Fayette County

Martial arts leader celebrates 50 years of teaching in Lexington

Grandmaster Sin Thé struck a pose Saturday at a tournament at Lexington Catholic High School. Hundreds of all ages attended from all over the United States.
Grandmaster Sin Thé struck a pose Saturday at a tournament at Lexington Catholic High School. Hundreds of all ages attended from all over the United States. Herald-Leader

As a young man, martial arts Grandmaster Sin Kwang Thé said he could break eight to 10 concrete blocks piled atop one another with one swoop of his hand.

Today, at age 72, he says he can break only six.

Time takes its toll, but Thé (pronounced Tay) still is fit and trim.

At 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighing 149 pounds, he exercises two hours a day and meditates whenever the opportunity arises. He stopped eating meat three years ago when he ballooned to 187 pounds and now uses supplements in his vegetarian diet.

His knees were bothering him a few years ago, but that problem has gone away. He still can place his foot on a standing man's throat.

If God permits, he says with a smile, he would like to live another 50 years.

The soft-spoken Thé, who lives in California, was honored Saturday at Lexington Catholic High School for 50 years of teaching martial arts in Lexington.

He was treated with great respect during a tournament that attracted several hundred people of all ages from across the United States. Some even put a $100 bill in his hand for an autographed poster.

Thé's years as a struggling student at the University of Kentucky in the 1960s led to his empire of Shaolin-Do schools in the United States. There used to be more than 80, but he now has about 50. One is on Gold Rush Road in Lexington.

He estimates that all his schools over the years have taught 1 million students.

The following is how Thé tells his story:

He says his Shaolin-Do schools teach a curriculum of Chinese martial arts based on the Shaolin Temple, a Buddhist temple built sometime between 386 and 534 A.D. in China. Its teachings spread, and the temples were the equivalent of universities for the martial arts.

Thé was born in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1943. His parents were Chinese but fled to Indonesia after the Communist Party came into power.

Thé's parents were wealthy. His father ran a textile plant with about 1,200 workers, and his mother ran a jewelry store.

According to a bio on his website, Sinthe.com, Thé was drawn to the martial arts at the age of 5.

Thé eventually went to a class that taught empty hand forms, weapon forms and sparring. He eventually was accepted into the class and became a star student.

He was groomed by a grandmaster to become the next grandmaster of Shaolin-Do. Only a grandmaster can name his replacement before retiring. (Thé says his replacement has not yet been born.)

In 1964, Thé planned to go to school in Germany to study engineering and physics, but a friend of the family convinced him and his parents that he could get just as good an education at a lower cost at the University of Kentucky.

Thé flew to Cincinnati and took a taxi to Lexington, which cost him all of the money he had.

He began his studies at Transylvania University for a year in order to improve his English. To supplement his income, he started for the first time to teach Shaolin-Do to non-Chinese.

His classes took off when he went to UK. Advertising in UK's student newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, worked.

In 1968, Thé became the youngest grandmaster in the history of the Shaolin martial arts.

Thé was continuing his education at UK when the former grandmaster, Ie Chang Ming, died in 1976 at the age of 96.

Thé said he realized that the world had plenty of engineers and scientists, but only one Shaolin grandmaster. He quit his studies and devoted all of his time to teaching the art of Shaolin-Do.

He is now writing a book about his life. It will include his failed marriages and his three children. Daughter Denise Thé is a Hollywood scriptwriter who worked on CBS' Person of Interest TV show; son Dwight Thé teaches physical education at the University of California; and son Kevin Thé is a police detective in Tucson, Ariz.

Thé calls himself a "spiritual but not religious person." His father was a Buddhist; his mother, a Seventh-day Adventist.

Bill Leonard of Lexington calls Thé "one of the nicest human beings I've ever met."

Leonard met Thé when Leonard was a 19-year-old student at UK who signed up for one of Thé's classes. Thé was 24.

They became best friends. Leonard runs the Sin Thé Center in Lexington.

"He probably has beaten me up more than anybody else, since we practice together," Leonard said.

"But even after all these years, he never ceases in class to teach me something new — either about martial arts or being a human.

"I hope he goes on forever."

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