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Cults: A Testimony & Case Study - Part 2

Sid & Andrew Sofos - Wing Chun Boxing Academy - Cult or Not?

Last Updated: 19 May 2024

Fees and Money

Andrew would run the college classes at UCL and Imperial college, on behalf of Sid. At the University classes, students would be expected to pay a term's fees in advance, i.e. 3 months fees as a lump sum up front. Andrew would pressure the University students into coming to his private studio (with much higher lesson costs), i.e. attending additional lessons. I have taken other college semester-based sports courses which cost significantly less.

At Shaoshan and Fatshan you had to pay for all lessons one month in advance. You had to pay to 'reserve your slot' i.e. pay for your 2 classes a week for the entire month, regardless of whether you actually attended it or not, e.g. if you were injured, too unwell to come in or on holiday. All of us students thought this was a rip off but went along with it as we wanted to train and were conditioned into believing all other wing chun was inferior. In all other clubs I experienced at that time, you paid for the lesson you just had only. Also, fees were generally collected when you arrived, not after the lesson.

At that time, this was highly unusual for a private studio. But nowadays, with cynical marketing and trying to encourage customer retention and ensure a reliable stream of money, subscription-based services and pre-paid services are becoming more common, albeit because they offer savings. At the Wing Chun Boxing Academy, we were not getting any discount for prepaying and the fees were quite high it was generally believed amongst students I spoke to.

Andrew would often encourage/harrass his instructors to collect fees at his studio. This would presumably be a standard procedure for the school and so a routine ought to have been already in place. I was never personally responsible for collecting fees as I was an assistant instructor and not entrusted with this responsibility. I do not exactly know what was said to the instructors, but they all seemed in sync so I assume Andrew had told them exactly what he wanted them to do. Whenever a student came into either Fatshan or Shaoshan studios, you'd be asked by the instructor in the changing room if you had paid your fees or not. They never seemed to keep track of who had paid and how much, which would seem to be the obvious thing to do, by keeping written records and checking the list every time a student walked in or just checking the whole list before the class and making a note of which students to approach about it. Quite often we would walk into the studio and changing room and the first thing an instructor would say to you upon seeing you is 'have you paid your fees' and not 'hello' or 'how are you?' It was really quite rude. When you told them 'yes I have' they would say something like 'ok, good' and then basically completely ignore you. So in effect, most students were being harrassed for fees that they'd already paid on a regular basis and it annoyed a lot of students, who would go into the studio for their lesson in a bad frame of mind. What is ironic is that the chief instructor at Fatshan at the time was an accountant, so you would expect him to be able to manage a simple task of keeping track who had paid their fees and who hadn't, but he was just the same, harrassing everyone about it when we came into the changing room.

When Shaoshan was located on the industrial estate, Andrew would come over from his house down the road halfway through a class or right at the end, and collect all the money/fees that came in each night, given to him in cash by one of the instructors in a big envelope. I observed this whilst I was an assistant instructor. This made me feel rather uncomfortable and felt it was slightly distasteful. When the classes were in his garage, I think from memory he used to attend the class for longer, sometimes turning up with a tea or coffee. At Fatshan, Sid would be upstairs in his office as I assume he probably lived upstairs, so he would already be in the building but just didn't come down until after the instructors had warmed everyone up and been freefighting for a while.

The majority of classes would be run by Sid and Andrew's instructors - who were not paid for doing so. At other martial arts schools that I spoke with, instructors would take a portion of the fees for the classes they led.

Students at the University classes were pressured by instructors into purchasing a uniform. Those without uniforms were made to feel like second class citizens in the classes, and made to feel slightly guilty. We were told we were not allowed to take a first grading unless they had their uniform. The uniform was basically a white t-shirt and a thin black cotton pair of jogger/trackie bottoms and kung fu slippers, which is a fairly generic uniform for wing chun students, except most other clubs get t-shirts made up with the name of their school on them. Later the brothers decided that they wanted a different uniform and changed it to a black silk looking (likely synthetic) pyjama style uniform with snap buttons near the collar. This was quite expensive and I personally felt a bit ridiculous in it and it was less comfortable than the old uniform. Subsequent kung fu schools I had attended did not even have uniforms, but managed to maintain a positive, relaxed atmosphere and a hard training ethic. The school sold us kung fu slippers but they hardly ever got them in stock in the most common sizes, even though they were easy to source for martial arts wholesalers, and we were told by the instructors to cut the plastic soles off, but of course doing this and cutting off the stitching holding the soles on meant the slippers would start to fall apart. So our slippers were often falling apart and we'd be training with compromised slippers, and when the pair you were using fell apart completely, you'd dig out the 'spare' sets you had that were also worn out, but not quite as bad.

Both Sid and Andrew's schools practised the policy of fining students for any lesser misdemeanours or when someone forgot to bring their uniform. This applied even to beginner classes. A £5 on the spot fine was administered. This was claimed to be practised to instill discipline in students and to teach them respect. During one early lesson at Andrew's studio Shaoshan in his garage, a beginner student was fined for something (I can't remember if it was forgetting his uniform for one lesson or inadvertently leaving his Clash T-shirt at the studio). The expression on the face of the student was priceless. He just looked shocked like he thought it was some sort of joke. He never came back again.

Instructors would also pressure students into attending additional events and seminars. Every year or two, Sid and Andrew ran seminars. These were the few occasions where students actually got to practice practical sequences of moves in a street fighting type situation, or really break down the moves in their training in detail. Moves were broken down and repeated over and over. Most other Wing Chun classes by other schools however actually do this every lesson so such seminars are not really required - their technique is practical out of the box. Progress is much faster and students actually understand what they are learning and it is much clearer. However, it is likely that the seminars were financially motivated as they were not cheap. Other schools do seminars as well but they tend to be less militaristically run and often cheaper.

Students of both schools were heavily encouraged to buy tickets for the kung fu shows for themselves and their family and friends. If a student said that he could not afford it then he was heavily pressured by instructors. In a few of the shows I attended, most of the attendees seemed to be friends and family of the students, but perhaps half a dozen minor league sports personalities or similar. Students attending were also expected to help with the running of the show, for free, even though they had paid to actually attend. One fellow students that I trained with missed virtually the entire Sadler's Wells show as he was doing chores and manning the doors or reception areas. I managed to see most of it. This was an example of how getting roped into helping out was rarely done fairly. I recall a senior instructor ringing former students up at 11pm trying to sell tickets to a kung fu show. One or two were very annoyed about being called so late. It may have been as this was when our class ended and they had some free time before their own class started, or it could have been that Andrew scolded them about the ticket sales after our class, I am not sure.

In 1996 I was pressured by the Fatshan chief instructor into buying a video of Sid doing 3 onto 1, which was £40 and which literally lasted less than 5 minutes (and which I'd already seen at one of the kung fu shows on the projector). I believe this was being sold at that time as the footage was going to appear in the forthcoming kung fu show the brothers were putting on at a theatre in London and so they wanted the students to have the opportunity to see the footage beforehand as they were paying to be taught all this information for years and showing it to the public for just a ticket price would have been seen to be unfair. But obviously you had to buy the video to be able to see it, which was more expensive that the actual ticket price by some margin. In the same year I bought a 2 hour video including actual footage of Grandmaster Yip Man performing the dummy form for half the price at a martial arts store in South London. The Sofos video was extremely poor value for money, the techniques displayed were arguably quite basic and too fast to really identify properly. I lent the video to another Wing Chun instructor who found it rather amusing. You can see archive 3 onto 1 footage of Sid Sofos on youtube now to make up your own mind.

The instructors at Shaoshan would occasionally try to hustle the students whilst in the changing room, by reselling items they'd bought in bulk, for personal profit. I don't know whether Andrew knew about this or not. One instructor one time had lots of pots of royal jelly, which many of us bought as the price we assumed was keen and it sounded exotic and the packaging was attractive. Another time one of the instructors had a bag full of new Paul Smith branded tops for a cheap price. I bought one or two. I assumed they weren't knock offs at the time but wouldn't have been able to tell one from a genuine one had it been more than likely.

Gifts and donations for presents were occasionally demanded rather than invited. Andrew's instructors and Andrew himself used to point out that back in the 70s, students used to club together to buy their Sifu a new car etc or whatever he needed. Whether this is true or not I don't know, it could have been made up. It is not clear what country he was talking about either, as I suspect if true it was not the UK. However, this type of information would presumably only be known by long term students and not by beginners to a martial arts class and Andrew claims on his blog site he started training in martial arts in 1978, but it is not clear if he was referring to wing chun here or not. Simon Lau would certainly not have asked a new student of his to help pay for a new car. I believe he told us this to preframe us and to condition us into the concept of throwing money at our Sifu or the school. Perhaps this was performed out of natural honour, admiration and respect, and love of the art they were studying. However, Andrew's interpretation was that students should be coerced into 'coughing up' whenever it was requested, and that they should feel guilty and grateful that the Sifu was teaching them anything at all.

One time at Fatshan, the chief instructor approached us in the changing rooms and said that Sid wanted a pair of binoculars to look at the stars with (obviously a telescope would be more appropriate for this) and that we were all required to chip in, so we were all asked for something like £20 or £30 each. We never saw the binoculars nor the gift being presented, but I recall that a week or two later, during the class Sid came in and thanked us for the binoculars. So whether they were actually given to him, or indeed used for astronomy, or if Sid just needed the money and told his chief instructor to collect the money with that as an excuse, who knows.

Sid and Andrew and their instructors would always make the students of the last class of the day or evening clean up their studio, including hoovering and polishing the mirrors. They would never pay for cleaners or do it themselves. The instructors would stand around and watch you cleaning up, and have a go at you if there was any marks on the mirrors and never actually lift a finger themselves. They did not provide properly cleaning materials either. In Fatshan, they mostly they relied on the condensation on the mirrors (owing to poor ventilation) and gave you newspaper to wipe them with. At Shaoshan you'd be given some spray and newspaper. They did not spend money on proper cleaning cloths. The students were paying what was at the time in my opinion high fees, and do all these jobs for free, whilst Sid and Andrew would drive around in expensive cars, like Andrew's Jaguar XJ6/XJ8 or Sid's BMW 8 series. Evidently they could have afforded cleaners but chose not to pay for them.

Students were demanded by the instructors to help out to redecorate the studio on a periodic basis - which rarely looked professionally done as it was poorly executed and using cheap materials.

Students were forced to go on flyposting runs to put up posters advertising the school. Sometimes you had to run from the police! I was caught by the police on one occasion. Reminiscent of 'public school fagging' but worse. This was ironic seeing as Andrew always bragged that they never advertised for new students. Probably what he meant was that they never paid for advertising.

When paying my fees at Shaoshan to the chief instructor present whilst in the changing room, I was given change in a large number of pound coins, including at least two counterfeit coins. They were misshapen and poor fakes. I did not notice at the time but a day or so later. I did complain afterwards, but was told that it was tough luck! This is hardly a good example to be setting for the school, especially given how strict they were about fees and harrassing students about paying when they were not even due. Some of my other fellow students also commented that they'd been palmed off with fake coinage. So he must have had a whole load of fake coins. It is highly unlikely that he could have accidentally been given that many fake coins and not noticed. I did not mention it to Andrew. Receiving fake coins has only happened to me once or twice ever, and that the chief instructor being implicated somehow does not surprise me. He was described by one of the ex-instructors years later as a 'dirty fucker' and this chief instructor once bragged about how he'd started a fight in a petrol station between with another group of youths in cars whereby the other gang was giving him the eye and he said 'come on then', and they furnished baseball bats and everyone layed into each other, and he said that him and his friends eventually beat the other gang up.

A week or two prior to the kung fu show described below, a whole class at Fatshan was dedicated to a lecture about the 24 hour circulation of qi in the body. Everyone thought they were being given some really hot information. It was very high level and lacking in detail, using one cluttered diagram. It was equivalent to one or two pages of a book on the subject. Sid had one of his instructors do the presentation, as a trial run for his presentation at a forthcoming kung fu show. We were made to feel really grateful for the 'secret' information being given. He opened for questions at the end, and I asked him how the generation and use/movement of qi in kung fu movements fitted in with the 24 hour circulation of qi. I presumed Sid didn't know or couldn't be bothered to explain, as he just told me that I was 'way off' and left it at that. It was totally unhelpful. No training was done that night, despite paying for a lesson. As well as it being practice for the forthcoming kung fu show, it would have been rude to have not formally taught students of 4 or 5 years the information that was given out in public at the show. One did not feel respected after having seen the presentation at the kung fu show that one had previous paid for.

One time, in 1996, I was going to a concert with my brother in London and I always tried to avoid doing anything on training nights, even having a date on Valentine's Day etc. but on this occasion it was not possible to reschedule, so I let Sid know in advance, and agreed that I would come in to train for 30 minutes at the start of our lesson and then leave to go to the concert. As I left after 30 minutes of the class to go into the changing room, my fellow class mates were giving me strange and dirty looks. I got changed and was going to walk to the tube station, but the chief instructor said he would give me a lift, which I thought initially was very kind of him. I followed him out to the car, it was Sid's large black BMW, and it transpired that the chief instructor was giving Sid's new girlfriend a lift somewhere, so he was driving around Tottenham anyway. So he drove me down to the tube station and then demanded £5 petrol money from memory, which is quite a lot of petrol money for 1996 for what is a short journey if he was more or less going that way anyway. He said if I had gotten a taxi it would have cost me about the same, perhaps more. So I begrudgingly handed over the money. He never mentioned the money at the start or I would just have said no thanks, I'll get the bus and the tube, as I had allowed enough time for that. This was just another excuse to extract money out of a student. I wasn't even offered the choice, he just insisted I was coming with him.

A couple of the students in my senior students class at Fatshan used to do private lessons with Sid when we were training there. These weren't really private lessons, but there were 2 or 3 students in the 1 hour long session with Sid and each paid I think it was £25 each, which in 1995 seemed like a lot of money, and I couldn't afford to do it on top of paying for the classes which I think were £10 each, twice a week, so £80 a month. Looking at the SAS web site, Andrew offers private lessons as one to one or 2 to 3 students per session at a lower rate. With every other school, private means private, i.e. 1 to 1. Otherwise it's not a private lesson, it's a class.

The Shaoshan studio in Andrew's single garage was on a raised chipboard floor and was quite intimate as you'd expect. Whilst there was always an element of bullying there, mostly from Andrew himself more than the instructor or instructors present, the general atmosphere at Shaoshan got worse when it moved to the location on the industrial estate. I believe the reason for the move was twofold. The class size got much bigger so it could generate much more money, and secondly, his neighbours complained several times about the noise in his garage as it was a terraced house, at least on that side, and when people were using the wooden dummies, they complained that they could hear them coming through the walls.

Withholding Techniques & Hierarchy

Andrew would often hold back on teaching certain things or training methods as he felt the class didn't deserve it. He actually told us that in the class when introducing something for the first time, then becoming frustrated on account of what he saw as poor performance by the students, mostly because we were new to it or he hadn't explained it properly, and then told us to stop and go back to more 'basic' training. It would really make everyone in the class feel inadequate. One example of this was the sand bag punching training we tried one evening at the senior class at Shaoshan, which was one level below the senior class at Fatshan. We all had a go at punching the bags until our fists started bleeding on the bags, and then once everyone had been exposed to HIV risk, he scolded us for having baby skin and we never did it again, not even in the senior class at Fatshan in the year or two following. Sid may have withheld techniques from being taught in our classes at Fatshan but he never actually told the class he was withholding techniques as we didn't deserve it, like Andrew did.

Bil Jee was only taught to senior instructors after 5 years or so of training and proving their worth. In 4 years of regular training, the senior class was only taught up to Chum Kil level, and we never started on Bil Jee. In other wing chun schools, it is openly taught and in some cases after a few weeks of training, in the case of a friend of mine who was doing private lessons with a new Sifu. If one picks up techniques quickly, many schools reward this by teaching more, not holding back for the sake of it.

The Wing Chun style was designed to be mastered in 5-8 years, unlike other kung fu styles which reputedly take a whole lifetime to master, if you believe the hype. After 4 years I hadn't been even taught sticky leg, bil jee, the whole dummy form etc. The street self defence component of the style was extremely poor in my view and lesser than what I subsequently learned in 6 months with another Sifu of a different lineage a few years later attending there only once a week. This may however have been the case because the whole system was impractical and lacking in realism rather than necessarily being because they were holding back.

It appeared that 2 onto 1 and 3 onto 1 training was taught at 4th Scroll Level, i.e. once you were in the instructors class. So you might have to wait 4-6 years before starting this. At another school, I started to do it confidently with 6 months of training.

Sid appeared to explicitly practice the stereotypical martial arts concept of withholding techniques from his lower students, secretly teaching his instructors a different style with a wider stance. The style Sid allegedly taught his instructors according to my friend in the instructors class at the time was based on a likely artificially constructed Wing Chun style combining his own wing chun arm movements and more traditional kung fu arm movements with the wider Wing Chun pole fighting horse stance. Sid claimed this was 'ancient Ng Moi' Wing Chun, in a seminar I attended that was only open to senior students, but there is no historical information to back this up and is pure speculation. In my opinion it is something he came up with when thinking about the pole footwork. My senior class never trained like that again after the seminar, although I did once try out one of the moves on a student during a class I was helping to instruct one time.

There was a definite pecking order in the academy, in terms of how you were treated and who was on the steepest learning curve in terms of being taught new techniques. In terms of really teaching new methods of training there seemed to be 2 levels, anyone in the top instructors class and everyone else. If you were in the instructors class, it appeared that you were taught training methods like fist conditioning and power punch training on wall mounted sandbags, finger strike training in sand, tile/board breaking with a palm strike, the full dummy form, the Bil Jee form, the pole and the butterfly knives forms, etc.

If you happened to end up in the class below, the senior students' class, then you would not be taught any of these things, even if the difference in ability at least when new recruits joined the instructors class was minimal between them and others in the seniors class. Assistant instructors were definitely lower down on the pecking order, and were in the seniors class only, and it felt like you were being held back in terms of training, sticking with freefighting for a couple of years without really learning much new besides a few more moves on the wooden dummy.

Those students from my class who I started training with in 1992, who weren't significantly better than me in my opinion, did gain a very slight edge by attending shared private lessons with Sid every week, and perhaps for this reason they became full instructors and joined the instructor's advanced class and I was kept at the assistant instructor level in the senior class, as they had showed (financial) 'commitment' which was rewarded. It seemed that you would not be promoted into the top class no matter how good you were or how hard you trained unless you were doing private lessons with Sid. Literally every single student from my generation who did privates ended up fairly quickly in the instructor's class. When I first joined the senior class at Fatshan, one of my new fellow students was my former assistant instructor who had been helping out at the top class in Shaoshan. He was in my opinion the best practitioner in my newly joined class. I was surprised that he was in my class rather than in the instructors' class where I felt that he belonged. He was not promoted into the instructors' class later like my former fellow contemporaries. He was always a really fast practitioner. I am guessing he wasn't doing private lessons with Sid or there was some personal reason for him not being promoted up a class.

Sid's instructors took photos of the other instructors during their instructors' class training with fingers into hot sand, sticky legs drills, and anything dramatic looking, and put them onto the wall in the studio. This was supposed to be inspiring I assume. However I felt that this was the sort of thing we ought to have been doing, and for some time prior, and it felt slightly insulting or made you feel like a 2nd class member of the school. These pictures would sometimes appear in the school magazine. Apart from these photographs, these more advanced techniques were kept behind closed doors in the instructors' class. We were not told anything about them. In other wing chun schools, all levels of ability tend to turn up on training nights to the same class, and everyone trains according to their ability and nothing is kept hidden and there is no cliqueiness, elitism or secrecy.

There was very much a sense of techniques and knowledge/curriculum for future gradings being withheld. I held 3 scrolls and in the last 1-2 years of training, no additional gradings were taken. I never really had a sense of when training for the next grading would begin in a formal sense or what the progression was. I assume training for the 4th scroll would only really start when you got promoted to the top class.

Assistant instructors were lower down in the pecking order in terms of being respected by Andrew compared to the fully fledged instructors, but far above normal students. You would really feel the difference in how Andrew treated the different classes of person at the studio. As an assistant instructor you got some respect for showing up on designated instructing slot, but felt like you had to prove yourself over a period of time and invest more time and effort in the school to be accepted into the inner circle. Assistant instructors would be excluded from any internal discussions Andrew had with the instructors and were not invited to social events for instructors etc. so you felt more like a student than an instructor, but one who had been roped into additional duties. After the Sadler's Wells show, Sid had organised some get together with the instructors at a local nightclub, and I was not invited as I was only an assistant instructor, and I was getting the tube back home with some of the students afterwards, and one of them started querying why I wasn't going to the afterparty and if I wasn't invited or something, so I told him that I wasn't invited and said nothing else, and his reaction was slightly surprised but that was the end of the conversation. It felt really quite humiliating, as if I was being humiliated by Sid and Andrew in front of the students in some novel manner. However, it was all relative and the instructors themselves had to put up with a lot of abuse at times and invest such a large amount of their time and go without enough sleep etc.

The lines were a little blurred as to what the purpose of you being in the school was, from the outset it was to get good at wing chun (or at least this style of wing chun), but there was also a sense that your goal was also to be respected and accepted within the school. The more respect you earned, the more likely you were to be taught more of the dummy form and some of the more advanced techniques. However the goal of being completely respected by the brothers (as well as really learning everything from them) seemed to be something almost impossible to earn, like you were never quite good enough and techniques always felt like they were being withheld, at least in the seniors class - and often you'd feel it was because you were treated as a group rather than individuals and that someone else was always letting you down by not making enough effort.

Learning martial arts made you feel more in control but giving up more of your time to the school was both empowering and disempowering, like you felt there was less time left to be you, you would have in effect signed your life away to the school, likely only having one night off a week when you would be totally exhausted, and there was a feeling that you were getting deeper and deeper into the school and not always in a good way, but that it was a one way route. There was no sense of being able to stop at a certain 'depth' in the school in terms of responsibilty and just keep learning and getting better. Very few of the people in the seniors class wanted to be assistant instructors but we just got roped into it. You wanted to be a 'somebody' according to the school's definition, but that increasingly came with a heavy price. Added to that, you were spending more and more of your time with arguably nerdy and uncharismatic people who you had very little in common with except for wing chun, and you'd spend more time with them than people you actually liked and were friends with. You were supposed to be kung fu brothers but it didn't really feel like it, there was no real sense of comradery like at othe schools. The 'inner circle' of instructors was tight but in more of a cultish sense or shared experience of total immersion in the school.

© 2006-2024 Fabian Dee