By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
As a young boy, Robin Leong was very athletic, but because of his size, he was usually picked last for sports and games at recess and in P.E.
“My growth spurt didn’t happen until high school,” he said.
At the time, few people were aware of Leong’s background. The Seattle native, now 50, started practicing kung fu at the age of 4 and sparring with his older sisters within a couple years. His father, a kung fu master, started Seattle Kung Fu Club in 1963. Located at 656½ S. King St. in the heart of the Chinatown-International District, it was one of the first and longest-running public kung fu clubs in the country.
Leong’s classmates’ attitudes put him in the mindset to prove them wrong—that his size didn’t mean he wasn’t good at sports.
“I was quick,” he said. “I just went out and played.”
Eventually, it worked and he gained the respect of his peers.
Leong’s boyhood experiences serve as the inspiration for his new children’s book, “The Kung Fu Force and the Perilous Boba Whirlpool.” The story revolves around a trio of animal pals—Lucas the Lizard, Brady the Bengal Cat, and Coco the Cockatoo—on their first day of school, and the bullying Lucas experiences because of his small size. When a faucet malfunctions and the cafeteria is flooded with boba milk tea, the trio jumps into action to save the day. And when Lucas realizes his bullies are in trouble, he has to learn how to set aside his anger to do the right thing.
This is Leong’s second book. His first book, “The Kung Fu Force and the Tower of Doom,” was released in 2020 and features the same trio. Both stories were illustrated by Eric Wong. Leong’s third book is in the works and will come out sometime next year.
Entertainment and life lessons
As Leong went through the writing process for his Kung Fu Force stories, he discussed with his publishers whether to make the characters humans or animals. They decided on animals because they thought it would be more entertaining for kids. They also made a conscious effort to make the main characters—as well as their kung fu teacher, Shifu Seong the Seahorse—small animals whose hero selves become bigger versions of themselves (with the exception of Shifu Seong, who was named after Leong’s father). Leong said this was to show readers that when you believe in yourself, you become something bigger. This wouldn’t have worked with human kids.
This particularly ties into the theme of “Perilous Boba Whirlpool,” of not letting the opinions of others define who you are. The book is dedicated to Leong’s father, who—along with his mother—faced judgement after immigrating to the United States, and dealt with racism decades before such incidents were making headlines.
“My father had to deal with it since the 1950s,” Leong said.
He hopes kids get a good sense of self worth from his story and learn how to believe in themselves.
“Don’t let anyone tell you differently,” he said. “You are good enough.”
Leong noted that this is particularly important nowadays as negative comments can come from all directions, especially online where people can write and say almost anything. His hope is to help and motivate kids who may be going through such experiences.
And as Lucas learns to help the very kids who had picked on him, Leong also hopes his young readers learn how to forgive, let go of grudges, and be the bigger person by showing compassion.
The first Kung Fu Force story focuses on Brady and its main theme is about not taking things for granted.
Inspiration for and from kids
Before Leong delved into the world of kid lit, he was an actor based in Asia. He had been living in Singapore for the last 23 years and had come to visit Seattle at the end of 2019. Leong ended up staying as a result of the pandemic.
The pandemic also led him to start writing. Leong has always loved kids. He started babysitting when he was 10 or 11—and always had stories in his head. When COVID-19 shut the world down, Leong wanted to find a way to inspire kids. The parents of one of his kung fu students talked to him about an idea for a book, combining that with martial arts and Asian values. The Kung Fu Force was then born.
As a father, Leong also turned to his two sons (11 and 6) for inspiration. The Force’s characters, Lucas and Brady, are named after them. He shared his ideas for the story with them and they were—as kids are prone to be—honest in their feedback.
“They would tell me, ‘No that’s stupid,’” Leong said about anything his sons didn’t like, adding that he put a lot of weight in their comments.
“The Kung Fu Force and the Perilous Boba Whirlpool” and “The Kung Fu Force and the Tower of Doom” are available online at epigrambooks.sg.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.