herself redundant in the shortest time possible.”
Clausnitzer’s style of instructing, though, is not carbon copy of Wong’s. The sifu cites various personal experiences, as well as individuals from all walks of life, that have inspired and influenced him in developing his own teaching tao.
“I am inspired by Dr Ron Paul, the lifelong champion of liberty and freedom in the USA, who, after 35 years of campaigning, is finally being heard by the general public,” he says. “ As to my personal way of teaching, it is a mixture of Hong Kong style informal, unstructed training and more formal group training, with more emphasis on the former. Admittedly, this is not popular with everyone and produces mixed results, but for me it is the right way to go instead of the commercial way, with hierarchical structures and dependence on the sifu to deliver the goods.”
There is a sense of disappointment in his tone as he goes on to elaborate on the often controversial topic of ‘closed-door student’ claims when it comes to Wing Chun systems of the Ip Man lineage. “I may be seen as cynical, but after seven decades on this planet, I have seen and experienced enough of the Wing Chun scene to put it down to ego and a craving for personal gain, attention and recognition, all of which, basically, stem from fear and insecurity. Incidentally, I have been a counsellor since the mid 90’s and have a reasonably good understanding of how the human mind works, both positively and negatively.”
He also pinpoints the influence of less traditional styles as well as Mixed Martial Arts on Wing Chun. Not afraid to draw attention to some of the Chinese arts shortcomings, he says this movement has proved to be an eye opener to many kung fu practitioners.
“For many Wing Chun teachers and schools, it has been a wakeup call, exposing their inadequacies, inaccuracies and unrealistic training methods. The evidence is there on the internet and YouTube in the thousands of video clips showing (mostly) interactions between Wing Chun practitioners and other Wing Chun practitioners,” he reasons.
“But I believe that good Wing Chun Kuen will continue to grow and be around for a very long time, since its relative simplicity and emphasis on practical and realistic concepts – rather than on complex, endless techniques – will continue to appeal to potential students.”
Whether you find Clausnitzer’s views and opinions on the state of kung fu refreshing of cynical, there’s no denying he’s a man committed to the art he continues to practise every day – driven by a desire to give his students the best possible education in the martial art made famous by Bruce Lee. When asked what he hopes to achieve in the rest of his career in martial arts, he doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“I would not call it a career, more of a lifelong interest or hobby,” he says. “But I do share Wong Sifu’s idea of seeking to constantly improve one’s understanding and expression of Wing Chun Kuen.”
And so begins for Clausnitzer another hour in another day, and another year in yet another decade, of punching, kicking, parrying and trapping his way to a greater understanding of kung fu. And he couldn’t be happier at the prospect.