Joel Lee
Joel Lee (left)
Law Professor
Faculty of Law
Kungfu professor

What do Bruce Lee and NUS Law Professor Joel Lee have in common?

No, they are not blood relatives despite the same surname.

The Chinese martial art of Wing Chun (詠春) and Ip Man, a famous Wing Chun grandmaster, are the links. Bruce Lee was a student of the kungfu grandmaster while Prof Lee is a fifth-generation disciple of the legendary figure made popular by Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen in three Ip Man movies.

Prof Lee sparring with his student

Intrigued by unarmed combat during national service, Prof Lee, then a self-proclaimed unfit youth, tried out Wing Chun and formed an immediate affinity with his brand of martial art. “There are a few things that came to me naturally, and Wing Chun was one of those that I intuitively picked up,” he recalled.

Wing Chun was created by a Buddhist nun, focusing on “soft” power by capitalising on speed, body structure, positioning and sensitivity to overcome force. It is grounded on three principles: move in a straight line for the shortest distance to maximise impact; leverage the structure of the body to use the correct muscles; and sense the opponent’s move to counter it. The last involves a trained response known as “sticky hands” which relies on feeling and not sight.

The idea of Wing Chun is to overcome hardness with softness.

Prof Lee and his wife, a fellow disciple, started the only English-speaking Wing Chun school in Singapore 12 years ago. The number of students has since increased substantially after the interest created by the movie Ip Man. His school particularly attracts ladies and older adults perhaps due to the safe setting and his academic image, he noted. He holds classes at the Bukit Timah Campus twice a week.

Prof Lee feels strongly about imparting the values of martial art, which go beyond just fight and defence. The Wude (武徳) philosophy calls for carrying oneself as a martial artist in a proper way. Wing Chun focuses on deflecting rather than pushing back, making a friend rather than foe, as well as training the mind and body. It also develops the practitioner to be more focused, adaptable and analytical in addressing a situation.

In fact, Prof Lee has applied the philosophy to his legal career. He and James T Shanahan, a police hostage negotiator from New York, co-wrote a chapter titled Martial Arts and Conflict Resolution in The Negotiator’s Desk Reference: Volume 2 published last year.