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Wu-Tang’s Monk

A photo essay starring Sifu Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple and the esteemed kung-fu instructor of RZA

According to some of his oldest students, when Sifu Shi Yan Ming first immigrated to the U.S. from China in 1992, he would use his limited English to answer their questions with one of two responses: “Train harder!” or “More chi!”

Twenty years after opening the USA Shaolin Temple (originally in Greenwich Village), Yan Ming’s English is much improved, peppered with the colloquialisms of the Temple’s Chinatown setting, and influenced by his hip-hop clientele, which includes members of the Wu-Tang Clan. There’s a lot of “Yeah, represent!” he’s put into his repertoire, but when he says it, it sounds like it’s part of his monk lingo, another koan. The mantras “Train harder!” and “More chi!” are now embossed on his shoes.

Everybody who walks into his space is taken aback by how huge it is: an entire floor on Broadway, pretty prime real estate. One of the walls is a big painting of a dragon. So are the pillars. There’s a realness to the space; it’s not like an American interpretation of how you’d do a Shaolin temple.

The story of how he got to New York is pretty crazy: he went to California in the early 1990s to put on an exhibition with other Shaolin monks and ended up defecting. People thought he had been kidnapped, but he flew to New York, and ended up in Chinatown, where some other monks agreed to let him hide out. At some point, officials from China found him and told him they wouldn’t punish him if he came back, but he refused to leave.

He got a green card, and started teaching locally in Chinatown, giving kung-fu lessons, hustling, getting classes together. Eventually, he got his first space: he said it was a small, dingy studio; the floors were wavy and fucked up and it was above a whorehouse and a store that sold seafood. He slowly built up his studio, got more students and ultimately wound up in the location where he is today.

He started teaching John Leguizamo, Rosie Perez and other celebrities; he particularly hit it off with RZA from Wu-Tang. They already had been sampling all these kung-fu movies that talked about the Shaolin Monk, and Yan Ming was the real deal so they gravitated toward him.

He has a brutal cardiovascular warm up, and he puts his students through a serious workout. I heard a lot of transformation stories from his students: people talking about losing 150 pounds, getting in the best shape of their lives but also mental transformations. Finding calmness. Parents who said his training has helped their hyperactive kids become more chill.

A lot of martial artists might put their name on a school and eventually stop training the students themselves — becoming too big for what they’ve started. But the one thing I can say is Yan Ming’s still in there throwing the licks and punches right next to them. And instead of just training the most experienced people, he trains the beginners, too, which takes the most patience.

He’s legit.

Jared Ryder is Miami-born, New York City-based photographer and director.