A Treasure of Martial Arts – MidWeek

Photo by Anthony Consillio

Good teachers and skilled martial artists are often hard to find. In Grandmaster John Di Virgilio, Wing Chun students at home and abroad have the best of both worlds.

When it comes to teaching, John Di Virgilio is a natural. His lessons are always well researched, well structured and consistently well communicated. And even in the rare cases where his words aren’t enough to create understanding between students or strangers, he’s always more than willing to teach by doing as well.

Such was the case years ago when a somewhat arrogant outsider – after hearing about Di Virgilio’s background in kung fu – approached him with a question. Specifically, it was the 1-inch punch popularized by Bruce Lee.

John Di Virgilio does baat cham do touch exercises with Kalin Ito during a visit to Ko’olau Wing Chun Academy in Kahalu’u. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN DI VIRGILIO

Despite Di Virgilio’s careful explanations of the technique, the foreigner refused to believe his words. So the veteran teacher chose to take a more hands-on approach to the matter.

“I said to him, ‘You know what? I’m just going to punch you lightly in the middle of the chest. You can tell me what you think about the punch, okay?'” Di Virgilio recalled.

The stranger agreed and braced for impact. Suffice to say, he didn’t stay up for very long because the short punch sent him sprawling over a nearby hedge, where he landed flat on his back. Luckily, he was fine – although his ego was probably bruised.

Di Virgilio (standing directly behind his seated sifu, Robert Yueng), began training in Wing Chun in the mid-1970s. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN DI VIRGILIO

As for his question of whether enough punching power could be had from an inch away, well, Di Virgilio ended up answering that question quickly and decisively.

Understanding reached. Lesson accomplished.

“I remember him saying to me afterwards: ‘It didn’t look hard, but I felt the punch!'”, recalls Di Virgilio laughing.

For the Wing Chun grandmaster and former president of the Hawai’i Wing Chun Kung Fu Association, helping others gain a greater knowledge of the Chinese martial art is only part of what drives him.

In 1980, Di Virgilio began studying with two of Ip Man’s most venerable students – (left to right) Wong Shun Leung and Wong Chock. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN DI VIRGILIO

“But, knowledge is for those who dare to take a chance,” adds the former Jefferson Prize winner and public school teacher, who retired in 2016 after nearly three decades working for the Department of Education. State Education. “If you don’t reach out and grab it, it’s going to pass you by.”

It’s no wonder that even in retirement, 67-year-old Di Virgilio is constantly approached by kung fu specialists eager to tap into his vast wealth of martial arts knowledge and not all want to pass up on this. treasure of Wing Chun. As a result, Di Virgilio often spends his time with West Coast teachers and students in distant places like Malaysia and Japan, where his ideas of application and his ability to explain the sets and forms of the system are still there. appreciated.

“I’ve never been one to advertise,” says the low-key Di Virgilio when asked about his growing demand as a traveling instructor. “Of course, I visited others (sifus) and helped them, but that’s only because I found it more helpful to do it that way. I can coach here and there and fill in the blanks wherever there is a need.

Wing Chun is a system based on centuries-old concepts known primarily for its extensive use of the sticking hands technique called chi sao and for being named after a woman.

“It’s a very open system in that there is no one size fits all,” explains Di Virgilio. “It’s not a combat system per se, but one that gives you a basic foundation with tools to help you find your own path.”

The system burst onto the international scene in the mid-1970s, mainly thanks to the Bruce Lee phenomenon. At the time, many caught up in the kung fu movie craze simply wanted to know who had taught Lee how to fight, and when it became clear the international movie star had briefly studied under Wing Chun master Ip Man, schools started popping up all over the planet to satisfy the growing interest of martial arts fans. Decades later, Wing Chun would gain popularity after Donnie Yen began portraying the legendary master in a series of Ip-Man movies.

This is where Di Virgilio’s martial arts lineage helps explain – at least in part – why he is such a sought-after instructor. Although he did not learn directly from Ip Man, Di Virgilio studied with many of the great kung fu master‘s most notable students. They include Ip Man’s oldest student, the famous Wong Shun Leung, who earned the nickname “King of Talking Hands” during his youth due to his success in Hong Kong’s street fighting competitions, and who was Lee’s primary teacher; and well-known practitioners Wong Chock and Wong Long.

Di Virgilio also worked closely with “Uncle Tommy” Yuen Yim Keung – a disciple of Wong Shun Leung whom Di Virgilio credits with preserving the butterfly sword system known as baat cham do.

One of Wong Chock’s top students was Kowloon-born Robert Yeung, an aggressive young fighter with a judo background who, along with his wife, moved to Hawai’i in 1971. (Yeung would go on to establish the second Wing Chun Less than two years later, Di Virgilio, then just 18 and contemplating a career in college football, crossed paths with Yeung while working at the Nu’uanu YMCA.

Their connection wasn’t immediate, but meeting proved to be the first step in a possible lifelong partnership.

“I was at the Y preparing for football when I met him and one of Bruce Lee’s students, James DeMile. They were doing a demonstration there and comparing what Bruce Lee was teaching James to what a classic Wing Chun guy like Robert would do,” says Di Virgilio. “I thought James DeMile looked really good with his one-step actions, but Robert was able to (chain) multiple steps and his hand system was more unified. I remember being so impressed with what Robert was doing.

Di Virgilio ended up studying with DeMile for about six months before deciding he wanted Yeung as a teacher. Yeung, however, refused to take him in and Di Virgilio suspects it had to do with the instructor’s close relationship with DeMile and his reluctance to poach students at a friend’s school.

Whatever the reason, Di Virgilio remained unfazed. While other potential students eventually gave up waiting for an official invitation to join the class, Di Virgilio continued to show up at Yeung’s school on Hotel Street. He waited patiently on the sidelines and quietly observed Yeung’s lessons, taking copious mental notes along the way.

Eventually, Yeung relented and told Di Virgilio to join his class. Unsurprisingly, Di Virgilio already knew more than most students who had been studying with Yeung for months.

“I wasn’t just going to sit around doing nothing, so I would learn the forms indirectly,” he recalls. “At the time, I was a young man looking for something I needed as a core. My thing was to challenge myself in a martial way and see improvements.

His growth in Wing Chun was rapid and Yeung soon realized that his new student had a lot to offer the school. One day in 1975, Yeung asked Di Virgilio what he would do to improve the system of exercises known as san sik if he had the chance. Before the student could answer, the teacher asked for a detailed plan for the following week.

Not wanting to waste a minute, Di Virgilio immediately got to work. By breaking down the steps of san sik to the essentials, he was able to codify them into a more perfect system. Today, this system is enjoyed and practiced by dozens of students here and abroad.

“Robert Yeung used to say, ‘There are imperfections everywhere – in oneself, in others and in things. But a real master knows how to get around or with that, ”explains Di Virgilio.

Indeed, the student – who would become the successor of Yeung’s school – was well on his way to becoming the master.

As well as being a teacher at heart, Di Virgilio is an ardent student of history – and more particularly when it comes to military chronicles. Over the past seven years, he has carefully researched and co-authored three books on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (No one avoided danger, It’s not a drill and They kill our boys). A fourth book is set to be printed later this year, and a fifth is tentatively due out in 2023.

“We worked hard on the books,” says the former director of Pearl Harbor History Associates, who received the Emperor’s Award in 2015 for his efforts to “create acts of reconciliation and renewed friendship between Japanese veterans and Americans”. “Books have been kind of a calming point for me.”

His military orientation also makes sense given his parents who both served in the US military, and one of his master’s degrees was in American history with an emphasis on US military history. Her first master’s degree was in Education Curriculum.

“My father was a major and my mother was a nursing lieutenant,” explains the eldest of six children born to Louis Di Virgilio and Sadie Yoshida and raised in Kailua.

While he loved the military stories he heard in his youth, his eyes were always fixed on the realm of kung fu. Yet despite desperately wanting to study a China-based style and find “Asian cultural enrichment through a martial art,” he was pushed back at every turn until De-Mile and Yeung arrived.

“In fact, my very Chinese grandmother tried to sign me up for (kung fu) lessons, but they wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t Chinese enough,” Di Virgilio recalls. . “So I was a little underwhelmed as a kid and ended up spending most of my time trying to play sports in high school.”

Finding success in football as a starting center and backup outside linebacker at Kailua High, he was able to turn his rugged gridiron attitude and skilled mind into a solid foundation built on brawn and brains.

Turns out, it was his physical nature that made Wong Shun Leung notice him when they first met in 1980.

“Wong Shun used to say that a lot of Chinese practitioners were a bunch of creepy cats who didn’t like getting hit,” recalls Di Virgilio, who would spend much of his adult years coaching football in his alma mater. “When he found out that I was a football manager, he really liked it.

“I mean, if you don’t like being hit, you’ll never be a martial artist.”

But with lots of practice and patience, you could become like John Di Virgilio, one of the finest martial arts teachers and rarest of treasures.

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