The students at Richard Merkin Middle School in South Los Angeles had not heard of Hu Jianqiang before they met him.
They hadn’t seen the movie “Shaolin Temple,” in which he performed with Jet Li.
But one demonstration of his lightning-fast fists and the butterfly kick in which he throws his body off the floor light as a Frisbee and the Chinese kung fu master was a celebrity in their eyes — maybe even more than the person whose money helped bring him to them.
[pullquoteright]“Kobe has a particular affinity for China,” said Doug Young, the spokesman for the Kobe Bryant Family Foundation. “The Beijing Olympics was a formidable experience for him. It magnified his interest in using sports as a way to foster cultural respect.”[/pullquoteright]
Thanks to intercession from Kobe Bryant, a $25,000 donation pays for the two-time Chinese national champion in martial arts to teach students at this school and two others how to kick, punch and roll — and in the process speak some Mandarin.
“Kobe has a particular affinity for China,” said Doug Young, the spokesman for the Kobe Bryant Family Foundation. “The Beijing Olympics was a formidable experience for him. It magnified his interest in using sports as a way to foster cultural respect.”
The Lakers star is so popular in China, Young said, that his basketball jerseys are consistently top sellers there. And as someone who spent part of his childhood in Italy and speaks Italian and Spanish, Bryant particularly appreciates the growing importance of the Chinese language — and thinks inner-city kids should be exposed to it.
“Martial arts seemed like an exciting way to get kids interested,” said Young.
The martial arts classes are part of a pilot program run by the nonprofit After-School All-Stars.
“Our goal is to keep the kids on campus, so they will be in a safe environment to do their homework and engage with something that is interesting and meaningful,” said Ana Campos, executive director of program’s L.A. branch. “Mr. Hu is a real champion martial artist. We are lucky for him to be willing to take this project on.”
Hu, 51, began his career as a gymnast at age 10 and switched to wushu, Chinese for martial arts, because his teachers thought that’s where his best promise lay.
He won numerous awards as an all-around national champion famous for his speed, power and agility. His big break came with “Shaolin Temple” in 1982. Since then, he’s appeared in more than a dozen martial arts movies.
Hu and his wife, Zong Jianmei, a fellow wushu master, left China in 1992 and came to the U.S. after a stint in Buenos Aires.
In 1997 they started their own martial arts academy, the Shaolin Wushu Center, in Connecticut. They opened one in L.A. in 1998.
So far, about 100 students have signed up for Hu’s after-school sessions.
“Try it! It’s fun! It’s easy!” the students holler at first-timers as Hu asks for volunteers to roll around on the rug with their legs folded like pretzels.
“He makes us laugh,” said Eve Louis, 11. “He shows us how to do the windmill with our arms. It’s really fun.”
When the students kick their feet in the air, or stretch their legs on the floor, they count out loud from one to eight in Chinese: “Yi er san si wu liu qi ba.”
Hu asks them to bend their legs into a horse stance — legs wide, knees bent as if on horseback — and then to hold the pose.
“One more time!” Hu tells them just as they begin to collapse from the tension.
“Zai lai yi ci!” the students repeat after him in Chinese.
The students had a wide range of reasons for wanting to learn from Hu.
“I want to take this class because me and my mom watch a lot of soap operas where men are mean to their wives” said Sari Hernandez, 11. “I think we should learn to defend ourselves.”
Cristal Cardona, 11, said it was great to learn a little Mandarin.
“I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” she said. “It helps me to know Chinese because in the hospital, if Chinese people come, I’d know what to say.”