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The City Journals

Kung Fu: An Ancient Art Affecting Young Lives

Jul 29, 2016 10:25AM ● By Sarah Almond

Jik kiu, meaning “direct bridge,” is a critical kung fu move. Here, students practice a series of jik kiu strikes to warm up for practice.

By Sarah Almond

Holladay, Utah - In the 17th century, Chinese ancestors of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties developed fundamental means of defense and attack in order to survive an unimaginably hostile environment. Using rudimentary weapons made from stones and wood, these primitive people leapt, tumbled, kicked and fought with bare hands and fists to defend themselves and their people.

Fast forward thousands of years, travel from Eastern China to Northern Utah, and this ancient form of self-defense continues to be valued and practiced by youth in and around the Holladay area.

For more than 10 years, instructor Mike Hong Phan has been teaching year-round kung fu classes at the Holladay Lions Recreation Center to children ages six to 16.

“The most important thing is to have our kids build confidence,” Phan said. “Not over-confidence, but enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Phan says he’s noticed the lack of self-esteem becoming a greater problem with today’s youth. Practicing kung fu, however, provides many individuals with increased mobility and diverse movements that help build confidence.

“The thing about kung fu is it doesn’t just teach you mechanics, it teaches you the beauty of the Chinese art,” Phan said.

Phan, who has been teaching kung fu across the Salt Lake Valley for more than 22 years, is also passionate about teaching his students the foundational values in which Chinese martial arts are built upon.

“There are really good morals to kung fu,” Phan said. “Being humble and kind — we always talk about that; being positive.”

Nearly 40 kids from the Holladay area attend kung fu classes each week. Besides learning proper stretching techniques and self-defense maneuvers, students are also taught the correct usage of common martial arts weapons.

“The weapons are definitely my favorite part of kung fu,” 9-year-old Adam Karpinski said, who’s been taking kung fu classes for more than two years.

Though Phan instructs students how to safely and effectively use several different martial arts weapons, nunchakus seem to be the group favorite.

For others in the class, simply learning ancient methods of self-protection is reason enough to commit to weekly martial arts classes.

“At first it was really cool just to say, ‘Oh, I do kung fu’,” 14-year-old Anna Sorenson said. “But now that I’ve started, I’ve realized it helps you grow in so many different ways.”

Anna, who also plays the piano, says she’s noticed a significant difference in muscle memory since starting to take kung fu classes four years ago.

“It’s helped my confidence too,” Anna said. “I feel more confident when I’m performing a piano piece at a recital or giving a presentation at school.”

Phan admits that keeping kids loyal to the program is the hardest part of being an instructor, but he finds the most gratification in watching students grow in mind, body and spirit.

“Day by day, the most enjoyable part is seeing my students motivated and inspired,” Phan said. “To see them get that light bulb; it’s seeing them enjoying and getting excited about what they are learning; seeing them achieve their goals, especially when they rank up to a new belt and pass their test — it’s a phenomenal feeling.”

The transcendent nature of kung fu is also what keeps Phan’s students coming back month after month.

 “Kung fu has also helped me spiritually,” Anna said. “You get to learn who you are and that this is part of the potential that you have.”

Becoming a Black Belt: The Nine Technique Levels of Kung Fu

White — Shao Lin Lian Huang Quan 

Yellow — Shao Lin Xiao Hong Quan 

Green — Shao Lin Single Broad Sword 

Purple — Damo Jian (Straight Sword) 

Orange — Shao Lin Cane 

Blue — Shao Lin Pu Dao 

Brown — Nince Section Whip 

Red — Shoa Lin Twin Broad Swords 

Black — Sparring