By Dylan Baddour, Houston Chronicle
Shi Yan Feng closes his eyes and breathes deeply with ancient form. His palms rise face up on the inhale, then fall slowly, face down, on opposite sides of his torso then stretch straight upwards, summoning an energy that will make his body hard.
He finishes, picks up two iron planks, clanks them together to prove they are real. He focuses silently for 30 seconds, leaps into the air and smashes the metal on his forehead. The planks crack and pieces go flying. His head is unmarked.
It’s a skill the 29-year-old has mastered over almost his entire life, beginning at age four when he was sent off to become a warrior monk at the Shaolin temple outside the ancient Chinese city of Dengfeng where he grew up, and ending here at a park in Sugar Land where he now teaches kung fu.
The discipline has taken him from the ancient Chinese temple through the capitals of Europe and finally to the United states and the swampy suburb of Sugar Land where he found love, and then prosperity with two Shaolin kung fu schools and a community of students he calls his “kung fu family.”
It has become a powerful ally, powering most of his accomplishments.
“It is a way of life,” said Feng, 29, with a placid smile. “This is something I think the world needs.”
He wasn’t always known as Shi Yan Feng. He was called Yuan Xiao Feng when, at four years old, he stood on the concrete of Dengfeng’s public square and exhibited his kung fu forms for an audience of hundreds at a citywide tournament in 1992.
He came from a kung fu family. His grandfather and great-grandfather were Shaolin masters, and his uncle began to teach him kung fu stretches when Feng was three years old. He won first place in his section of the tournament. When the supervising masters discovered Feng’s family connection, they invited him to the temple.
With his parents’ permission, he traveled 30 minutes out of Dengfeng, a city known for its array of ancient spiritual monuments, to the Shaolin temple near the base of the sacred Mount Song. There he became the youngest of the Shaolin warrior monks, an age-old order of temple defenders who spend days in martial meditation then sleep on hard cots in stone quarters without electricity. A representative of the temple confirmed Feng’s identity by email.
He awoke at 5 a.m. to run five to ten miles up and down surrounding mountains, sometimes crawling down on hands and knees. Then there was mediation, stretching, kicking and breathing, then breakfast. The monks farm their own food.
Feng practiced hours of repetitive motion, or performed forms while balancing atop tall wooden posts. He hardened his head, neck, abdomen and more by beating them until they grew strong enough to repel metal. He ran sprints down a narrow winding brick ridge, threw sewing needles through glass and pondered Buddhist philosophy.
The regimens were prescribed by Feng’s master, Shi Wan Heng, who also taught kung fu movie star Jet Li. Because of Feng’s age, he parted with the older monks come nightfall; while they practiced deeper meditation, he studied history, math and Chinese language with his master.
In 1995, the Shaolin temple celebrated its 1,500th anniversary. Dengfeng officials decided Shaolin kung fu should be exhibited outside of China for the first time as a ploy to boost local tourism. They tapped Austrian tour producer Herbert Fechter to make it happen. When he made the trip from Vienna to the monastery later that year, Fechter said the revelation hit him “like a stroke.”
“This is something that the Western world is striving for, to get outer strength from inner peace,” Fechter, now 70, recalled thinking. “The Western world is longing for answers to questions which these Chinese monks have already solved for themselves.”
Fecther assembled a program that would tell the story of Shaolin kung fu, interspersed with demonstrations.
Feng, then seven, was the youngest monk on the tour roster, and he got his own page in the tour catalog. One photo shows Feng looking deadly serious, dressed in orange robes and sitting on a stone bench beside his master, then 78.
With the tour, Feng left the mountainous cradle of Chinese civilization and saw the cities of the world. He performed in Vienna, New York, London, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Moscow, Rome, Seoul and more. The monks toured the U.S. by bus for one month. Feng sometimes took four flights a day, traveling Europe to appear in TV promotions. The bright lights dazzled, and Feng imagined leaving his home at the temple, but he was always glad to return. He spent several months of each year on tour.
During that time, Fechter said Feng “became a real, real friend” who would play with his own young son George, even though they shared no common language.
What is Shaolin kung fu?
“Kung fu” translates roughly to “achievement through meticulous effort,” and is the name given informally to virtually any Chinese style of martial arts.
Shaolin kung fu is the most famous, and arguably the most complex, of countless styles of Chinese martial arts.
The Shaolin Monastery began in Central China in the Fifth Century CE, founded by an Indian missionary helping spread Buddhist philosophy.
Decades later, another Indian missionary found the Shaolin monks in poor health from their lifestyle of sedentary meditation, so he meditated for nine years in a nearby cave then conceived a series of enlightened exercises.
Monks soon blended the exercises with local styles of self-defense, then dedicated their lives to perfecting Shaolin kung fu.
Generations of monks refined and expanded the system, creating an enormous virtual library of complex styles and mystical techniques.
Shaolin kung fu attained international fame in the late 20th Century, largely through proliferation of kung fu cinema, and today tourism has severely degraded peace and serenity at the monastery.
“The comparison to a child in the Western culture was unbelievable. He had so much discipline. He had so much concentration. He had so much fun and pride to present what he did,” Fechter said. “What a level of inner peace he had already reached at his young age.”
Meanwhile, Feng’s training continued. To master Shaolin kung fu, disciples must teach it. That is what they do for the steady stream of martial arts enthusiasts who travel from all over the world to train for one week at the Shaolin temple. Feng instructed the kung fu pilgrims, and by age 11 he had certifiably mastered Shaolin Kung Fu. So he became Shi Yan Feng, or Master Feng.
Shaolin masters commonly go abroad to staff kung fu schools, the temple said. In 2002, a request came in for a teacher in Houston, and the temple handed it to Feng. With his parents’ permission, he traveled to Texas to teach at the Houston Shaolin Temple school in Bellaire as the third Shaolin master in Houston.
Word that a real Shaolin warrior monk was coming to Houston spread, reaching San Antonio, where 21-year-old Natasha Castillo practiced a mixture of martial arts with a small group. They made the trip to Feng’s welcome party, and saw him perform. He was 15, masquerading as 17 for credibility’s sake.
“He was just mesmerizing. You’d sit there and watch him and go into a trance,” she said.
Castillo decided she’d keep coming back to Houston to train, once or twice a month, whenever she could. Initially, Feng would “just yell at us in Chinese,” she said. But the lessons made sense without talking. Meanwhile, Feng was building vocabulary and learning to speak English from the youngest children he taught.
Castillo lost touch with Feng around 2006 — her boyfriend in San Antonio didn’t like her traveling to see the young monk so much. Rumor among her friends was that Feng liked her.
Feng, for his part, found life stifling with no car and basically no friends. He missed running up mountains. He was also having visa problems. When it came time to renew his R1 religious visa, an attorney informed him that the kung fu school wouldn’t meet the criteria for religious sponsorship.
He wouldn’t be able to legally work there anymore. He had no money, spoke little English, and didn’t really understand what was happening.
When Feng left the school, his students bemoaned the loss of their instructor. So Feng continued lessons in Sugar Land’s Eldridge Park with about 30 students. That, he said, was more authentic anyway. Real Shaolin kung fu is practiced outdoors because “you must feel the Earth.”
He eventually got a position teaching kung fu at a local Vietnamese Buddhist temple, which would sponsor his visa, but his attorney Helene Dang, had another idea.
After interviewing Feng in 2008, she said, “we were like, ‘whoa, you’re quite unique.’ So we proposed the option for him.”
The option was a rare EB-1 visa for “aliens with extraordinary abilities.”
“In order to qualify for extraordinary ability you have to be acclaimed internationally as top in your field,” said Dang, a partner at Foster Global. “It’s higher than exceptional. It’s higher than outstanding. It’s pretty much the hardest (visa) to get.”
They compiled letters of reference from martial arts masters inside and outside the U.S., then gathered record of Feng’s awards and the acclaim for the performances he’d given. The papers were filed, and Feng became a permanent resident, then several years later a U.S. citizen. Dang said that because EB-1 visas are “given the highest preference” in the immigration system, there is “essentially no wait time.”
In San Antonio, Castillo’s accounting job fell to the Great Recession in 2009. Freshly single, unemployed and stressed, she figured it was time to resume training. After a few phone calls to fellow martial arts enthusiasts, she got Feng’s number.
She told him she wanted to train again. He asked if she had a boyfriend. She said no. He told her he was going to China later that year, would she like to come for a backstage view of the temple? Castillo had dreamed of China ever since meeting Feng. She said maybe. He invited her to stop by for training, and the next day she drove to Houston.
“But he didn’t want to train me,” she said. “He just wanted to take me out to dinner.”
Within a month, Castillo found an accounting job in Houston and rented an apartment. She went with Feng to China later that year, saw the temple and met his family. By 2010 they were talking about marriage, and Castillo had to explain the American traditions of engagement rings and proposals.
They got married in Dengfeng in 2011. Castillo, who would soon make Chinese her fourth language, became Natasha Yuan, taking Feng’s pre-master name, and the local news station came by to cover the warrior monk and his American bride.
Yuan’s parents had initially protested, she said. Her father wanted her to “stay within her race,” but he gave in once the marriage seemed inevitable. The couple held an American wedding in San Antonio in 2012, and Yuan’s parent’s warmed to Feng.
“They no longer saw him as the warrior monk, they got to know him as a person,” she said.
At the same time, his school, American Shaolin Kung Fu, was growing. It had started in 2008, when Feng, then 21, wanted a place to practice with the students he was training in Eldridge Park. So just down the road he rented a unit in a small strip center, across the parking lot from a Vietnamese noodle house. He never advertised, he said, but word spread and students asked to sign up. One hundred had enrolled by 2009.
By 2011, the school needed another instructor. Feng sent for his younger brother, then an 18-year-old master in the Shaolin temple. He took over a second school in Bellaire in 2014.
By that time, Feng and Yuan had a baby boy, Henry. Then a girl, Alina, came in 2015, and that year Feng’s parents made a months-long visit to see the life he’d made with kung fu in America. They were very proud, he said.
On a recent Tuesday night, Feng led a class in his Sugar Land school. At his command, about 20 students in the advanced children’s class lined up and performed fast-paced techniques across the length of the gym, then performed a series of 30-second long sequences of motion.
A few times, Feng used his hands to adjust a student’s posture or guide their arms through motion. Otherwise, he barked “stronger,” “try harder” and other motivators.
He reminded the students that rank testing was Saturday and they’d be breaking wooden boards, then he called an adult forward to hold out a board.
“Breaking boards is easy,” he said, casually tossing a fist through the plank. “But we are testing your skill. How do you control your powers?”
The helper held a board anew, and Feng snapped his knuckles to its surface and split the wood without passing through.
“Show that it is an art,” he said.