THE MONK IN NYC – Giant Robot
Thirty-fourth generation Shaolin fighting monk Shi Yan-Ming (pronounced SHER-yen-ming) opened his kung fu school in 1994 above a Chinese grocery store on Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown. The ceilings were so low, he and his six or seven students could not jump or practice with weapons, and the stench of rotting meat from the store downstairs was almost unbearable. Shi Yan-Ming named the school, U.S.A. Shaolin Temple, but it hardly recalled the original Shaolin temple located on Mount Song, in northern China’s Henan province, and founded by Bodhidharma approximately 1,500 years ago.
For both Chinese and Americans, the Shaotin temple has since become part legend, part myth, part history, and part pop icon. In 1972, the temple was featured in the American television series, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine as Caine, a half-Chinese and half-American brought up in the Shaolin temple after his parents were killed. It has been both the subject and the setting for several Chinese martial arts movies from the ’60s and ’70s, including the seminal 1976 feature film, The Shaolin Temple and its sequels. Even as its ranks have severely deteriorated during the twentieth century as a result of both the Chinese civil war and the Cultural Revolution, the Shaolin fighting monks and their martial arts have become more and more prominent in American popular culture, subject to its constant reinterpretation.
Shi Yan-Ming himself grew up in the Shaolin temple, where he started studying kung fu at the age of five. In 1992, the American Kung Fu Association and other Chinese-American martial arts and cultural organizations invited a group of Shaolin fighting monks to the United States, and Shi Yan-Ming was among them. They toured the U.S. demonstrating Shaolin martial arts. In San Francisco, Shi Yan-Ming decided he would not return to China. He jumped into a cab and, because he spoke no English, was dropped off at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He hid in a friend’s basement for a week before moving to New York.
“I wanted to come to New York, because it is the most famous city in the world,” said Shi Yan Ming, now 31. “It’s my dream here to recreate the Shaolin temple, a place where one can practice kung fu, study, eat and sleep. It will be open 24 hours.”
U.S.A. Shaolin Temple has twice moved from its Mott Street location and is currently housed in a spacious loft on Broadway between Grant and Howard Streets, still in Chinatown. There’s no sign on the building or the door; you could walk down Broadway and never know it was there. But when Shi Yan Ming announced that he and his students would give a demonstration on Chinese New Year, several hundred New Yorkers lined up along the street and around the block to come watch. Most of them had to be turned away by the fire marshall, who just happened to be there to check out the show and who claimed the loft too small to handle the crowd.
“Damn!” said one disappointed man. “I’ve been waiting in line for an hour. It’s cold. It’s raining. But I heard this guy was big, bald, and bad-ass. That’s just what I came to see.”
Inside, red and yellow banners, representing luck and prosperity, hang from the white walls. The room is practically empty of furnishings, except for the elaborate Buddhist shrine in the corner-a large, high table draped with red cloth upon which sits a statue of Buddha, surrounded by candles, incense, flowers, and fruit. There is also a small office space, separated from the rest of the room by a paper screen. Behind the screen are a couple of futon couches, a low table, a television, and a Sony PlayStation. In the far corner is Shi Yan Ming’s red bicycle.
His students are a mixed bunch by all standards. Young, old, fat skinny, women men. One has been nicknamed “Professor Chi,” another “Monkey Boy.” Some, like 19year-old Ian Powers, have adopted Buddhist names. His is Shi Hung Li. The most advanced students lead the exercises back and forth across the room, in two straight Lines, while traditional Chinese music plays in the background. Shi Yan-Ming follows them, executing each exercise with the precision and strength for which the Shaolin monks are famous. After class, they sit around him in a circle and listen to the teachings of Bodhidharma, also known as DaMo in Chinese.
His students have also included hip-hop artists Jeru the Damaja, members of Tribe Called Quest, and members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Their pictures hang on a wall in the office: Jeru, Busta Rhymes, Rakim (or RZA), Ghost, 01′ Dirty Bastard. In each -picture, Shi Yan-Ming stands smiling in his red and gold robes. Shi Yan-Ming says before he met them, he thought they would have “nothing to talk about, like two different worlds.” But he says there was much understanding and respect between these “two different worlds.”
“I listen to their music. I don’t understand what they’re saying, but I like it,” said Shi YanMing. Of the Wu-Tang Clan, he says, “They’re very nice. Very, very nice. Very respectful.”
Shi Yan-Ming can’t explain the increasing popularity of kung fu that has appeared in American media-television, music videos, movies. But he sees it as a link between a Chinese culture that is thousands of years old and an American one that is several hundred years younger-between an ancient world and a modern world.
‘The Monk in NYC’ photos courtesy of Shi Yan-Ming