Ancient Chinese martial arts training comes to West Valley City
Feb 05, 2020 02:02PM
By Darrell Kirby
Lei Shoa Long has opened a new martial arts training academy in West Valley City. (Darrell Kirby/City Journals)
By Darrell Kirby | [email protected]
It’s an unlikely story, to say the least.
An Israeli-born Jew who is half Filipino opening a Chinese martial arts training studio in West Valley City.
But it’s true, thanks to an interesting sequence of events in the life of Lei Shao Long.
The 37-year-old dual Israeli-American citizen has opened the Shao Long Academy of Chinese Martial Arts at 1906 W. 3500 South.
By the way, Shao Long, which means “young dragon,” is a name given to him when he trained a few years ago at a martial arts school in China. More on that later.
Lei specializes in tai chi, gongfu (also known as kung fu), and Wudang, which has historical origins in kung fu. In fact, he is the only certified Wudang instructor in Utah. He also teaches a weekly yoga class.
“This has been a dream in the making for years,” Lei said as he sat on the floor of his training facility, which had a soft opening in December.
In just a couple of months, Shao Long Academy has grown to include classes six days a week. Sessions are conducted during the early mornings and evenings when most people are free from work and school. Even Lei has a separate day job to support his family.
Chinese martial arts is more than learning how to kick, punch and immobilize people through certain holds and grips. It also promotes respect and discipline. “Traditional Chinese martial arts have a lot of aspects that make it special and unique, whether its culture, history, tradition, or rules. It’s kind of this holistic system of how to be a better person,” Lei said.
Lei teaches a broad range of male and female students, from preteens and teenagers to adults in their 60s. That requires a balancing act of knowing how hard to push based on their age and physical stamina. “I need to know what they can handle and how to get the most out of that,” Lei said. That doesn’t mean he goes easy on them. “I’m hard on my students, but they trust me that I’m doing this for their own good.”
His pupils are part of what several sources estimate to be 3.6 million martial arts participants in the United States. Many of them are learning the craft in the 75,000 martial arts businesses that are believed to exist in the U.S. today. A majority of them, like Shao Long Academy, are owned and operated by a single instructor.
Lei says students are drawn to martial arts for a variety of reasons, including “some who saw kung fu (on television and film and say) ‘show me the way,’” those who want to learn self-defense, and others who “just want to learn how to relax.”
Tai chi incorporates a bit of each with a combination of martial arts, controlling one’s energy, and meditation. A misconception is that meditation is sitting and letting one’s mind go blank. “That’s impossible,” said Lei, noting that it involves a redirection of thoughts so that people can relax by focusing on the moment rather than what happened yesterday or what will or could occur tomorrow. “Worry about this current minute, bring it back to your breathing, and that’s what gets them to relax.”
Lei’s story began at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base where his father, a mechanic in Israel’s air force, was sent for training. There, he met a Filipino-American woman who was a civilian employee at HAFB. They moved to Israel and Lei and his younger brother were born. His parents eventually relocated their young family back to Utah.
As Lei reached adolescence here, he says he was sometimes picked on at school in part because he is Jewish. The bullying became physical at times. So he decided he would learn some basic martial arts to better defend himself.
After having to use those skills a few times, Lei gained confidence in himself, and the grudging respect of the kids who pushed him around and had any thoughts of doing the same to his younger brother.
“I was able to not only protect myself and demonstrate this confidence that I’m not going to put up with this anymore, but as I transitioned into high school, people knew they couldn’t pick on me or my brother. I didn’t want him going through what I went through,” Lei said. Still, fending off people with martial arts was “not something I’m too proud of, but at the same time I was proud I was able to take care of myself.”
Lei continued learning the craft during his high school years. After graduating and turning 19, he joined the Marine Corps in 2002. He was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California and was assigned to be a “combat correspondent,” delivering base news and information.
When the Marines Corps modified its hand-to-hand combat training to include martial arts, Lei signed up to teach it to his fellow Marines. “It was the most physically grueling course I had to go through,” he said. It was no different for Marines he trained. Of the 25 who started, eight finished and graduated. “We were just dropping like flies” either through injuries or the sheer difficulty of the training.
Lei served active duty until 2006, followed by another four years in the reserves. When it was time to move on to the next chapter of his life, he asked himself and others, “What’s next?” The answer: “Go to China.” After all, where better to acquire more training than the place where the history of martial arts dates back hundreds to perhaps more than 2,000 years.
“I sold my house, sold everything I had, packed my bags and I went to go live in China,” specifically the rural central province of Hubei. Up to then, he practiced mostly gongfu, so he wanted to focus more on learning the finer points of tai chi, which is a slower, more deliberate art form than the quicker, sharper moves of gongfu.
“Because it’s the birthplace of tai chi, people flock to that specific area to learn tai chi,” he said.
Lei trained there for seven months between 2015 to 2016. He enjoyed the authentic environment of the place.
Students wandered around town, clad in martial arts uniforms specific to their schools. People practiced tai chi in the park. “You feel like you’re in an old-school martial arts movie,” he said, adding, “You grab your stool, you have fresh noodles made for you, prepared outside.”
Upon returning to Utah, Lei wanted to impart his knowledge of and share his passion for martial arts by establishing a group via Meetup, a social media site that connects people with similar interests. That online community grew from a few people to 1,200 and included gathering at parks and other places to practice martial arts. With the encouragement of his friend and West Valley City Councilman Jake Fitisemanu, with whom he shares a love of Chinese lion dancing, Lei found a place to put down roots in the city.
At the Shao Long Academy on a Tuesday night in January, Lei guided five men and three women through a series of moves in a gongfu class. One of them was Dominique Talahaftewa. “It’s kept me in good physical shape. I’ve had some health issues and it’s actually helped me get back into my regular routine physically,” said the 46-year-old Salt Lake City resident. She said it has also kept her “centered.” The self-defense elements of gongfu also give her confidence as she goes about her daily activities, wherever they may be.
Talahaftewa takes the class with her son, River. “I feel more confident about myself and I feel I’m learning while also increasing my strength physically and mentally,” said the Highland High School freshman. “I also get relaxation from it sometimes, so I’m able to center myself more and balance my life evenly.”
“It’s fun,” said Eric Marsh, 56, of Taylorsville. “I’ve been practicing martial arts my whole life, so this is just a continuation of it. Martial arts is the best way that you can get yourself in shape and be able to defend yourself.” The impact of the training goes beyond the studio. “Every time I go home, I feel a sense of achievement,” Marsh said, adding he plans to keep training “until my wheels fall off.”
Shao Long Martial Arts Academy will have a formal grand opening on Sat., Feb. 15, at 1 p.m. It will feature martial arts demonstrations and lion dancing. The public is welcome. For information about the academy, visit shaolongacademy.com.