Fearless Hong Kong martial artist shows heart of champion in bid for black belt despite disabilities
Wheelchair user Chan Ka-man, 26, is determined to reach heights of Korean martial art taekwondo amid failing vision and inability to walk
In a Hong Kong community hall where dozens of taekwondo athletes are doing their weekly training, a 26-year-old woman, who uses a wheelchair due to a mystery disease, breaks a small wooden board in half with just one forceful punch.
Chan Ka-man is fearless in many ways. Not only has she been fighting a life-changing medical condition over the past few years – one that doctors are unable to diagnose – she is also battling for the highest rank in taekwondo, a black belt. This is despite her walking difficulties and recently blurry vision.
Chan started to practise the Korean martial art when she was about 11 years old. She says she wants to get the black belt before she completely loses her vision and vows to keep fighting until the end.
A former teacher’s assistant at a local school for children with special needs, Chan realised she had a problem a few years ago when she tried to climb stairs at work. At that time, she was also trying to study for a bachelor’s degree to become a qualified teacher.
“It felt like I had fallen from the peak and hit rock bottom,” Chan says of how she felt when she first used a wheelchair two years ago.
“I was young and my career was developing, and all of a sudden, I had nothing.”
She recalls the first time she had trouble walking. “I was trying to walk upstairs and back to my seat. But my legs suddenly became so weak that I couldn’t even walk up. I went to hospital after work but the doctors couldn’t find the cause. Since then, my walking ability has been deteriorating.”
Chan says she loves practising taekwondo because she relishes a challenge. But, unable to kick, she stopped training until last year when she met her current coach, Anthony Li On-tung, who for five years has been teaching martial arts to people with physical disabilities.
Li, president of the non-profit Hong Kong Physically Handicapped and Able-Bodied Martial Art Association, was sad to see the life of a passionate taekwondo athlete like Chan suddenly be disrupted due to declining mobility. He designed some tailor-made moves for her to perform in the wheelchair.
“I’ve witnessed how her health has worsened since I met her, and it’s really upsetting,” Li says, referring to Chan’s recent diagnosis of a type of incurable retinal degeneration, which could lead to a total loss of vision.
They have been communicating through voice messages outside training, he adds, as Chan is not able to read his texts clearly. And that has pushed him to to try to bring forward Chan’s qualifying exam for a black belt from December to June this year.
“I want her to see the colour of the black belt when it is finally handed to her,” Li says.
Chan, who holds a red belt – the second highest grade in taekwondo – says every belt she earned motivated her to go further in the field.
“Getting a black belt has been my dream since I was a kid. I might not have done very well academically when I was younger, but I really want to develop as far as possible in taekwondo.”
Chan says it is hard to explain the joy and gratitude she experienced whenever she was promoted to a higher rank and received a new belt. But one thing is certain: she won’t let her disabilities get in the way.
“I won’t give up until the very last minute when I can’t move any more.”