The Yau Kung Moon School's Matthew Wong walks back to the studio with students after their performance at the Chinese New Year Flower Market Fair in Chinatown, San Francisco, on Jan. 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
On a recent sunny Saturday morning, children and parents filed into the Yau Kung Moon School in San Francisco’s Chinatown to practice their martial arts techniques, train with traditional weapons and practice lion dancing ahead of their performance in this weekend's Chinese New Year Parade on Feb. 19.
The Yau Kung Moon School — named for the southern Shaolin kung fu style it teaches — has a practice room in a building on Waverly Place just off Clay Street filled with trophies, honors and banners. Spears, staffs and swords are placed neatly in the corner behind the yellow-and-red-colored dragon costumes the school is known for. Performers wear yellow shirts, yellow pants, a red sash and traditional, striped red-and-gold leggings.
Led by Richard Ow (referred to as "sifu," meaning teacher), students learn the fundamentals of the Yau Kung Moon style, and the Nam Si Buk Mo lion dance style. Ow currently teaches 50 students and has trained 300 students since he became a sifu in 2000.
“Sifu has a more in-depth meaning than ‘teacher,’” said Ow. “So first it's like a coach. There's a Chinese saying: ‘The student will watch the teacher and the teacher will watch the student.’ You’ll see in three to six years if the student is dedicated or worth your time. In the old-school way of thinking, the sifu doesn’t waste time. They let their younger instructors teach.”
The school has been in San Francisco for more than 50 years, and has participated in 36 Lunar New Year parades. Students' ages range from 4 to 40 years old. The youngest students and beginners will march in the New Year parade, while students who have practiced kung fu will perform short sets for the crowd. Intermediate and advanced students will perform the lion dancing and help the younger students.
Ow was born and raised in San Francisco in a traditional Chinese household.
“My dad had a bakery on Washington Street in Chinatown and would work for over 12 hours regularly," he said. "My sisters and I also helped with the business.”
Ow remembers vendors putting posters of martial arts movies on the window of the bakery and handing his father free movie tickets. His father would take him to see the films, and Ow grew up idolizing martial artists like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
“Growing up, I was a skinny, weak kid so the films were a big inspiration,” said Ow.
When Ow was 11 years old, his father’s friend recommended taking him to visit the Yau Kung Moon School. Ow instantly fell in love with the school and became a devoted student who prided himself on being the first one to practice and the last one to leave.
He studied under Sifu Lok Sang Lee beginning in 1987, worked hard, and within two years had entered his first national kung fu competition in San Francisco. He won first place using Yau Kung Moon’s broadsword form for short weapons and the "Ying Ching" hand form. By the time he was 15, he was helping to instruct other students.
'Bringing out positivity and hope for community'
The last Lunar New Year parade took place two years ago, just before the pandemic shut down many activities that would normally be happening throughout the month. This year, excitement has been building as the parade — the biggest Lunar New Year parade outside Asia — prepares to roar back in the Year of the Tiger.
Folk dancers, marching bands, stilt walkers and Chinese acrobats will join martial arts schools such as Yau Kung Moon, the Tat Wong Kung Fu Academy and Leung's White Crane school, which performs at the parade's finale.
“The Lunar New Year parade is about bringing out positivity and hope for community,” said Ow. “For the performance, we bring in members that have been with us for 22 years, and it’s like a family gathering again. People still come out rain or shine. We represent our community positively in Chinatown.”
Vincent Lau, a resident of South San Francisco, brought his two children to practice at Yau Kung Moon School on Saturday morning. His children are 8 and 10 years old.
“They saw their cousin performing and decided they wanted to give it a try,” said Lau. “They’ve been participating since last year in May.”
Lau has been going to see the Lunar New Year parade for years and would watch it on TV when he got older. He watches his children practice with Ow and commends him for his dedication.
“I can tell Sifu [Ow] really likes teaching and working with the community,” said Lau.
Lau said the decision to get his children involved with the Yau Kung Moon School was partly influenced by news of ongoing violent attacks and hate targeting Asian and Asian American people across the United States.
“My wife has that fear of bad things might happen, and this program is a way to help our kids protect themselves,” said Lau.
Brandon Wong, a 25-year-old from Daly City, is one of Yau Kung Moon School’s senior instructors and has been training and performing since he was in middle school. He’s been working with Sifu Richard Ow for more than 14 years.
“My mother knew one of the instructors and he would see me around town and egged me on to learn,” said Wong. “I decided to give it a try and fell in love with it. I started coming out every Saturday and Sunday to practice. It’s nice to exercise, but learning lion dancing and martial arts helped build my confidence. Learning and practicing with other people from the community was nice.”
When Wong first started practicing, there weren’t as many kids involved, so all the participants (around 20 people) trained together, no matter their skill level. The program has since grown, and classes are now separated by skill level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Wong has participated in at least 12 parade performances, and he's also a part of the street fair performances held on Sundays in Chinatown. There's a stage set up where students are encouraged to perform their moves with a demonstration of fighting techniques using weapons, hand-to-hand combat and lion dancing.
Wong remembers the adrenaline rush he felt the first time he performed in the parade.
“The idea of being on TV as a kid was cool,” said Wong. “Overall, it was a really fun experience. After around three years of performing, my sisters got involved so it became a family thing. My older sister assists with the online classes.”
When the pandemic shut down in-person practice, Ow and his instructors switched to teaching online through Zoom classes.
“We still want to make sure everyone’s comfortable, so we still offer online classes," said Wong. "Online classes make teaching a little more difficult when there’s only one view from a webcam — and correcting stances, posture and techniques is important.”
Wong helps out with performances and in-person practice. With a 1-year-old son at home, Wong says his involvement with the program has shifted slightly but he makes time when Ow needs assistance. He helps teach three days a week at every skill level.
Ow implemented a new system of distinguishing different skill levels by introducing colored sashes to his students modeled after the colors used in the Chinese zodiac. There are 10 levels and colors; beginners wear gray sashes around their waists and work their way up to red sashes, which instructors wear.
“In the old-school way, there wasn’t this type of structured system and there was no way for students to gauge how they were improving,” said Ow. “Now, it’s set up for a student to be able to learn the system and pass it on to future generations.”
Yau Kung Moon was introduced to the public in China in 1924 by founding Grandmaster Ha Han Hong — but its rich history extends back to the Tang dynasty. Ha was taught by a Shaolin monk and began establishing schools at the monk's request. Prior to that, the style was primarily practiced in secret at southern Shaolin temples and villages, with monks selecting one worthy disciple to teach and pass along to the next generation. Much of the history of Yau Kung Moon was kept alive through word of mouth rather than written texts.
Wong says while everyone comes into practice at different skill levels, it took him about a year of practice before he started performing. His first performance was lion dancing at the Chinatown weekend street fair. Being in sync and practicing with a partner takes time and at least a few years of practice, depending on the complexity of the performance, Wong said.
Rebecca Lee started coming to the Yau Kung Moon school when she was 6 years old. She remembers being excited to see the lion dance performances and people practicing kung fu.
“It was captivating to see the costumes and how people were able to move the lion’s head in such a way that it looked realistic,” said Lee.
Lee's father brought her to the school one day, and after some convincing, she agreed to join and start learning. Lee is now 23 and has been a senior instructor since 2016. She primarily helps the younger children who need more assistance with their coordination and fundamentals. Lee said she’s glad to see more women getting involved in what’s been seen as a male-dominated activity.
The Yau Kung Moon School has a great reputation among other martial arts schools as being strong competitors and among the community at large for their performances. Ow encourages people who aren’t familiar with the Lunar New Year holiday to participate in festivities and come see the parade.
As for the school, he says the important thing to remember when practicing is to remain humble and open to learning. Ow is planning a Kung Fu Day event on March 19, where he will invite sifus from all over the Bay Area to perform and showcase their styles in an exhibition as a sign of solidarity.
“I don’t consider myself a master,” said Ow. “Even though it’s been 35 years, I still have more to learn. I tell my instructors that as long as you are teaching someone, it doesn’t matter if it’s one person or 10 people. What’s important is keeping the culture, tradition and style alive.”
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