By Zachariah Bryan
For Northwest Asian Weekly
When the World Martial Arts and Health Center on Market Street closed two months ago, almost no one had any clue what happened. It seemed as if one day, the building was full of kids learning Master Yun’s special brand of martial arts, then the next, it was deserted.
To this day, the building remains the same as the day it shut its doors. The sign “Master Yun’s Tae Kwan Do and Martial Arts” remains hanging over the street, and a scrap of paper with the words “School Close” [sic] written on it hangs in the window. The windows have collected a thick layer of dust, with passersby drawing words and pictures in it. A peek inside reveals an abandoned room and a scattered mess of items.
Master Yun’s past is a bit mysterious, even among those that know him best. What people do know is that he was born in China in the late 1930s before he moved to Korea as a child. He started practicing martial arts when he was 8 years old and taught it to the 2nd Division of the U.S. Army in Korea before moving to America.
Master Yun’s friend, David Ro, related a story from Master Yun’s youth, one that sounds like it should belong in a myth or perhaps a Kung Fu flick. In his early 20s, Master Yun went up into the mountains by himself with the bare necessities — items like a bag of rice and a few blankets — so he could be by himself, focus, and train. It was there where he first learned how to break rocks — real rocks, not demonstration rocks — with his bare hands. He punched them every day until his hands were bloodied.
The story goes that Master Yun spent three years in the mountains by himself. It got so lonely on the mountain, Ro said, that Master Yun didn’t even fear ghosts — because even ghosts didn’t inhabit the place.
The only thing Master Yun had for company was his harmonica, an instrument he still plays today.
It’s no wonder, then, that Master Yun became a national martial arts champion in South Korea and a 9th Dan black belt, the second highest black belt in the world. Some believe that he should be a 10th Dan, but it seems Master Yun doesn’t care for titles. And anyway, students say there really is no one out there who has the authority or seniority above Yun to honor him with the title.
Accomplishments and mythical stories aside, Master Yun’s philosophy on martial arts is rather practical and worldly. He emphasizes the health aspect of martial arts over everything else.
“[Martial arts] makes you young,” said Master Yun, referring to his two students, Allen Lindwall and John Kahler, who were 50 and 63, respectively. And it was true, both looked like they were in their late 30s, maybe early 40s. It was the same philosophy which made him such an earnest teacher. He truly wanted everyone to be healthy.
When Master Yun first started the school in the University District in 1976, it was said to be the first Tae Kwan Do school to open up in Washington. In the beginning, it was a lot different than it was in its later days. Instead of families and children, the school attracted more serious and athletic students, often from the University of Washington.
“It was pretty hardcore in the early days,” Kahler said.
Both Kahler and Lindwall, who came to the school in the early 1980s, reminisced about some of their first impressions of Master Yun. They each saw him give a demonstration, where he broke rocks with his bare hands and used his fists to pound the tiny head of a nail into 2 by 4 inch pieces of wood.
For Kahler, a rather painful convinced him to join.
“He grabs my arm, I swear to God he’s got me above his head spinning, and [then] I’m on the ground,” Kahler said, making a thudding noise. “I don’t even know how he did that!”
“When he put me on my face with hapkido, that’s when I knew that was the right place,” said Lindwall.
According to Kahler, many of Master Yun’s students went on to become big time martial artists, winning many trophies. This was in part because Master Yun taught his own style of martial arts, not necessarily Tae Kwan Do as the sign suggests, but something more unique. It was also because he was a harsh teacher.
Lindwall recounted how Master Yun would laugh when someone got hurt, because he believed that one of the ways to learn was through mistakes and the consequences of those mistakes — pain.
The school moved to Ballard in 1986 and saw its peak during the 1990s, when martial arts classes underwent a new wave of popularization among families and children. Kahler said the school probably saw about 30 to 40 people per class. Toward the end, though kids could still be seen through the windows practicing almost every day, the school had declined.
A number of events led up to the closing of the school, and can be boiled down to three things: health issues, a growing need to retire, and the economy.
A few years back, Master Yun was in a car accident and suffered injuries to his back and neck. He said that he had to get extensive surgery on his back and that he has not been 100 percent since. This was on top of already having two heart attacks, a pacemaker, and other health-related problems.
In addition, martial arts schools have passed their peak in number of students enrolled and amount of money being made. Lindwall, who runs his own small class of Japanese sword art, said that running a school was far from lucrative. He has had trouble paying the rent, and breaking even, let alone making a profit. Moreover, many martial arts classes these days take place in much smaller spaces. Kahler said that World Martial Arts and Health was the largest space he had ever seen for martial arts. It’s assumed that perhaps Master Yun was not able to keep paying the lease on top of all his other expenses. Now, a “For Lease” sign hangs in the window of the school.
Lastly, with his growing age, it was about time for Master Yun to retire. Kahler noted that after retiring, Master Yun looked more rested and healthier than he had before.
According to Kahler and Lindwall, a group of Master Yun’s senior students are in talks about reopening the school in some iteration or another. However, where it will be located, if they will teach kids, and if it will even happen is all up in the air.
Whatever happens, for his students, there will never be a true replacement for the school or for Master Yun.
“He’s the real McCoy,” laughs Kahler. “I wouldn’t even want to screw with him as old as he is. He’s a scary guy.” (end)
A version of this article was originally published on the Ballard News-Tribune.
Zachariah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.