FALLS CHURCH, Va. (WDVM) — If the name Jhoon Rhee rings a bell, it’ll probably only take a couple seconds of the company’s famous commercial to jog your memory. The television ad, which included a catchy jingle and an easy-to-remember phone number ran for years across the Washington, D.C. area.
Two of Grandmaster Rhee’s kids are featured at the end saying, “Nobody bothers me!” Rhee’s youngest son, Chun, is now the taekwondo company’s owner and master instructor.
“This is something I didn’t think I’d be doing, you know, coming out of college. Just typical father-son conflict,” Rhee said with a laugh. “But I enjoy what I do. I know it’s something that’s positive and rewarding. Other than paying the bills it’s something that I enjoy doing.”
Before Jhoon Rhee was a household name in Northern Virginia — and before he was good friends with Bruce Lee — he was a Korean immigrant in the early 1960’s who found a new home in Texas.
“And I think there he opened up a small club called Karate Club, no name, and he realized that people took interest in it and he said, ‘Why not?’” said Rhee’s oldest son, Jimmy, “and that’s when he made a decision to come to Washington, D.C. and start his business.”
“He had about nine locations in the area and he was the only martial arts business in town, basically,” said Chun. “So he would have people driving from Baltimore to D.C., Virginia Beach, so over the years what he created — not just for us but for the entire industry — was pretty remarkable.”
For decades, the business has taught taekwondo to students as young as four. More importantly — and perhaps what’s made it into the success it is today — the program builds character.
“Teaching young people how to subordinate impulse to values is very liberating,” Jimmy said. “This is the reason people take ownership of their outcomes and they still admire my father for teaching that.”
When Jimmy joined his brother and sister in the U.S. as a teenager, it became a family business.
“Most immigrants would do anything to support their families working from dry cleaners, restaurants, or whatever. For our family it was teaching karate and that was our family business so we all participated,” he said.
Anti-Asian sentiment is on the rise in the U.S. and since the pandemic began, Jimmy Rhee says 30% of Asian-owned businesses have bankrupted or are on the verge of bankruptcy. As Governor Larry Hogan’s special secretary for Small, Minority, & Women Business Affairs, Jimmy is working with other immigrant advocates, like Elizabeth Chung, to lend a hand.
“Whatever the gap that we have in our society concerning racism, concerning structural equality — whatever it might be — it is our responsibility as immigrant Americans to close the gap in our little way,” he said.
Chun says he was confident Jhoon Rhee would survive the pandemic. All classes were hosted over Zoom at the start. Now, the kids are back in-person in smaller class sizes and with ample social distancing.