Kleber works the wooden dummy, and teaches chi sau. Photos by Gao erqiang / Shanghai Star
Practical wing chun (咏春）is no monkey business, neither is it inspired by mantis, snake or tiger. This lethal martial art aims to take the opponent out of the game in three moves. Matt Hodges goes for a lesson.
Here is what you won't learn at Kleber Battaglia's Practical Wing Chun Club: How to subdue your enemy while assuming the pose of a crane, or any other character from the Kung Fu Panda movie franchise.
"We don't do animal forms or circus moves," says Battaglia, before he embarks on a technical tirade about pressure points, neural pathways and qigong breathing techniques that would probably make a lot more sense the second time around.
What you will learn is that Robert Downey Jr. studies wing chun, which means "forever spring". The Ironman star gives his tacit blessing from a poster on one of the club's walls.
It will also be drummed into you that if you can't end a fight in three strikes, you were not paying attention in class. There is more complicated stuff to digest, ranging from chi sau, or sticky hands, to mastering the wooden dummy, empty-hands and weapon forms. But you have to pay for that.
This is nuts-and-bolts kung fu — hence the name "practical" — with all the mechanics rationalized and explained, and all the useless, cosmetic stuff razored off. No empty choreography or Mickey Mouse moves here.
"It's very effective. Here, everything has a reason. Cause and effect," says Italian Francesco Veneziano, 62, during his second lesson.
"When I first came I asked, ‘Why are they doing all these twirling-hand movements like a geisha?' But now I'm feeling it in my tendons all down my forearm. It's about attack and defense at the same time."
Photo by Gao erqiang / Shanghai Star
Wing chun is all about close contact, rapid punches, low kicks and tight defense. It may be your best way out of a barroom brawl and is the first choice in an elevator scrap (but these only happen in movies).
After a few lessons the self-defensive advantages over boxing and Muay Thai may become apparent, with inner peace and longevity thrown in for good measure.
"It's not a sport. There aren't any rules," says Battaglia. "But it's much more than just self-defense. It's a way to develop as a human being. You can apply what you learn to all areas of your life, and that body consciousness breeds self-confidence."
While it's all about self-control, there is a dark yin to the yang.
"We only attack the weak points of the body," adds the Italian-French instructor.
"We aim, as a strategy, to break knees, kick the groin, stomp on feet and push our opponent, all of which is illegal in mixed martial arts. Our primary aim is the Adam's apple, ear or eyes."
If this sounds brutal, bear in mind that Bruce Lee's favorite moves were the back fist and eye gouge.
Wing chun practitioners aren't chiseled, but they can still be lethal fighting machines long after most boxers have hung up their gloves. ?
"Have you ever seen a chimpanzee with a six-pack?" asks Battaglia, a trained psychologist who used to specialize in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). ?"It's not natural or healthy."
His club is one of at least two in Shanghai run by foreigners taught by disciples of Yip Man, that highly venerated and ghoulishly gaunt Guangdong native who bore a passing resemblance to Grand Master Oogway in the hit DreamWorks series.
Photo by Gao erqiang / Shanghai Star
He taught Bruce Lee many of his game-deciding moves, but not the one-inch-punch parlor trick, those hysterical screams or that trademark nose flick.
Lee died of acute cerebral edema on July 20, 1973 at the age of 32, surviving his former teacher by seven months. They both passed away in Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Since then, their respective teachings — Lee reinterpreted and expanded on wing chun to develop his own school of jeet kune do — have spread all over the world.
Now Battaglia wants to bring his teacher's version of wing chun back to the mainland, starting with Shanghai. This is based on a personal promise he made to Wan Kam Leung, who was taught by one of only four students to finish the system with Yip Man.
"I basically gave up everything in my life to follow this guy," says Battaglia, who spent four years in Hong Kong. He describes visiting Yip Man's grave with his teacher as one of the best days of his life.
"I was originally going to open a school in San Francisco but he urged me to help bring it back to China. These days, wing chun is largely unknown outside Foshan and Guangdong."
The other expat here who can cling to such Old Testament-style genealogy is David Davila, who was taught by Kenneth Chung, who was taught by Leung Sheung, another of Yip Man's students.
Battaglia has studied Japanese and Brazilian jujitsu, British boxing, Indonesian silat and kali, or stick-and knife fighting from the Philippines. Now he is a self-confessed wing chun fanatic who trains for eight hours a day, including several hours of qigong.
"He's a psycho about this, no other hobbies," says Cora, his Cantonese wife. She helps run the business.
He tries to limit his classes to 15 students. The school opened in January 2013.
A package of eight lessons at Battaglia's club costs 1,200 yuan. The 1,000-yuan membership fee includes a uniform and booklet linked to the broader international group, of which his club operates as a de facto franchise.
Training tips from sifu battaglia
Don't run for more than 15 minutes a day to avoid damaging knee ligaments.
Forget about heavy weights. Build strength using your own body weight.
You can do the following exercises daily or rotate every day between front and back muscles: press-ups; chin-ups; handstand push-ups; squats all the way down; one-legged squats; squatting at 90 degrees for 3 minutes at a time (this isometric training is for explosive strength); tricep dips; superman or dorsal raises (lie flat on stomach and raise shoulders, but not legs); reverse raises (bend forward 90 degrees over a chair and raise head and shoulders).
When doing press-ups, keep your elbows tucked in and try to stop your shoulder blades from popping out. Also try to keep your shoulder blades flat for chin-ups.