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Ted Wong on Bruce Lee & the State of JKD

October 22 2016 at 8:48 AM
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Classic Interviews: Jeet Kune Do Techniques Expert Ted Wong on Bruce Lee and the State of JKD (Black Belt Mag.)

by Bob Landers (September 22, 2014)

Editor’s Note: “A lot happened in the Jeet Kune Do world during the past 10 years,” as Bob Landers wrote in his introduction to the printed version of this interview, originally published in the May 2008 issue of Black Belt magazine. At the time, 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 engaged in enhancing his physical ability and intellectual understanding of JKD. In fact, his lifetime of contributions got him inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as the 2006 Man of the Year. At the time of this interview, Ted Wong 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, Ted Wong.

Q1: What was your life like before you met Bruce Lee?
Ted: I was very busy making a living and raising a family. I was interested in martial arts from an early age. I later became interested in boxing, which I watched on TV quite regularly. When I compared boxing to martial arts, I felt boxing was more realistic. I no longer had an interest in learning martial arts — until I met Bruce Lee.

Q2: In 1967 you trained at Bruce Lee’s Los Angeles school and with him privately. Shortly thereafter, you began training exclusively at his home. How did that come about?
Ted: When I started training at the Chinatown school, I had no prior experience in martial arts. Bruce Lee saw that I was short on skill and knowledge, but I think he recognized that I had heart, that I was dedicated and hardworking. He felt sorry for me because I was the guy that had little knowledge and skill compared to the rest of the group — some of them were black belts and boxing champions. Also, he found that I came from Hong Kong, and we spoke the same language. That’s another reason we became good friends.

Q3:You’ve stated that the two of you shared an interest in old-time boxing from the 1920s.
Ted: One time, Bruce was reading an encyclopedia of boxing, and he would ask me questions out of it — trivia questions, like the nicknames of champions. He was surprised that I knew the answers. Even though I had no experience in boxing, I had a lot of knowledge of boxing. I read a lot of magazines that had to do with it and knew the history of the champions. This was another reason he took me in. Later on, I found out that boxing was one of the subjects that Bruce was heavily interested in. JKD evolved along the lines of boxing and fencing.

Q4: Was the material taught at the school different from what he taught you privately?
Ted: It was quite different from what he taught me privately, mainly because the school had a set curriculum, a lesson plan. The school’s material was a little more wing chun oriented. I discovered during the private sessions that what he taught me was what he was working on at that time. It was quite a departure from the more classical teaching offered at the school. The private teaching was more of the Jeet Kune Do he was evolving into.

Q5: Specifically, how was the art evolving?
Ted: In 1967, the early stages of JKD, there was still a heavy wing chun influence in his art. Then he refined and simplified what he was doing, especially the stance. If you look at the stance in 1967 and then in 1971, you can see how he had streamlined it and made it more efficient. In 1967 his art was still wing chun oriented, and the stance was more square and open to allow for traps such as pak sao, lop sao and so on. As he evolved, he realized trapping wasn’t that efficient and didn’t fit his evolving structure of fighting. When he changed his stance to be more speed oriented, he pretty much eliminated the trapping. If you understand his JKD philosophy of simplicity and directness, [you can understand that] trapping was complex and not very direct. It also included a lot of passive moves — for example, taking several moves to get the job done.

Q6: So with the stance change, did trapping and the four-corner parry no longer match the direction he was heading?
Ted: The later stance is more for mobility and evasiveness, doing away with the need to parry or block. The earlier stance was good for four-corner-type moves, but it took you away from the power line. The principle of JKD is to not waste motion. Blocking and hitting at the same time is preferred over blocking and then hitting, which takes away your leverage and your power source. The later stance is designed for longer range, allowing you to use interception as the preferred way; thus, it’s much faster.

Q7: You’re one of three people known to have received a JKD certificate from Bruce Lee. How did this come about?
Ted: It was a very special moment for me. One evening, I walked into Bruce’s house for a lesson. He pointed to the table and said, “This is for you; you should be very proud of it as I don’t give many of these out.” I realized it was a certificate in Jeet Kune Do. I felt very proud and was at a loss for words.

Q8: What were the private training sessions like?
Ted: Often, the private lessons were about working on what he wanted or what he was working on at that time. He might use me as a sounding board — for example, he might perform a certain kick and ask me about the speed, power and timing. Sometimes he would work with me on something I was lacking; I recall working on the side kick for two months. Sometimes we would work on fun things like movie choreography: timing, selling the shot, reaction and camera angles. We didn’t do a lot of physical training together, but he did set up a program for me to work on my strength. It had weightlifting, and sometimes he would show me specific exercises to work on for punching and kicking strength, and sometimes after the sessions he would take me running.

Q9: Do you recall any social events the two of you shared?
Ted: I have many fond memories of Bruce besides training. Many times after training, we would have a cold drink and discuss martial arts and philosophy. We went to movies and restaurants, and he liked to make trips to bookstores. He invited me, Herb Jackson and James Lee to visit him in Hong Kong in December 1972. James Lee was quite ill at that time and couldn’t make it, so Herb and I took the trip to Hong Kong and stayed at Bruce’s house for a couple of weeks. One of the funny things was that Bruce asked us to bring training equipment because he had nothing to train with. So Herb and I packed our suitcases full of training gear and didn’t pack any clothing or personal items. We figured we would get necessities when we got there.

Q10: Bruce Lee studied wing chun for years. Why do you think he ultimately abandoned it?
Ted: 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.

Q11: 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.
Ted: 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.

Q12: 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?
Ted: 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)

Q13: You were present at many of James Coburn and Steve McQueen’s lessons — any interesting stories there?
Ted: On occasion, I was with Bruce during their sessions. James Coburn was more philosophically oriented. Bruce could be very philosophical, and I think this was the main draw for James.
Ted: I saw more of Steve McQueen. One time Bruce took me to Steve’s house in Westwood, Los Angeles. His house was built like an 18th-century castle. We would work out in the big courtyard, which had sandstone rock with a rough surface. Steve tripped and cut open his big toe, and there was this big piece of flesh hanging there. It was a bloody mess, and Bruce said we’d better stop. Steve said, “No, let’s keep on training.” Steve was tough and very physically oriented.

Q14: Joe Lewis once said you were an old and close friend of his and the only student of Bruce Lee’s he ever met while Bruce Lee was alive.
Ted: Quite often Joe Lewis would come to train with Bruce [while] I was there. Joe was an excellent martial artist and the top tournament fighter at that time. Bruce was working with him on how to improve his technique for tournaments, so sometimes I would work with him. Usually when Joe would come for training, he was very serious, but sometimes he’d be in a joking mood and we’d have a little fun. Later on, Joe became the full-contact champion. Some 20 years after Bruce passed away, Joe and I connected again, taught some seminars together and became very good friends.

Q15: After Bruce Lee passed away, you must have had a void in your life. How did you go about putting JKD together to the degree that you have?
Ted: For me, it wasn’t easy continuing his art after he passed away because I had lost a teacher and wasn’t sure which way to go. Fortunately, I had my good friend Herb Jackson, who was also a longtime student of Bruce Lee, so we worked together on what we’d learned — mostly physical techniques. I managed to stay with what I learned from Bruce and never looked into other arts.
I also began to research his writings. It took me about 15 years to really understand what Jeet Kune Do was all about and even more time to develop my skill. I really put a lot of time into it. Bruce left behind a lot of information, which served as a road map, but you have to study it and work at it to make it all come together. Through teaching for the past 15 years, I learned a lot about JKD and myself.

Q16: In your studies, did you discover things that Bruce Lee never taught you?
Ted: Having spent as much time as I have — 30 to 40 years — studying Jeet Kune Do, I discovered many things in the art itself which Bruce never taught me. These are things within the structure of Jeet Kune Do. Innovation is about understanding the inner workings [of the art]. When you understand this, you can further simplify. Everything I learned wasn’t from an outside source; it was inside JKD. Any discoveries I made were already contained within the art as Bruce designed it. Bruce’s notes and writings provide a road map, so by sticking to his principles, it’s still Jeet Kune Do.

Q17: Have you ever heard the term “Jeet Kune Do lite”?
Ted: I heard of it back in 2001. What this particular JKD teacher meant was that most people were teaching a watered-down version of JKD. He was saying that people were over-commercializing JKD, kind of like a fast-food version of it. He was implying that people were motivated by greed, etc.

Q18: Some people charge from $2,000 to $4,000 for a two- to five-day course, after which the participants are certified as instructors.
Ted: I think Bruce Lee would turn over in his grave knowing people charge that kind of money for so little training and then promote people to be instructors of his art. The practice is absurd and motivated by greed. It takes years of training and practice to understand the art of JKD and be able to teach. If an instructor certifies someone after just one seminar, it shows a lack of integrity and respect toward the art and the martial arts in general.

Q19: What was Bruce Lee’s greatest gift to you?
Ted: I received so much from him; by nature, he was a giver, not a receiver. He spent all his life giving of himself and of his knowledge. I didn’t realize until many years later the magnitude of what I received from him. It took me many years to understand his art and realize that his art doesn’t just apply to martial arts; it applies to how you conduct yourself in all aspects of life. What I learned from his teaching — efficiency and other things — led to self-confidence, self-reliance and self-sufficiency. These are the greatest gifts I received from him.

Q20: Bruce Lee has been gone a long time. Do you still miss him?
Ted: Oh, yes. I miss him, but at the same time, he’s still here [even though] he’s out of sight physically. When I teach, read his notes or practice, I feel like he’s there with me. Of course, I miss his physical self, but I feel his presence. Even now, he’s still here teaching me.

(About the Author: A longtime student of the late Ted Wong, Bob Landers teaches a Jeet Kune Do group in Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

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  • Re: Ted Wong on Bruce Lee & the State of JKD - JKD Streetfighter on Oct 22, 2016, 5:33 PM
  • Great article, thanks LJF. NT - Chaochihao on Oct 22, 2016, 7:12 PM
  • Steve McQueen's Training Footage - Shaolinguy on Oct 22, 2016, 7:21 PM
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