Saturday, January 11, 2014

21 Questions with Traditional Wing Chun Master, Master Victor Parlati

Martial Arts Patriarch, Master Victor Parlati

Master Victor Parlati is regarded as one of today’s most proficient martial artists and leading authorities on Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu.  A provisional master within William Cheung’s Global Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu Association, also he has been an accomplished practitioner of Wing Chun for nearly 40 years.   Victor Parlati has also spent time training in catch wrestling with Billy Robinson, the legendary old time catch wrestler who has also trained the incredible MMA fighter Kazushi Sakuraba as well as also teaching catch to Josh Barnett.

  A senior student of the late Grandmaster Moy Yat (from 1975 – 1983)  Victor Parlati became a student of Grandmaster William Cheung in 1983 and still continues to teach to this day. 

An accomplished practitioner of Catch Wrestling and Boxing, Victor Parlati has given his students a well rounded education in not just Chinese Kung Fu but overall effective and practical street fighting.

Being one of the first generation of non-Chinese to learn Wing Chun, Victor Parlati is one of the longest running teachers of Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu in the United States.   He taught in New York City for 26 years before moving to Virginia Beach in September, 2010, and now continues to teach in Virginia - as well as still visiting New York several times per year to teach his students and grand-students."

He is considered one of Grandmaster Cheung’s best American disciples. 

It has been an honor and a privilege to say I have been his student since 1993.  In respect to my 20 year anniversary in Traditional Wing Chun and my Sifu’s 40th, I decided to ask him 20 questions about his his long history in martial arts and Wing Chun Kung Fu. 

Do you remember how you first heard about Wing Chun Kung Fu and Grandmaster Moy Yat?

I saw a few Bruce Lee movies for the first time in early 1975 - and immediately began reading everything and anything in sight about him...wanted to learn to fight like him!  (Like about 5 million other people.  Haha. ) I read about Jeet Kune Do...and of course kept reading about his background in Wing Chun, Yip Man, Hong Kong and so forth.  Soon I found out that the only JKD school at that time was in Los Angeles, so I decided to look for Wing Chun.  I walked into a martial art store here in Brooklyn owned by a Chinese guy and started asking questions.  Turns out his brother was studying with Moy Yat and  gave me Moy Yat's business card.  I called up, Moy Yat invited me to come over,  It was May 15th.  I went to talk to him,  came back the next day and took my first “lesson”.  Notice how I worded that: lesson…not class. 

Grandmaster Moy Yat performing Sil Lum Tao

2)  Were you aware of any of the different families of Wing Chun that time? 

Before we go any further with this conversation - let me make you understand that the concept of different families of Wing Chun had yet to appear anywhere in the U.S.

And the guys in the Hong Kong Wing Chun Association who trained under Grand master Yip Man back in the 1950's and 60's (he died in December 1972) when deciding to make an English translation of the Chinese words for "Wing Chun"...decided on the following: VING TSUN (although it was pronounced "Wing Chun)

3)  Who was your Si-Hing (Senior Student) under Moy Yat? 

Moy Yat's top student at the time here in NYC (and to this day probably one of his very best American VT students ever) - was a guy who was half Chinese, half Cuban.  His name was John Cheng.  Moy Yat told him to teach me the first section of Sil Lum Tao and some basic punches---that was my first day: a one-on-one lesson - as opposed to an actual class. Which was lucky for me, since he had about 25 students in total - and John was the best.

And just to give you a deeper understanding of myself and John Cheng, let's flash forward to about December 1978, about 10 months before Moy Yat decided to move his school from Brooklyn (on Parkside Avenue, across the street from the south end of Prospect Park) to Chinatown. 

John was a first degree black belt in Kenpo Karate before he started training with Moy Yat (which began about January, 1974)...and he was a big fan of Bruce Lee and JKD also.

4)  What was it like working out with John  Cheng?

By the time December, 1978 rolled around - John and I had many discussions about trying to marry the hand techniques we were learning from Moy Yat - mainly from double arm Chi Sao and other related drills like pak sao/pak da and bong sao/lop sao  and marry them to Bruce Lee's footwork and longer range punching and kicking techniques.  And by the way, John was always a great "Si-Hing" to me - and really spent a lot of time teaching me when the two of us were present at the school.  A very patient guy and a very nice guy.

And so in December 1978, at my suggestion, we met and trained privately once a week to spar full contact with equipment.  Nothing even remotely resembling true hard contact sparring was going on in Moy Yat's school and certainly nothing outside of the very tight Ving Tsun "box"...

Perhaps one of the earliest and most popular
books ever written on Wing Chun Kung
Fu in the USA. Written by James Yimm Lee and edited by Bruce Lee

5)  In 1975 it must have been VERY hard to find material on Wing Chun----and the teaching of Kung Fu publicly to non-Chinese was a relatively still a new things wasn’t it? 

Jim Lee's book was available and I bought it way back in 1975 - along with some other stuff here and there (the Tao of Jeet Kune Do wasn't released until the very late 70's, if I remember correctly). Mostly I was reading magazine articles about Bruce Lee - and some other things...Yip Man was reluctant to teach Bruce Lee openly because a lot of Chinese resented the fact that Bruce's mother was part German.
But then again,  Grandmaster Yip Man taught very few people openly and directly...more about that later.

From what I've read, and from what I've heard directly from Grandmaster William Cheung - and in other places....Grandmaster Yip Man told Grandmaster William Cheung and Wong Shun Leung to teach Bruce privately.

Whichever senior students were in attendance on a given day would be doing 99% of the instructing. And most of the time: 100%.

But he told them to teach Bruce privately because he immediately saw the potential that Bruce had.

Bruce Lee (Lee Jun Fan) and his childhood friend… who gave him his introduction to Wing Chun, Grandmaster William Cheung (Cheung Chow Hing) in their teenage years. 

And as it turns out, although there were some other students who became good fighters (Duncan Leung, Victor Kan, for example)...but it was really Grandmaster William Cheung, Wong Shun Leung, and Bruce Lee who basically put Grandmaster Yip Man's school on the "map" due to their constant street fights and also challenge matches with other Kung Fu stylists in Hong Kong in the 1950's.

Which brings me back to my first Sifu, Moy Yat - who emulated Grandmaster Yip Man's ways of teaching and being quite a bit.

He came to respect my proficiency as a student of Ving Tsun BECAUSE I turned out to be ONE OF THE TOP THREE of all his students during those 8 years I trained there (and I've heard from a few sources that he talked about my Wing Chun abilities positively on a number of occasions to people long after I left.)

6)  Was it difficult learning under Moy Yat?

Yes it was difficult, but I managed to learn a great deal from him during those 8 years.  He could be very secretive, but I believe he came to see how dedicated I was to learning (and very willing to help teach my Si-Dais) – so he allowed me to learn quite a bit.

7)  This is really amazing to be a part of history.  With the exception of Bruce Lee’s students we can say you are among the first generation of non-Chinese to learn Wing Chun in the USA, correct?

Yes, guess I am part of the first generation non-Chinese to learn Wing Chun. I have some still photos of myself and some other people you might recognize from the first William Cheung NYC seminar in fact...I have a video of the whole week-long seminar (edited somewhat, of course)...I have TONS of stuff on video,…

8)  What are one of your most memorable experiences while being at Moy Yat’s school?

I was six months into my private sparring sessions with John  Cheng  when a truly life-changing event took place. John was sent to California on a week long business trip: directly across the street from the one-and-only JKD school in the world: Dan Inosanto's school.

John Cheng's job sends him to LA for a week - directly across the street from the only JKD school in the world. John worked 9 to 5 that week and at 5:15 on Monday he walks into the school, introduces himself.  Dan Inosanto invites him to work out with the class that night and every night that week for John really impressed Inosanto --- but John doesn't tell him about how much of what he was doing was not taught in Moy Yat's school!  John told me later that the private sparring sessions he had with me - utilizing JKD footwork and long range punching/kicking - put together with Moy Yat's Ving Tsun once he gets close - is what REALLY helped him do so well sparring and working out with Inosanto and his guys...

So Inosanto, thinking now that he's got to meet Moy Yat - actually pays the plane fare and provides room and board for Moy Yat to come to LA for a week.  I was invited to go (about 6 guys went with Moy Yat) - but I couldn't go at the time.

Dan came to NYC for the grand opening of  Grandmaster Moy Yat's new school - which he moved from  Brooklyn to Chinatown in September 1979.  The day of Inosanto's arrival at JFK airport it was my Si-Fu, Moy Yat, Mickey Chan, and myself who picked him up at the airport. 

From right to left, Master Victor Parlati, John Cheng, Mickey Chan, Dan Inosanto, Sifu Sonny Whitmore.  Seated Grandmaster Moy Yat with his son William Moy.  Circa 1979

9)  Dan Inosanto must have been quite surprised when  he got to NYC and saw that the way John Cheng was fighting was quite different from the way Moy Yat was teaching, no?

Oh yeah, Dan Inosanto was surprised, alright...He was a great guy, showed us some nice Escrima stick moves - and had some amazing Bruce Lee stories (I'll tell you more about that later)..

As for what I knew of Grandmaster William Cheung in those days: I had read everything I could get my hands on about Bruce Lee - so I already knew of people like Grandmaster Yip Man, Grandmaster William Cheung, Wong Shun Leung, and some others by the time I met Moy Yat...once asked him some questions not long after I became a student back in 1975...

"Sifu, who was Yip Man's best student?....
Moy Yat:  "Best in what way? Best instructor, best in forms, in Chi Sao, in fighting?"
Victor Parlati:  "Best fighter"...
Moy Yat :  "Well the 3 best were Cheung Chow Hing (GM William Cheung), Wong Shun Leung, and Bruce Lee."
Victor Parlati: "And who was the best of the three?
Moy Yat - "Cheung Chow Hing"

As time went on, I found out about some others who were very good fighters: Duncan Leung, Victor Kan, and Mak Po....and when Victor Kan and Mak Po visited Moy Yat's school years later - I not only met them - I got to do Chi Sao with both of them, and yes, they were very good.

10)  This is a silly question, but if JKD was available on the East Coast, which would you have chosen Wing Chun or Jeet Kune Do?

I would have jumped at the chance to learn JKD in a heartbeat.

11)  Was GM William Cheung your first exposure to another Wing Chun family?

Did Sifu Dana Wong tell you that I met him once? And that I spoke to him on the phone a few times in the ensuing years?  He hosted the seminar in Boston in August, 1983 where I first met Grandmaster William Cheung. I believe he had no martial art experience at the time...but he then became a student of William Cheung...and within just a few years, he actually moved to Australia to study full time. 

Eventually became the chief instructor at the Melbourne school - and ran things during the 6 months of the year that Grandmaster Cheung would spend traveling.

Grandmaster William Cheung

12) What were some of your most memorable experiences learning under William Cheung in the beginning?

The first time I met him I played him in a game of chess on that very day (after the seminar). I've been playing since I'm five years old - so I'm pretty good.  Or so I thought until I played Grandmaster Cheung that day back in August 1983!!!  

He told Phil Redmond to tell him which pieces I moved and then he would instruct Phil about which one of his pieces to move in response...because Grandmaster Cheung turned his back to the chessboard!

Yes – He has a photographic memory and an amazing ability to concentrate! !

After about 20 moves he was beating me (by position and by material he had captured from me)...and then announced that the board was now getting a little too complicated for him to continue without he turned around to see the board - and beat me with checkmate about 5 moves later !!

Now here's another noteworthy experience with GM Cheung from back in my early days of being his student: I’m one of the few students who can actually say Grandmaster Cheung punched, palm striked and threw literally over the room (bloodying my mouth) during a Chi Sao “Match”!

It was during a private lesson I took with him back in those early days sometime in 1984-85 I believe. I asked him at one point during the lesson if he would "check " my Chi Sao - but without saying a word - he took it to mean that I was challenging him. Must have hit me about 20 times (I caught him just once)...until finally I backed off, bowed, and said "thank you").  I'll never forget that experience! His was the best and most baffling Chi Sao I had ever seen, needless to say.

13)  Are there any noteworthy people you trained with at this time?

Noteworthy people I trained with at that time is a very simple question: BLAINE COLLINS....the Dai-Sihing for all of North America and GM Cheung's first American student. He came to train us in the first NYC Traditional Wing Chun school several times (he lived in Las Vegas, Nevada at that time)....and I would pick him up at the airport and he wwould stay in my apartment on the weekends that he came. This was during the days at the very beginning of the first NYC TWC school - when myself, Phil Redmond, and Sonny Whitmore were appointed by GM Cheung to teach.

Center: North American Dai Si-hing, Blaine Collins, Left, Francisco Hernandez, Felix Rosado, Next to Blaine Collins, left Master Philip Redmond, Master Victor Parlati. And Joe Maranca  Right of Blaine Collinis , Sifu Sonny Whitmore.

14)  When did you first decide to open your own school?  Who were your first students?

Grandmaster Cheung appointed me, Phil Redmond, and Sonny Whitmore to open a school in NYC in September 1984. We had about 20 students who signed up right out of the Grandmaster Cheung week long seminar in NYC that was held in late August - which is where he announced that the 3 of us would now begin teaching TWC right there in Manhattan.

Two guys really stood out in the original school as our first students - one of which you've some to know through the years - because he used to come by my school long after myself, Phil, and Sonny went our own ways...and I'm talking about FELIX ROSADO.

I'm sure you remember him. He would stop by and participate in my classes from time to time (years would pass - but then I'd get a phone call and he'd show up for a class or two).  And the other guy who was good was Francisco Hernandez, but I'm sure you never met him.  

15)  How do you feel about Wing Chun being so popular now, arguably more that ever in history?

It's great that it's now so popular, because it's an awesome martial art.

16) Apparently there is a lot of extreme zealousness amongst the Wing Chun families.  Do you care to comment on that?

There's WAAAAAAY too much posturing within and amongst various Wing Chun lineages.

17)  What has kept you in Wing Chun for so many years?

Because I know from real life experience that it works, and because it has kept me physically and mentally sharp. And because I've had a number of students who are really good (like you) - and that has kept me sharp also - because I believe in full contact sparring with my students - not just "teaching" them, as you know. About six of you advanced guys are all younger than me, outweigh me, and stand 6 foot tall or better (to my 5' 10")...which has been GREAT for me! It's been a learning experience for all of us, which is the way it should be.

18)  Any other feelings about the various Wing Chun lineages?

Of the Wing Chun lineages I've seen - I like the Wong Shun Leung lineage, the Duncan Leung lineage, and the Hung Fa Yi (Garrett Gee) lineage the best - AFTER TRADITIONAL WING CHUN, of course !!  And I also like Weng Chun, precisely because they use some similar footwork to Traditional Wing Chun, have a long range approach to striking and kicking as well as the typical Wing Chun short range approach (also similar to what TWC does) - and because the system actually FEATURES standing arm locks and throws as it's MAIN THEMES - which the Catch Wrestler in me likes !!

19)  After being in Wing Chun for so long what have you learned that stands out the most?

There are a number of things that really stand out about Traditional Wing Chun (TWC). To begin, what stands out very heavily is the concept of the CENTERLINE, and that there are SEVERAL "centerlines" to be employed; and furthermore, that at longer (non contact) ranges - the most important centerlines are DUAL; ie.- the lines that run vertically down the opponents' body at his shoulders. That is why when I box at long range I'm always making sure that whatever punches I throw are covering those lines (or paths) - so that he can't hook or throw long range round bombs around me - since I'm now using and occupying the TERRITORY that he needs in order to hit or grab me. He HAS to deal with my attack - he can't bypass it.

This often leads to limb-to-limb contact, which means that now ANOTHER important TWC principle comes into play: the strategies and techniques and contact reflexes that come out of all chi sao and chi sao related drills. So I'm making him play into my strength as a wing chun man.

And also, if he tries to grab and wrestle (or grapple) with me at this point - I now have "Catch-as-catch-can" wrestling to fall back on - in addition to the close range Wing Chun and close quarter boxing moves such as hooks and uppercuts; and needless to say, knee and ebow strikes utilizing both the way TWC use them and some Muay Thai ideas on this as well.

And then I'm prepared to ALSO do a takedown, sweep, throw, or shoot to the legs as well - as I see fit.

But all of this centers around the TWC game - which is why I call what I do now WING CHUN MMA.

I could go on and on about this - but I'll just mention one more REALLY IMPORTANT thing about TWC: looking at the man's elbows and knees constantly - as they are a huge tip off as to what he's trying to do.

Left to right, Master Victor Parlati,  Sifu Jesse Quinnones, Master John Clayton, and Sifu Gary Young. Seated, Grandmaster William Cheung, next to him Sifu Sonny Whitmore.  Above Sifu Whitmore, Master Philp Redmond and left of him Master Delroi Flood.

20)  What do you want your Wing Chun legacy to be?

I want my Wing Chun legacy to be this:   Victor Parlati was an awesome Wing Chun man who not only understood Wing Chun in a way that only a Master could - but he could also fight with it - against virtually anybody. Why? Because he never stopped learning and growing during the age of MMA (since the UFC began in 1993). And furthermore, Victor's top students are the same way:  they understand and excel in the three things that Victor always taught: Skill, Will, Conditioning. And the single biggest reason why Victor and his top students are like this is because he has ALWAYS been willing to spar full contact with his students; ie.- Victor never tried to play the "Celebrity Sifu" game that so many people do. And his top students who now teach work the same way.

21)  Any last or closing thoughts?
Wing Chun, like any other really good fighting art, will ULTIMATELY teach people two things - if they are taught properly. How to be ready, willing, and able to stop virtually anyone who tries to make them his victim - and how to make sure mentally, emotionally, and spiritually that you, yourself, never try to victimize others. That's the true spirit of any great martial fighting art.

Three generations of Wing Chun teachers.  Left to right, Grandmaster William Cheung,  Sifu Ki Innis and Master Victor Parlati.

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