Coulda Been a Contender

Scrounging for cash in the strangest places, the creators of the karate-themed Adventures With Kanga Roddy children's TV series infuriate investors

Chung, 38, and Chan, 45 -- hard-working fathers of young children, believers in the values of their cute, furry TV character, and Hall of Fame karate masters -- met as competitors in a national tae kwon do tournament in Long Beach. "It was the one to win," Chung says of the 1977 contest that was a turning point for both young men. Fifteen-year-old Chung placed well enough to receive his black belt and Chan, then 22, took top prize. "He was simply amazing," says Chung, who was so enamored of Chan's skill that he asked the champion if they could train together. They both lived in the Bay Area, so Chung became Chan's student -- but soon, he was competing against his teacher. Ultimately, Chung and Chan became fierce opponents and went on to dominate the martial arts field of the time.

Chan, who was born in Hong Kong, moved to Beijing after retiring from competition in the mid-1980s. He had earned a business degree from UC Berkeley, which he used in China to manage investments for an international trading company. In Beijing, Chan still practiced marital arts and fell in love with one of the top members of the national women¹s team. He married her, but first had to receive permission from the Chinese government to do so.

Chung, a Bay Area native whose parents are from Japan and Korea, stayed in San Jose when he stopped competing professionally a few years after Chan. He opened a karate studio and got married, too.

Chan returned to California with his new wife after five years in China, and visited Chung¹s shop. As a business, it was a mess, with receipts stuffed in drawers and papers stacked on the floor. But Chung was a popular instructor, having more clients than he knew what to do with. Outgoing, attractive, and downright inspiring, he made people feel good. Everyone liked him. While martial arts instruction had mostly been directed to young men hoping to become serious competitors, Chung was one of the first to market karate to young kids and older adults as a way to enrich their lives. Parents trusted him to instill in their children the values and discipline martial arts are based upon. Middle-aged clients walked away from Chung¹s workouts invigorated, feeling mentally and physically renewed.

"You're sitting on a gold mine," Chan told Chung. "But you're the most disorganized person I know." They decided to join forces, and their company, America's Best Karate, quickly grew to a chain of 11 studios. Chan used his business sense to run the operation, and Chung used his charisma to sell it.

"We're total opposites," Chung says. "Anthony got his master's degree at 22; I spent two weeks in college. Anthony is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese; I have an Asian exterior, but am more comfortable in a locker room full of African-American football players. Anthony is fastidious and detail-driven; I'm extremely conceptual and visual. We even look different."

Chan, in his suit, tie, and glasses, fits the image of a CEO. Chung, with his broad smile, boyish dimples, and thick mane of black hair, looks like he should be on TV -- selling motivational tapes for an infomercial. "He is the Asian Tony Robbins," says Don Berryessa, a former business partner. "He can light up a room more than anyone I've seen. You go in and talk to him and you feel like there's nothing but possibility and hope. He believes, and he makes you a believer."

Despite outward differences, Berryessa says the pair shares the same values. "There's a very simple code they live by," he says. "The core essence is related to the martial arts philo-sophy of pride, respect, and honor."

Chung calls it bushido. "The reason Anthony and I get along so well is because we work hard and we respect each other," he says. "And when it comes to our company, we believe it will take us to the Promised Land. We will create projects that will make a difference and be very profitable. We know we will win."

But a chain of karate studios wasn't enough to satisfy Chung and Chan's drive for success. Both dabbled in Hollywood, attaching themselves to martial arts projects. Because of their numerous championship titles, Chung and Chan had cachet within the karate world and could use it to their advantage. Chan line-produced some of Jet Li's early movies. Chung actually had a few on-screen roles, starring in films like Kindergarten Ninja and Paper Dragon. "You've heard of low-budget B-movies? Well these were like X, Y, and Z," he says.

Walking through the locker room of the San Francisco 49ers, Chung is greeted by high-fives from the players. For almost 10 years, he has been the football team's popular karate instructor. He's on the field at the 49ers' training facility in Santa Clara every morning, where he straps blocking pads to his hands and lets 300-pound defensive linemen punch and kick a man less than half their size. But the karate drills are more about movement and technique than simple brute force, and leave Chung out of harm's way and the hulking players exhausted. "It's a real workout, and that's why we're out there," says line guard Phil Ostrowski. "We respect what he does and what he teaches."

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