She may not grace billboards like her older brother, Hong Kong superstar actor and martial artist Donnie Yen Ji Dan, but Chris Yen Zi Ching, a wushu master herself, is a poster girl for how to age well.
The siblings learned martial arts from their mother, Mark Bow-sim, who was born in Guangzhou, southern China, and founded the Chinese Wushu Research Institute in Boston in 1976 after emigrating to Massachusetts from Hong Kong in 1975. She taught wushu at Boston University and Harvard University.
Born in Guangzhou, Chris Yen, now a property investor living in Los Angeles, says she feels fortunate and proud to have had an upbringing that revolved around martial arts – though it came at a price.
“Westerners were always in awe of what they saw in our school,” she says.
“I had to train very hard every day. Training was like eating, drinking and sleeping for me. I didn’t have much of a childhood like other kids. I was the youngest of all the martial arts students then.
“I mostly trained alone under my mother’s guidance. During summers, she would send me to Shenzhen, Wuhan and Beijing [in China] for group training. We trained like Olympians, for six hours a day and six days a week.”
The strenuous training bore fruit when, at the age of six, she won a silver medal at the 1st International Tai Chi Tournament in Wuhan in 1984. A year later, she won a bronze medal at the 1st International Wushu Tournament in Xian.
In spite of the glory, Yen says, as a child she did not enjoy Westerners’ adulation for her family’s wushu prowess.
“Wushu was a very new spectator sport in the West then. Our family really stood out in the community. I often wondered why I had to train so hard just to perform in front of strangers who didn’t even know us or understand our culture.
“We were new immigrants in America. I didn’t have many friends in childhood. I just wanted to fit in like other kids.”
Besides feeling like the odd one out, Yen’s unconventional relationship with her mother also grated on her as a child.
“It was definitely not an ordinary mother-daughter relationship. We were like wushu master and student.
“My mother then was a very peculiar woman who didn’t speak very much. While people always said I am lucky to have such a cool mom, I think I missed out on having a normal mother-daughter relationship.
“While I wouldn’t trade my special upbringing for anything else in the world, I couldn’t help but wonder sometimes what my mother would be like if she didn’t do kung fu. Would we be able to spend more time together and talk more about other things?” she says.
Yen says the punishing childhood training regime also made her prone to muscle pain in adulthood.
“I no longer do harsh wushu exercises, as my body will be wrecked if I do. My brother suffers from constant muscle injuries and scars. It’s really hard for me to see him endure so much pain.”
Still, Yen credits her kung fu training for giving her a sharp mind and good mind-body coordination.
“Everything I Iearned before is ingrained in me and my muscle memory. Mentally, the training helped me attain an enlightened state of meditation. I think a lot of martial artists also have this state.
“It helps us block out all the outside noise and have better concentration on the tasks on hand,” she says.
Yen still exercises regularly, though differently.
“At home I keep a workout station space. I also do hot yoga , I stretch regularly and I throw kicks and punches and do shadow boxing. Flexibility is very important, because it’s much easier to build back muscle than it is to become flexible,” she says.
Yen’s girlish features belie her 47 years. She says her secrets to staying young are having a healthy diet, playing musical instruments, doing different types of work that she loves, and spending time with her family and her dog.
She makes healthy meals at home with fresh ingredients – mostly vegetables, fruit and seafood – around 80 per cent of the time. “I splurge and eat anything I want the rest of the time,” she says. “And just as ‘you are what you eat’, I also believe that you become what you think.
“Healthy mind and body is an integration of diet, exercise, mindset, lifestyle and spiritual energy.”
Rescuing stray dogs is also her passion. Two of her family’s rescue dogs died last year after being with them for 14 years, and her new rescue dog, Gambit, is blind.
Playing piano and drums is therapeutic. “Manoeuvring the piano keys allows my fingers to dance. It’s an act of emotional catharsis for me. I like playing challenging arrangements or compositions to train my hand-muscle-brain coordination,” she says.
While her brother is an actor, she says it is not suitable for everyone to strive to excel in only one field.
Besides her acting roles in Give ’em Hell Malone (2009), A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy (2008) and Adventures of Johnny Tao (2007), she has worked in multiple fields including movie production, fashion and advertising before turning to property investment.
“I feel like I’ve lived many different lives. Life is a journey where you experience the joy of doing different things. Life isn’t always a competition to get to the finish line. Not everyone has to be an Olympian or Oscar winner.”
Eight years ago Yen created her own wushu-inspired fashion brand – CYFusion – selling street and fitness wear. Made in the United States from sustainable materials, the fashion line symbolised youth, health and strong character regardless of gender, race or body size.
“Eventually, my business partner quit the venture. It was a mess. But I am extremely proud of myself for having tried,” she says.
A pet project is making a documentary about her mother’s life. Mark has produced dozens of wushu books and videos through the publishing house she ran with her husband, Klyster Yen Wun Lung.
“I have a deep desire to keep my mother’s legacy alive. She dedicated her life to wushu and her students, who all love her dearly,” she says.
Yen splits her time between Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, Hubert Young, a professional racing car driver and financial consultant, and Boston where her parents live, and says she treasures family time.
“My parents are at a fragile age. I used to work in Donnie’s film company in Hong Kong around 2016. But I realised I don’t want to be away from my parents in case they need me,” she says.
With her brother mostly in Hong Kong or elsewhere in the world making movies, she says it is hard for the family to get together often.
“We have never had a family holiday together. I hope we can one day,” she says.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.