Every move counts in Phong-fu fighting

Stepping onto the stage, junior Brandon Phong focuses on two specific tasks: clearing his mind and executing his martial arts form perfectly. Surrounding the stage are several judges that are waiting intently and watching him with anticipation. Taking a deep breath, Phong hopes that a year’s worth of hard work is enough to impress the judges.

Phong has been involved in both the recreational and competitive side of martial arts for eight years, in which he primarily focuses on two types of kung-fu: shaolin and wushu. Phong performs specific forms, which are detailed sets of choreographed combat movements executed in quick succession. Forms are divided into categories such as traditional, special, sparring, animal and weapon.

“Forms were something I’ve never heard of before,” Phong said. “When I first gave [martial arts] a try, I just thought that the movements were interesting, and I wanted to learn more about it and master it.”

When Phong was 9 years old, his mother suggested that he attend shaolin lessons at the Shaolin Temple Cultural Center (STCC). Phong was skeptical about attending and was unsure of what to expect, but he decided to try out a lesson. Though he initially felt nervous in the martial arts class, he grew comfortable in the environment and formed friendships with his peers as he attended more sessions over time. Friendly relations between him and his peers, as well as his instructors, would help him progress through blue, green, purple, brown, dark brown and black belt over the course of eight years.

“I thought to myself, ‘The students in my class were better than me, and they’re a higher level than me,” Phong said. “But later, I made it a habit to not be shy and not be isolated, and I ended up being communicative in the class. I ended up enjoying the class a lot more.“
Throughout his martial arts career, Phong has participated in a total of eight local tournaments. Divisions in a tournament are made based on a person’s level — beginner, intermediate, advanced and masters — as well as their age. In each tournament, Phong is required to perform specific forms in front of multiple judges. Each form is critiqued based on factors including footwork, speed, hand coordination, acrobatics and power. Based on Phong’s performance, the judges give a score ranging from one to nine (a score of nine depicts a flawless execution while a score of one marks a poor performance).

“Even though I’m really nervous at the start of the competition, I just try and remain calm, so I can simply do what I need to do,” Phong said. “[I see the competition] as a chance to really impress the audience. Performing well can leave the judges and the people with a ‘wow.’”

During his first competition in 2012, Phong did not perform well, as he did not have a strong motivation to master his performance. However, after watching more wushu competitions during the Beijing Games, Phong was inspired to work harder. By practicing one-on-one duels with his peers at the STCC and breaking down his rehearsed performance into smaller steps, Phong improved his overall performance as a martial artist. On Oct. 19, 2019, Phong’s hard work allowed him to earn four gold medals at a United Kung Fu Tournament held at Rio Hondo College.

“I really didn’t expect myself to win all four gold [medals],” Phong said. “I thought I was going to mess up, but it surprisingly turned out well. I also thought it was hard because I was pretty nervous when I got on stage, but it went well. I liked the experience.”

Phong’s passion for martial arts also inspired him to teach shaolin to others. After receiving an offer from the San Gabriel Chinese Cultural Association (SGCCA), Phong now offers shaolin group lessons to children ages five to 10. Phong’s martial arts sessions typically last an hour and are held twice a week. During the summer of 2019, Phong also worked at a preschool to teach children the basics of martial arts.

“It’s pretty hard teaching [the students],” Phong said. “But at the same time, it feels great to watch them have fun and participate and focus on shaolin.”

He hopes to continue exploring his capabilities as a kung fu artist and improve over time.

“When first getting into martial arts, you realize that it isn’t easy,” Phong said. “But people can master it by pushing themselves and working hard.”

By Andrew Kim, Feature editor
Photo courtesy of Brandon Phong