History of American Kenpo Karate

The spark that made American Kenpo Karate as recognizable and widely practiced as it is today, happened in the mid-1940's during a church meeting in Hawaii. A man named Frank Chow was explaining to a few of his fellow church members how he had single-handedly bested the town bully. It was said that the bully was "big and as solid as granite" (Infinite Insights Into Kenpo, pg. 23). One of the young men in the group, 16-year-old Edmund Kealoha Parker, was skeptical, yet intrigued by Chow's Story. Because Chow was so small in stature, Parker doubted that his story was true. It seemed an impossible task for Chow to best such a ferocious person. Parker's views quickly changed when Chow demonstrated the strategy applied while fighting his opponent. The fighting techniques that Chow used relied on science and physics, rather than brute strength. At this point, Parker became attracted to Chow's oriental art, later to be revealed as "Kenpo Karate". From this point forward, parker became a "Kenpo Addict."

After several sessons from Chow, Parker was shocked to hear that his lessons were going to be discontinued. Chow was pleased by his reaction, and explained to Parker that he wasn't qualified to teach him any further. He told Parker to expand his knowledge of Kenpo with his brother, William K. S. Chow. William Chow was the Senior Instructor in Honolulu at the time.

With mixed emotions, Parker went to visit his future teacher at the Nuuanu YMCA, and found him conducting a Kenpo class. Parker was very impressed with what he saw, and began taking one-on-one lessons with Chow. The idea that he could now put his skills to the test against fellow classmates excited Parker; what better way to measure progress, than by comparing his skill with other Kenpo practitioners?

William K. S. Chow
William Chow with student Ed Parker

Chow's Kenpo class was like an exclusive club. Only by the recommendation of an established Kenpo Practitioner, could one begin to study under William Chow. Parker felt honored to have known Frank Chow, and that he would recommend him to such an elite group of Martial Artists. Parker felt that, "from the moment he witnessed William Chow move and appraise the ability of students, a strong and spiritual feeling penetrated the very depth of his soul, communicating to him that Kenpo would be his life's work."(Infinite Insights into Kenpo-Volume 1, Pg-24)

Parker deeply appreciated each session spent with William Chow. He loved the fact that he was able to test his abilities against various students. They all had varying height, weight, arm length, and leg length, which helped Parker to analyze what techniques worked best against each individual body type. Parker stated, "I treasured the time I spent with him (William Chow) and the revelations I obtained from our conversations and workouts" (Infinite Insights Into Kenpo- Volume 1, pg. 24.). Parker said that it was Chow who "set him on the path of logical and realistic thinking" (infinite Insights into Kenpo-Volume, Pg.24).

In 1951, after attending BYU in Provo, Utah for two years, Parker was drafted into the Korean War. It seemed to be fate that Parker was stationed back in his home state of Hawaii with the U.S. Coast Guard. This was the perfect opportunity for him to practice with William Chow on a full-time basis.

Kenpo, on numerous occasions, also saved Parker's life, as he had been involved in numerous violent, physical confrontations. By applying Chow's teachings, he was able to overcome many opponents. Because of the effectiveness of Kenpo in street fights, Parker felt a need to teach it to others. He thought Kenpo was the ultimate means of self-defense and that it would be a waste if he didn't spread his knowledge. He "visualized the benefits that others would derive and the good it would do in developing character in America's youth" (Infinite Insights into Kenpo-Volume 1, pg.25).

Before he was discharged from the Coast Guard and returned to BYU, Parker proposed a plan to William Chow. His idea was to open Kenpo studios all over the United States. He thought that obtaining his Bachelor’s Degree from BYU would help aid him in the selling of Kenpo to the U.S. public. If people saw that an educated person was promoting Kenpo, they would probably be more likely to become involved with it. Chow agreed with his proposal and gave Parker his blessing.

In his later years at BYU, Parker formed an exclusive club for Kenpo students. Only those from Hawaii were permitted to receive his teachings. This was a necessary activity for Parker because it helped him to stay on top of his training, as well as to think up a number of innovative concepts. He "soon learned how to use master key movements handed to him by Chow as educational stepping stones to reach higher levels of Kenpo" (Infinite Insights Into Kenpo-Volume 1, pg. 27). Each time one of his students would question him in one of his classes, he would analyze the problem and be better prepared for the next class. This seemed to be a growth spurt for modern day American Kenpo. A lot of concepts and Philosophies came to him while teaching. It seemed that for Parker, teaching was also an excellent method of learning.

BYU Judo Club
BYU Judo Club

Because he taught Kenpo in a BYU facility, the wrestling room, Parker couldn't restrict people from watching his classes. His reputation quickly grew around the campus. In early December 1954, he was asked to conduct a Kenpo demonstration during half-time of a basketball game between BYU and UCLA, on campus in Provo, Utah. The success of the demonstration was a big step in his martial arts career. It caught the attention of Utah County lawmen who attended the game. Before he knew it, Parker was teaching the art of self-defense to City Police, Highway Patrolmen, Fish and Game Wardens, and Sheriff's Deputies. In a week's time he was teaching Kenpo commercially in a downtown Provo body-building gym.

In 1956, after graduating from BYU with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Sociology and Psychology, Parker moved to California and opened his first Karate studio. When one of his Business neighbors saw the newly painted sign, he asked "Is Karate a Mexican dish?" (Infinite Insights into Kenpo Volume-1, pg. 28). When Parker explained that Kenpo was a system of self-defense, the man told Parker “I give you three months and you'll be out of business (Infinite Insights into Kenpo Volume-1, pg. 28). Parker "felt the hair raise on the back of his neck. His fighting spirit was aroused" (Infinite Insights into Kenpo Volume-1, pg. 28). He didn't hit the man but, as a result of the insult, Parker felt a burning desire to succeed.

While renovating his new school, Parker received a phone call from one of his old friends, Roy Woodward, who used to work with him at the Provo Gymnasium. He invited Parker to the America's Health Hollywood Gym to meet a man named Terry Robinson. Robinson was a WWII combat instructor with a "kill or be killed" approach to fighting. When Robinson had a session of Kenpo Karate he "felt that it made his 'kill or be killed’ art look like kindergarten knowledge" (Infinite Insights into Kenpo Volume-1, pg. 28).

Robinson invited Parker to the Beverly Hills Wilshire Club where he was the Physical Director. Through Robinson, Parker began teaching a number of TV and movie personalities the art of Kenpo. Because many of the people that he taught at the health club were producers and directors, Parker was able to introduce Martial arts to the TV and movie industries. A result of the Martial Arts being in the media was that it influenced people to head to their nearest Karate school and sign up for lessons. This was the beginning of the obsession that American people have with Martial Arts. Anything from Ninja Turtles to the Power Rangers was popularized because of the introduction of Karate to the media in the late 50's and early 60's

Ed Parker and Elvis Presley
Ed Parker and Elvis Presley

Until his death on December 15th 1990, Parker taught American Kenpo at a number of seminars nationwide and wrote numerous books. His passing was due to a sudden heart attack in a Honolulu airport. It was a known fact that he had always had heart problems and that he never really paid any attention to them.

Though the man has passed on, the spirit of his teachings still live on. He wrote a number of books including, but not limited to, Infinite Insights Into Kenpo (volumes 1-5), Ed Parker's Encyclopedia of Kenpo, Secrets of Chinese Karate, and The Women’s Guide to Self-Defense. Ed Parker's American Kenpo Karate is still taught throughout the world, today.