Tradition starts here: 50 years of Lee’s Taekwondo

In the heart of Adelaide, a legendary institution quietly marks a significant milestone.

Interview by: Olivia Williams

Adelaide Taekwondo Academy, known to the initiated as Lee’s Taekwondo, is celebrating an impressive 50 years of martial arts excellence. At the core of this remarkable legacy is Grandmaster Choon Bong Lee, its visionary founder. 

In 1973, the course of Choon Bong Lee’s life was forever altered when an invitation from a Japanese Karate club found him relocating to teach Taekwondo in Adelaide. Leaving Korea to touch down in South Australia, he went on to transform the city’s martial arts landscape. Throughout the years, Grandmaster Lee etched his legacy in the annals of martial arts history, earning widespread recognition in the martial arts community. His story embodies unwavering dedication and the pursuit of excellence, reflecting the core principles of Taekwondo. 

In this interview we sit down with Grandmaster Lee and his son, Tae Won, who runs the club today, to find out more about the history of Lee’s Taekwondo as they celebrate five decades, and explore how the sport can positively impact people of all ages, both physically and spiritually. 

How has Lee’s Taekwondo Studio evolved over the past five decades?

Choon Bong: In the early days we had a lot of students, the club was full. We were teaching beginners and seniors classes every day, Monday to Saturday. At that time Bruce Lee’s movies had started in Adelaide, so then people began to understand more about martial arts, we did a lot of public demonstrations, and on TV shows, as well as newspaper stories. 

Tae Won: In the 90’s my brothers Laurence and James looked after the academy as I was studying and working on other things. I returned at the end of the 90’s as they went off to do the same. Initially I wasn’t planning on coming back at all, and my father was thinking about retiring, and I felt I couldn’t let our name and the goodwill built up over so many years disappear.

How has the academy embraced innovation while preserving the core values of Taekwondo?

Tae Won: Over the years we’ve seen a move away from the traditional arts, especially with the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts, which is a specifically competition focused combat style that encompasses different systems. I think we will see a swing back as people realise that the journey is really about discovering the self, and that the battle with the self is actually the central process we undertake as martial artists.

In this current fast moving environment, especially accelerated by online media and the hyper commercialisation of the sport aspects, we are developing a middle way, where those wanting to compete and test themselves have an outlet that closely mirrors self defence situations in a safe environment. 

We also want to provide a space for others that don’t fit into that very narrow combat focus and can still gain benefit from training and going through the process of integrating mind and body in other ways. Too much one way or the other I think is not beneficial to growing as a person. 

As Lee’s Tae Kwon Do Academy celebrates its 50th anniversary, what are some of the most memorable moments and achievements that stand out in its history?

Choon Bong: Over the last 50 years we have celebrated every 5 to 10 years, up to this year which was a special one for us. We are so happy to get this far with my son, Tae Won, taking over the organising and running of the academy. That’s been the most memorable moment for me personally so far.

The American actor Chuck Norris came to Adelaide in 1978 to promote his movie. He was famous for having acted with Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon, fighting in the Coliseum in Rome. Chuck was actually a student in America of a Master who was a friend of my Master in Korea. He was a fifth dan then in the same style of taekwondo as us which is Moo Duk Kwan style. We did a demonstration together at Apollo Stadium and had about 3000 spectators.

In 1982 he came back to Adelaide to promote another movie and we did a demonstration in the cinemas on Hindmarsh Square, as well as having a barbecue at our place. Then in 1983 I visited America and went to his club in Los Angeles.

I was also a national team coach in the 1970’s, and in 1974 I took a group of black belts to Korea for the first Asian Taekwondo Championship and we won 4 bronze medals. We came in third place from 22 countries. In 1980 I stopped coaching the national team and just looked after teaching at our club in Adelaide only.

The 50th anniversary is a momentous occasion. Can you share any special events or initiatives that are planned to celebrate this milestone with the academy’s students and the broader community?

Tae Won: We recently had our 50th Anniversary Lunch, at Adelaide Pavilion, who did a great job looking after us. It was great to get together socially as a group outside of training, especially as the branches don’t often get together as a group, and showed how much passion and goodwill is out there for our academy.

We are planning several Come and Try events over the year, where people can come and experience our classes in a non-judgemental, safe environment. These will be aimed at different ages/abilities and tailored to those groups.

Part of this is also developing programs for older people, a demographic that often gets left out of many martial arts groups. Master Lee is turning 80 next year, and I recently turned 51 so we have a personal understanding of the issues faced by older students, and how their needs change in response to their current life situation.

Towards the end of next year, we are planning a Lee’s Taekwondo Festival, incorporating Korean food, demonstrations and a club competition open to students and invited affiliated clubs. This is an opportunity for friends, families and the wider community to get together and celebrate this special year with us. 

Taekwondo is not only about physical fitness but also personal growth. How have you seen students transform mentally, emotionally, and spiritually through their Taekwondo journeys at Lee’s Tae Kwon Do Academy?

Tae Won: Our students come from many backgrounds and ages, but common to all that make it through the beginning stages is an awareness of how their body and mind work together. They learn that discipline and pushing boundaries of both can expand our experience of the world and how we navigate it. Training can often be difficult both physically and mentally but finding a way through can help us find our inner strength and self regulate our responses to situations that might not be ideal in our everyday lives. This is what the structure of our classes can offer to people: a safe but expansive way to find a larger, more capable version of themselves, which ultimately is a spiritual path.

I think this is one of the main benefits that arise from having 50+ years of experience. We generally have a sense for what people need/are looking for to improve their lives. Having said that we are always improving and examining ourselves and our methods, while keeping and evolving what continues to work. We need to examine and keep the best of the past to inform the best course of action for the future for ourselves and for our students. 

Finally, for those who may be considering joining Lee’s Tae Kwon Do Academy in its 50th year, what words of encouragement or wisdom would you offer to inspire them to embark on this martial arts journey?

Tae Won: We know that it’s often a big step to try something outside of our comfort zone.

Taking that first step starts with the decision for change. 

We provide a safe, non-judgemental environment for someone looking for a way to grow and improve themselves, it’s not just a way to learn how to fight. We welcome all who are willing to learn and will do our best to help them on their journey.

Choon Bong: Next year I will be 80 years old. I still train every morning. Taekwondo training has helped me mentally, physically and kept me otherwise healthy. It stops me getting lazy, it makes me get up and keep moving, especially when I train with and teach other people. As you get older, it will help you stay strong and happy in your mind, thinking positively. It helps when dealing with other people, you always talk nicely, and you smile, laugh and be happy. And that’s a good thing for your life.

I don’t know how many years my life will be, but I will keep practising every morning until I can’t do it anymore. So I will keep doing it for the next 5, 10 years, I’m not sure.

Then in the next 50 years I hope Tae Won keeps practising and keeps teaching, and the next person keeps teaching as well so we can have another celebration for the 100th year. I won’t be in this world anyway, but I hope. 

Lee’s Taekwondo

City | Golden Grove | Magill | Parafield Gardens | Seaview Downs | Kilkenny

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