Guyana’s karate icon, Master Frank Woon-A-Tai, U of T graduate, won a gold medal in Montreal at the Pan American Karate Championships in 1978

Originally Posted: May 22, 2022

By: Rehanna Ramsay

With over six decades of distinguished service…

“I became successful in Karate with the highest international technical credentials, I felt something was missing in my life – education. I was with the prestigious Japan Karate Association JKA, and all instructor graduates in Japan were university graduates.”

Master Woon-A-Tai stands alongside some of his students

Kaieteur News – The Oxford English Dictionary defines an expert as someone who has acquired special knowledge, skill, or training in a particular subject, area, or field.

Master Frank Woon-A-Tai is a Guyanese Karate icon.

This week, our ‘Special Person’ aptly fits that description having spent six decades of his life honing the skills as a martial arts specialist, adding to the degrees of accomplishments under his belt.
Today’s feature highlights the service of Guyana’s most decorated and distinguished karate icon, Master (Shaihan) Mr. Frank Woon-A-Tai.
Master Woon-A-Tai has, since 1969, trained thousands of Guyanese as well as non-nationals in the disciplines of karate.
He has worked tirelessly to guide young people in the areas of character, sincerity, effort, etiquette, and most importantly, self-control; achieving his ultimate goals of keeping them off drugs and the street and breaking the cycle of crime and violence.
His strides in the Japanese sport have yielded much fruit as he has produced tens of thousands of national and international respectable law-abiding citizens, several of whom hold their own distinction in the sport.

Master Woon-A-Tai breaks ice during a karate showcase in 1980

In fact, since 1972, Master Woo-A-Tai has produced National, Pan American, and World karate champions. In 1978, he won a gold medal in Montreal at the Pan American Karate Championships.
In technical development, both for his students and himself, Mr. Woon-A-Tai was among the first Guyanese/Canadian graduate of the prestigious International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF) and the Japan Karate Association (JKA) Instructor Training Institute.
Moreover, in 2008, he became the first of four instructors to be promoted to the Eighth Dan black belt. In turn, he has produced thousands of Guyanese and International black belts ranging from First to Ninth Dan.
The martial arts specialist is also the founder of the Japan Karate Association of Guyana and the Guyana Karate College (GKC) and the International Karate Daigaku (IKD University). The latter has an astonishing membership to date of 80 regions in 58 countries within just 10 years.
Prior to establishing the IKD, Master Woon-A-Tai served as Vice Chairman of the ISKF. Moreover, he served as chairman of ISKF Canada for 26 years thus achieving excellence of a national and international standing and recognition in the art of karate.

Master Woon-A-Tai and Yoko Tobi Geri engage in a battle

His most recent feat occurred on December 22, 2021, he was promoted to the highest rank in karate. The Tenth Dan was bestowed on him by the International Karate Daigaku (University) and the Shihan-kai Senate of nine founding masters with Eighth and Ninth Dan during the IKD 2021 Tenth Anniversary announcements.
Added to these achievements, Master Woon-A-Tai is the 2011 recipient of the Guyana Medal of Service for 48 years of karate service and a 1996 recipient of the French Guiana Medal of Honour for 20 years of karate service.
Master Woon-A-Tai has been the driving force behind the Japanese art of Karate in Guyana and throughout the world as a karate teacher. He has proudly represented Guyana internationally as a Guyanese Ambassador of Karate.
The karate master has also authored and published Shu-Ha-Ri: My Life in Japanese Karate, IKD Honbu Inc. He produced DVDs: FW Vintage Demonstration, Eclipse of Life, 1997; Soul of Kata; IKD First World Cup; Road to the Cup; and The Next Generation.
Master Woon-A-Tai credits his success to character, integrity, skill and “a fighting spirit.”
It is therefore no coincidence that at age 72, he is nowhere close to retiring. His most immediate project is building a state-of-the-art Karate College at Liliendaal for Guyanese children for which the land was granted to GKC by former President Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo.
The school, he said, will also serve as the IKD Technical Headquarters for students worldwide. However, the work will not end there as Master Woon-A-Tai also estimates that in the near future, he will also build a high-level sports arena with dorms, apartments for coaches and officials, and a restaurant.

‘GUYANESE CHINESE’
Though he has acclaimed success and distinction as a sportsman in Guyana and abroad, Master Woon-A-Tai’s life story started out in a time when Guyana had not yet acquired independence from British rule.

Minister of Youth Culture and Sport, Charles Ramson Jnr. and supporters of the site of the Karate dojo being built at Liliendaal, Georgetown

He explained that he came from a lineage of Chinese who had immigrated to British Guiana during the period of indentureship but Guyana is the land of his birth. By this virtue, Master Woon-A-Tai is what most locals refer to as a ‘Guyanese Chinese’.
Woon-A-Tai was the sixth of 12 children from a poor family. He explained: “My family name, Woon-A-Tai, is unique. It was Woon, and my grandfather’s first name was A Tai. Then the British gave him an English name, Benjamin. Thus, Benjamin was the first Woon-A-Tai and the founding Treasurer of the British Guiana Chinese Association in 1920.”
The Karate Master explained, nevertheless, that his childhood was marred with a series of rough patches after his father died in 1959, leaving his mother penniless.
Woon-A-Tai said, “He was a gambler… Shortly, [after his death], we lost the house and moved in with my mother’s sister, Mary Woon-Song, in Charlotte Street. It was a two-bedroom flat. We lived at the corner of North Road and Light Street.”
He continued, “Imagine surviving in a flat with 18 people and one washroom. Thus, we grew up in poverty. All my siblings older than me left school to find jobs to support our family. I was the one last to do so. I left school at age 14.”

‘A FIGHTING SPIRIT’
At that time, Woon-A-Tai began training in Karate. “It was fascinating for me. I taught myself by reading books, watching 8mm black and white karate films, and going to the movies. I remember going to the Rio Cinema in Albouystown to see ‘Karate the Hand of Death’,” he shared.
Much later in his life, Woon-A-Tai realised his future karate teachers were in the movies. In 1970, the young Woon-A-Tai acquired a black belt in Suriname.
The same year, he travelled to London, England, to train with Master Keinosuke Enoeda, a legendary JKA master.
According to Woon-A-Tai, the experience opened his eyes; “that was what I wanted – training and certification from the best masters in the world.” It was no secret that the young Woon-A-Tai loved to fight and was evidentially drawn to Karate.
Then in 1971, Woon-A-Tai travelled to Tokyo, Japan — the Mecca of Karate. “I restarted as a white belt, and one month later, I was graded to JKA shodan black belt… In 1978, I won the Pan American Karate Championships in Montreal, Canada. It was euphoric,” he added.
After he completed his training, the Karate Master returned to Guyana and taught Karate the international way it should be taught.
He later brought Masters: Masatoshi Nakayama, Teruyuki Okazaki, Yutaka Yaguchi, Takayuki Mikami, Shojiro Koyama, Shigeru Takashina, and Yukichi Tabata to visit Guyana. Master Nakayama succeeded the founder of Karate, Master Gichin Funakoshi.
This year, 2022, Master Woon-A-Tai is celebrating 100 years of Karate Lineage directly to the founder of Karate.
Though his recent attainment of the highest rank in Traditional Karate – the International Tenth Dan, makes him the first Guyanese to be awarded this ultimate rank that only a few masters in the world possess, Woon-A-Tai still desired success on the academic front.
He explained that due to his impoverished childhood, higher academic education was missing in his life.
“I became successful in Karate with the highest international technical credentials, I felt something was missing in my life – education. I was with the prestigious Japan Karate Association JKA, and all instructor graduates in Japan were university graduates,” he added.
As such, at age 50, Woon-A-Tai returned to complete his formal education at the University of Toronto. He graduated four years later with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Japanese Studies with a minor in History.
He noted that he could have easily settled for just success as a sportsman but he chose to challenge and qualify himself. According to him, his academic success also came from having a determined mindset. He noted too that the achievement has made him a better qualified and respected teacher.
It is with this same determination that Master Woon-A-Tai continues to build on his karate legacy.
He estimates that with the assistance of his family and supporters that he will achieve his ultimate goal to complete the state-of-the-art dojo at Liliendaal for the children of Guyana. The project, he said, is 70 percent completed.

PROUD GUYANESE
Among the things he is most proud of, Woon-A-Tai noted that he has never forsaken the land of his birth. Throughout his worldwide tours, Woon-A-Tai has met several Governor Generals, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers, and members of the Diplomatic Corps. He said he is often asked, ‘are you from Japan?’ and his reply is always, “no Sir, I am from Guyana – born and bred!”
And while he was in Jamaica as Chief Instructor in 1976, he always found time to return to Guyana several times each year to promote karate for all Guyanese.

Legacy: Master Woon -A- Tai’s grandson, D’Pharaoh, is an actor who is proud of his Guyanese Chinese heritage

The karate expert also brought several overseas-based Guyanese home who trained with him in Toronto to support the GKC.
Even as he strives to achieve his ultimate goals, Master Woon-A-Tai is building a legacy of Karate champions in his own household.
Together with his wife, Maureen, a Ninth Dan, the Karate Master has three children – Diandra who is ranked as Fifth Dan in the sport, Michelle also a Fifth Dan; and Ken a Sixth Dan, a police officer and four-time world champion.
The couple’s five grandchildren are all black belts. According to Woon-A-Tai, the eldest are twins, who are very successful TV and Motion picture actors.
Moreover, he said that his twin grandson D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, a black belt and actor, proclaimed he is Oji-Cree (Native American) and Guyanese on the Hollywood Red Carpet at the Premier of his TV Series, Reservation Dogs, in which he is the lead actor.
“He has brought Guyana to Hollywood like other distinguished Guyanese before him. At 20, he is the youngest, and his recently found fame has attracted many young Guyanese youths as fans. In 2018, he and his twin brother taught karate to the children on a visit to Guyana,” disclosed the proud grandfather.
Finally, Master Woon-A-Tai made honourable mention of the latest addition to the family, his great-granddaughter, Edna Rose, whom he hopes will follow in the family’s legacy.

Source: Kaieteur News

Guyana’s karate icon, Master Frank Woon-A-Tai, U of T graduate, won a gold medal in Montreal at the Pan American Karate Championships in 1978
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