It is not often that one comes across a mat salleh (foreigner) who teaches Chinese kung fu.
But then again, David Peterson is no ordinary bloke. He is one of the world’s premier teachers of Wing Chun, the hand combat art form made famous in the Ip Man movies.
Peterson is based in Seremban, after getting married to the love of his life. His wife, Dr Norintan Zainal Shah, is a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology who works in a private hospital.
This Melbourne native’s story reads like a movie script for a 1970's martial arts drama.
Peterson and Norintan met in Melbourne by chance. She was in the Australian city in 2009 at a medical conference. She had lost her way and he came to her aid.
“I just happened to be on the street and I saw this lady looking around nervously, probably lost, so I offered to give her directions,” he says.
Along the way they stopped for coffee and after a “nice conversation”, the two exchanged cards and went their separate ways.
“It was karma that we met; we understood one another and just clicked,” he says.
“I told her if I went to Malaysia I would drop in to say hi. At that time, I was already going to Hong Kong regularly for Wing Chun activities.”
Soon they began exchanging emails, followed by lengthy and expensive phone calls. This led to Peterson making multiple visits to Malaysia to visit Norintan and her family.
The couple eventually tied the knot in January 2011 and settled down in Negri Sembilan.
Building a martial arts business
The next step for Peterson was to find a way to earn a living in Malaysia. He did that by putting his martial arts skills to good use.
During one of Peterson’s trips here, six men drove from Kuala Lumpur to Seremban to meet him. One of them was Jon Dep, who operated a Wing Chun class in KL on a part-time basis. At their next meeting, there were 15 people. Later, he hosted a seminar that drew a crowd of 80 people.
“I knew then that there was real interest in Wing Chun here,” he says.
Upon settling down here in 2011, Peterson took over from Dep when he offered up the keys to his business in Kuala Lumpur to Peterson.
The next step was to open a school locally in Seremban and when a suitable location was found, Peterson signed a lease and began teaching Wing Chun.
But it was not a smooth start. Rival martial arts schools threatened him with physical harm but he held his ground. “I told them that the door is always open for them so they could come and see us - nobody took up the offer,”he recalls.
How he started
Peterson basks in the knowledge that he is still a novelty in Malaysia. “I’m a gwailou married to a Malay girl, so obviously I am a Muslim convert.
I speak Mandarin and Cantonese fluently, and I teach Chinese culture. On top of that, I run a kung fu school,” he points out.
As a boy, Peterson was enamoured by all things Asian. The seed of his passion was planted after watching an old black-and-white TV series called The Samurai. “In each episode, the warrior and his loyal ninja companion would right wrongs by wielding their swords, helping others receive justice, always following
the strict code of the samurai,” he recalls.
At that time, my brother was quite a big guy and he used to thump a few of the local bullies. They couldn’t get back at him, so they took it out on me because I was a weedy little guy,” he says.
“I got tired of being a punching bag for my brother’s enemies so when the kung fu boom started in the early 1970s, I was ready to learn something and I thought, why not kung fu.”
Over the years, Peterson has tried various styles of martial arts, including Shaolin boxing, taught by a man who “looked like an old sage from a Mongolian movie with the shaved head, moustache and little goatee”.
But lessons in Wing Chun were not available until much later when a new teacher came on the scene. He claimed to be a student of Wong Shun Leung, himself a student of Ip Man.
Peterson had read about the legendary teacher and his interest was piqued. But after a few lessons, he felt that he was not making any progress. The teacher turned out to be a fraud.
“At one point, I was conducting classes around Melbourne for this guy. I was doing all the work but he was making all the money, driving a Porsche and I was riding a bicycle,” he says with a laugh.
“My family produced T-shirts for him, put up posters for him; my mother was answering phone calls for him. It got to the stage when I had to bite the bullet. In 1983, I went to Hong Kong to meet Wong,” he says. The real Wong Shun Leung became his teacher.
Above and Below: Peterson and Wong Shun Leung
By then, Peterson had graduated from the University of Melbourne where he majored in Chinese studies. He began teaching Chinese at two Melbourne private schools – the Ivanhoe Girls Grammar and Camberwell Grammar School – a vocation that lasted 30 years.
No language barrier
Knowing how to speak Mandarin and Cantonese enabled Peterson to communicate with Wong easily.
From 1983 to 1997, Peterson was in Hong Kong every school holiday to learn from the man who had taught Bruce Lee and considered by many to be the ultimate pugilist street fighter of his time.
Wong had tested and refined his skills in dozens of encounters on the streets and rooftops of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, emerging undefeated every time.
“Bruce Lee followed Wong around to many of his beimo (challenge) fights and was inspired by his abilities. He definitely modelled himself after Wong,” he says.
Legend has it that to get Wong’s attention, Lee would sometimes tell Wong’s students that Wong was not well or that he was out of town on an errand. Once the students left, he would train for as long as he could. Eventually Wong wised up and gave Lee a hiding to teach him a lesson.
Peterson eventually became only one of two qualified instructors of Wong’s system in Australia.
He then began conducting Wing Chun classes at night while keeping his day job as a teacher. He also honed his writing skills by contributing articles on Wing Chun to magazines all over the world.
In 1998, Jesse Glover – Bruce Lee’s first and best student – invited Peterson to Los Angeles and Seattle in the United States for some seminars. That was how he became involved in a series of seminars, movies and workshops involving Wing Chun at the highest level around the world.
“Since then, I have been to the UK, Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy and the US, just to name a few places. Wing Chun has taken me everywhere,” he says.
In 2001, Peterson published a book entitled Look Beyond the Pointing Finger: the Combat Philosophy of Wong Shun Leung – the first book on Wong’s interpretation of the Wing Chun system in the English language.
An expanded second edition was released in 2008 and a hardcover collector’s edition came out in 2012. He also produced three instructional DVDs that were used as reference material for the script in the Ip Man movies.
“I have a new book coming out soon that is going to top all of those,” he says excitedly. “It is like a bible of Wong’s Wing Chun.”
Telling the Wing Chun story
Besides writing, Peterson has been collaborating with author, filmmaker and Bruce Lee historian John Little on a documentary about the relationship that Ip Man, Lee and Wong shared. Hollywood has erroneously presented Ip Man as Lee’s one and only teacher, Peterson claims.
He adds that proceeds from the documentary will be given to Wong’s family.
The movie, entitled Wong Shun Leung: The King of Talking Hands , will contain Peterson’s insights into Wing Chun as well as anecdotes of Wong’s personal life and his first encounter with Ip Man.
According to the Aussie, Wong told Ip Man how unimpressed he was with Wing Chun after he was invited to watch a class, and even less so after he won two consecutive fights with two of Ip Man’s students that night.
“Ip Man then took Wong on; my teacher later described that exchange as ‘surreal’. No matter what he did, Ip Man had him in a corner in seconds. He did not hurt Wong nor hit him hard. He was just totally in control of Wong’s every move,” he says.
A senior student of Ip Man then took Wong on after Ip Man whispered instructions in his ear. Wong’s account of the fight was: “I didn’t lose and he didn’t win, but I came out looking worse than he did.”
So convinced by what he had experienced that Wong joined the school the following week and went on to become Ip Man’s finest student.
Wing Chun way to deal with physical assault
It is estimated that three to four million people around the world practise Wing Chun today. Yet, when its most famous exponent, IpMan, began teaching the art in Hong Kong in1950, he had only about two dozen students.
According to instructor David Peterson, Wing Chun is a fighting system that requires neither great strength nor superb athletic ability. Instead, the southern Chinese combat system uses one’s own body structure to develop power, speed and efficient“tools” to deal with the reality of violent physical assault.
“Unlike many traditional martial arts, Wing Chun focuses on close-range fighting by mastering and understanding the three training patterns or forms and gets you to overwhelm your oppressor at the first opportunity,” he says.
Wing Chun is also referred to as Ving Tsun, but Peterson calls it WSL Ving Tsun Combat Science.
“When people ask me to describe Wing Chun, I say it is the shortest distance between my fist and your nose,” he says with a laugh. “This is the lazy man’s kung fu, not visually exciting like tae kwon do but it gets the job done.”
“Keep it simple, keep it direct, keep it efficient is the motto. If I can attack and defend in one move, why take two?”
“He is such a good teacher,” says Daryl Lee who drives from Singapore to Seremban and Kuala Lumpur four times a month for lessons. “Not only is he a master of Wing Chun, but he also knows how to teach.”
Peterson charges an average of RM50 per session.
“If anyone asked me 10 years ago, do you reckon you’ll live in Malaysia and do what you love, teach Wing Chun, travel the world, make movies, write books and articles, I would have said you’re kidding. But I’ve been blessed the moment I decided to open a school. Things have worked out well and Wing Chun has started an unexpected journey in my life whichis still continuing today,” he says.