Steve Lee Swift — the man’s name alone sounds like a fusillade of quick blows. Known to all as “Sifu,” which is Cantonese for “Master Instructor,” he is a grandmaster of Wing Chun Kung Fu, a traditional Chinese martial art form that turns its student into a battering ram. The signature of the discipline is the rapidity of its movements. If you were to throw a serious punch at Sifu Swift, it would miss him before he proceeded to punch you back eight times in one second.
Throwing a punch at a Sifu Swift would be inadvisable, and not only because of his fighting prowess. He is a peach, and furthermore a living piece of martial art history. At his training hall in Eden Prairie he showed me his Grandmasters Hall of Fame certifications and awards, the poster for the Ip Man movie that he had helped to inspire action director Sammo Hung to create, and photos taken of him throughout his life: as a young man, fit and handsome enough to have starred in Bloodsport had van Damme been indisposed; in Hong Kong, where he visits frequently; and with the sons of Ip Man, the famed teacher of Bruce Lee, and subject of the movies of the same name, themselves. Ip Man’s sons taught Wing Chun to Sifu Swift, and you can trace the lineage of their masters all the way back to the Qing Dynasty.
Sifu Swift brought me over to a curious piece of furniture — a mok yan jong, which looks like a section of telephone pole with three chair legs jutting out at chest height. It is upon this dummy that a Wing Chun devotee whales with the momentum of a waterfall, practicing their blocks, punches, and chops until their hands have become as solid as the wood it is made of. It is not necessary to punish your paws to learn how to handle yourself, Sifu Swift assured me, but I suspect that his mok yan jong might be painted red for a reason.
You wouldn’t have a heart if you met with Sifu Swift at his training hall and didn’t ask for a demonstration. We were joined by his student, as pleased as punch to help his grandmaster practice his science. Sifu Swift instructed him: “Try to hit me.” It was a solid attempt on the part of the student, who is a USMC gunnery sergeant, and who looks like a USMC gunnery sergeant. He is the kind of man I couldn’t imagine without a campaign hat, and he wasn’t wearing one when I saw him.
Sifu Swift’s response to the attack was nearly too quick to register. In an instant he appeared to dodge the punch, turn it away, land five pulled punches on the GySgt’s neck, kick the back of his leg, and send him flying to the floor as easily as if he had been filled with packing peanuts. A dollar store toy pistol pointed inches away from Sifu Swift’s nose proved no more effective. With the hands of a magician, he had the student pointing the cap gun back at his own chest. “And now you’re shooting yourself,” joked Sifu Swift.
Seeing a master in action is daunting. It would be discouraging to watch Rachmaninoff play a concerto if you were only just beginning to learn piano. Likewise, witnessing Sifu Swift utterly dismantle a man as casually as if he’d been tying his shoelaces can make Wing Chun seem inaccessible. But that is simply not the case. You don’t need the kind of coordination that it would take to play tennis and make pancakes at the same time to train at Grandmasters Wing Chun Kung Fu. They cater to all, and indeed have taught practical self-defense skills to professional athletes and people with disabilities alike.
“A lot of parents want their kid to learn a martial art so they can build confidence, and we love training kids here,” said Sifu Swift, who learned to box from his father starting at age three. “But who’s going to defend your kid? Are you going to say ‘Hey Jimmy, we’re being attacked — please go take care of those guys for us?’ No. Good people need to learn how to defend themselves and their family, and this is the best environment for them to do that. There are no meatheads here, no cocky people, no arrogance — it’s just the place to learn the only martial art that you’ll ever need.”
Now 61, Sifu Swift has spent nearly half of one century practicing and teaching Wing Chun as his sole profession. He offers the full gamut of what his discipline has to offer, from fighting blindfolded on tables to long poles and swords. Sifu Swift teaches Wing Chun exclusively, and wishes to emphasize that it is only for use during life-threatening altercations, not sport.
Grandmasters Wing Chun Kung Fu’s new location is at 6566 Edenvale Blvd in Eden Prairie. You may learn more about Sifu Swift and the classes he offers at grandmasterswingchun.com.
By David Scheller