You probably would never guess who he was or what he can do. He is the most influential martial artist you’ve probably never seen. Or if you have seen him and even if you knew who he was, it’s doubtful at first glance you’d pay him much due as being one of the greatest, most-skilled practitioners of the last 30 years.
Yet, Hawkins Cheung is all that. And more
You see, if Inside Kung-Fu’s 2001 “Man of the Year” is anything, it’s anonymous. Which at first glance should be pretty difficult since one of his boyhood friends and classmates was the late, great Bruce Lee. Cheung, however, does not like to broadcast the news of the friend like many in the jeet kune do populace. In fact, if you didn’t know it he wouldn’t tell you. Quite possibly, even when you know you sometimes have to drag the information out of him.
At 5-foot-6, 115 pounds, the Hong Kong-born Cheung looks more like an accountant – which he is – than one of the world’s top wing chun stylists – which he most certainly is.
Although he has run a school in Los Angeles for more than two decades, although he has produced some of the finest wing chun fighters around, although he remains among a handful who can list both Yip Man as a teacher and Lee as a friend, he is reticent to blast it to the world.
Despite his lack of physical stature, Cheung may be the fastest, most accurate wing chun teacher around.
Back in 1962 after graduating from college in Australia, Cheung returned to Hong Kong but gave up martial arts because he was frustrated with his lack of size. He just couldn’t see using wing chun, or any martial art for that matter, to beat a man four inches taller and 50 pounds heavier.
“Yip Man always said that if you put two men together with equal skill, the big guy would always win,” Cheung recalled. He told Yip Man about his desire to abandon martial arts for accounting but the grandmaster wouldn’t have it.
Instead, he began teaching Cheung privately.
“Yip Man was a small guy just like me but he really knew how to handle the big guy,” explained Cheung, who came to America in 1978. “He showed me how to handle the big guy’s strength and the way was to control people rather than hit them. The trick was to let your opponent think he had the upper hand because of his size… make him get mad. You could then use his momentum as a way to control his center of gravity.”
Cheung, who ran a school in Los Angeles with Dan Inosanto, another former Lee student, from 1980-84, said the smaller stylist must be faster to survive. “If you’re not as good or as big as the other guy, timing is everything,” insisted Cheung. “Try to waste the guy’s energy and let him burn himself out. Let him use his movement first and then catch him in a trap.”
Cheung, who was born six months before Lee, noted there has never been a desire on his part to capitalize on his association with Yip Man or Bruce Lee. Even though he spent time with the great Wong Shung Lung. Even though he and Bruce would get out of school and purposely pick streetfights to see which wing chun techniques worked on which Brit’s nose. How many martial artists – living or dead – could lay claim to that?
He believes that whom he knew is not nearly as important as what he learned. “In Hong Kong, the martial arts world is more about titles, more about ego,” he explains. “I’m not comfortable with that. I am more of a researcher than a competitor. When I stick hands with someone I don’t try to hit the guy so the guy won’t hate me and he won’t see my bottom card.”
Plus there’s the size thing.
“I’m not a violent type,” notes Cheung, who has operated Hawkins Cheung Martial Arts in Los Angeles for the past 17 years. My size is small and if I publicized that I beat someone no one would believe me, no one would believe I was a great fighter.”
Maybe they will now.