Classic Interviews: Jeet Kune Do Techniques Expert Ted Wong on Bruce Lee and the State of JKD (Part 3)
Part 3 of this exclusive interview from the Black Belt archives delves into Bruce Lee's evolution, his movement away from wing chun and what happened when the Lee family had to move in with Ted Wong for two weeks.
Editor's Note: The interview from which this segment is adapted was originally printed in the May 2008 issue of Black Belt. (You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.) At the time, interviewer Bob Landers wrote, it was "fitting for Ted Wong, the man many consider the foremost authority on Bruce Lee’s art, to go on the record." During the course of his interview with Ted Wong — who, sadly, passed away on November 24, 2010 — Bob Landers' goal was to "ask the questions that [had been] on the minds of martial artists but that [hadn't] been addressed by a person of Ted Wong’s clout."
Ted Wong, age 70 at the time, was still evolving in his physical and intellectual understanding of JKD and still "tirelessly toured the world, educating students on the finer points of Bruce Lee’s legacy and honoring the memory of his teacher and friend." And so it is, through revisiting classic interviews such as this, that Black Belt honors the memory of Bruce Lee's student and friend — and its own Hall of Fame's 2006 Man of the Year — Ted Wong.
Bruce Lee studied wing chun for years. Why do you think he ultimately abandoned it?
Bruce learned wing chun as a youngster for about four years, so what he taught early on was basically wing chun. When he came to America, it really opened up his thinking, and he was able to look into many different martial arts, as well as boxing and fencing. He began looking into ways to modify wing chun, asking himself, “What is the best way to use two arms and two legs?”
As Bruce evolved, he realized that a lot of wing chun was not functional because of its limitations and [because] it was very classical and tradition oriented. Classical and traditional arts have a tendency to not change and do things the way they were done for hundreds of years. So when he started to take his art more into a boxing and fencing direction, he looked to science — such as the laws of physics — and realized that wing chun didn’t fit the direction he was heading.
After a fight in Oakland, California, with a kung fu man from Hong Kong in 1965, Bruce realized there were a lot of limitations in wing chun. He felt he should have finished the fight in a matter of seconds instead of three minutes. This was a real turning point, and he started to examine more deeply his system as well as his physical conditioning. I think this event led to the birth of jeet kune do and an even further departure from wing chun. His wing chun base was acting like a ball and chain to his growth. He began to look for a better way — and that’s when boxing and fencing came in. When Bruce dropped wing chun and changed the stance, that’s when he excelled.
Some people insist that Bruce Lee could never really escape his wing chun roots and that the key to JKD lies in wing chun mechanics.
People who say that have no real understanding of Bruce’s art, or they’re saying that to promote their own art at the expense of Bruce Lee. The statement is ridiculous because Bruce had the physical and intellectual ability to change and adapt. The late Ed Parker, who was a close friend of Bruce’s, once said the first time he’d show Bruce something, Bruce could perform it as [well as Parker could], and the second time he could perform it better. Bruce once told me that to become a good fighter, the No. 1 thing is the ability to adapt.
Most people don’t know that Bruce Lee lived with you for two weeks in your small apartment. How did you and his Great Dane get along?
The reason Bruce and his family stayed with me was the house he was going to move into wouldn’t be ready for two weeks and he had to be out of the house he was living in right away. Bruce told me he was going to have to move his family and dog to the school. I said, “Why not stay at my place?” Linda and Brandon had my bedroom, Bruce slept on my couch and I slept on a mattress on the floor. The big dog wanted to sleep with me. I would push him away, but he kept coming back. After a while, I gave up and said, “OK, you can sleep with me.” (laughs)
About the Author: A longtime student of the late Ted Wong, Bob Landers teaches a jeet kune do group in Tulsa, Oklahoma.