Web Analytics

Cults: A Testimony & Case Study - Part 5

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

Last Updated: 14 May 2024

School Comparison

If I was to compare the difference between a Fatshan/Shaoshan class and a wing chun class or lesson at another Wing Chun school, I would summarise the differences as follows. These are of course generalisations and it depends on the specific school in question but I think it is a reasonable comparision from my own personal experiences.

  • In a Fatshan/Shaoshan class, you were trying to perform well in the lesson to improve for yourself but also to perform well as a class and meet the team goal and to meet the expected standard as expected or demanded by the instructors or Sifu: you felt a sense of duty. There was a lot of tension in the air, and it felt both exciting and stressful depending on what was going on. The atmosphere in the class would be a little unpredictable, and could be positive or really negative and awkward, depending on the moods of the instructors and Sifu. You would be shouted at in a scolding manner by instructors if they thought you were not training hard enough. During the warm up you would be encouraged to shout at your training partner almost continuously to keep going and to push themselves harder as if you were at a boxing match. When changing partners you'd be shouted at by instructors to hurry up, and to hurry up drawing chalk circles on the ground, so the students would be running around like headless chickens. No one was allowed to stop for a drink at any time unless the instructors said you could have a 20 second break, and then you had to drink from communal water bottles. Training was almost entirely freefighting with occasional footwork drills. You might complain to your training partner if their arms were too stiff as it would impede your ability to freefight and move their arms. If your uniform was not ironed or wasn't totally clean you would be scolded by the instructors. On the journey to the lesson and for part of the day you'd be nervous about the lesson and slightly dreading it, and you couldn't eat after lunchtime or you would feel nauseous during the class in the evening. After the lesson you would feel elated as you were so relieved it was over and you wouldn't have to train for another 2 days, and could look back at some of the things you did in the lesson and enjoy thinking about it. You would be ravenously hungry after the class and have to snack on the way home.
  • In another wing chun school's class, you felt like you were there as an individual. The atmosphere would be calm and realxed and a little upbeat, although when people trained they would train hard. The atmosphere would be predicatable and constant from class to class. In one school, we would be encouraged with shouting during the warm up that was of a positive nature but also hilarious. If doing 2 or 3 onto 1, you might shout encouragement at your fellow students now and then. People were calm and collected when changing training partners etc. Training exercises and drills would be done in a more methodical and slower manner, and a wider variety performed. For advanced students you might do occasional sparring using proper sparring gear. You would have your own water bottle and could take a quite break and have a sip of water whenever you liked. The class would be viewed by Sofos adrenaline addicts as boring. You could turn up wearing what you wanted, depending on the school. You would typically be looking forward to the lesson beforehand, could eat a modest amount an hour or two prior and after the lesson you'd feel pleased that your techniques or sequences of moves were more imprinted into your muscle memory.


So was the Wing Chun Boxing Academy, run by Sid Sofos and Andrew Sofos and his instructors, in the early to mid 1990s, a cult? I believe it was a psychologically abusive environment and on occasion physically abusive. In terms of it being a cult, I believe it fulfills all of the classic characteristics of a cult. However as I stated in the introduction, a cult is not a binary thing. There are different degrees. Some people will never accept the label of a 'cult' being applied to something they hold dear, even if they are aware there were or are problems with it. I will go through the qualities of a classic cult mentioned in the introduction one by one below. Some of the definitions are open to interpretation.

  1. Absolute authoritarianism without accountability - The Sifus orders were followed at all times and instructors would shout at you if you did not follow them, so yes. They behaved in various questionable ways without being held accountable ever and people would also make excuses or allowances for them and the instructors that they would not apply to anyone else.
  2. Zero tolerance for criticism or questions - This less clear cut. Yes they were open to questions most of the time, technical questions on technique and so on, but the answers were not that meaningful. Only a few times were questions refused to be answered. If you questioned the technique in a criticising way it would not have been tolerated. Criticism would not have been tolerated.
  3. Lack of meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget - How relevant this is depends on the context. We all knew we were paying a high price for fees and the way the money seemed to be top priority and obtained in a rather sociopathic manner with no idea how much they were earning does suggest this notion.
  4. Unreasonable fears about the outside world that often involve evil conspiracies and persecutions - I would say there was a sense of paranoia that others schools were ganging up on them or out to get them, one in particular, but that was just pure fantasy. There wasn't quite so much of a sense of this earlier on, or perhaps this is because we were in the junior class then and shielded more from this type of concern. The constant slagging off of other Wing Chun schools added to this feeling, and create an insular, inward looking environment shielded from the rest of the Wing Chun community.
  5. A belief that former followers are always wrong for leaving and there is never a legitimate reason for anyone else to leave - I got a strong sense of this from Andrew, the disdain he had for anyone leaving. In terms of being able to leave and the overall level of coercion, you would be increasingly conditioned to be loyal and stay so it would be increasingly psychologically difficult to leave, and the instructors would hound you in class, make demands of you to keep in touch when you were on holiday and would likely phone you up and give you grief if you didn't show up and hadn't paid your one month in advance to reserve your slot. I knew people who left without too much fuss, but they were smart enough to use work as an excuse (e.g. I'm working nights from now on) and played it low key. The more 'worthless' you felt, the more crushed your self-esteem, if you allowed that to happen, which many did as they embraced the school too fully, the more you'd feel guilty and try to pay your way out and allow them to manipulate you. So how much actual coercion you would have is not quite clear. But the longer you are there the harder it would be both in terms of their level of harrassment and your own lack of confidence to just leave and ignore your phone and the doorbell for a few weeks (which is I assume what might have happened).
  6. Abuse of members - Psychologically definitely. Students were frequently shouted at for no good reason and made to feel guilty and anxious during lessons when the instructors or Sifus had their big mood swings, and would rush around trying to please their teacher. In terms of physical abuse you could say that some of the instructors would take a lot of manhandling from the Sifu, although in the spirit of not including testimonies from others I would not be able to provide a clear cut example. I certainly tried to 'abuse' or 'destroy' students at least in terms of the rules of engagement in our freefighting during lessons, to push them mentally as far as I could - some would call it training - but without playing psychological head games with them or scolding them for no reason, like I saw some of the other instructors do in that class.
  7. Records, books, articles, or programs documenting the abuses of the leader or group - I don't think this is applicable. The school was not really organised enough to document procedures or events well at all, and they would certainly not document abuse and were probably not even aware of what they were doing.
  8. Followers feeling they are never able to be “good enough” - I would strongly agree with this. Being reprimanded for something that wasn't your fault in class, being accused of lying, frequently feeling guilty when the Sifu was not happy with the class, instructors apologising to the Sifu frequently etc.
  9. A belief that the leader is right at all times - There was an absolute sense of this with the instructors. I knew they were something wrong but had to just keep quiet. Perhaps it was the same for some of the other instructors. Some I think did genuinely believe they were always right. The students were conditioned to believe the Sifu was always right and questioned what he said amongst themselves less and less over time, or at least over different types of issues or concerns. There was always some new way of being unreasonable that transpired that would be occasionally discussed, but it was brushed off as we wanted to keep training.
  10. A belief that the leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or giving validation - I strongly believe this applied. There was the sense that if you left, you would never be able to train as good martial arts as this so the school was seen as the gatekeeper to the pinnacle of martial arts. The longer you trained, the more your perception of what constitutes good martial arts changed, such that you lost your perspective and when looking at other styles, you would be unable to see any good in it and believe everything good about it was bad, and everything bad about your style was good. You didn't want to leave as you believed the Sofos brothers were the only source of good wing chun and being kicked out would have been akin to being excommunicated from the church in the medieval period. And there was always the concern that if you went elsewhere, as you'd be training so long, you'd have to relearn it all, and all that time would be wasted (in reality it had already been wasted to a large degree in my opinion), which would put you off leaving.

So looking at the above list, I would say the score is about 7.5 out of 10. The Wing Chun Boxing Academy as it was in the 1990s fulfilled most of the definitions of a cult. So I would say it was strongly cultish but was only truly a cult at the higher levels, i.e. the longer you were there, the more difficult it was to leave and the more that was demanded of you. So, no, you wouldn't be forced to participate in a group suicide, but otherwise most of the classic cultish elements were there in varying degrees. I could speculate as to how the situation arose and say that I suspect it is partly a result of isolation from the wider wing chun community, playing with some (IMO flawed) training ideas and trying to take them to the logical extreme, and losing perspective.

© 2006-2024 Fabian Dee