Wing Chun Stylist Ben Der: A Sifu who Remembers

August 18th, 2013 | by James Yee

Sifu Ben Der has come a long way since he first sat in those sleazy Hong Kong movie houses vividly fantasizing while watching the celluloid portrayals of the legendary Kung-Fu hero, Wong Fei Hong. He remembers those years when he had to sneak money behind his mother’s back in order to learn Wing Chun Kung-Fu so that he too could fight in the streets as well as his friends did. Der could remember taking Kung-Fu for two years in Hong Kong, never improving since all he really relished was hitting his chi sao partner. Even when he came to the United States, he continued his Wing Chun training by just “messing around” with friends who were also Kung-Fu practitioners. Ben Der had always liked Kung-Fu because it was fun for him. It wasn’t until 1969 that Ben Der learned true Kung-Fu.

He met a new idol who inspired him, not because he was a tremendous fighter, but because he was a tremendous worker. “One of my friends introduced me to Kenneth Chung. Like with most people I meet, we being talking and eventually end up talking about Kung-Fu. Anyway Kenneth and I began playing around together and then I saw that he was very good in Wing Chun. I became one of his students.”

Kenneth Chung is probably the best Wing Chun man to have ever set foot in the United States. But it wasn’t this fact alone that inspired Ben Der to learn from him. As sifu Der explains it, “Ken practiced really hard six or seven hours a day, every day. His hand movements were very fast and extremely strong. Ken really explained and showed everything to us. He hid nothing. I already knew two sets of Wing Chun, but watching him work, I wanted to start Wing Chun all over again. I started from the first set and learned it the right way. You know, I really looked up to Ken.”

Before Kenneth Chung returned to Hong Kong, he asked his top students to carry on the Wing Chun Kung-Fu they had learned from him. Ben Der was one of the three students appointed and now he teaches the art in the San Jose area. Der understands the difference between the type of student he was before Ken Chung, and the type of student he became under him. Sifu Der can readily identify with the kind of attitudes and problems encountered by his students, and he uses this empathy to help him teach his students more effectively.

Wing Chun is a highly specialized system of Kung-Fu developed for speed and simplicity. It is generally recognized as unparalleled for close in-fighting. Blocks are simple parries away from the center of the body and punches are in a straight line toward the opponent’s nose. There are no extravagant kicks nor are there any long flowing movements. But mastering simplicity requires a discipline of mind that cannot be easily generated while performing the three basic fist(kuen) sets of Wing Chun. The mook joong, or dummy set and the sensitivity and coordination exercises of chi sao and pak sao are infinitely more exciting. Understandably, most students are inclined to hurry through the boring fist sets in order to get to the chi sao, pak sao, and mook joong. If the student were at liberty to do this, their Kung-Fu would suffer. Ben Der knows this because he was once there.

Sifu Der explains, “Most people think that Kung-Fu is jumping, running and kicking all of the time. But in the first set (sil lim tao) we don’t do any body movement at all except for the hand movements. Usually, when a person learns all the way and gets to the wooden set, then they realize how important the first set is and they will go back to it. I really can’t blame them though. The first set is very boring but is the basic set and will contain all the fist forms that are to be used in combinations in the more advanced sets (chum kiu, bil gee and mook joong). The basic set should be practiced everyday; even when you are into advanced Wing Chun.”

Because of the importance of that first set, he will not allow his students to go onto the other sets and the chi sao until he feels they are ready to. Ben Der does not want them to spend all of their time doing the advance sets erroneously, which they would invariably do if their foundation exercises are not done correctly. A fist form and block are bad enough by themselves but a combination of bad forms is even more detrimental. Because of its relative importance, sifu Der assures that the utterly boring foundation set is performed properly by circumventing the natural boredom that goes with its performance.

“I feel that it’s most important,” explains Der, “that the teacher of any Kung-Fu system explain each move and why it must be just so. He has to show the student how to use it, yes. But he must also show them why it must be done in a certain way. If the student understands the move, then he will probably find it more enjoyable, and he will also be careful to do it right.”

Ben Der continues this point by explaining what happens in his own classes. “Every time I have a class, I give a lot of hand movements. I also give them a lot of freedom in doing the chi sao and the pak sao. I let them do more punching instead of just having them doing the set without knowing why. I let them do a lot of individual movements then have them put it all together in the sets.”

The true essence of Wing Chun is not in its simplicity but in its execution with lighting speed. Chi sao develops sensitivity of the hands so that the practitioner can “sense” when his opponent will make a move without having to detect any physical motion. Pak sao teaches the practitioner how to convert the blitzing speed of automatic reflex actions into a defensive or offensive hand form. Because these last two sections of Wing Chun Kung Fu are exercises rather than sets, the more one performs them, the more one will improve. “Chi sao and pak sao” says Der, “are unlimited. Even a master can develop more through it. Because of the chi sao and the pak sao, you can never reach your peak in Wing Chun.”

Sifu Ben Der still practices the sets but not quite as often as he used to when he was first learning the sets. He concentrates primarily on his chi sao and pak sao, so that each day he can become better and not remain stagnant at any one level. He knows that as he practices more he will bring himself above another person; but he also knows well that no matter how good he will get, there will always be someone better, for that’s the way of Kung-Fu. That’s where sifu Ben Der of San Jose is at, all because he remembers where he was.

This article appeared in Inside Kung Fu back in the early seventies, in other words about 20 years ago. Of course Kenneth Chung returned to the USA after studying for 5 more years with Leung Sheung, Yip Man’s first student.