The Olive Link’s International District has achieved regional fame for its concentration of Chinese shops and restaurants. From Lu Lu Seafood to Universal Gifts & Furniture, the International District is defined by the strong presence of Chinese businesses and culture, so much so that many consider it to be the St. Louis region’s Chinatown. But with so many Chinese businesses located near I-170, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Chinese culture has plenty of influence in other parts of the Olive Link. A fantastic example of this is Wu Hsing Chuan Five Animal Academy, a Kung Fu school located in the Parkway District.
Wu Hsing Chuan opened in 1980. Its founder Sifu Larry Adams is a master of the Five Animal Style. According to traditional Chinese history, the Five Animal Style originated over 4000 years ago. It derives its name from its five distinct forms, which are named after creatures of great cultural significance in China. The tiger form is built around closed-fist strikes and physical strength. The leopard form focuses on speed and long-range attacks. The crane form emphasizes counterattacks that target pressure points, and the snake form focuses on a relaxed posture and flexibility. The final form, the dragon, draws on even breathing and both soft and hard attacks that represent yin and yang.
The story of Wu Hsing Chuan begins in 1921 when Ark Yuey Wong, a Chinese immigrant, arrived in the United States. Wong had moved to Northern California to teach the Five Animal Style of Kung Fu to the Chinse community. In 1934 he moved to Los Angeles and opened a dedicated Kung Fu school in the city’s Chinatown. Although his school initially restricted instruction to ethnic Chinese students, in 1958 it would become one of the first to open its doors to the general public and bring Kung Fu into the mainstream.
One of the first non-Chinese students to train under Ark Wong was Melvin Armstrong, the man who would eventually teach the Five Animal Style to Larry Adams. Armstrong had come to California from Ohio to work in the IT sector, and with previous experience in boxing, he thought that it would be worthwhile to learn Kung Fu. Ark Wong quickly recognized Armstrong as a prodigy and offered him both private lessons and eventually a role as an assistant instructor. Armstrong became a certified Kung Fu instructor in 1968, and shortly afterward his IT career brought him back to the Midwest.
In the early 70s, Armstrong encountered Larry Adams while traveling back and forth between St. Louis and Kansas City for work. Larry had been seeking a Kung Fu master who could teach him the Five Animal Style since 1958. During that year, when he had been 11 years old and had received informal Kung Fu lessons from the owner of a Chop Suey restaurant in St. Louis. Armstrong recognized the same unique potential in Larry that Ark Wong had seen in him. Impressed by Larry’s eagerness and ability, Armstrong decided to take him on as an apprentice. After four years of training, Larry became a master of the Five Animal Style in 1978, and two years he later opened Wu Hsing Chuan on Olive in University City.
To this day Wu Hsing Chuan is one of very few Five Animal schools in the Midwest and the only one in the St. Louis region. The rarity of the style and the fact that Larry has a direct master lineage to Ark Wong make the school a huge draw for Kung Fu enthusiasts. Of course, Wu Hsing Chuan offers more than just Kung Fu instruction. Both Tai Chi and women’s self-defense classes are available at the school. But Kung Fu is undoubtedly the heart of the establishment. Wu Hsing Chuan’s students have competed at Kung Fu competitions at the local, state and national levels, and at the 2016 Lunar New Year Festival in University City, the school celebrated Chinese culture with Kung Fu demonstrations.
The past 30 years have given Larry countless students of his own. Some of those students are now instructors at Wu Hsing Chuan, while most have moved on to other careers and life paths with the discipline and integrity that Kung Fu training imparts. No matter where life leads the students of his school, Larry is just grateful he has been able to use Kung Fu to make a positive impact on other people’s lives.
“It’s great to be able to help people develop their self-defense skills,” says Larry, “but the most important aspect of any martial arts training is the character that it can teach. It’s a great way to learn how to pursue your goals and overcome difficulties in order to be the best that you can be.”
In bringing such a rare form of Kung Fu to the St. Louis area, Wu Hsing Chuan captures the essence of the Olive Link, which is characterized by entrepreneurs representing unique cultures from all over the world. The school also represents the hard work and integrity that are essential to running a successful small business. There’s no doubt that the Olive Link benefits tremendously from the presence of people like Larry Adams, people who dedicate their time to cultivating these attributes. They are the ones who inspire the rest of us to use our talents in ways that allow our communities, as well as ourselves, to grow.