I should be packing for a weekend visiting family. But before leaving I wanted to share something from my recent reading. Growing up in Western NY I had many opportunities to visit Toronto. Its Chinatown was the first of North America’s historic Chinese communities that I was able to get a real sense of. Unfortunately, I no longer get back there as often as I would like. Nor have I really invested the time and effort to familiarize myself with the city’s substantial martial arts scene. Perhaps in our struggle to discover the treasures of far off times and places we always neglect those that are close at hand.
The following 1934 article published in the Globe hints at what I might be missing. It profiles a Chinese lion dance and subsequent martial arts demonstration held during Toronto’s centennial celebrations. The Chinese dancers and musicians were far from the only performers at this event. Each of the city’s many immigrant neighborhoods were represented through their own folk dances performed in “native” costumes.
This article is not long, but it is well worth reading as a reminder of the ways that Chinese communities were viewed in North America prior to WWII. It also brings up a few notes of special interest. After corresponding with Arlene Chan, a local historian and expert on the development of the ethnic Chinese community in the region, I was delighted to learn that the Ship Toy Yen Society, referenced in this article, has survived more or less to the present day. The group was best known in the 1930s and 1940s for its public theater at which Cantonese operas and other musical performances were staged. Apparently, it lived on as a benevolent society, dedicated to the performance of traditional “sword and spear dancing.”
According to Arlene Chan’s records the first dedicated Chinese martial arts school in Toronto was Sifu Jimmy Lore’s Jing Mo Kung Fu Club (1969-2003), which was located at 10 Hagerman Street in Old Chinatown. It counted among its students the important figure skater, Elvis Stojko, who subsequently choreographed martial arts in his skating programs. Robin Young, a student, noted that Lore began his teaching career at the Hung Moon Association in the 1940. Check out this brief biography for more discussion on Lore’s martial arts career.
Readers should note that after the performance of the Lion Dance this theatrical company also staged a public martial arts demonstration. Not knowing what to call the display the reporter referred to it simply as a “jiujitsu” exhibition. The Western reading public was already familiar with that term by the 1930s, and it probably conveyed some idea of what was seen by spectators. Still, its another reminder of the fact that there was no agreed upon terminology to refer to the Chinese martial arts until well into the post-WWII era. I suspect that at least some of the invisibility of these practices is a result of our own linguistic shortcomings rather than the supposed “secrecy” of the Chinese community.
Clearly there is some interesting history waiting to be recorded in Toronto. Perhaps this article is most valuable as a reminder not to ignore what lies on one’s own doorstep while staring off at treasures in the distance. Special thanks go to Colin P. McGuire (an ethnomusicologist and fellow student of martial arts studies) who was kind enough to point me towards a couple of photographs from this event. They compliment the article quite nicely. Be sure to check out his blog.
Chinese Perform Weird Lion Dance
Groups of Various Nationalities Celebrate Centennial in High Park
A strangely beautiful chapter was added to the story of Toronto’s centennial year when groups representing the nine nationalities gathered in High Park Saturday afternoon. The flags of many nations waved in the light breeze besides the Union Jack and the Canadian Ensign. Picturesque folk costumes and the music of native instruments attracted crowds of Toronto citizens, who wandered about the park witnessing the dance and the games.
Many gathered to see the performance of the weird Mu Shu, or Lion Dance, which was executed by members of the Ship Toy Yen, local Chinese lodge. This dance is more than 2,000 years old, and was performed in Toronto for the first time on Saturday. The lion’s head was specially imported from Canton for the event.
To the throbbing of giant drums and the clashing of cymbals the Oriental dancers went through the motions of the ancient dance. The men supporting the lion which was a brilliantly colored effigy with a large, ferocious-looking head whirled and spun, and as they dropped out exhausted their places were taken by others. Sputtering firecrackers added to the din of the Chinse musical instruments. The dancers, whose duty it was to prevent the Lion from securing a bundle of money and vegetables tied to the upper branches of a tree, swung broad-bladed northern swords known as the Da Doi. The Lion finally triumphed after reaching the money by climbing a human ladder formed by dancers, [and] went through the last victorious movement of the dance. This ceremonial was followed by an exhibition of jiujitsu….