Shaolin Kenpo is rooted in a Chinese style of karate developed in the 1940s by William Kwai Sun Chow, whose lineage can be traced to the Shaolin Temple. He studied his family's art of Kung Fu for most of his life, but also studied Kosho Ryu Kempo under James Mitose. He united these two arts into a new art which would eventually be referred to as Chinese Kara-Ho Kenpo Karate, and was primarily taught at the Official Self Defense Club of Honolulu, Hawaii. Chow developed kenpo as an American offshoot of kung-fu, designed to blend with modern self-defense demands, but still remain a traditional Chinese art. Among Chow's many distinguished students was Ralph Castro, founder and Great Grandmaster of Shaolin Kenpo. It was Castro who brought the art to San Francisco, California in the 1950s.
The word kenpo is a Japanese translation of the Chinese word quánfǎ, meaning "fighting technique." Kenpo has developed into one of the most popular martial arts in the United States, which is remarkable for a martial art that came to the United States only a few decades ago. While kenpo in the United States has been modified within each school that teaches it, Great Grandmaster Castro worked to maintain the art in the same manner in which Chow taught it to him. In 1982, William Kwai Sun Chow promoted Castro to 9th Degree Black Belt, and together they renamed the art to Shaolin Kenpo, which better reflects Chow's own roots in Shaolin Kung Fu.
To the trained eye, Shaolin Kenpo looks more like kung fu than other kenpo systems. Replete with long- and short-range hand strikes, distinctively Chinese stances and circular strikes, Shaolin Kenpo emphasizes speed and power, coupled with multiple combination strikes directed at more than one attacker. Students train through a series of sets and forms that are practiced alone, with partners, and in small groups. It is a full belt system in which students progress from white to black belt over years of training.
The International Shaolin Kenpo Association was established in 1981 by Great Grandmaster Ralph Castro to be the only governing body over his art of Shaolin Kenpo. The Association regulates the technical quality of Shaolin Kenpo and governs its members. It determines rank promotion criteria and maintains standards and ethics. The Association determines who are certified Shaolin Kenpo instructors and sanctioned schools, and it requires that they are subject to inspection, review, and revocation.