My journey with Jeet Kune Do started in 2010 when I began training with Douglas Evans, a local instructor under Mark Stewart (Ted Wong’s student). Let me break my entire process down into three parts:
- Eliminating the Illusions
- Asking the Right Questions
- Putting in the Work
Eliminating the Illusions
What is Jeet Kune Do not? Sifting through a plethora of seemingly unsortable content, I knew that I had to eliminate the dodgy stuff fast.
I was very fortunate; Douglas was NOT one of those instructors that:
1. Taught Wing Chun techniques and misrepresented them as Jeet Kune Do by capitalizing on the confusion that arose because Bruce Lee formerly learnt Wing Chun.
Jeet Kune Do, as a process, came with several stages and one of them was Early JKD. Bruce Lee taught this to the students he had met prior to the creation of Jeet Kune Do. However, Early JKD is not Wing Chun. I come from a Wing Chun background, and so I recognize Wing Chun techniques as soon as I see them. If I wanted to learn Wing Chun, shouldn’t I seek a Wing Chun specialist? Why would I learn it from a JKD instructor? Was there any additional ingredients to his “Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun” that I didn’t know about? If there was none, why not just call it Wing Chun?
Another name for Early JKD would be Jun Fan Gung Fu – the predecessor of latter stage Jeet Kune Do. With JFGF, there were significant adjustments that Bruce Lee made, and I recognize them as well. I personally think that JFGF was a work of art – brilliant, practical and operational modifications made to a traditional system. However, whenever I would see a JKD instructor teach pure Wing Chun and call it JKD without any decent explanation, I would simply ask “why?”.
2. Taught Wing Chun techniques and misrepresented them as Jeet Kune Do by demonstrating extremely fast techniques against a fully compliant or stationary student – also known as “dissecting the corpse” .
There exists a lot of videos on YouTube that feature JKD instructors doing the common “pak da, bong sau, lap sau drill, chain punch” (a cornerstone Wing Chun sequence) – rinsed and repeated faster than your eyes can catch them. Sometimes, these videos are subtly fast forwarded. To the untrained eye, this may look mind-blowing and extraordinarily impressive. But how many of us actually observe the trainee that the instructor is demonstrating on? What are they doing? Other than showing that the instructor is really fast, explosive and athletic, what is the main point of these videos? I wanted to know. I felt that with sufficient training, any one of us would be able to easily perform that sequence as quickly on a partner who didn’t move at all, so would there be anything substantial that I could learn from such an instructor?
3. Taught static finger jabs, groin kicks, label them as “self-defense”, then equate them to Jeet Kune Do.
There are already specialized self-defense systems such as Krav Maga or Kapap, that teach self-defense techniques and how to handle life-and-death situations. This is a heavy topic by itself. We are talking about understanding the self-defense laws in your country, handling guns and weapons, multiple armed opponents, de-escalation, the whole psychology of handling these situations, etc. Wouldn’t it be better to learn of all of this from a specialist such as a former bodyguard, an ex-marine or a knives expert? These are extreme situations that require specialized training. What good would one or two disjointed basic self-defense techniques do for me?
Asking the Right Questions
In my quest to understand Jeet Kune Do, I kept a lookout for specialized knowledge. More importantly, I protected myself with questions. Faced with the confusion, politics and division that came from this unique art, I told myself that I could at least ask the right questions.
I had several key questions that I constantly kept in my mind, knowing that I may never find my answers from a single source.
- What exactly was Bruce Lee’s fighting method?
- How did he actually fight?
- How did he understand combat?
- What were the respective parts of the puzzle, that when put together, made JKD?
- What was the disparity between how he personally fought, versus what he taught and how his students understood it?
- What would it be like to learn Jeet Kune Do from Bruce Lee / his first and second generation students?
- What would it be like to understand, express and execute true Jeet Kune Do?
- Who should I learn Jeet Kune Do from?
- What did I need to learn from Wing Chun, Western Fencing and Western Boxing in order to better understand Jeet Kune Do?
- How do I eventually piece everything together?
Fortunately for me, my first JKD instructor had three qualities that ensured I was at least not on the wrong track.
- He was an honest individual who was always upfront about what he knew and did not know.
- He was sure about what he did know, especially when it came to the fundamentals of Jeet Kune Do.
- He was a serious, professional and effective instructor. He did not teach to impress; he made sure we were always getting the best training from him.
Putting in the Work
Over the next seven years:
I immersed myself in Wing Chun. I learnt all the empty hand forms, did hundreds of hours of Chi Sao (sticking hands) and build a firm foundation with what I believed to be the nucleus of Jeet Kune Do. I tested my Wing Chun heavily against exponents of various styles.
I took up competitive épée fencing. I trained hard and competed locally and overseas.
I practiced Filipino Kali and trained with several masters. What I learnt from them completely changed how I understood the art of combat.
I trained and sparred with professional boxers and muay thai fighters. I wanted everything to work under pressure and more importantly, under skilled pressure.
I sought Sigung Mark Stewart, a grand-master at latter stage Jeet Kune Do. I became his Singapore representative, and helped him to organize seminars and workshops here. He is basically a walking encyclopedia of martial arts; I don’t think we can ever find another practitioner like him.
I studied practically every resource I could find on Jeet Kune Do.
To everyone else, it seemed like I was all over the place. I wasn’t. I was focused on finding the pieces to the Jeet Kune Do puzzle.
If you meet the master, kill him
In sum, I think that learning any art requires these three parts – knowing what to eliminate or avoid, asking the right questions and then taking dedicated action.
Have I arrived at a conclusion? No. Do you think Bruce Lee arrived at a conclusion? Even in his prime, he considered himself only a student-master – never a full master but someone who was eternally learning and evolving.
Why should we, as followers of his art, see ourselves differently?