As far as I know, this film contains the only existing video/film footage of Choi Bong Young, the Korean master who brought our line of Ji Do Kwan to the United States in the 1960s. It was created by our school’s current master, Sean Owen, during the period when Mr. Choi ran a dojang and martial arts supply store in Oakland, California.
This film was made during the early years of martial arts practice in the US. At the time, most Americans would have some conception of the east Asian martial arts were, but very few would know the difference between Kung Fu and Karate, and a tiny number would have even heard of Tae Kwon Do. For context, note that Bruce Lee had moved to the Oakland area around the same time (1964) and that many of the legends you hear about his early days in California happened at this same time and place. Bruce Lee hadn’t yet made any of his movies, as The Big Boss was released in 1971 and his breakout role Fists of Fury came the next year. The first season of David Carradine’s Kung Fu would also air in 1972, and the first wave of martial arts stories would begin to reach a mainstream audience.
The film’s opening phrase “What is Karate?” thus poses a question meant to break new ground in social awareness of east Asian martial arts training. By contrasting examples of Kung Fu, Karate, and Tae Kwon Do (then frequently marketed as “Korean Karate”), The Empty Hand was on the leading edge of introducing the three major hard styles to an American audience—dispelling myths and creating clarity.
Watch this film for a glimpse into our school’s history, for insights into a very different time in American practice of the east Asian martial arts, and because it’s still interesting and relevant today. Watch it also because of the beautiful form that Mr. Choi created spontaneously during filming,1 because of the footage of sparring and spectacular and persuasive self-defense techniques with Mr. Choi, and because it shows what our teacher was thinking and doing near the beginning of his long career in Tae Kwon Do.
As an unimportant but possibly interesting afternote: the opening and closing footage of Mr. Choi was shot in Tilden Park, a public park in Oakland that I used to visit as a small child when I lived in San Francisco during the early 1970s. I was there a few years later, so I like to think that, although unlikely, it’s possible that I could have been playing in the park while Mr. Choi and Mr. Owen trained not far away. What a small and strange world.
1 According to Sean Owen: “Bong Choi made up this form on the spot, putting together elements from other forms that you might recognize, because he didn’t want to demonstrate any one particular form. He realized this film was meant to be an overview of different martial arts, so he didn’t want to show a form that was too closely associated with any particular style of Tae Kwon Do.”