Kung Fu daughter-Kung fu actress Chris Yen returns to Boston's Chinatown


A Chinatown martial-arts prodigy, she fought her fate. Now she's home.

By S.I. Rosenbaum
Globe Correspondent / March 8, 2009

In Chris Yen's earliest memory, she's playing on the floor of her mother's martial arts school in Chinatown.

The floor is sealed concrete, and painted with the Yin-Yang. Her mother, Bow Sim Mark, is teaching the meaning of the symbol to her students. Yen is about 4 years old.

The yin and the yang are opposites - hard and soft, black and white - but they're not separate. They need each other to form that circle, Yen's mother explained to her students. They need each other to create that balance.

As an adult, Yen's path has taken her far from Boston. Now in her 30s (she declines to give her exact age), she's an actress, writer, and kung fu artist in her own right, with a new movie coming out.

Yet a few weeks ago, she found herself back where she started: in her mother's school, sitting across from Mark. She felt - not nervous, she said later, but cautious. Her mother was so private. How could Yen ask what she wanted to know?

Yen grew up in two worlds, and she felt she didn't fit in either.

One world was Newton, where she lived and went to school. Her classmates spoke English and called her Chris. They couldn't fathom her life, with its long hours of martial-arts training - they had never heard of wushu, the martial art in which her mother was a sifu, or master.

The other world was Boston's Chinatown, where her mother taught martial arts. There, Yen was surrounded by American-born Chinese kids like herself. They spoke Cantonese, and they called her by her Chinese name, Chi Ching. They all knew who she was: Sifu Mark's daughter, special and different.

Mark started training Yen in the martial art of wushu, a gymnastic form of kung fu, when she was just a toddler. By the time she was 6, Yen was helping her mother teach class, crisply correcting adult students four times her age.

"I was really strict," Yen remembered. "I was a tough cookie."

She was also lonely.

Yen had an older brother, Donnie, but he went to study wushu in China when he was 16 and Yen was 6. He became a famous kung fu movie star. Yen watched him on the big screen - a stranger, larger than life, a cinema idol.

Yen was poised to follow in his footsteps. At 10, she traveled to China; performing together, she and her mother were a sensation. "The Sweat of Ten Years Has Watered a New Blossom of Wushu," a local newspaper wrote. Yen was known for her flying double back kick; she would leap into the air and arch her back so that both feet were pointing straight up toward the sky.

Around this time, Mark remembers her daughter writing her a letter, saying she wanted to quit wushu training. Yen has no memory of this. But the feeling grew in her as she got older.

In high school, she began to neglect her training. She stopped spending time in her mother's school, and she stopped performing demonstrations with her mother.

"I struggled a lot, trying to fit in," she said. "I was a very lost teenager."

Mark remembers that period, too.

"She had other friends," and she stopped practicing wushu, Mark recalled. "Of course I don't happy. We talk a lot, but she doesn't want."

Mark, who is about 65 (her exact age is uncertain even to her daughter, clouded by differing reckonings of age here and in China), is a small woman with precise, graceful movements and a quiet intensity. She studied wushu for more than 20 years in the city of Canton, now called Guangzhou, before coming to the United States and founding her studio in Boston. She was one of the first female sifus of her generation.

She didn't talk to her daughter much about her past, or her childhood in communist China. But Yen knew that her mother had expectations of her.

"She wanted me to carry on the legacy of her school, of what she's built," Yen said.

Yen wasn't sure what she wanted, but she knew it was something else. She tried out clothes and boys. She tried out volleyball. She even tried other forms of martial arts, though she didn't mention this to her mother.

"At first, it definitely felt like I was going behind her back and doing something totally wrong . . . to study with other people," Yen said.

Mark didn't say much about Yen's experiments. She knew that ultimately she had little control over her daughter.

"I don't have any choice, but I pull her come back," Mark recalls about her daughter's quiet rebellion. "She still a good girl, but I don't like for her to go this way."

Yen attended Boston College, and when she graduated in 1999, she left Boston to travel. She was living in Singapore in 2001 when she got a call from her brother, Donnie.

He'd acted in a film, years before, that had just opened in US theaters under the auspices of Quentin Tarantino, a longtime fan of Hong Kong action cinema. The film was called "Iron Monkey," and Americans loved it. Tarantino wanted Donnie to come to the United States, and Donnie needed an assistant.

"He made me quit my job and come help him out," Yen recalls. "For a few years I was living out of my suitcase."

For the first time, the siblings got to know each other. Yen traveled with her brother to press events and movie shoots, flying to Los Angeles, Prague, Japan, Hong Kong. At Cannes, she met a director who was looking for a young woman with kung fu skills to play a part in a movie.

Yen agreed. It would just be for fun. She'd had a bit role in a movie once as a child, but she didn't really know much about acting.

She fell in love with it.

In front of the camera, Yen found, she didn't choose between being Chris from Newton or being Chi Ching from Chinatown.

She could be someone else entirely.

"It was another form, another outlet for expression other than martial arts," she said. "You have these opportunities to play different sides of you."

She began to study acting as seriously as she had studied wushu as a child. She got small parts in small movies, then bigger parts in bigger movies. Her latest film, "Give 'em Hell, Malone," will screen at the Cannes Film Festival. It co-stars Ving Rhames and is directed by Russell Mulcahy, who made "Highlander."

She's also working behind the scenes, as a writer/producer. One of the projects she's working on is about a woman with split personalities: bubble-tea clerk by day, vigilante by night. Another one is about a girl named Chris who grew up in her mother's school in Chinatown.

And there is one more story she wants to tell: not her own, but her mother's.

Things have changed between them. No longer teacher and student, Yen said, they have become free to be mother and daughter.

Mark, too, feels that things are different. "Now is better than before," she said. "She think I'm a good mother."

Yen can't carry on her mother's legacy as a sifu, but she wants to preserve it in her own way. "It's a very important quest of mine," she said. "I need to write my mother's story. . . . I feel like it's my responsibility." She is thinking about producing a documentary about Sifu Mark. Or possibly, someday, a feature film.

So when Yen came home to Boston for Chinese New Year last month, she found herself sitting across from her mother in the chilly school. Sifu Mark had never really talked about her past. Now, Yen asked her mother to tell her the story from the very beginning.

"Mom," she asked, "where were you born?"
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.