The histories of martial arts traditionally go back hundreds of years, even millennia.
In the case of Tae Kwon Do, one does not have to look much further back than the life of a Surrey man, 79-year-old Jong Chan Kim (at left in a 1977 photo.)
Kim was among a handful of the original masters who fanned out around the world from Korea a few decades ago to spread the message of the then-new martial art as both self-defense and as a sport.
Born in Japan in 1935 to Korean parents, Kim spent his post-Second World War youth growing up in Pusan on the southeastern tip of Korea, a country that was occupied by the Japanese from 1910-1945.
Interviewed recently in Guildford, he describes the effect of growing up in exile.
When he first came “home” from Japan at the age of 10, he didn’t speak a word of Korean.
After he accidentally answered “hai” during a school roll call, he was subsequently called “The Jap” by his classmates and vowed to focus all his efforts on Korean language and culture.
In his late teens, Kim began to study and practise martial arts – the word “karate” was avoided, but the term included that Japanese staple – as well as kendo (swordsmanship, with bamboo) and judo (grappling).
Around the end of the Second World War, with the Japanese withdrawal, Korean martial artists were free to practise in the open and began to modify karate and other martial arts into their own style – with a focus on fast, high kicks and freer sparring.
With the Korean War behind it, the South Korean military began to train in the “local” martial art and on April 11, 1955, Gen. Choi Hong Hi (known as General Choi) announced its name: Tae Kwon Do.
Two years later, Kim, a disciple of General Choi, was part of the military team that created the first Tae Kwon Do academy in the country for the 7th Infantry Division.
Kim loves his history and will gladly expound on the politics and personalities as the martial art was evolving and spreading throughout Korea (including the North), Southeast Asia, then the world at large.
“There’s a big dispute right now – who’s the oldest, who’s been at it the longest, who’s who,” says his daughter Kathy Virtanen. “There’s a lot of controversy over who the true pioneers are of Tae Kwon Do.”
Kim describes the narratives on the Internet as inaccurate.
Photo: Kim (at top) in a martial arts magazine in the 1970s.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Kim introduced Tae Kwon Do to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, and then went further abroad.
In 1970, he found himself in Vancouver for the first time and promoted the martial art at UBC, SFU and local high schools, and taught army cadets in New Westminster.
In the early ’70s, by then promoted 7th-Dan (black belt), Kim spent time in Montreal and organized the world’s first Tae Kwon Do masters’ demonstration, which featured the world’s top 27 practitioners.
Vintage magazine covers from the time show Kim doing amazing acrobatic stunts, but he also worked behind the scenes, visiting dozens of (then-non-Communist) countries over the years and lending a hand in getting Tae Kwon Do accepted as an Olympic sport in 1990.
In 1978, Kim settled New Westminster and then moved to Surrey in 1991.
“I had good memories of B.C.,” he says, adding that it has “the best climate in the world.”
Kim opened several Jong Kim Martial Arts Academies in the Lower Mainland in the 1980s, and after he felt comfortable with the quality of the instructors he taught there, left those businesses to their new owners.
Kim’s sons continue the family tradition, running the two remaining Jong Kim Martial Arts Academies in Surrey.
Rich runs a studio in Guildford (#117-15277 100 Ave.) and Ed runs his at 7548 120 St.
Photo: Jong Chan Kim flanked by his sons Rich (left) and Ed.
Kim says that on the 60th anniversary of Tae Kwon Do, he’s worried the martial art is being watered down, moving away from its tradition of self-defense towards general fitness, mixed with karate.
He describes it as somebody claiming they have a lamb chop when they have a pork chop; studios selling black belts without teaching fundamental Tae Kwon Do, even if they use that name.
Still, Kim remains optimistic and has a five-year goal of traveling again to spread the word of traditional Tae Kwon Do. He also plans to develop his own website.