Weekly Q&A

Kung Fu master: “It’s a way of life”

Sifu Kevin demos a kung fu kick.
Photo: Bill Hughes

The Details

Beyond the Weekly
Las Vegas Kung Fu Academy, 11165 S. Eastern Ave. 336-1095, lvshaolin.com

Back in the day, monks at the Shaolin Monastery learned a form of martial arts that centuries later would evolve into a way of life for many, become a popular movie genre (with a kitsch ’70s sub-genre), and be included as one of several MMA elements used in the Octagon.

On any given afternoon, students filing into the Las Vegas Kung Fu Academy to train in the ancient Chinese art form can be as young as 3 or well into their 70s and vary wildly in skill. Most of them want to improve their quality of life, says owner Kevin Kawada (Sifu Kevin), who has been involved in kung fu since his teens. For the Kawadas, the academy at 11165 S. Eastern Ave. in Henderson is a family affair. Kawada has a black belt (or sash, as they’re officially called). His wife, Renee, and their daughter Kaitlyn, 15, have brown belts, and their 7-year-old son, Isaac, has a yellow belt. We talked with Kawada about his history with the ancient practice and its appeal today.

What is your kung fu story? I grew up in Hawaii, where Chinese immigrants were brought in to work in pineapple fields and sugar cane. They brought kung fu with them, and they stayed.

Why did you start practicing? I wanted to fight. I was a teenager. I was kind of a troublemaker. I got into a lot of brawls, so I figured I should learn how to fight. It was a rough neighborhood.

Did it improve your fighting skills? After I got into it, I learned it wasn’t about fighting. Once you learn how to hurt someone, you don’t want to.

What draws your students to kung fu? Ninety percent of those who come in are here to better themselves. They see it as a path to improve their life. Kung fu is practiced more for its health benefits. In China, they value living longer. They emphasize good quality of life.

What about self-defense? Not so much self-defense. Hand-to-hand combat is really obsolete. People have guns now. In Ancient China, there wasn’t 911, there wasn’t the police. It was self-protection.

Have you used it in self-defense? Only once. When I was 19. I was able to walk away without being hurt.

Do movies get kung fu right? That’s not an actual representation of what would happen. It wouldn’t look as pretty. In the movies, it’s kind of choreographed.

Do you watch kung fu movies? We watch a ton of movies. We just watched one last night.

And do you criticize them? We usually say, “That’s so cool.” I love it. It does take a lot of skill to do the movies. Even in The Bourne Identity. That’s kung fu in the Bourne series.

Has the popularity of MMA influenced ideas of kung fu? It’s helped us. It’s made training in the martial arts mainstream and has brought public awareness. In the ’70s, kung fu in the movies was huge—Bruce Lee. But it was seen as something of a mystery.

Do you have any potential MMA fighters? Our school is attractive to people who want to do martial arts but don’t want to get hurt. We attract people who want to learn something ancient, something that has tradition and values, not brawling.

Does size matter in kung fu? People who are smaller can still generate power and speed using logic.

What about age? In China there are styles for young people, adults and for older people, so for your whole life you can practice something. And you don’t have to do it as a kid to do it as an adult.

Did you know as a teenager that you’d stick with kung fu? Six of my friends joined at the same time, and I was the one who kept going. That’s the key to martial arts—don’t stop. I’m still learning. Twenty years later, and it’s always fresh.

Your students say that kung fu has been life-changing for them. Why is that? The class is very disciplined. You can adopt that to your outside life and apply it to the way you think and problem-solve. Also, you have to really concentrate on what you’re doing. It’s more than an art. It’s a way of life.

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