Shoe-Shop Shaolin

A monk from a legendary Chinese temple brings his kung fu faith to the locals

The route to this ragged neighborhood of southwest Houston is lined with abandoned buildings, for-sale notices and commercial signs understood only by those versed in Chinese. Across from a weed-strewn lot bisected by high-power lines is the nondescript shop hawking leather shoes.

Next to the store, weathered stairs wrapped in shabby sea-green carpet take visitors upward into the rich aroma of incense that hangs so heavily in the rising heat of a Houston summer day. The stifling room is nearly empty except for the rolled-up mats wedged against the windows, and weapons placed neatly at the far corner of the plain parquet floor.

Accenting the en-tryway are the only indications of the significance attached to this obscure place: a shrine to a Golden Buddha, trophies, fake flowers, a donations box. And the commanding presence of Shi de Shan, a bespectacled, slight man in the ceremonial yellow robe and necklace of 108 clear glass beads.

Shan meditates for an hour each morning and evening.
Deron Neblett
Shan meditates for an hour each morning and evening.

This room serves as his mission to bring Texans the teachings -- and kung fu training -- of the legendary Shaolin Temple in China. With a humble bearing and five-foot-six frame, the Shaolin monk forms an un-likely but lethal martial arts machine.

Shan, 36, has conducted self-defense classes for area police, but his real goal is to waken understanding of the centuries-old art and philosophy among young people in a city that can quickly erode any sense of cultural heritage. He peers through the unwashed windows at kids in the parking lot below, intently practicing kung fu techniques he has just taught them.

The children, Shan says, are why he is here.

Shan was still a child himself when he felt the calling of the Shaolins. He was raised in the Jiangsu Province on the east coast of China. Both his older brother and sister worked in the family's rice field -- however, being the youngest son, he was expected to be special. His parents wanted him to be a businessman in the city, not a lowly farmer.

But Shan always loved kung fu, even though his parents never allowed him to learn about it. He wanted to be a hero -- centuries ago the Shaolin monks had fought for the emperor and saved the country.

Shan says he went to the Buddhist temple and found peace. At the age of ten he decided to leave home and travel 930 miles by bus and train to the Shaolin Temple in the Henan Province, where he could become a monk.

His parents protested. They figured he'd be back with them in a month or so, when the infatuation wore off. Instead, he was more enthralled than ever by his masters and their religion.

The Shaolin faith stretches back to the year 540, when a Buddhist priest named Tamo traveled from India to China. He took refuge in a local temple named for the new garden that was planted with trees when it was built. Thus the temple was named Shaolin, which in Mandarin Chinese means "young forest."

Today in China there is still only one Shaolin temple, but there are 50 or 60 missions with a handful of Shaolin kung fu masters and more than 100,000 students.

As a youth, Shan underwent the intense training that eventually made him into one of the most skilled kung fu fighters in the country. The highly disciplined group practices a daily regimen that extends even into diets that separate them into two groups.

"Inside the temple no one can eat meat, so the kind that only study Buddhism cannot eat meat," he explains. "The ones like me are allowed to eat meat outside the temple because they need the energy to help practice and help fight." He still tries to eat mostly rice and vegetables, to avoid what he says are the impurities of meat.

Shan was among the Shaolin monks who toured the globe in 1993, visiting countries such as Australia, Canada and Japan. In 1998 the temple sent him on his mission to Houston. Much of his work centers on the martial arts classes. Word about his teaching spread from the handful of early students -- now some 150 are enrolled for an education in kung fu -- and much more.

Stepping into the center of the silent room, 12-year-old James Guo bows to his master. He then begins his practice, keeping his head high, trying to be perfect. He is performing with no weapon, so he uses his hands more. His routine starts at a rapid pace, jumping into the air, extending his arms as far as they can go.

Guo makes a giant leap into the air, does a split, and his peers clap. He jumps again, but this time he falls and he feels a gush of pain creeping up his right leg. He stays on the floor for a second, gets up, hobbles around. Again, there is the clapping from the class -- this time it is for support.

When he is done, Shan politely gives advice to Guo, speaking in fast-paced Chinese in front of the entire group. He then shows Guo how to make sure he does not hurt himself again. Occasionally, he makes the students laugh.

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