Volume 17 • Issue 21 | October 15 - 21, 2004

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Grandmaster Tae Sun Kang instructing students at his Tribeca school located on Broadway at Leonard St. Kang teaches the taekwondo method first introduced to this country by his father, Suh Chong Kang, who previously taught soldiers in the South Korean army.

Students find ‘respect, discipline, confidence’

Korean martial art has surprising relevance for Tribecan families

By Timothy Lavin

One recent evening, Tae Sun Kang strode to the center of the training room in his martial arts school in Tribeca where students faced him and bowed deeply. He then issued several soft, emphatic directives that they returned with an affirmative “Sir!” He then stalked through the ranks of his faithful, hands clasped behind his back as the students proceeded through a meticulously choreographed series of kicks and punches, known as “Suh-Kang il hyung.” It is a canonical exercise invented by Kang’s father and practiced in tae kwon do schools around the world.

The instructors at T. Kang Taekwondo, at 349 Broadway, train children as young as five. They also train senior citizens, law enforcement officers, and the occasional movie star. It is the third school opened by Kang, a Korean-born black belt of the eighth degree, who has developed the small academy his father opened in Brooklyn in 1969 into a serious and lucrative business. When talking or listening, Kang’s body language suggests one who is accustomed to the deference of others, and has earned it. He accepts his students’ deep bows and their effusively respectful greetings graciously, and his smile is disarmingly genial. He goes by T. Kang or—more often in his domain—Grandmaster.

His classes are orderly affairs and students operate with striking discipline. They complete each aspect of their exercises identically—spinning, punching, shouting, even breathing together.

“The breathing is the highlight of the form,” said Lisanne Jones, one of the instructors. “It gives it a certain life, it’s deliberate. It balances the tension: you’re completely loose until the last part of the technique when everything tenses just as you punch or kick—and you exhale.”

Jones is one of six full-time instructors. She has trained under Kang for 10 years and is now a third degree black belt. Like all his employees, she learned tae kwon do under Kang’s system and learned to teach using his educational philosophy. The attraction to the sport, for her, was fairly simple. “Martial arts is cool,” she said. “And it makes you feel strong, too, when you can hit the bag and throw kicks. I like knowing that I’m strong.”

Beyond the obvious enjoyment of mastering a difficult skill, Jones—slight, pretty, and altogether not what one would expect a master of violent combat to look like—found the camaraderie at Kang’s appealing. “Just being here was always like a family,” she said. “Now it’s like a family among the instructors, but even when I was a student with all the other students, they always had a good atmosphere. You always had the feeling that everyone wanted you to do well.”

People often speak of T. Kang’s community as a family. With giant murals of the Grandmaster adorning the walls and a classroom full of people pummeling punching bags and shouting in Korean, it resembles few typical families.

But the warmth in the classroom is apparent; it resembles that of a well-adjusted military household. Discipline is crucial, and demanded, but no harsh words are uttered and Kang considers public humiliation anathema. Students listen and clearly try hard to obey. Their instructors’ encouragement is palpable. From start to finish, though, there is never any doubt about who’s in charge.

Respect, properly applied, is a paramount virtue inculcated at T. Kang’s schools. People around Kang—students, parents, instructors, even the club’s manager— habitually refer to him as “Grandmaster” and only “Grandmaster,” eschewing the pronoun “he” even when Kang is not around.

“Even when I’m walking down the street,” Kang admits, “if one of my students see me they take the time to stop and bow and say, ‘Grandmaster, how you doing, sir.’ They’ll never talk to me like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ That to me is a sign of a good instructor.”

Indeed, visiting parents seeking discipline for their children cannot help but be impressed by the site of shaggy-haired, truculent looking young men bowing deeply and saying, “Yes sir, Grandmaster,” before trying a move again in earnest—brows furrowed and jaws clenched—trying hard even when the instructor isn’t looking.

In part, this accounts for T. Kang’s undeniable success (the business has been open for 35 years and he now operates three full-time schools and 10 affiliates, including branches in Maryland and Puerto Rico). Parents see the difference a tae kwon do regimen can have on their children and tell other parents.

Patricia Peifer’s son Bayley started at Kang’s two years ago, at age five. He’s grown strong and physically confident, she said, though she admitted that, like most parents, she worries about teaching someone so young the techniques of combat. But the instructors, she claimed, anticipate this and make the distinction between class and real life unambiguous.

“Boys will be boys and kids will be kids,” Peifer said. “But I actually think it has given him a better outlet for it—I mean it’s what he wants to do so badly anyway, punch and kick and be a Power Ranger, that class has actually given him this fantastic outlet.”

Indeed, many adults, Peifer included, have found Kang’s classes to be a salutary outlet themselves. She’s been training there for nearly two years.

“There’s nothing better than going in on a Friday and pounding away for an hour on the heavy bag,” Peifer said. “It just starts your weekend off perfectly, all that weeklong stress is gone.”

The Tribeca school is the most recent step in the project his father, Suh Chong Kang, began.

The elder Kang came to the United States from South Korea in 1968. At the time, he was one of the highest-ranking tae kwon do practitioners in his country (and today holds a black belt of the tenth and highest degree). He started working at an athletic club as a janitor soon after he arrived. One night, after his shift, he approached a hanging punching bag and unleashed the explosive moves of an experienced martial artist—moves he had only recently been teaching to soldiers in the fledgling South Korean army. The owner of the club, who had never seen such a thing, asked Kang to start teaching some of the members. After a few years of work, and with some help from a generous student at the club, he opened his own school—the New York Taekwondo Academy, in Brooklyn. There, his son T. Kang honed his style over many years and many, many hours on the mats.

“I was always teaching,” the younger Kang said. “From the time I was in junior high, I always had the responsibility to run the classes. After school I always did my seven hours, eight hours of teaching. Every day. Except Saturday. Saturday I did six hours.”

At age 22, Kang bought the school from his father and, exhibiting a business savvy that eluded his elder, within six months had more than quadrupled the school’s membership. He offered a more flexible payment plan, got more involved with his students personally (through such methods as calling to check on those who missed class), and made a conscious effort to separate his schools from other martial arts programs in the city.

Kang says he teaches traditional martial arts, by which he means that fighting is only one aspect among many that must be mastered.

“Fighting is one skill. We teach courtesy, we teach integrity, we teach control, factors you use in your daily life. Obviously you’re going to increase your concentration and your focus just with a lot of the physical and mental exercises. It’s a great confidence builder.”

Kang’s teaching philosophy seems to reflect both admiration for the unyielding single-mindedness with which his father taught him and impatience with its inadequacies. He sees discipline and respect as essential, but shies from some of his father’s methods.

“You know, in the old days, we were taught always the hard way. If you screwed up, they scolded you, they yelled at you. And what does that do? A person will naturally put up a shield. And when they put that shield up they’re not listening to what you’re saying. If anything they’re building total resentment. They’re thinking, ‘I can’t wait till I can get him back.’”

Neither Kang nor his instructors ever yell. “When I teach,” Kang continued, “I’ll throw a technique so close to you that you might think, ‘Oh my God! If he unleashed that it would’ve been over for me.’ So it’s fear, but it’s done professionally. So now this guy’s not gonna think about ever hitting me back. He’s gonna think—‘I want to be like this guy.’” He smiled. “It’s a totally different way to gain respect.”

T. Kang Taekwondo, 349 Broadway, 212-219-0043

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