Dr. Yang’s Fight Club
On a secluded mountaintop, young men sacrifice everything to emulate their kung fu master
Victo Ngai / www.victo-ngai.com
Four hours north of San Francisco and miles from anywhere, an unmarked dirt road rises through a forest of oak and madrone trees to emerge in a mountain clearing where a wood-shingled rotunda overlooks an emerald valley. Everything looks unusually crisp, as if a layer of cellophane has been lifted away.
In the spring of 2008, I drove to this remote mountaintop to meet Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, a kung fu master who bought the land to serve as a training compound for a select group of disciples. Dr. Yang had never had difficulty attracting students in the past—YMAA, the Boston-based organization he founded in 1982, operates more than 60 martial arts schools worldwide—but after more than 25 years, Dr. Yang was growing tired of doling out his ancient teachings piecemeal. If he died, only fragments of that knowledge would survive.
His dream was to transfer his entire legacy to a new generation in one fat chunk. But the legacy—white crane kung fu—was locked in his sinews, and the transfer would take time: 10 years, by his estimate, at the rate of six days per week. At the end of 10 years, Dr. Yang would be in his 70s and at the end of his ability to teach kung fu. It’s this urgency that explained the almost neurotic vigor he brought to his search for worthy disciples. He couldn’t risk investing effort in anyone who might bow out before the training was complete.
Three months before my visit to his California training compound, I visited Dr. Yang at his Boston headquarters at a series of seminars he was holding to raise money for the project. Hovering on the sidelines, I watched as Dr. Yang wandered among his students, ribbing them about one thing or another. “You make a lot of money!” he told one fellow bound for the NBA. “I help you spend it!” Behind him, a heavily muscled young man was ferociously practicing in a corner. “When you take a break you have to smile,” Dr. Yang told him. “When you smile you don’t have high blood pressure!”
Compact and jovial, with a moonlike face and a tendency to giggle, Dr. Yang belongs to the puckish school of kung fu masters. But he also has his serious side. He has written more than 30 books, produced more than 50 instructional DVDs, and twice been named person of the year by Inside Kung-Fu magazine. But this is what distinguishes him: No matter how outlandish a project may seem, if Dr. Yang deems a venture worthwhile, he immediately undertakes it. Like buying a remote mountain on which to spend the next decade training handpicked disciples.
Dr. Yang kept a list of his top 10 candidates (all male, all under 25) and fiddled with it constantly. His biggest fear was that they cared less about kung fu than about finding an answer to an uncertain future. Dr. Yang’s term for this was “looking for new heaven,” and he did everything in his power to guard against it—mainly by emphasizing the grueling nature of the training and his fondness for corporal punishment.
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