Master Kang Rhee and Memphis

My father’s cousin was Kang Rhee, the founder of Pa Sa Ryu and the Kang Rhee studio in Memphis. Kang Rhee is known by many for having taught Elvis Presley. If you ever see a picture of Elvis with an Asian man in front of a Cadillac–that’s him! Elvis Presley gave him a Cadillac. What’s interesting about Memphis is that nearly every person has some tale about Elvis or Elvis proximity. For example, my dentist was asked to be the Graceland dentist and he told me, forget it, he didn’t want to be called to do teeth cleaning at midnight! With Kang Rhee, my family has an Elvis story too.

Yet there is a story about Kang Rhee that I think is broader than the Elvis story. This is about how culture moves across communities and the merits of small businesses and how they influence and change lives. Kang Rhee had a studio in Memphis near downtown. Legend had it when he first arrived in Memphis, around 1964 at the invitation of a US military person he had trained in Korea, he knew only two words: “Follow me.” And follow the people did. He told me coming to the US was a dream. He had to leave the mud. The mud was everywhere, he said, shaking his head. Post war Korea. He arrived in the US and drank a whole quart of milk in one go. He ate fried chicken. He rode a bicycle as he didn’t have money for a car. He began to train people in his Korean style that he established as Pa Sa Ryu.

He was on the martial arts circuit with Bruce Lee and one of the first to bring the art to the West from Korea. He performed in Madison Square Garden. Back in the early days, I heard his studio was racially integrated but mostly men. By the time I went, it was a family operation with all kinds of people — men, women, kids, of various shapes, sizes, shades and whatever. It had moved from downtown Memphis to a Collierville mall. Tourists from all over the world would come to buy pictures of Elvis and take photos of Kang Rhee.

There was a period of time when I lived back in Memphis, took some classes, and the only thing that kept me going was Kang Rhee’s classes. I was deeply depressed, but going to the studio once, sometimes twice a day helped me get better. Kang Rhee gave me a new narrative about how to approach life. To pass the tests we had to memorize sayings and practice with others; we had to feel purposeful in our craft and respect the art.

Significantly, this was an environment that was Asian in nature–of course! It was led by a Korean American and while he was a deeply devout Baptist, the fact is that his students understood that they were studying a Korean art form.

I know at one point, when he brought back the study of Tae Guk from Korea, 101 moves to enlightenment as taught to him by a monk practitioner, and encouraged his students to study this–to learn breathing and flexibility, many of his black belts defected! This to me, was a terrible example of what can go wrong when people fail to respect cultural art forms. Kang Rhee never asked anyone to worship in any particular fashion, ever. Those people lost out. Not sure how they are breathing and what their flexibility is like, but that is their loss. So yeah, heads up people, hate to break it to you, but Christianity is relatively new in East Asian terms–try several hundred years, and mostly in the 20th century, not a few thousand like various indigenous spiritual practices. You need to calm down and remember, that no one is asking you to worship a particular god if you practice a martial art, but such forms cannot trace their roots to Christianity! I think we need to have better history education in the schools…

To conclude, Memphis remains in so many ways,  a racially divided city, but within the context of these classes, this was not so. There are still martial arts instructors with schools, black and white, who studied with him that run businesses in Memphis.

He was one of the most important teachers I ever studied under. Do you remember any of your teachers? Why? Who were they? What do you remember? Thank you, Master Kang Rhee, my uncle, my cousin. Thank you.



6 replies on “Master Kang Rhee and Memphis”

I started  my martial training under GrandMaster Sin Il Choi while stationed in Corpus Christi, TX when my son and I were looking for something productive to do together.  After 3 years of training, both my son and I received our 1st Dan Black Belts in TaeKwonDo.  I was transferred to Memphis and asked Master Choi for a recommendation for a new instructor.  He suggested Master Kang Rhee.  Shortly after our transfer, we looked up Master Rhee.  From that time in 1991 on, I trained with Master Rhee.  After a 3 year tour of duty in Memphis I was transferred once again.  This time we were assigned to Louisiana where I opened my own school teaching PaSaRyu under the guidance of Master Rhee.  Three years later we were on the move again,  This time we landed in Massachusetts.  I retired from military service shortly after that and we moved to Memphis once again.  For the next 18 years I was fortunate to train with Master Rhee.  I never stopped training in TaeKwonDo.  I started teaching TaeKwonDo ar Rhodes College 5 days a week while at the same time continuing my PaSaRyu training.  During this time I found a keen interest in ancient Japanese martial arts weapons.  Under the tutilage of Saiko Shihan Mikio Nichiushi and Shihan Bolz I was able to achieve the rank of 1st Dan in  Okinawan Kobudo.  Now, it was time once again to retire, this time fully.  We moved back ‘home’ to Massachusetts.  All told, I have over 30 years training in martial arts, the majority of which was with Master Rhee.  I’ve been awarded the rank of 7th Dan in PaSaRyu, 7th Dan in TaeKwonDo and 1st Dan in Okinawan Kobudo.  However, most importantly, I’ve made numerous friends along my path.  Although we were learning a traditional martial art I think that we were learning much more through Master Rhee’s guidance.  Whenever I was training I found a level of peace that I rarely knew elsewhere.  I knew Master Rhee and trained with Master Rhee for over 20 years.  I’ll always be appreciative of him and the friendships I made along the way.  He was a great role model, teacher (of more than just martial arts) , and a person who I’d like to consider a friend. I consider myself very fortunate to still be in contact with Grandmaster Choi who has been a friend for a very long time.

This is a great story — you spent your life dedicated to the art. I’m sure you have many students yourself who consider themselves lucky to be studying with someone like you. All best. Aloha.

My brother had anger issues and my Mom enrolled him in classes with Master Kang Rhee in 1979. It totally changed his life for the better & he became a 2nd Degree Black Belt. I believe the discipline he learned from Master Rhee helped him to survive cancer and excel at everything he does in his life. My most vivid memory of Kang Rhee is when he came to a Christmas Party at our home. My Mom had known Elvis back in the early 1960’s & they exchanged Elvis stories. He was so gracious & funny… and I remember he was very flirtatious with my Mom, who was a very attractive woman, but it was all in good fun. We left Memphis in 1987 & lost touch but my Brother attended his funeral because he felt the loss of a great teacher & wanted to show his respect for the man who made a difference in his life.

My name is Master Timothy Dean, and I am a 6th Dan Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do and I am under the World Black Belt Bureau founded by the late Kang Rhee who also taught Elvis Presley from 1971 until 1976…I never met Grand Master Kang Rhee, but I do know his son Grand Master Yong Rhee and I deeply respect both Grand Master Kang Rhee and his son Grand Master Yong Rhee…I am a huge Elvis Presley fan and history researcher…I would like to meet and get to know Grand Master Yong Rhee his wife Ruby,there really great people…I am also a certified Instructor under Grand Master Rhee’s World Black Belt Bureau…TCB

Hi! I’m Ruby, and I’m Kang Rhee’s grand daughter! My friend randomly sent me the link to this and I really wanted to leave a comment 🙂
It’s truly touching to hear so many amazing stories about my grandpa. As I was growing up, he was actually very quiet but always had a humbling and comforting presence. He loved to spoil my sister and me with yummy foods and all the stuffed animals we always wanted to get. When my older sister and I took his classes, he would always hold our hands and walk us in the center of the room, saying “my princesses!” He loved to brag about us.
The one thing I loved and respected about him was how much he loved the Lord. I’m so thankful God gave my grandpa so many blessings in his life through his passion in martial arts, unconditional love for his family, and more.
My father, Yong Rhee, still continues to live on my grandpa’s PaSaRyu legacy to this day while having a full-time job and being an amazing full-time dad that he is today 🙂
My grandpa’s story is something I hold very close to my heart, and I will continue to share his story. At his funeral 4 years ago, I was able to witness how much he was so loved by the taekwondo community and even Elvis fans.
To sum it up – my grandpa was a badass haha, but like he always says “in the inside, be like a tiger, but on the outside, be like a lamb.” I am so thankful and blessed to be his granddaughter. Thank you Stephanie for sharing this post, as well as the people who left a reply to this post.

Just saw this, a bit behind, glad to see this response! Aloha to your family!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *