As early morning sunlight peaks over the buildings of lower Manhattan, someone strolling through Columbus Park could feel transported to the Middle Kingdom. The sights, sounds and smells of China seem to have drifted in from the other side of the world. And in the middle of the elderly Chinese immigrants practicing the qi gong, playing old world instruments or gathered around mahjong tiles, blue-eyed Brooklyn native, David Kaplan has made Chinatown his second home. His early morning, pay-what-you can kung fu classes in Columbus Park are a fixture of Chinatown mornings.
Kaplan grew up in Brooklyn. When he was about seven years old, he started learning judo, a relatively modern style of Japanese martial arts that focuses on grapples and takedowns. But soon Kaplan discovered karate, which focused on striking. He had found his thing. Kaplan said that for the next several years he was “obsessed every waking moment.” He spent the next couple of years fighting full contact. But then, Kaplan turned to tai chi, an internal Chinese martial art. Rather than focusing on speed or physical force, internal martial arts such as tai chi are healing and have a more pronounced spiritual element.
At a community center in New York’s Chinatown, Kaplan learned tai chi, as well as Mandarin, calligraphy, lion dance, and even a little Chinese opera. But Kaplan was also pulled toward other aspirations and pursued a career as an actor. He’s appeared in several films, music videos, and on stage.
Kaplan describes acting as his “Western pull.” But his devotion to Chinese martial arts ultimately held more sway. In 1992, shortly after Kaplan had begun learning Mandarin, Shi Yan Ming came to the United States from China as part of a tour of Shaolin monks. On the last night of the tour, the Chinese monk escaped from his San Francisco hotel and defected.
Shi Yan Ming settled in New York City where he founded the USA Shaolin Temple in 1994. Kaplan became his student. He said, “Since then it’s just been like the Shaolin saying, ‘train one day, gain one day; miss one day, lose three days’”.
Now 42, Kaplan has accrued over thirty years of martial arts experience. Dressed in a dark t-shirt and long black wushu pants, in the early morning sun Kaplan looks a bit like a silhouette on a martial arts movie poster. He is there in Columbus Park six mornings a week, throughout the year, weathering New York winters and the humidity of summer. “It’s a sacred feeling for the body and the spirit. I try to feel that in the park,” he said. “Martial arts is like sweat and heal and come back and do it again.”