My Shanghai, an Urban Family series where we ask a Shanghai-based somebody to tell us about their life.
Stepping outside of her comfort zone to challenge her idea of fitness led Francesca Kee (fondly known as Fran) to become a partner with DEF Group (DEF Boxing and SHBJJ) in Shanghai. Immersing herself in combat training to learn a range of self-defense techniques brings discipline, focus and inner peace to this accomplished mother of two. With two training academies already in Shanghai and another one on the way, Fran is enthusiastic about engaging the community in the sports offered by the DEF Group. In particular, their classes for children and women to increase fitness, strength and confidence in a safe and friendly environment.
Image via Fran Kee
How did you come to live in Shanghai and what is your background?
I came to Shanghai 10 years ago with my beau, who is now my husband, because we fell in love with the city’s charming mix of old heritage with modern city living. I still remember having brunch at People’s Park where I could see two buildings side by side: one representing the now, and one from the past.
I am Malaysian-Chinese, born in Penang and raised in Kuala Lumpur. Before coming to Shanghai, I worked in sales and marketing for a few years, followed by a role at 4A’s Advertising Agency.
What are the circumstances that led to your partnership with DEF Group (DEF Boxing and SHBJJ)?
I was lucky in how I became involved in DEF Group. I have a good friend who was already a partner, and while training one morning, I had a ‘eureka’ moment where I decided to ask him about becoming a partner too. It also helped that as a child I spent a lot of time watching kung fu movies and wrestling.
Image via Fran Kee
What appeals to you about combat training and contact sports?
I have tried a range of different sports as part of my workout regime; I practiced yoga for 14 years and even became a certified yoga teacher. However, nothing else made me feel this passionate; there is never an excuse not to train. Rain, hail or shine, nothing deters me from driving to the academy to get in a good workout while learning useful self-defense techniques. I find contact sports the best stress reliever because you have to focus and concentrate, or you’ll get hit in the face. Plus, it’s the most effective cardio workout to burn extra calories. Over time, I’ve learned that combat training also conditions the mind, allowing me to acquire both physical and mental strength.
What training are you currently undertaking and what motivates you?
I had been Muay Thai training for almost a year when I decided to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). A fellow member said that given my small physique, I could lose out to a bigger attacker if I only kicked and punched, as they would feel nothing. BJJ has effective self-defense techniques suited to people my size. My trainer then had me undertake Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) training too.
Challenges motivate me. To be able to do something I never imagined drives me to want to do even more and be better. As of now, I would say I only enjoy contact sports. When I’m not training, I do like to swim, and I occasionally play tennis.
Image via Fran Kee
Are your academies child-friendly? What classes do you offer for children?
We are extremely child-friendly, and we believe a love of self-defense and physical exercise should be cultivated from a young age. We offer kids BJJ, kids Muay Thai and kids boxing. For our kid’s program, we teach self-defense techniques through fun and games. We mix the classes with physical exercises to build stamina and strength. We teach the kids discipline and respect while cultivating confidence and positivity.
Can you tell me about the combat classes you have for women?
We have a variety of classes for women: Muay Thai, boxing and body shaping & conditioning, which is a favorite among women because it builds strength and definition. We also offer MMA fitness which is a mix of cardio and CrossFit, combined with punching and kicking pads to build muscle, and it’s a great stress reliever. And of course, we have Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which is an excellent way to learn self-defense. We consider ourselves a family and community, so training together encourages camaraderie.
Image via Fran Kee
What has the most challenging in regards to your involvement in such a male-dominated industry?
I think the initial stage of gaining confidence was a big step. Shifting my mind from thinking I am not just a mother of two who cooks and bakes, but a woman who isn’t afraid of hard work. Be it with my training or developing ideas to prove that I understand the martial arts industry. I am fortunate to have supportive male partners who are like my brothers. The fact that I have been training for almost a year before becoming a partner also helped, because I am not seen as a complete outsider. Training with men could feel aggressive and uncomfortable for some. But after a while, they see the genuine love and passion I have for the sport, and everyone accepts that gender equality can be achieved when you’re on the mat or in the ring!
What are some of the most exciting results you have seen from your classes?
For me, it’s the physical strength and stamina which helps me function better on a daily basis, especially when caring for two hyperactive toddlers who are just 17 months apart. For our members, it’s seeing them come in every day, committed to their training and trying the different martial arts disciplines we offer. We recently launched our kids’ programs, and that has provided a lot of positivity and energy to the academies. In addition to learning self-defense techniques, the kids are happy to be part of our Jiu-Jitsu community and build trust and loyalty with their trainers who they see as mentors.
Image via Fran Kee
Combat sports is a fast-growing fitness regime in Shanghai, why should people come and try DEF Group?
We are the authority in combat training for both professionals and the masses. Our trainers are highly skilled and well trained in each field. They are professional fighters and athletes who undergo a strict and legitimate training program, which we now impart to our members. Our Muay Thai trainer is Thai and has fought in over 300 fights, and our boxing trainer is from the Philippines. Also, our Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu trainers are from Brazil, Turkey, Taiwan and China and still compete in tournaments and undergo study from their masters to move up the ranks of their belts. The endless learning journey is so important as it cultivates skill, experience and passion and all these are what we teach and share with our members. For a combat training academy, we are very friendly and inviting, not to mention clean and comfortable with the top-of-the-range facilities. As a woman, another important factor is we have clean bathrooms, so members can train according to their schedule, with the ability to shower after their class.
Where are your gyms located and how can our Urban Family community find out more?
We currently have Qixin Academy in Minhang, Yuyuan Academy in Jingan and by October our Century Avenue Academy in Pudong will open. In Hong Kong, we have a SHBJJ Academy in Sheung Wan. You can scan our official QR code for more information.
[Cover image via Fran Kee]
For more My Shanghai series, click here.