The incredible journey of Lee Soon Shaw: Inductee to the Korean Martial Arts Hall of Fame
On July 27, 2019, Lee Soon Shaw became one of the newest inductees into the Korean Martial Arts Masters Hall of Fame. Not too bad for an 81-year-old and mother of six children; one of whom is Priscilla Shaw Rahn, teacher and chairperson of the Denver Public Schools Asian Education Advisory Council. Lee Soon was inducted alongside Ji Han Jae who is best known as the founder of Sin Moo Hapkido and for his role in the fight scene in Bruce Lee’s “Game of Death.”
Lee Soon was born on January 18, 1938 in Seoul, South Korea. Her mother Hwang Ok Dan owned a grocery store in Seoul and her father Yeo Pok Yup was a businessman who sold school supplies all over the world. Lee Soon had two siblings who have passed, an older sister, Yeo Lee Suk and a younger brother, Yeo Lee Jun. Lee Soon comes from royal heritage. Her grandmother, Kim Il Ja, was a cousin of the emperor. She and her siblings often visited their grandmother and family in the palace in Pyongyang.
Lee Soon was 12 years old when the Korean War started in June 1950. She remembers a unified Korea, but she also vividly remembers the trauma of the war. When the Hangang Bridge was destroyed, her family remained locked in their home for days. This was significant because the bridge was the only way in and out of Seoul. In December 1950, a North Korean attack ascended on Seoul, so Lee Soon and her family decided to flee. They walked for days from Seoul to Osan. Many of the South Korean men were taken so only the women and children remained together.
During the 30-mile pilgrimage, Lee Soon walked in the freezing cold; sometimes over dead bodies. Several refugee families from Seoul eventually found rest in a big house. One night, a bomb was dropped on a corner of the house. Many families died, but Lee Soon’s family was spared. Early the following morning, Lee Soon’s mother told her and her older sister to go further south to escape. This meant leaving their mother, younger brother and Lee Suk’s first son, Young Je, in Osan.
Lee Soon’s older sister decided they could try to escape on a moving cargo train. Lee Soon had some athletic experience running in school, so her sister told her she could do it and to jump on first! So, Lee Soon ran as fast as she could to jump on and then grabbed Lee Suk’s arm to pull her up onto the train as she carried her three month old baby on her back. The sisters had no idea where the train was heading, only that it was going further south. The train stopped in Taegu where the sisters found a refugee camp. Accommodations were meager and they were put on the third floor where they were given a small area to sleep and separated from other refugees by only a thin sheet.
Lee Suk found a job as a maid while Lee Soon cared for her baby nephew. Lee Suk made arrangements for Lee Soon to be placed in an orphanage because it was the only way Lee Soon could have an opportunity to go to school, have a place to sleep, eat and be clothed.
While at the orphanage, Lee Soon learned to dance at a dancing school and was selected at an audition to dance for the USO Club. After two years in the orphanage, when Lee Soon turned 14, she was told it was safe to return to Seoul. Only students could go on the train, so she had to leave without her sister. All the children were put in school clothes, given a backpack, a pass and 5000 won. None of the children knew what was waiting for them back in Seoul and they were all left to try and find their families on their own.
When Lee Soon arrived back in Seoul, she walked all the way from the train station to where she last remembered her home was. When she got there, her mother and brother were very sick in bed, there was no food, and her mom’s grocery store had been destroyed. Since Lee Soon had dancing experience, she looked for a place to audition to make money so she and her little brother could go to school. The 8th Army had an audition for dancers and singers and she was selected to become a dancer.
She met her first husband, who was a soldier, when she was 16 years old. He helped Lee Soon’s family restart by buying a house and grocery store. In 1959, when Lee Soon was 19, she immigrated to the U.S.
In 1959, Lee Soon arrived in California. She sent for her nephew, Young Je, in 1961. While Young Je was in Korea, he studied Judo, so Lee Soon found him a dojo to enroll in in Sacramento. Each week, she took him to the dojo, and eventually Lee Soon decided to start taking Kung Fu classes. That was the start of her martial arts journey.
Lee Soon then moved to Texas and started taking Taekwondo classes. Soon after, she won 1st place in the Women’s Texas Championships.
She eventually remarried to her current husband, Freddie, and they moved to Germany. There was no school there, so Lee Soon opened a karate school in Baumholder, Germany. At the time, she was a red belt. Within three years, Lee Soon met Sonsei Kou Song Chi and she eventually earned her first and second degree black belts in Taekwondo.
In 1970, she moved to New York and began working as a private security agent and investigator at a department store. She looked for a dojo and quickly learned about the reputation of Ronald Duncan. He was a very popular instructor and for a time, Lee Soon was the only female in the dojo. O’sensei Duncan took Lee Soon under his wing and began teaching her and giving her opportunities to do exhibitions, films, and radio appearances in places like the Nassau Colosseum, Aaron Banks Oriental World of Self Defense at Madison Square Garden and Panama City, Panama (Channel 4) where she was bestowed an honorary citizenship.
O-sensei Duncan was very professional and had excellent form. He could catch a flying arrow and taught Lee Soon how to as well. Whatever O-sensei Duncan did, Lee Soon learned it too! Under O-sensei Ronald Duncan, Lee Soon earned her 3rd and 4th degree black belts issued by the American Bushido Martial Arts Federation.
Over the next several years, Lee Soon taught and judged martial arts and continued to work on her levels. In 1986, Lee Soon moved to Killeen, Texas. Eventually, she learned that Grand Master Jimm McMurray was teaching close by. They discovered that they both learned under the same instructor several years earlier and that’s when Lee Soon joined his dojo.
In 2016, Lee Soon earned her Grand Master level in Taekwondo. Today, Lee Soon is a Grand Master in Hapkido with eight stripes. She continues to practice martial arts and Korean dancing.