Grandmaster Solomon Yun is a world class martial artist and a 9th Dan black belt. He recently shut down his longtim school, World Martial Arts and Health, after 38 years of teaching.
After lifetime of martial arts, Master Yun closes school
When the World Martial Arts and Health Center on Market St closed about two months ago, almost no one had any clue what happened. It seemed as if one day that the building was full of kids learning Master Yun’s special brand of martial arts, and the next that it was deserted.
To this day, the building remains the same as the day it shut its doors. The sign “Master Yun’s Tae Kwan Do and Martial Arts” remains hanging over the street, and a scrap of paper with the words “School Close” written on it hangs in the window. The windows have collected a thick layer of dust, with passersby drawing words and pictures in it. A peek inside reveals an abandoned room and a scattered mess of items.
So, for those who are wondering, the owner of the school, Master Solomon Yun, is indeed alive.
The Ballard News-Tribune recently sat down for lunch with Master Yun, two of his senior students -- John Kahler and Alan Lindwall -- and his friend David Ro at the Siam Thai Restaurant to discuss his life and what had happened.
Master Yun’s past is a bit mysterious, even among those that know him best. What people do know is that he was born in China in the late 30s before he moved to Korea as a child. He started practicing martial arts when he was eight and taught martial arts to the 2nd Division of the U.S. Army in Korea before moving to America.
Ro related a story from Master Yun’s youth, one that sounds like it should belong in a myth or perhaps a Kung Fu flick. In his early twenties, Master Yun went up into the mountains by himself with the bare necessities -- items like a bag of rice and a few blankets -- so he could be by himself, focus and train. It was up there where he first learned how to break rocks (real rocks, not demonstration rocks) with nothing but his hands. He would punch them every day until his hands were bloodied, and then punch them some more. The story goes that Master Yun spent three years up there by himself. It got so lonely on the mountain, Ro said, that Master Yun didn’t even fear ghosts -- because even ghosts didn’t inhabit the place. Truly, the only thing Master Yun had for company was his harmonica, an instrument he still plays today.
It’s no wonder, then, that Master Yun became a national martial arts champion in South Korea and a 9th Dan black belt, the second highest black belt in the world. Some believe that he should be a 10th Dan, but it seems Master Yun doesn’t care, for one, and for two, students say there really isn’t anyone out there who has the authority or seniority above Yun to honor him with the title.
Accomplishments and mythical stories aside, Master Yun’s philosophy on martial arts is rather practical and worldly. He emphasizes the health aspect of martial arts over everything else. At lunch, he kept saying, “It makes you young,” and would refer to his two students, Lindwall and Kahler, who were 50 and 63 respectively. And it was true, both looked like they were in their late 30s, maybe early 40s, at most. It was the same philosophy which made him such an earnest teacher, because he truly wanted everyone to be healthy.
When Master Yun first started the school in 1976, in the University District, it was the first Tae Kwan Do school to open up in Washington. In the beginning, it was a lot different than it was in its later days. Instead of families and children, the school attracted more serious students, often from the University of Washington.
“It was pretty hardcore in the early days,” Kahler said.
Both Kahler and Lindwall, who came to the school in the early 80s, reminisced about some of their first impressions of Master Yun. They each saw him give a demonstration where he broke rocks with his bare hands and punched nails -- using nothing but his fists the tiny head of the nail -- into 2x4 pieces of wood.
For Kahler, what convinced him to join the school was a bit painful.
"He grabs my arm, I swear to god he's got me above his head (spinning), and I'm on the ground,” Kahler said, making a thudding noise. “I don't even know how he did that!"
But it didn’t deter him. Rather, it’s what convinced him to join. “It was so cool!” he said.
It was the same with Lindwall. "When he put me on my face with hapkido, that's when I knew that was the right place."
Kahler said that many of Master Yun’s students went on to be big time martial artists, winning many trophies. This was in part because Master Yun taught his own style of martial arts, not necessarily Tae Kwan Do as the sign suggests, but something more unique. It was also because he was a harsh teacher. Lindwall recounted how Master Yun would laugh when someone got hurt, because he believed that one of the ways to learn was through mistakes and the consequences of those mistakes -- pain. (This is the man who breaks rocks with his hands, after all.)
The school moved to Ballard in 1986 and saw its peak during the 1990s, when martial arts classes saw a new wave of popularization among families and children. Kahler said it probably saw about 30 to 40 people per class. Toward the end, however, and even though kids could still be seen practicing almost every day through the windows, the school had declined.
A number of events led up to the closing of the school, and can be boiled down to three things: health issues, a growing need to retire and the economy.
A few years back, Master Yun was in a car accident and suffered injuries to his back and neck. He said that he had to get extensive surgery on his back and that he has not been 100 percent since. This is on top of already having two heart attacks, a pacemaker and other health-related problems.
In addition, martial arts schools have passed their peak in number of students enrolled and amount of money being made. Lindwall, who runs his own small class of Japanese sword art, said that running a school was far from lucrative and had trouble paying the rent and breaking even. Moreover, many martial arts classes these days take place in much smaller spaces. Kahler said that World Martial Arts and Health was the largest space he had ever seen for martial arts. It’s guessable that Master Yun was not able to keep paying the lease on top of all his other expenses.
Lastly, with his growing age, it was about time for Master Yun to retire and to relax for once. Kahler noted at the restaurant that Master Yun looked much more rested and healthier than he had before.
According to Kahler and Lindwall, a group of Master Yun’s senior students are in talks about reopening the school in some iteration or another. However, where it will be located, if they will teach kids and if it will even happen for sure is all up in the air. The BNT will report if something does take place, but at the moment it could be a ways out.
Whatever happens, it seems there will never be a true replacement for the school or for Master Yun.
"He's the real McCoy," laughs Kahler. "I wouldn't even want to screw with him as old as he is. He's a scary guy.”