Fighting Fit: Be like water

Photo of Sifu Ralph Haenel via
Photo of Sifu Ralph Haenel via

Sifu Ralph Haenel talks Wing Tsun

By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer

The origins of Wing Tsun are shrouded in myth. According to legend, it was derived from Fukien Kung Fu by a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui following the persecution of her southern Shaolin sect by the Qing dynasty. She named the style for Yim Wing-chun after training Yim to defend herself against the advances of a local warlord.

Centuries on, the style has been popularized by famous figures such as Ip Man and Bruce Lee—and more locally one Ralph Haenel, Sifu of Vancouver’s Wing Tsun Kung Fu.

The story of Haenel’s life sounds like the script for Hollywood film written by George Orwell and directed by Chow Yun-Fat. Growing up in 1970s East Germany (before the fall of the Berlin Wall), Haenel studied several martial arts before becoming a Sifu (teacher) of Wing Tsun. Because anything individualistic or self-expressive was looked upon with suspicion by the East German STASI (secret police), Haenel ended up serving three years and six months for the inexcusable crime of teaching people self-defence. He even survived an attempt on his life after his release. He fled East Germany and became a travelling instructor, gathering knowledge from bouncers and soldiers,and teaching everyone from Olympic athletes to senior citizens. Years later, he settled in Canada and founded Vancouver’s Wing Tsun Kung Fu (located at Victoria Drive and 49th Avenue).

Supremely confident in his approach, Haenel offers free lessons in perpetuity. Want to try before you buy? Still not sure after three free lessons? Go ahead and have another. He is a man who enjoys teaching his art, and his concern with your money is secondary at most.

Do not think that this means the training is subpar. Ralph Haenel is a very enthusiastic one-on-one teacher, and the class sizes are small enough for everyone’s questions to matter. As a teacher, he is very skilled at three things. First, step-by-step breakdown of techniques. Second, accelerating those techniques to speeds rivalling the Tazmanian devil in a whirlwind. Third, making an imposing opponent for you to test your evolving technique against. Haenel’s approach to self-defence is one that I think more schools should incorporate. He treats the concept as a total ideology, where common sense, social cues, and risk minimization to circumvent altercations are as much a part of the art as the techniques themselves. In no other Dojo have I ever been instructed on what to do in a situation where a horde of camera phones might make me look like the aggressor, even if I was attacked first.

Wing Tsun is an extremely close range, fast-paced style, focussing mostly on hand speed, low kicks, and evasion. There is very little grappling—the point is to pummel the opponent into submission with the quickest flurry possible. Smaller people, either in height or body mass, may benefit from this training.

Practitioners might find the basics of Wing Tsun slow-going at first; the techniques are very simple, but learning to read one’s opponent through contact and chaining these techniques into a smooth flow of simultaneous forward moving offence and defence requires serious long-term commitment. Wing Tsun is not as “quick and dirty” as other styles like Muay Thai or Krav Maga. However, if you stick with it, you’ll find Haenel’s method is one of the best around.

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