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Chinese family dynasty takes root, thrives with two studios in Portland

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Alexander Yu, a Catlin Gabel student who recently won world gold medals, works out at U.S. Wushu Center under the guidance of his mother, Jiamin Gao. It's a family affair in martial arts.Northwest Portland's U.S. Wushu Center sits humbly under highway overpasses in the Pearl District. If not looking for the center, it's easy to miss.

But on a recent Tuesday night, the windows were aglow amid the evening darkness as students gathered to learn Chinese martial arts.

And they gathered to be instructed by a family that includes some of the best martial artists in the Pacific Northwest. The Yu family specializes in the ancient practices of wushu and tai chi. Wushu, a lesser-known term to Westerners, also is known as kung fu. But it also is an overarching term for Chinese martial arts, which includes tai chi.

Parents Shaowen Yu and Jiamin Gao are both wushu masters, having met while at the same competition, but in separate male-female events in China in the 1990s.

Jiamin has won 32 gold medals in tai chi competitions around the world, a record generally regarded to be among the best ever in masters. She talks about being instantly recognizable in China.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - The father and husband of martial arts stars, Shaowen Yu also trained as a young man — with Jet Li, now a film star.Shaowen also has trained in martial arts since he was a child and grew up practicing with film star Jet Li.

Their son, Alexander Yu, is following in their footsteps, already reaching international acclaim, with three gold medals from the World Tai Chi Championships in Warsaw, Poland.

So, right here in Portland are some of the best martial artists in the world.

"I don't think it feels weird, because ... the public life is about teaching and expanding this culture publicly, but here in Portland, it's about expanding the culture," says Jiamin, talking about the drastic difference of anonymity in the states versus stardom in China.

Though she and her husband have lived in the United States since 1992 and were married in 1998, she's still not confident about speaking English, and in some phone conversations her son translates her Chinese to English.

"In China, they don't believe that my mother is teaching here in Portland. They're wondering why she didn't stay in China," Alexander Yu told the Tribune on behalf of his mother.

Now that Shaowen and Jiamin have children, they have no desire to return to China permanently. They're dedicated to helping Chinese arts thrive in Portland.

COURTESY: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Students go through drills at the U.S. Wushu Center.Practicing the art

The wushu gym is, at first, a little intimidating to the outsider who knows little to nothing about Chinese martial arts.

Dressed in white uniforms and special kung fu shoes, gym lights shining bright, students line up to practice, their faces serious with concentration. But those faces quickly give way to caring laughter the minute someone stumbles.

To Shaowen, it's about building confidence and reaching a goal.

"You really build it up as a sequence to improve their skills. The main thing is, wushu can give lots of good things for the kids," Shaowen says. He says the practice helps kids' minds be more disciplined and helps them manage anger better.

Alexander initially leads the class in basic stretches and exercises before joining the lineup, which is then instructed by his mother and another master. After completing several forms with the class as a whole, Alexander ventures off to the side to practice tai chi by himself while the rest of the class continues wushu exercises.

Though Alexander has practiced wushu since he was 4 years old, he only recently transitioned into tai chi. He says he promised his family he'd try when he was a lot younger, but the slower art form takes more concentration, making it more difficult for young kids to get into if they can't be still.

"I couldn't get it back then," Alexander says. He wanted to make the leap, he says, because his mother is a "Tai Chi Queen," as newspapers in Singapore and Japan labeled her.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Alexander Yu stretches in preparation for wushu practice.Alexander considers his parents his role models.

"They were so successful at it, and it feels good to be a second generation in this art and this culture," he says.

The 15-year-old Catlin Gabel School student traveled outside of the United States for the first time when he went to China in 2014 for the World Traditional Wushu Championship. The trip to Poland was his second outing.

He says he's been enjoying the travel experiences for the most part.

"I was going to make a comment about driving," he laughs. "It was quite scary at times, different language, people, culture. But then you can identify with culture ... tai chi and wushu. You'll meet people who've been doing what you've been doing."

He says that though at first competitions were intimidating, he's grown to enjoy them, making new friends to connect with later on social media.

COURTESY PHOTO - Alexander Yu, posing for a photo with his mother at the World Tai Chi Championships, says of martial arts: 'It's hard to imagine another life. I've just been doing this as long as I can remember.'Winning gold

Alexander was the only one under the age of 18 who made the national tai chi team.

When he won gold in October it was a moment he'd never forget.

"When you're receiving your medal, you'll see the U.S. flag rising. ... You're just really proud of yourself, and your country and everyone," Alexander says. Wushu, he says, is all he really knows. He applies independent physical education credits because he doesn't do sports for school — only wushu and tai chi.

However, Alexander has picked up another hobby: robotics. He spends much time in the school's robotics lab and is planning for an upcoming robotics competition.

Though he isn't sure yet what he'll end up doing when he "grows up," Alexander already knows he won't pursue wushu or tai chi professionally, but they'll always remain a hobby.

"It's hard to imagine another life. I've just been doing this as long as I can remember. Back in one of my parent's older studios, I would just follow along on the side and mimic the moves," he says.

Shaowen and Jiamin's daughter, Ava, 12, also has won plenty of medals and first-place awards.

But Shaowen concedes: "They have (their) own dream; nothing wrong. It's good," he laughs.

As for Jaimin and Shaowen, they aren't planning on going anywhere, but hope to continue to spread knowledge of Chinese culture in Portland and the rest of America.

They like Northwest Portland and have established another studio in Southeast, and are looking at starting a tai chi program in Beaverton.

"This is a really great area. Not only do (Portlanders) like the Chinese culture, they like learning, too," Shaowen says. "Like right now here in Northwest, people are learning Chinese martial arts and Chinese dancing. It's important people accept those, and that's why we want to stay here. To share with Portland."

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