My father’s cousin was Kang Rhee, the founder of Pa Sa Ryu and the Kang Rhee studio in Memphis. Kang Rhee is known by many for having taught Elvis Presley. If you ever see a picture of Elvis with an Asian man in front of a Cadillac–that’s him! Elvis Presley gave him a Cadillac. What’s interesting about Memphis is that nearly every person has some tale about Elvis or Elvis proximity. For example, my dentist was asked to be the Graceland dentist and he told me, forget it, he didn’t want to be called to do teeth cleaning at midnight! With Kang Rhee, my family has an Elvis story too.
Yet there is a story about Kang Rhee that I think is broader than the Elvis story. This is about how culture moves across communities and the merits of small businesses and how they influence and change lives. Kang Rhee had a studio in Memphis near downtown. Legend had it when he first arrived in Memphis, around 1964 at the invitation of a US military person he had trained in Korea, he knew only two words: “Follow me.” And follow the people did. He told me coming to the US was a dream. He had to leave the mud. The mud was everywhere, he said, shaking his head. Post war Korea. He arrived in the US and drank a whole quart of milk in one go. He ate fried chicken. He rode a bicycle as he didn’t have money for a car. He began to train people in his Korean style that he established as Pa Sa Ryu.
He was on the martial arts circuit with Bruce Lee and one of the first to bring the art to the West from Korea. He performed in Madison Square Garden. Back in the early days, I heard his studio was racially integrated but mostly men. By the time I went, it was a family operation with all kinds of people — men, women, kids, of various shapes, sizes, shades and whatever. It had moved from downtown Memphis to a Collierville mall. Tourists from all over the world would come to buy pictures of Elvis and take photos of Kang Rhee.
There was a period of time when I lived back in Memphis, took some classes, and the only thing that kept me going was Kang Rhee’s classes. I was deeply depressed, but going to the studio once, sometimes twice a day helped me get better. Kang Rhee gave me a new narrative about how to approach life. To pass the tests we had to memorize sayings and practice with others; we had to feel purposeful in our craft and respect the art.
Significantly, this was an environment that was Asian in nature–of course! It was led by a Korean American and while he was a deeply devout Baptist, the fact is that his students understood that they were studying a Korean art form.
I know at one point, when he brought back the study of Tae Guk from Korea, 101 moves to enlightenment as taught to him by a monk practitioner, and encouraged his students to study this–to learn breathing and flexibility, many of his black belts defected! This to me, was a terrible example of what can go wrong when people fail to respect cultural art forms. Kang Rhee never asked anyone to worship in any particular fashion, ever. Those people lost out. Not sure how they are breathing and what their flexibility is like, but that is their loss. So yeah, heads up people, hate to break it to you, but Christianity is relatively new in East Asian terms–try several hundred years, and mostly in the 20th century, not a few thousand like various indigenous spiritual practices. You need to calm down and remember, that no one is asking you to worship a particular god if you practice a martial art, but such forms cannot trace their roots to Christianity! I think we need to have better history education in the schools…
To conclude, Memphis remains in so many ways, a racially divided city, but within the context of these classes, this was not so. There are still martial arts instructors with schools, black and white, who studied with him that run businesses in Memphis.
He was one of the most important teachers I ever studied under. Do you remember any of your teachers? Why? Who were they? What do you remember? Thank you, Master Kang Rhee, my uncle, my cousin. Thank you.