From martial arts to high-end locks, SF residents are investing in self-protection

On a recent foggy night in San Francisco’s Richmond District, a group of about a dozen people bent their knees and prepared their fists to assume a fighting pose.

Master Jeff Chow’s booming voice led the Tat Wong Kung Fu Academy class through a sequence of blocking and striking moves to practice palming, elbowing, kneeing and kicking — mimicking a confrontation with a would-be attacker all of them hoped they would never actually have to encounter.

With San Francisco mired in an intensifying debate over crime and public safety, the lessons taught by instructors like Chow are in greater demand. Several operators of self-defense schools and people who sell security equipment said they are seeing an uptick in business.

San Francisco — which has long struggled with a high rate of theft crimes — has not experienced major increases in violent crime this year, according to police figures, but more burglaries, robberies and other crimes are being captured on videos that spread virally on social media , and the city has been consumed by the war of words over Progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin and his efforts to reduce incarceration in favor of treatment and rehabilitation.

Tat Wong academy, which has more than 450 students, has seen its new student count double in the last year, with more than 100 students enrolling in 2021 so far. Many of those new students are women and older adults who say they’ve come to the studio for reasons other than just fitness.

“This was something I wanted to do in light of recent events,” said Dorothy Wong, 35, referring to attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, some captured on video, that shocked the city over the summer.

Dorothy Wong, 35, takes a water break during a martial arts class at Tat Won Kung Fu Academy in San Francisco.

Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

“The hate, especially towards elderly, is super concerning,” she said, adding that she lives with her 99-year-old grandmother. “So part of that was me trying to be prepared in case I needed to defend my family.”

In Hayes Valley, Tactica Krav Maga Institute, which teaches a combative form of self-defense developed by the Israeli military, has also seen its enrollment grow by more than 60 new students this year, and has seen increases in enrollment by women and Asian Americans looking to learn self-defense, said CEO and head instructor Danny Zelig.

“There has been a big shift,” said Zelig, adding that most students used to come to the center primarily to get stronger or in shape. “People are coming here to literally defend themselves. The urgency for that has definitely increased more than before.”

Martial arts center United Studios of Self Defense, in Lower Pacific Heights, has seen an increase of students in the last year — from 60 to around 85, according to Principal John Collins. He added that around 70% of his new students have shared they don’t feel safe walking on the streets.

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