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Orange Belt
Orange Belt

Joined: 23 Jul 2001
Posts: 144

PostPosted: Wed Mar 27, 2002 7:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"What you are about to read ranks among the most remarkable true-life sagas ever published in the martial arts world. Ironically, it is the story of a woman's fighting art and its spectacular rise to world renown after two centuries of obscurity. It is also the story of that art's mysterious Chinese patriarch and his two maverick disciples.

One disciple was a notorious streetfighter whose life was torn, then forever changed, by a secret vow forced upon him by the patriarch. His name was Cheung Cheuk Hing, better known as William Cheung.

The other was a child film star who, publicly shunned by the patriarch, was forced to make his own way in the martial arts world. He later founded his own rebellious fighting art, and was ultimately known by millions as the greatest martial artist who ever lived. His name was Lee Jun Fan. He is better known as Bruce Lee.

As boys in Hong Kong, William Cheung and Bruce Lee were inseparable. Cheung was responsible for introducing Lee to his eventual kung fu teacher, Grandmaster Yip Man. And since Cheung was soon after promoted to assistant instructor by Yip, he actually became Lee's primary training partner and instructor. And more. He helped Lee survive the vicious gang wars in the streets of Hong Kong.

Then, as now, William Cheung was considerd Yip's premier fighter, the ultimate wing chun practitioner, personally trained for that purpose by the grandmaster himself. His fighting prowess still inspires both fear and respect. In fact, many of Bruce Lee's students report that their superstar instructor was so awed by Cheung's skill that, throughout his life, Cheung served as Lee's mental image of the deadliest warrior - the standard of martial arts excellence and the man he had to be able to beat to be truly the best streetfighter alive.

Wong Shun Leung, a Yip student senior to both Cheung and Lee, remembers that about a month before his death Bruce Lee asked, "Leung, do you think now I can defeat Ah Hing (Cheung)?" Most of Lee's personal fighting techniques as well as his jeet kune do approach to the martial arts were developed with that eventual goal in mind. And as William Cheung recalls, in his final telephone conversation with his boyhood friend not four days before his death, Lee remarked half in jest, "Ah Hing, as soon as I finish filming this Game of Death, I'm going to take a long, long vacation. And I'm going to come by and visit you there in Australia. And you'd better be ready!"

Although William Cheung was mentioned in both Linda Lee's "Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew" and in Alex Ben Block's "The Legend of Bruce Lee", most of the material presented in this article has never before been revealed.

Bruce Lee in the Early Years

Today his influence is everywhere ... in the spectacular leaps of an Ernie Reyes kata ... in the sudden devastation of a Chuck Norris backfist ... in the strategic theories of a Keith Vitali defense ... in the artful precision of a Sugar Ray Leonard combination ... in the unexpected angles of a Bill Wallace kick ... in the delightful acrobatics of a Jackie Chan comedy ... and even in the plastic nunchaku of the kid down the block.

Bruce Lee was a fluke. He projected such intensity and charisma in the simple acts of kick, punch and block that his films catapulted him into the biggest international box-office attraction in the history of Asian cinema. He became almost godlike to many, even after his untimely death in 1973. To his fans around the world, he is still revered as the greatest martial arts star who ever lived or fought. And to martial artists throughout the United States, he remains a man in whose image the American martial arts experience has been forever transformed.

At a time when Asian-born masters were becoming increasingly outnumbered by their own American-born black belts, Lee offered a new philosophy of martial arts training which appealed to America's melting-pot mentality. Through his articles and interviews in Black Belt magazine, he lambasted the stylistic puritanism of classical instruction. He offered to liberate instructors from the confines of classical beliefs. He encouraged them to examine and incorporate techniques from other styles, as well as to experiment and invent entirely new techniques of their own.

Many black belts had already begun this process of examination and experimentation through the vehicle of the "open" karate tournament. Bruce Lee's rebellious declaration added impetus to their efforts. And although Lee's doctrine of artistic freedom has become identified over the years as the distinguishing characteristic of the American martial artist, the ideas themselves came very much out of the traditions and lifestyle of Lee's boyhood in the Orient.

Bruce Lee spent his early childhood in a Hong Kong occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army and grew to adulthood during the troublesome post-World War II years, when the Communist triumph on Mainland China sent a constant stream of impoverished refugees into the tiny British Crown Colony. He was born the second son of Lee Hoi Chuen, a famous Cantonese circuit film personality and a comedy star of the Cantonese Opera Company. The young Bruce Lee was also the grandnephew, from his mother's family, of Sir Jay Ho Tung, who was dubbed Hong Kong's first Knight of the Order by King George V.

When Lee was six years old, the director on one of his father's films spotted him hanging around the set and asked to put the youngster to work in a supporting role for an upcoming film. Bruce Lee's film career was launched on that day. Over the next 12 years, he spent his summer vacations from school as a supporting actor in some 20 Chinese films.

By the time Lee reached puberty, his father's comedic stature in Asia had reached proportions perhaps equivalent to those of a Jerry Lewis or a Joey Bishop in the U.S. Lee's own star status rivaled that of a Ricky Schroeder or a member of The Brady Bunch. According to William Cheung, "Whenever he'd walk down the street, people'd start to recognize him."

"I first met him at a party," Cheung recalls. "My uncle knows a lot of Chinese operatic artists. And Bruce's father was one of the most very, very famous. So one day - I think 1 was about ten or 11 - my uncle said to me, 'Come. We're going to a place where a young movie star's having a birthday party.' So 1 said, 'Wow, we're going to see a movie star!'

"Well, we went and Bruce was there. But at that first meeting I wasn't really impressed with him yet. I was ignored completely. He was in the limelight. He probably didn't even know I was there. We didn't get together until about a year later."

By this time in his life young Lee had become a prisoner of his own celebrity. His screen image from such Cantonese films as 'The Beginning of a Boy', 'Kid Cheung', 'Bad Boy', and 'Carnival' was that of a tough street kid who hung out with neighbourhood youth gangs,brawled, and engaged in shoplifting and pickpocketing for survival. Yet, at the same time, his film characters were not above battling to rescue the helpless from some impending disaster. His entire image was succinctly packaged through his theatrical name - Lee Siu Loong, "Little Dragon Lee" . . . a fighter's name.

As a child star living in an overcrowded city where literally millions knew his face, Lee had to cope with constant challenges, especially from his peer group at school. On the one hand, there were those who expected him to be the streetwise gang leader he portrayed in his films, which might be one reason he actually did become part of a local street gang called "The Junction Street Eight Tigers." And on the other hand, there were those who expected his screen image to be a hoax. A film star had to be a sissy at heart, they thought, and a personal victory over the Little Dragon would be an easy way to earn respect.

Understandably Bruce Lee developed a competitive outlook on life, with a flash temper and outspoken opinions. He felt a constant need to assert himself aggressively, making believers out of doubters.

At the same time, William Cheung had already become quite notorious for his ability to best older students in battles of both brawn and wit. And since one of Cheung's classmates was a member of Lee's gang, the Junction Street Eight Tigers, a second meeting was arranged between the two.

"When I met up with Bruce again," says Cheung, "he immediately started asking me questions about why I always won when I fought. I told him that I'd been doing this style (of kung-fu) for a year, but that it was too rough for him ... because he was a film star. He should look after his appearance.

"I also told Bruce that it was this paticular style that was so good, and that we'd soon be organizing secret tournaments between it and other styles. He insisted that when we organized our secret tournaments that he be allowed to come along and watch. But I didn't take him at all seriously."

Shortly before his 13th birthday, Lee began attending his new school, a Catholic institution called St. Francis Xavier. And again, he both attracted and created his own trouble. On one occasion he nearly got his head knocked off by a junior kung fu stylist in a gang-related exchange. Lee was furious. He could not bear the thought of losing a fight. He stormed home that day and announced to his mother that he wanted to be trained in the martial arts. He told her that he was being bullied at the new school and wanted to learn how to defend himself properly.

Years later, in 1967, Bruce Lee explained his decision to BLACK BELT magazine in this way, "As a kid in Hong Kong I was a punk and went looking for fights. We used chains and pens with knives hidden inside. Then, one day, I wondered what would happen if I didn't have my gang behind me if I got into a fight. I decided to learn how to protect myself and I began to study kung fu."

"Actually, Bruce wasn't really in a proper gang," confides William Cheung. "The Eight Tigers were just eight people who got together and decided to look after each other. But the Tigers weren't all that tough ... they got their fur singed a lot."

Bruce's mother, Grace Lee, agreed to give her son the money for the kung fu lessons. He then hunted up Cheung and begged to be taken to Cheung's instructor. However, Cheung says, he still did not believe that Lee would be a serious student, and he thought the introduction might prove to be an eventual embarrassment. But Lee persisted. Thus with some reluctance on that autumn day in 1953, Cheung took Bruce Lee to the Restaurant Workers' Union Hall where classes were then held, and introduced him to the grandmaster of wing chun kung fu, Professor Yip Man.

"Yip Man was very pleased to meet him because Bruce was a celebrity," continues Cheung. "And Yip Man always had an appreciation for talent. So 1 just left him there, and Bruce began taking lessons straight away."

Prior to his enrolment in Yip's classes, Lee had had no exposure to a serious fighting art. He had been taught the rolling, punching, swinging, and kicking movements of tam toi, a northern system of kung fu exercises which are a mandatory part of the physical education curriculum of every Hong Kong youth. His father had taught him a little bit about the slow-moving techniques of tai chi chuan, and the film studios had taught him a few movements from several northern styles of kung fu. But never before had he been taught movements which were genuinely intended for the purpose of self-defense.

Lee promptly dedicated himself to a seemingly impossible pursuit. His passion for gung fu bordered on fanaticism. He trained at Yip's school six, sometimes seven days a week. And after only two months of lessons, he was able to rechallenge the St. Francis Xavier student who had defeated him earlier. This time the Little Dragon won.

Meanwhile, William Cheung's personal home life had become intolerable. His own exploits as a streetfighter drew severe condemnation from his father, which in turn resulted in constant bickering. To defuse the unhappy situation Yip Man invited young Cheung to come live with him. Cheung jumped at the offer. And since Yip Man never taught the wing chun classes personally, although he was usually present, supervising the instructors and tending to his favourite students - Cheung earned his keep by being installed, along with Leung Sheung, Lok Yiu, Tsui Sung Ting, and Wong Shun Leung, as one of the grandmaster's senior instructors.

However, despite Cheung's instructor status, he still did not work with his most celebrated student. "At that time," recalls Cheung with amusement, 'it still stuck in my mind, 'This guy's a film star. He ought to look after his face.' And since the techniques I use are for real, I did not pay attention to him. I thought he was just learning kung fu because everybody was doing it, and that he did it to be on the 'in' crowd. So I didn't take Bruce very seriously.

"Then, shortly after we moved the school to a bigger facility in Kowloon, we started hearing complaints about Bruce beating up his seniors, as well as other people who were training with him. They became very upset because he was progressing so fast. He practised every minute of the day. Even while talking he was always doing some kind of arm or leg movement. He could not sit still. That's when I realized that Bruce was actually serious about wing chun."

Lee would not let up from the frenzied pace of his martial arts training. At St. Francis Xavier, during recess, he would exchange techniques with practitioners from other styles as well as practice wing chun's sticky-hands drill (chi sao). After school he would return faithfully to Yip's studio. Only now William Cheung, Wong Shun Leung, and even grandmaster Yip gave Lee the personal attention which was extended only to preferred students. A close friendship developed between Lee and Cheung, and they began to spend time together outside of Yip's classes.

Unfortunately wing chun training could not protect Lee from the savage impact of his times. The Hong Kong of the 1950s suffered from the social shock produced by previously unimagined levels of overcrowding. Some four million people suddenly found themselves crammed into less than 40-square miles of concrete and asphalt, with thousands of new arrivals daily from the mainland. By 1960, the colony had somehow managed to absorb over one million refugees. And to make matters worse, much of the Hong Kong population subscribed to the traditional Chinese belief in the virtue of large families with ten, 12, sometimes 16 children.

Housing shortages, unemployment and poverty resulted.

The government provided public education until the completion of elementary school, at which time all Hong Kong youths were given an entrance exam. Those who scored high were advanced to secondary school. But those who failed, as most did, were turned loose at age 12 or 13 to roam the streets of Hong Kong until they were old enough to secure employment.

Left with few alternatives, these disenfranchised youths naturally organized themselves into street and neighbourhood gangs not unlike those found in the ghettos of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, only on a much larger scale. Protecting the gang's territorial home against trespassers, with an eye-for-an-eye code of vengeance, became an almost life-or-death passion. One-on-one street encounters often erupted into all-out warfare. Gang members lived in a constant state of readiness.

And since the British had successfully prohibited firearms throughout Hong Kong for decades, physical beatings as well as knife and chopper (meat cleaver) wounds were the frequent by-product of gang war. Kung fu training and weapons expertise became a genuine source of street survival for members of the larger and more violent gangs. In fact, many such gangs became associated with a single neighbourhood kung fu school. And a few of these schools became associated with the Chinese mafia.

In contrast, Bruce Lee came from a wealthy show business family. They lived in a relatively spacious Kowloon residence which William Cheung remembers as being in constant chaos, "The Lees were always looking after someone. Every time I went up there, there was a new kid living with them. Bruce had cousins, nephews, and even people from his parents' village living with him." To be specific, along with his wife, two daughters, three sons and one adopted son, Lee Hoi Chuen also supported his widowed sister-in-law, her five children, an occasional assortment of other relatives, several servants, plus nine dogs, seven birds, one monkey, and many fish.

Outside of the strict 10:00 p.m. curfew imposed by his father, the confusion in Bruce's home life left him free to seek mischievous adventure with Cheung and the Junction Street Eight Tigers. Sometimes he, his gang, and a few friends from St. Francis Xavier would saunter up the hill after school to the segregated King George V School. They would taunt the British-born students there until fights broke out, affording Bruce an opportunity to test the combat usefulness of his wing chun techniques. On other occasions, he seemed quite willing to invite the wrath of a rival Chinese gang, even a big one.

"Bruce took a lot of challenges," explains Cheung. "That's the most amazing thing ... he never backed out of any fight, although a lot of times we really just outsmarted our opponents."

For example, as one story goes, William Cheung once was shooting pool in Nathan Road's second-story Billiards Room. Suddenly, the calm of the room succumbed to the rapid-fire pounding of Bruce's ascending footsteps.

"Ah Hing! Ah Hing!," he cried. "They're after me! "

Cheung took another shot at the pool balls, then looked up. 'Wait a minute, Bruce, you are in your own neighbourhood. That sounds crazy. How do you know they are after you?"

I know because I beat up one of them," Lee replied.

"Oh," Cheung sighed. He put down his cue and walked over to a window. Outside, milling about the street, were about 50 members from one of the larger gangs. They could be recognized by the white handkerchiefs they wore to identify each other.

"Well, I see your problem, Bruce," said Cheung. "But come on, let's go out there."

Nathan Road was a major Kowloon artery. At that time of day, on any block, literally hundreds of people could be found walking down the street, waiting for the bus, crossing at the crosswalk, or disappearing into shops. When Lee and Cheung emerged from the Billiards Room, they immediately made the hostile gang suspect a neighbourhood trap by the unhurried, cavalier manner in which they carried themselves.

Then the two teenagers began their offensive with a sudden approach toward one large group of gang members. Lee and Cheung felt the familiar release of adrenalin pounding strength into their fists in preparation for battle. Their footsteps became quicker, more determined. The gang members tensed. And then ...

Bruce Lee waved, smiling warmly. And since Bruce was a well-known film personality, a nearby group of citizens recognized him and waved back. Lee and Cheung walked toward other groupings of gang members, smiling and waving as they went. And in each case, all the people walking down the street, waiting for the bus, crossing the crosswalk, or disappearing into the shops recognized Lee, and waved.

Soon the gang members had been convinced that they were outnumbered.

Cheung and Lee then called over the gang's leader. Both sides agreed that they did not want to fight a major battle, and therefore would disperse. Members of both the white handkerchiefs and Lee's "gang" began walking down the street, catching the bus, crossing the crosswalk, and disappearing into the shops.

By the end of 1956 Bruce Lee had become a serious problem for Yip Man. "Because he progressed very quickly," says Cheung, "he became a threat to some of the seniors ... Well, they thought they were seniors. Some people just put their name in the wing chun school, but they'd never come to class, or they'd just come once a week. They were never doing it properly."

Yet, according to custom, a kung fu student was supposed to remain humble and subservient to his seniors. To do otherwise was considered a direct combat challenge. And since Lee only respected the knowledge and fighting abilities of Yip Man and Yip's appointed instructors, he refused to comply with the arrogant whims of his seniors. Instead, he would challenge them. And he would defeat them. Easily.

Cheung continues. "Then they found out that he had a little bit of European blood in him. (Grace Lee, his mother, is part German.) They decided to use that to stop Bruce from training at the school. They put a lot of pressure on Yip Man. They knew that Yip Man was a traditional sort of person. He did not believe that the art should be passed on to Westerners."

But Yip refused their demands. He had too much respect for Lee as a film star and as a serious martial artist to turn him away. The "seniors" redoubled their efforts, however, and eventually found a much stronger method for bringing pressure against the grandmaster.

Yip Man was a poor businessman. He could not hang on to his money long enough to bother with financial management. Left to his own devices, he would sometimes risk eviction by spending the school's rent money. The students were forced to form a committee which would collect school fees, pay the rent, and leave Yip with a personal allowance. As the years passed and Yip's senior instructors began to leave him to start their own schools, Bruce Lee's detractors gradually came to control the committee. They threatened to reduce Yip's personal allowance if he did not dismiss the Little Dragon.

"And then, very reluctantly, Yip Man agreed," admits Cheung sadly. "So Bruce was ignored at the school. No one would train with him, and he knew that he could not learn very much more there. So he left."

Today there are still those who try to discredit Bruce Lee's association with his master through this incident. But William Cheung insists that most of their accusations are false. "Yip Man liked Bruce," emphasizes Cheung. "He liked him a lot ... because they always had jokes. You know, they joked around with each other. The other people were sort of sullen. Yip Man only talked to the people he liked.

"Quietly Yip Man was very proud of Bruce."

Certainly Yip Man's friendship for Bruce Lee was evident when he posed for a photo session with Lee in 1963. And Lee's feelings for his master were made clear in 1967 when he told BLACK BELT, "Before 1 discuss jeet kune do, I would like to stress the fact that though my present style is more totally alive and efficient, I owe my achievement to my previous training in the wing chun style, a great style. It was taught to me by Mr. Yip Man, present leader of the wing chun clan in Hong Kong where I was reared."

Moreover, Cheung confides, "After Bruce left the school Yip Man told me, 'Now you ... you give him some practice.' " Yip Man knew full well that Cheung and Lee were close friends, so Cheung interpreted his master's words as a personal mandate to complete Bruce Lee's training in wing chun. Initially, Lee spent a year-and-a-half working out at Wong Shun Leung's rooftop school, and training with Cheung whenever he had some free time away from Yip's school. None of Wong's students were then advanced enough, though, to offer Lee real competition. So Lee sometimes waited on the steps outside of Wong's home before class and told the students that their instructor was sick. Then, innocently, he would climb up to the roof for a private practice session with Wong.

However, once Cheung moved back home with his parents, Lee left Wong and trained almost exclusively with Cheung. "By that time I had learned most everything there was in wing chun," relates Cheung. "All I needed was time to practice. And also, my parents were sort of missing me. I hadn't seen them for years. They had moved to the New Territories - to a farm with a big back yard and a swimming pool - and they invited me back.

"Bruce started visiting me every weekend, and also in the summer he'd come over for a few days, if he wasn't working on a film. He did that until I left for Australia. See, we were very good friends. I remember he won the cha cha contest (the Crown Colony cha cha championship of 1958) and he would come over and teach me the cha cha and all that ... really just to see me. Then we would do a training session together."

Cheung reveals that he deliberately structured these training sessions with Lee so that they became experimental in nature. His reason was an important one. During the several years that he lived with Yip Man, he discovered that the grandmaster withheld key elements of the wing chun system from his commercial instruction. Specifically, Yip Man did not teach the system's authentic footwork, its "theory of four fighting ranges," nor their applications in closing the gap on an opponent. Instead he taught modified stance and foot patterns which were rigid and relatively impractical. The same patterns are still taught to wing chun students throughout the world today.

Yip Man made Cheung vow that he would never teach the complete wing chun system for as long as Yip remained alive. So Cheung engineered practical situations for Lee which emphasized the weaknesses in the modified wing chun. "I was in a situation where I had to influence Bruce to ask himself a lot of questions," explains Cheung, "because I could not openly show him what I knew. It actually hurt me quite a lot to do that. So I often encouraged him, and even made him irritated so that he would sit up and think, 'Why?,' trying to find out for himself."

In early 1958, one of the brothers at St. Francis Xavier School tried to rechannel the young film star's obsession with street fighting into a more respectable direction. He convinced Lee to join the school boxing team, Marquis of Queensberry rules, for the interschool championships. However, Lee refused to train with the boxing team. Actually, he did not appear to be training at all. Most of his class-mates thought he was crazy.

Behind the scenes, though, Lee entrusted his tournament preparation to Cheung and their weekend practice sessions in the New Territories.

Lee blasted his way effortlessly through the eliminations, knocking out three contestants, all in the first round. But in the finals he stepped into the ring opposite Gary Elms from the all-British King George V School. Elms, the champion for three straight years, was the most feared contestant in the tournament. Further, Elms enjoyed the advantage of having the event held at King George V School.

"This was Bruce's first boxing event," says Cheung, "so he was very inexperienced. He had a lot-of trouble in the first ten or 15 seconds of the first round. But after that he settled down. He used wing chun's pak sac, lap sac, straight punches, double punches, and continuous punching We trained him to hit at two levels.

"He knocked out the three-time interschool champion in the third round. He won very convincingly.

"Bruce was very competent by then. He had had a few contests with other styles. He enjoyed beating them. It surprised me, too. I always thought that he was more or less a film star. But he would have beaten everybody in Hong Kong in wing chun back then, and especially now since the wing chun has deteriorated. He could really use most of the techniques in the system.

"And his understanding was much greater than the people who were teaching. For example, he was always criticizing the rigid footwork, and so on. He'd say, 'Look, why is it like that? Why do I have to do this?' But 1 could not tell him."

Years later, in the film Return of the Dragon, Lee would play a country bumpkin who was trained in Chinese boxing on a farm in the New Territories. The picture was written and directed by Lee, and the origin of the story's hero is an obvious tribute to the training experiences Lee had with William Cheung.

A few months after the interschool boxing championships, Bruce Lee and a few other wing chun stylists accepted a challenge match from a group of choy li fut practitioners. During the encounter, Lee subdued his opponent by dislodging a few teeth. His opponent's parents complained to the police, and Lee's mother then had to sign a paper accepting responsibility for her son's future conduct.

Although the summer of 1958 proved very productive for the the Little Dragon, bringing him a critically acclaimed performance in the film Orphan, Lee's first starring role, the fall brought yet another confrontation with the police. "This is the incident which caused him to stop seeing the Junction Street Eight Tigers and eventually to come to America," recounts Cheung. "They did some shoplifting in a shop. And we were with them. They ran so we had to run with them. But we hadn't taken anything.

"Then they all disappeared. Meanwhile a taxi driver thought that there was something happening. He started chasing us, and through a lot of maneuvering he caught up with Bruce. I had to turn around and run back to fight Bruce free of the taxi driver. Bruce was trying to tell him that he wasn't involved. But by that time the police were everywhere. That's why I got caught.

"But they could not find anything on us. All they could say was that I was hitting the taxi driver. But then I said, 'The taxi driver was hitting Bruce. I was helping my friend.'

"The outcome was that Bruce decided that those Junction Street Eight Tigers were just bad news. Thugs. And when you are in trouble they never come back." In addition, the police again notified Bruce Lee's parents. They reminded the Lees of the paper Grace Lee had signed some months earlier. Any more trouble from Bruce, they warned, might result in legal action.

Shortly afterward, both William Cheung and Bruce Lee decided to make a new start at life, away from the street gangs of Hong Kong, by attending school overseas. Cheung joined his brothers in Australia, whereas Lee, who had been born in San Francisco, returned to America and took his rightful place as a U.S. citizen. To a Hong Kong family in the 1950s, sending their son to school in a Western country was not too dissimilar from a wealthy American family sending children to finishing school in Europe."
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Purple Belt
Purple Belt

Joined: 01 Nov 2001
Posts: 517
Location: Dubai - U.A.E

PostPosted: Sun Mar 31, 2002 2:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks ChangWuJi - another great read.
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