Neville Abbott is an unassuming man. He quietly contradicts the loud, brash stereotype of a South African. You would never guess he could kill a man with one punch.
But Neville is in fact the Master of a new Kung Fu school in York. Over a few pints of lager, he tells me about his journey through martial arts that has brought him from Apartheid South Africa, through a Chinese Shaolin Temple, to the founding of his Wing Chun Academy.
I begin by asking him about his awareness of apartheid as a white South African child.
“It’s not something I really realised at the time. It was all the propaganda. I can look back now and say, ‘Yes it was a completely fascist regime’, but actually the propaganda told us that we were a democracy and a free country. And I couldn’t quite understand why the rest of the world hated us. I couldn’t understand the difference between us and America.”
But you must have been very young?
“We’re talking pre-teens. Apartheid ended when I was 13, 14.”
Was it simply a case of not seeing black people in your social spheres?
“Yes, not at all. Not even remotely. The only black people you saw were your maid and your gardener – and everybody had a maid and a gardener, which is also something that’s quite odd in this country. We didn’t have a gardener, which was probably the definition of lower middle class – to only have one domestic servant! She would pick us up from school and look after us – it was cheaper than childcare, because both my parents worked.”
Neville’s au pair was a prominent figure in the most formative part of his childhood.
“I got on very well with her. I thought the absolute world of her – and it’s just that kind of dichotomy. This is part of how you were conditioned from a young age. You wouldn’t call a gardener, a gardener; you’d call him a ‘garden boy’ – even though he might be in his 50s. Your maid was never ‘maid’; it was ‘the girl’. And you were encouraged to call black people boys and girls, because we were told that they were inferior. That their intellect was that of a child.”
People weren’t just going to hire black people, so you had to stipulate it in law. But unfortunately it meant that people like me couldn’t get jobs.
He sighs, with a sadness that feels like more than just personal guilt. Perhaps it is representative of a broadly felt empathy and regret for his nation’s history.
“That was normal, and I remember calling the maid the girl. I just knew no better at the time.”
When did that change?
“I became politically aware at a young age – before the fall of Apartheid. I was around 9 or 10. I kind of woke up and thought ‘Hang on this isn’t right, how we treat black people’. I remember getting into arguments with adults at that age, because there was an election around that point as well. It would have been the last or second last apartheid election, where black people weren’t allowed the vote. And I remember trying to argue with adults who were voting for the NP [National Party], which was the ruling party, and had been the ruling party since 1948, who instigated the whole regime. The main opposition was the DP, the Democratic Party, which was fighting for black rights. But they were still a minority. There was just no comparison. There was one ruling party and it was always going to be that way.”
But these issues did not just disappear after the fall of Apartheid. Life was not easy; people of all races suffered. It is perhaps surprising how frank Neville is about race, and its role in both Apartheid and post-Apartheid society.
“There’s a list: under Apartheid you had to hire white Afrikaans men, white English men, white Afrikaans women, white English women…
It was that specific?
“Oh yes, there was a whole hierarchy; and then below that it went through all the other racial groups. Chinese, Indians, Coloureds – who were a separate racial group to black people. Then down to black women right at the bottom. Now, apart from the masculine/feminine side, that list is pretty much exactly the opposite [as a result of affirmative action policy]. I do see the benefit of that. Racism was still rife; people weren’t just going to hire black people and so you had to stipulate it in law. But unfortunately it meant that people like me couldn’t get jobs. When I left, unemployment was around 30 per cent – and that was during the good times. And the only way you could go to university is if you were rich, which my parents weren’t, or if you get a bursary – which you wouldn’t if you weren’t disabled or black. I would have been able to go to university during apartheid. It was a lot cheaper. Everything was a lot cheaper. But it was all funded off slave labour – I wouldn’t have been happy with that.”
I ask him about the role martial arts played in this part of his life.
“I started my first Karate class at the age of seven. I’ve done martial arts ever since. So that’s twenty-six years now. I grew up on Kung Fu films, Bruce Lee films and all the rest of it. I did Karate, Aikido for a while, a bit of T’aijitsu, Jujitsu, Tai Chi and Muay Thai. I enjoyed them all but none of them ever clicked. I started my first Kung Fu class at the age of 18, and it clicked straight away. It just felt right, and I’ve been in love with Kung Fu and China ever since.”
And you can see his passion for the art. His animated expression and engaging enthusiasm shines through, as he describes its history. Like Neville himself, Wing Chun was born in an era of conflict, in the revolutionary war against the Ch’ing dynasty.
“Wing Chun is quite unique. Most styles of Kung Fu developed organically, over time. Wing Chun was designed. The Shaolin temple, because it is a Buddhist temple, was off limits to the government. It wouldn’t invade the temple, because it would be seen as bad luck. The Shaolin temples had been teaching Kung Fu for about 2000 years, so [the revolutionaries] could hide there and have a steady supply of soldiers who would fight for the revolution.
“Most styles would take 20 years, to learn it all, and a lifetime to master. But they were trying to train a revolutionary army, so they didn’t have 20 years. The top masters got together to make a system that they could teach, that would be the most effective way of fighting, that you could learn in the shortest possible time. And from that comes Wing Chun. You can learn it in four years, training part time. Four years to get your black belt. Studying it full time you could learn the system – not master it – learn it, and be able to use it to a black belt level in a little over a year.”
Neville trained for some time at a Shaolin temple in Shandong province, and he recalls a story of the one true master of Kung Fu he met there.
“Master Wong started at the Shaolin temple at the age of three. His parents dumped him at the door. Its traditional in Kung Fu if you have your own school to set up an open challenge policy, the theory being that if you’re good enough to teach, you should be good enough to take on any challenger. This Russian cage fighter challenged the head master. He insisted and insisted and eventually the head master agreed. But he said ‘you’re only in your twenties, so it’s not really a fair fight, because I’ve been doing it so much longer than you. So what I’ll do is I won’t use my hands’.
“You start off at opposite sides of the ring. Master Wong stood there with his hands behind his back, and this Russian guy charged him. You didn’t even see master Wong’s foot move. One moment he was stood there with both feet on the ground, the next moment his foot’s in the air, at roughly where the Russian’s head was, and the Russian’s on his back. Fight over.”
Despite incredible stories of men breaking 6-inch marble slabs over their heads, and him spending days punching trees to harden his bones, Neville’s approach to Kung Fu is centred in his pacifist philosophy. Comparing the two main Eastern philosophies, he explains:
“Confucianism is very hierarchical and very structured. Daoism is exactly the opposite. It’s not chaos, because there is an order, but it’s an order that grows organically from the bottom up. The idea that things flourish best when they’re left on their own.
“Daoism, uniquely unlike any philosophy I’ve ever come across, eastern or western, is a philosophy that is expressed not just verbally or written but can be expressed in any form. Essentially Wing Chun is Daoism in motion.”
With an air of gravitas, he quotes Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.
“When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity… I do not hit… it hits all by itself.”
“That’s very much the whole of Wing Chun. We never meet force with force; we absorb and reflect back all the time. You don’t have to be strong because you’re deflecting.”
He seems to take both comfort and perspective from his philosophy. It is the reasoning behind his teaching, and the goal to which it strives. Growing up in such an unbalanced society, it appears that the harmony one must seek in Daoism gives an attractive structure and meaning to his life.
“In the universe, nothing matters, and at the same time everything matters. Nothing matters because, in the greater scheme, what we do in our insignificant lifetime is meaningless, but at the same time everything matters. If a butterfly flaps its wings in Japan it causes a hurricane in America. So everything we do matters. How we further the Dao matters. When I die, whatever I have taught to my students, they are going to carry on, and at least one of them I hope will start their own school and add their own teachings, much like I can trace my own lineage back to the founder, who couldn’t possibly have known that in a few hundred years time, I would be here teaching what they originally taught, to a whole new generation.”
More information on Neville’s Wing Chun Martial Arts Academy can be found at www.wingchunmah.co.uk. Classes are £6, every Tuesday 6-7.30pm, with the first two lessons free.