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WILLIAM CHOW: The Lost Interview

by Jim Perkins

William Chow, circa 1984

In 1986 I spent five months in Honolulu. One reason I moved there was I hoped it would give me an opportunity to meet professor William “Thunderbolt” Chow. I’d trained in the Alo system of Hawaiian kenpo (the late Ron Alo was a second-degree black belt under Chow), and having heard many stories about the man behind “Chinese kempo of kara-ho karate,” I was excited about the prospect of meeting him.

Before I knew it, there I was at the church fellowship hall where he taught, handing him a letter of introduction from Alo. The professor was short yet thick and strong despite having had a serious gallbladder operation a few years earlier. His fingers were as big around as my wrist. When he finished, he tossed the letter onto a table and growled, “Yes, I know Alo—and I no like him!”

With that, he pounded the table a few times, and it nearly collapsed from the beating. I tried to calm him down, but he walked away and began teaching. Only two students were in the class: Walter, a yellow belt, and Jacob, a black belt who wore a kung fu uniform. A few visitors in street clothes tried to persuade me to leave with some rough language and chair kicking, but I refused and stayed to watch the class for the next three hours.

At the end of the night, everyone left without even glancing my way. I went home disappointed and called my teacher. He thought it was amusing that they had threatened me. I asked: “Why are you laughing? He hates you, too.”

Alo laughed even harder and told me to go to the next class. Against my better judgment, I returned two days later and was greeted in a different manner. They were all shocked to see me, especially Chow. It hadn’t been an act; he truly didn’t want outsiders from the mainland exploiting the art he taught. However, because I did come back, they believed I wasn’t as much of a “howlie” (Hawaiian slang for white person, meaning “toilet paper”) as they had thought.

At first, it was difficult to speak with Chow because he seemed so mean and ornery. However, my thirst for martial arts knowledge and history drove me to pester him with hundreds of questions, many of which he would ignore, smile or just shrug off.

Chow finally saw the sincerity with which I had asked about his life and his art. One evening, he showed up at class with two grocery bags full of photographs—his photo albums, I guess. He started pulling out old pictures and telling me about them. He had snapshots of everyone from James Mitose and Adriano Emperado to Ed Parker and Nick Cerio.

That night, the conversation was more like an interview. I wrote down all I could remember as soon as I got home. The following is the transcript of that lost interview from 1986. Keep in mind that Chow was a very emotional person who held grudges—some deserved and others probably not. He was a true character with a one-of-a-kind personality. The things he said reflected how he felt at that moment, but they may not always have been an accurate representation of his true feelings.
—J.P.

Black Belt: Professor ... how did you get the title of “professor”? What exactly does it mean?
William Chow: (a little disgusted) It means I am the professor. What do you think it means? I am professor Chow!

BB: Well, I mean I don’t understand how to get that title. How would I get to be a professor?
Chow: (very disgusted) Oh, you wanna be a professor, eh?

BB: No, I was just wondering.
Chow: You want to be a professor? Good. All you have to do is start calling yourself professor Perkins, OK? You a professor now. Tomorrow, professor Emperado is going to visit you, though. You know ... visit. Then tomorrow, if you still around, I will visit you, and that will be a bad thing!

BB: No, I don’t want that. On your flier it reads, “Professor William Chow, 15th-degree black belt, Chinese Kara-Ho Kempo Kung Fu.” So you’re a 15th degree?
Chow: Yes.

BB: Well, I know you’re the head of the system and all, but I didn’t know there were 15 degrees.
Chow: What’s the most you heard of?

BB: I’ve heard that 10th degree is the highest.
Chow: Right. So if everyone else is 10th degree, the professor is 15th.

BB: Oh, I see. OK. Do you have any pictures of Mitose in there?
Chow: (digs for a minute and pulls out a bundle of black-and-white photos, then hands me one showing a big Japanese man in a white gi and a black belt) See this man? Big guy, huh?

BB: Yeah. Is that Mitose?
Chow: No, no. Mitose little. That his bodyguard. Big man. Judo champion of all Japan.

BB: Hmm. He looks mean.
Chow: (proudly) Yes. I knock him out in 20 seconds!

BB: Oh. Uh ... cool.
Chow: See this one? (hands me another picture of a large Japanese man) Another bodyguard. I knock him out in 30 seconds. He think he tough, but he not tough.

BB: Hmm.
Chow: Here is Mitose. (hands me a picture of Mitose and the previous bodyguard, then half a dozen more of Mitose with Chow, Emperado and others)

BB: Wow. These are incredible! So you got your black belt from Mitose?
Chow: (upset) No! My father my teacher, not Mitose! Mitose a con man. He use me to make himself famous. He show me, I show him, that’s it!

BB: Really?
Chow: Yes. Mitose talk good, that’s all. He set up demonstrations all over Hawaii. He talk, and I show!

BB: Really? What kind of demonstrations?
Chow: Oh, he break baseball bat over my shin.

BB: Oh, man! How did you do that?
Chow: That’s nothing! It’s a trick.

BB: It was fake?
Chow: No, it’s real, but it’s not kara-ho. It’s just a trick.

BB: Did you ever break a bat over Mitose’s shin?
Chow: Ha! No. It would kill him. Mitose think he’s very good, but that’s why he have bodyguards. He afraid to get beat up. He have a lot of people who wanted to beat him up. That’s why he went to prison. A con man.

BB: Wow.
Chow: (pulls out another old photograph of himself and Ed Parker) You know who this guy is?

BB: Yeah, Ed Parker.
Chow: (upset that I recognized him) Yes, that right. Parker big shot on the mainland, right?

BB: Oh, yeah. Everyone knows him. They call him the Father of American Karate.
Chow: Well, I tell you something, and you remember this: Elvis Presley is the King of Rock ’n’ Roll; and Bruce Lee, he the King of Kung Fu, yeah?

BB: I guess.
Chow: (loud and clear) Ed Parker think he the King of Kenpo, but he wrong! There is no King of Kenpo. There is only the professor!

BB: Yes, of course. But I don’t think he thinks he’s the king.
Chow: Yes, he does.

BB: But he’s one of your black belts.
Chow: No, he’s not! He tell people that to make himself look big. Everyone says they black belt under the professor just to make money.

BB: So he didn’t train under you?
Chow: He trained under me, but he only make it to purple belt. He work more with professor Emperado than me. Go talk to him.

BB: When you retire, is there someone you want to take over your system?
Chow: Yes. There is only one man who know all of kara-ho system: Jacob. (points to his 29-year-old black belt)

BB: What rank is he now?
Chow: He’s the only one who know everything and is best teacher ever, but he doesn’t want any rank from me. He refuses. He been my student since 5 years old. I told him he has to take over, but he says no. He only learn because he loves me, doesn’t want any rank.

BB: Then how about me, Professor?
Chow: (trying not to smile) No.

BB: When I go back to the mainland in a few months, who can I go to to learn true kara-ho?
Chow: You go see Nick Cerio. He my black belt and teach you kara-ho. I’ll call him for you.

BB: OK. I guess Alo doesn’t teach true kara-ho. He’s kind of changed to his own style. Is that why you don’t like him?
Chow: What? I like Alo! He needs to come see me more. You tell him.

Photo 1: William Chow, circa 1984
Photo 2: Chow with Ron Alo in 1982

About the author: Jim Perkins is a Nixa, Missouri-based free-lance writer and a sixth-degree black belt in keokin kenpo.