From his friendship with Bruce Lee to the many thousands of students he taught over a lengthy career, Castro was a key contributor to martial arts culture in the Bay and well beyond.
When it comes to martial arts culture in America, the date can land like pre-history, a forgotten and hidebound era before Black Belt Magazine or Enter the Dragon or high-profile UFC fight cards. But it was 1958—more than 60 years ago—when Ralph Castro first began (formally) teaching kenpo karate around the San Francisco Bay Area.
Castro passed away last week at the age of 87, leaving behind a martial arts legacy that in many ways mirrored the trajectory of the culture within America: from early hot spots in Hawaii and the Bay Area, through the boom times of the “kung fu craze” of the 1970s and the Karate Kid mania of the ’80s. Castro was not merely present within this evolution, but a factor in shaping it, a role that was reflected in the many photographs that lined the walls of his longtime school in Daly City where he was pictured alongside the likes of Bruce Lee, Ed Parker and Chuck Norris.
“Grandmaster Ralph Castro was a true pioneer for martial arts in America, especially the San Francisco Bay Area,” explains Gene Ching, publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine. “Beyond being the founder of Shaolin Kenpo, he was a true gentleman and a stalwart 49ers fan.”
Castro’s recent passing reflects the final days of the pioneering generation within the Bay Area who made significant contributions to the foundations of martial arts culture in America and around the world.
“Ralph went to a really rough high school in Honolulu and he was the toughest guy there.” —Coach Willy Cahill, San Bruno
Castro emerged from the mid-20th century martial arts culture of Hawaii, a diverse, dynamic and seriously rough-and-tumble fight culture that was the first great (though often forgotten) martial arts melting pot in the world.
Predicated on the work opportunities within the islands’ cane fields, Hawaii experienced a robust influx of immigrants from around the Pacific (and the world) in the early 20th century. The workers brought their respective martial arts styles with them, and—after factoring in the great many U.S. servicemen stationed nearby—a unique, rugged and otherwise unprecedented martial arts laboratory soon developed.
Born of Spanish and Hawaiian descent, Castro grew up in close proximity to the islands’ fight culture. In fact, his father—Rafael “Boss” Castro—made extra money by fighting in underground bareknuckle boxing matches along the docks in Honolulu in order to help support his wife and eight children.
In time, the young Castro began his own martial arts career by studying under William Chow, a gruff and volatile character who, at five feet two, went by the nickname “Thunderbolt.” Chow’s classes were notorious for their stark physicality, and as one student described the practice environment: “[Chow] was into full-on fighting in the classroom rather than sparring. I used to get broken ribs. It was bad. That’s how we learned it.”
Eventually, Castro moved to the mainland with his wife Pat and their young family (they would ultimately have seven children, and named their daughters April, May, June, July and Mia). In San Francisco, Castro began teaching in his spare time in a variety of locations, including the family living room (which was put to a halt after one of his students came dangerously close to falling out an open window). In 1958, Castro opened his first formal location on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District.
“I can’t tell you the number of late nights that [Bruce Lee] spent with Ralph Castro, and Wally Jay, James Lee, Allen Joe, all those guys. Many late nights where they would go around the room demonstrating things.”—Linda Lee Cadwell (Bruce Lee’s widow)
In California, Castro partnered with Ed Parker, another of Chow’s students, who would also make his mark on martial arts culture in America. Operating out of Pasadena, Parker was profiled by TIME magazine in 1961 as the “High Priest of Hollywood’s Karate Sect” for teaching martial arts to a number of celebrities, including Warren Beatty, Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen and—most notably—Elvis Presley.
Castro became part of Parker’s International Kenpo Karate Association, an organization that would play a major part in enrolling seemingly countless Americans into martial arts practice in the years to come. Far ahead of the curve for the early 1960s, Castro offered training programs at his school for women and children in an industry that largely catered only to adult men at the time.
In 1963, Castro and Parker were introduced to a young, dynamic and fairly egotistical young “gung fu” practitioner named Bruce Lee. Although Lee was half the age of Castro, Parker and their Bay Area colleagues, they accepted him as an equal. (An old photo shows Bruce explaining some of his technique at Castro’s school on Valencia Street, during this era.)
Lee was on such a similar wavelength to these practitioners that he soon dropped out of school at the University in Washington, in Seattle, to live in Oakland and collaborate with the martial artists he had met in the Bay. What followed were many late night think tank sessions between Bruce and the likes of Castro, Wally Jay (a renowned jiu-jitsu instructor in Alameda), James Lee (Oakland native and MMA pioneer), Al Novak (East Bay kajukenbo teacher) and other trailblazing figures from the region. Collectively, their collaborations and subsequent ventures would form key foundations to the modern martial arts industry in America.
“Whenever we saw Ralph with his students at competitions, we’d all be saying — ‘Jeez, we gotta fight those guys?!’”—Barney Scollan, student of Ed Parker and Bruce Lee
As the popularity of the martial arts began to bloom in the mid-1960s, Castro helped to form the California Karate Championships, an annual regional tournament held at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, which typically hosted more than 1000 participants and helped to launch the careers of martial artists such as Chuck Norris and Mike Stone.
In time, he branded his particular art as “Shaolin Kenpo” and operated numerous schools with thousands of students around the Bay Area. In 1980 he settled into his largest and final location—on Washington Street in Daly City, near the 280 freeway.
Reflecting on his teacher’s life and legacy, Vince Ronan emphasized Castro’s love of his family and students, as well as his perennial sense of humor (and, of course—his enduring devotion to the San Francisco 49ers).
When it came to the martial arts, Ronan says that Castro was a 24/7 practitioner: “Great Grandmaster lived and breathed martial arts … and he applied his training to almost everything. The few times we’ve seen Great Grandmaster using the push broom to sweep, you could see him working on his kenpo stances and side stepping as he walked up and down the floor.”
Upon retirement, Castro passed his school into the hands of Vince and his brother Gerald, who were students of his for close to three decades.
Castro was inducted into the Martial Arts History Museum Hall of Fame in 2002, and was honored again for Lifetime Achievement in 2017. The museum’s president, Michael Matsuda, frames Castro’s legacy in prominent and far-reaching terms: “Considered one of the early pioneers of the arts, Castro introduced the unique system of Chinese Kenpo to an American audience. Through his guidance and teachings, he has touched thousands upon thousands of lives and spread the art across the world.”
For more information on Ralph Castro, his martial arts legacy and his upcoming memorial—click here.
Learn more about studying Shaolin Kenpo with some of Castro’s martial lineage:
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