Although Yuen Kay San taught a small number of students differing amounts of his Wing Chun (including teaching Yip Man some chi sau as the result of a request to Yuen Chong-Ming by his fellow merchant, Yip Man’s father), Sum Num (Shum Lung, Sum Nung, Cern Ngan) was the sole disciple of Yuen Kay San.
Born in Peru in 1926 Sum Num was taken to visit family in China at the age of five following a family death. Fatefully, during the visit, Japan invaded China. Communication and travel was shut down and Sum Num was unable to return to Peru. Then, reliant on an aunt and his grandmother in China, Sum Num was cast into a very different way of life from that which would have awaited him in South America. His aunt owned a restaurant – Tien Hoi – where Sum Num then had to work for his living. Unlike today, child labour was the norm for all except the wealthy in those days. Hence, it was not unusual for even quite young children to work long hours under often difficult, dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions.
Following several beatings by local xenophobic Chinese youth targeting Sum Num because of is distinctively Incan appearance, his aunt finally decided when Sum Num was twelve to have him taught to defend himself. Sifu Sum Num said that he had tried to learn gung fu himself by watching street performers and copying and practising their movements. Obviously this was no substitute for appropriate instruction in a real fighting art and not simply by copying showy moves designed for demonstrations. He reported that he gained no skill and continued being thrashed by bigger boys and groups. Thus, in 1938, Sum Num was introduced as a prospective gung fu trainee by his aunt to her restaurant chef, Cheung Bo, an accomplished Wing Chun fighter. Cheung Bo ran a class for the restaurant workers after hours. In those times the staff had to provide their own security. So, undertaking lessons after work insured the restaurant had a number of skilled gung fu practitioners on staff and gave it a reputation as a place to avoid causing trouble.
After several years of rigorous training, several hours daily, when he was about fifteen, Cheung Bo introduced Sum Num to a regular visitor to the restaurant. The visitor would often stay after the premises closed and silently watch the training. Sum Num had no way of knowing his destiny when his sifu, Cheung Bo, introduced him to the tall, slender scholar – Gwangdong’s top Wing Chun master, Yuen Kay San.
Sifu Sum Num related that he was at first quite credulous that Yuen Kay San was the equal of his younger, powerfully built sifu, Cheung Bo who had attracted the nickname of Big Bull Bo (“Dai Ngao Bo”). Yuen Kay San, sensing Sum Num’s doubt, offered him a unique proposition. Picking up some raw eggs from a nearby basket, Yuen Kay San deposited them in his pockets and stated that if Sum Num could so much as crack one egg he would depart and not return. But … if Sum Num failed he would take him as his student. Sum Num tried and was stunned when he obviously failed. Yuen Kay San took all the eggs from his pockets and indicated that not one had a crack! Destiny had stepped in and Yuen Kay San accepted Sum Num as his sole disciple. Yuen Kay San’s Wing Chun was to be preserved and passed down in accordance with his wishes.
Over time, training with Yuen Kay San, Sum Num gained a reputation for his Wing Chun skills. Sum Num related that Yuen Kay San would demonstrate once, and quite rapidly, a move or sequence to be practised. He would then return at random intervals to ascertain progress. Had Sum Num not practised then the tradition was that teaching would discontinue!
His dedication was demonstrated in one instance that Sum Num related. He was, on at least one occasion, given some warning that Yuen Kay San would be returning to visit him on a specific date. As Sum Num was quite poor it is evident that the incredibly wealthy Yuen Kay San was not interested in teaching Sum Num for money. Sum Num said he was broke but knew it was manners to take his sifu for a meal when he visited. Looking for a solution without having sufficient cash was daunting. However, Sum Num resolved the dilemma by selling his doona – in mid winter!
Sum Num reported that he spent quite a few cold nights huddled on the top of a gradually cooling earthen stove until he had earnt enough to purchase another doona! In 1943 he became the sifu at the Deep Village Temple in Futsan. There he taught his uncle, Sum Jee. Sum Jee, a well known Hung Gar sifu, had heard his nephew was training in gung fu and on a visit asked him to test his skills. Soundly defeated, Sum Jee requested his nephew teach him and converted to Wing Chun. His lineage continues to this day.
In the late 1940s, Sum Num moved to Guangjo where he taught several of the local metal industry workers unions. As it was in the West about this era, there were apparently a number of demarcation disputes and management/labour disputes that were resolved by serious group fights! In 1947, Sum Num taught Wing Chun at Gwangjo Machinery Union. Yun Hoi asked Sum Num had he ever fought with knives. Sum Num replied very non-chalantly that he had not – but during union disputes he had fought with iron bars during this period! In 1948, Sum Num, as a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner (he was Doctor Sum Num), opened his herbal clinic and a small gwoon on Dai Sun Street.
Over the following years, Sum Num taught a number of students and disciples who have continued his legacy from Yuen Kay San, back through the generations to the Red Boat Opera performers – Dai Fa Mien Kam and Wong Wah Bo and beyond – back into the realm of legends.