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.

"Kung fu is your body and your mind working together," Shan tells them.

Shan also teaches the kids how to control their anger. "Just because you're a fighter doesn't mean you can fight," he often tells them. He may be able to take down anyone he sees, but he has never used his skills on another person outside of class. If attackers approached, he says, he would try to calmly talk them out of fighting before fighting back.

The respect they learn in his class carries over into their relationships with their parents. "My son used to be very fat, and he had no confidence," parent Shelly Tang said. "Then we decided to come here, and right now he is so skinny. He has all the confidence he needs. He went from 150 pounds to 126 pounds in one year. He has also learned how to control his temper."

Kids come away from the sessions with an appreciation for the reality of martial arts, rather than the glamorous Hollywood versions. Shaolin practitioners were the basis for the 62-episode Kung Fu TV series of the early 1970s, in which David Carradine popularized martial arts as a wandering Shaolin monk who regularly bowed to -- then beat up -- cowboy bullies of the Old West.

More recently, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the equally exaggerated flurry of Jackie Chan action movies have thrilled more audiences. Shan -- a PBS crew is working on a documentary on his real-life adventures -- shakes his head at the fantasies of filmdom. He knows there is so much more to his faith than just kung fu fighting, although he recognizes that it is what brings attention to the monks.

"The Shaolin temple is famous today because of the kung fu," Shan said, "not because of the Buddhism."


While Shan hardly seeks publicity for his work, he says his desire is to share his expertise. So he readily accepted when student Willie Galvan approached him with an offer to conduct a self-defense seminar for Galvan's friends in the Angleton Police Department.

The monk had taught similar skills to police in China, where most officers patrol without firearms. Even guns don't guarantee protection for Houston-area police in surprise attacks, Galvan noted.

"I set them up with Shan because I knew he could help…Not all of the time will you be able to use a weapon, and it is very important to be able to use your hands," Galvan says. "You need to know how to protect yourself if you are taken down."

Angleton Corporal Jay Burridge has taught classes in defense and lauded Shan's seminar, saying the moves are practical and can be adapted to the street. "Basically, everything that he showed us ended up with someone on the ground," Burridge said.

However, the special classes are rare breaks from a rigid routine practiced by the monk. He awakes at 5:30 a.m. every day, studies Buddhism for 40 minutes, does solo workouts on his kung fu, teaches the classes, and wedges in an hour of meditation each morning and evening.

"This is my job. I was sent here for a reason," he says. "I will go wherever I am needed, but for now, I am here in Houston" -- at the top of the stairs above the shoe shop, in his secluded mission.

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