An Interview with Sifu David Yee Pak from the Moy Yee Kung Fu Club at Columbia University
1. First of all, please share with us how you felt about "Chinese Martial Arts" when you were a child.
As a child, Chinese Kung Fu was on channel 5 every Saturday afternoons. It’s the only time I saw Asians on the screen looking tough, heroic and cool. As a skinny and shy asian kid growing up in Jackson Heights, it made me feel like I was part of a rich history and culture even though I myself am Korean and not Chinese.
2. In New York, with so many different cultural backgrounds, what do other people think of "Chinese martial arts" and did that have an impact on you?
I’ve definitely seen perspectives on Chinese Martial Arts change over my lifetime often from one extreme to another. Growing up through college, Kung Fu was seen as something mysterious and “real” as opposed to all the dojos popping up everywhere. I then saw a shift in the other direction with the rise of MMA and people considering Kung Fu worthless. The pendulum has gone back and forth with the Ip Man movies and Zhang Weili in the UFC promoting it. I’ve often heard so many disparaging statements about it as well. I’ve learned to not care too much about what other people think and rather to trust my own experiences and to test everything.
3. Why did you choose to study Wing Chun?
In my last year of college, a friend introduced me to Filipino Arnis and JKD. It reignited my interest in martial arts and after graduating I started going through the martial arts section of Barnes & Noble. I did Tae Kwon Do when I was younger but was honestly sick of kicking so much and wanted more proficiency with my hands. I was reading Bruce Lee’s writings and biographies and that’s actually the first time I heard of Wing Chun. I was fascinated by the accounts of Lee controlling people using sticky hands and his 1 inch punch. I realized he had his frustrations with it and created his own style but ultimately, the base that made Bruce Lee was Wing Chun and that automatically hooked me in. Like most people, I wanted to get into martial arts for the self defense and health benefits but also wanted to dig into this mysterious and rich culture of Chinese Kung fu as well.
4. What is the most unforgettable moment for you in the process of learning Kung Fu?
More than any one moment, it’s the relationships I’ve built. The relationship I’ve built with my Sifu and Simo lasted over 20 years. My wedding was last year and my bride, my best man, the officiant, my dj and most of my guests came from the Kung Fu family that I was part of. One of my first memories of Kung Fu was training in Chinatown and then going out to eat with Sifu and the others as he elaborated on the stories I read in the books. This was the point when I felt the mysteries were finally opening up for me. Another highlight was when we had lunch with Ip Ching, Ip Man’s son, as he graciously regaled us with stories of his illustrious father.
5. During this journey, did you ever have any thoughts about giving up? What made you stick to it?
There’s 2 components or “sticking” that I interpret this question relating to. Sticking specifically with my Sifu and the Moy Yee San Jong and sticking with the Ving Tsun system.
A. I stuck with the Moy Yee organization for so long because of my relationships to Sifu, Simo and my brothers and sisters. The lifestyle is demanding with your responsibilities growing as you mature in the system. For most of my training, I worked in Manhattan, lived in Queens and had to commute to Brooklyn late at night or spend entire Saturdays in Brooklyn teaching and training after teaching at Columbia the night before. Every affiliation will have their demands, disagreements and butt heads but we should be able to reconcile those issues or agree to disagree because we are a family and we’ve built each other up more than we’ve torn down. I’ve always kept an eye and open mind for what other organizations do but never really felt I needed to find another Sifu or Kung Fu group. Just too much hassle.
B. I never considered giving up martial arts but I definitely had thoughts of leaving Kung Fu behind. Just like so many others I was attracted to the physicality and simplicity of MMA. Ultimately, I had to ask myself if I saw value in what I was learning at kung Fu and the answer was a resounding yes. I’ve stuck with Kung Fu because ultimately it became a part of me. It’s something I would go to during stressful times to relax my mind. There was a point when I changed careers that I gave up my teaching duties at Columbia and couldn’t train at Brooklyn as much. I ended up going back to teach at Columbia because I realized that I genuinely enjoyed passing the culture and art down. Additionally as I grow older, there’s less aggression and competitiveness but more injuries. I value Kung Fu for letting me train unto the end of my days.
6. As the Sifu of Moy Yee Kung Fu Club at Columbia University, how is the club different compared to the other branches of Moy Yee Kung Fu?
For one thing, it’s a college club and not an independent business. The nature of my relationship with my students is transitory because they will graduate and oftentimes move to a different part of the world. I’m lucky if someone is with me for 4 years. Oftentimes I only get a semester with them. In that time, my goal is that they leave with a fundamental sense of what Wing Chun is in terms of application and philosophy. When I joined the Kung Fu school, I had a one on one conversation with the man who would be my Sifu. When people step into the Kung Fu Club at the beginning of a semester, I will often have to address anywhere between 5 to 50 people at a time as students wander through clubs to see what would interest them. I had to get comfortable presenting and promoting Wing Chun to large groups at a time every year.
Additionally, my training space is not my own but whatever Columbia bestows upon us for the semester. For many semesters, we taught out of a large wrestling room. Other times it was the corner of the cafe. A regular space would be nice but hardly a huge factor on teaching Kung Fu.
Beyond these things, I try to keep the experience as consistent as mine was. We schedule dinners to talk Kung Fu and build a community. Everybody chips in either through bringing equipment, handling the social media pages and dealing with university administration all to keep the Club running.
7. How do you keep the practice of Kung Fu?
I try to focus on different forms at a time. I would love extra hours in the day to go through the whole treasure trove but reality necessitates a focus such as Chum Kiu or air jong. Siu Lim Tau is more or less a daily ritual for me. I try to incorporate shadowboxing and bagwork. I get bored so I try to play around with different implements such as 1 pound egg weights for punching or the use of bands for shifting drills or even to correct technical issues such as elbow flares during the tan sau. I’ve used little mini bands in place of the classical rings as it provides more elasticity. During my Zoom classes, we would train isometrics by tensing a tan sau or bong sau against the edge of a wall.
8. What do you think is the significance of Kung Fu in contemporary times? What role should it play?
I think the significance is the same as it always was. Kung Fu was rarely just one thing. It was so many things to different people. As a personal trainer I’ve taught elderly and Parkinson’s clients Tai Chi to improve their health and balance. Self defense will always be an issue for the vulnerable among us and those who wish to more effectively protect our loved ones. Chinese Kung Fu specifically promotes aspects of traditional Chinese culture that gets a little lost. For many with artistic sensibilities, Kung Fu also provides opportunities to express their bodies in some of the more elegant forms as the Tai Chi sword.
What is unique these days is how post pandemic office workers and students have found their focus drained from staring at screens all day. There’s been so many developments and discussions regarding mindfulness training and establishing meditative practices for mental health. Kung Fu was always designed as something one can train in a group or in solitude. The pre-established flow of movements through forms beyond a doubt has a meditative effect that I’ve often turned to for finding mental clarity.