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How I Rediscovered my Toisan Roots Through Kung Fu

Updated: Mar 29

Growing up, I had a weird relationship with my Chinese heritage. Half Toisan (台山) and half Hoiping (開平) by blood but unable to speak Cantonese that well, growing up it was odd playing with the schoolyard kids who were unable to understand a word I said.

They looked at me like I was some sort of weirdo with a hillbilly accent and a weird way of saying things. Some of the other kids would bully me for my accent, asking me again and again to say basic phrases in my “bad Chinese” until I didn’t really find it a positive to say I knew Chinese anymore. To be truthful, it was embarrassing being laughed at by the other Chinese kids.

Even if I was born in Canada, I knew I wasn’t fully whitewashed. I could speak to my grandparents and extended family just fine. I was aware of every cultural tradition, foodstuff, and superstition that my grandma enforced in the household. I could tell you about the perils of being too ngat hei 熱氣 (excuse my made-up Toisan romanization), how to properly prepare aey-fu 豆腐, and how to pronounce the elusive “hl” sound that is best known outside of our dialect in Welsh.

Chinese grandparents with grandkids eating a meal together

I went on through my high school life, not really embracing much of my Chinese heritage. I celebrated the western holidays. I never attended any of my school’s Chinese celebrations. I didn’t take up my uncle’s offer to join kung fu, opting instead to join a Korean taekwondo club (though this was more of a result of the school having a sale and my parents being cheap).

Jonathan performs Taekwondo in high school

I continued with taekwondo for years until injuries forced me to stop. At that point, I was focused on school like the good little Asian boy I was. As much as I missed kicking targets and breaking boards, I felt the martial arts chapter of my life was over.

My first exposure to lion dance, dragon dance, and traditional kung fu

Years later, I was attending the Vancouver Fire Dragon Festival in 2019 and unknowingly ran into Chau Luen Athletics’s head instructor, sifu (“master”) Michael Tan. I remember he was so outgoing and friendly, letting me hold the dragon head for a photo before showing me the basics of dragon dance. If anything, this would be the kind of person who I’d enjoy learning from.

Sifu Michael Tan of Chau Luen Athletics at the Fire Dragon Festival in Vancouver
Credit: Mayowill Photography

Later in the day, I overheard him speaking in Hoiping dialect to a passing senior, piquing my interest for a second since most people my age aren’t able to speak in a village dialect. I didn’t think much of it after that since my attention turned to the embers of a smoldering dragon weaving its way around the streets of Chinatown.

A couple years later, though, things would change.

Wait, did I just hear someone speaking Toisan to me?

My involvement with the Chau Luen Athletics team started when I was invited to help out with the Chinatown Spring Festival Parade as a dragon dancer. After I was given the club’s address, I was surprised to find out it was actually Chau Luen Tower, a senior’s independent living home that one of my grandfather’s friends used to stay at. It didn’t phase me much; I was more phased by the fact that practice began at 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday.

Dragon dance puppet being unwrapped

I walked in the door, introduced myself to a few people, and waited for the class to begin. All of a sudden, I saw a friendly popo (Toisan word for “grandma”) mosey into the adjacent room…

“Hi, lieng doy, lieng nui!” 「嗨, 靚仔靚女」

Everyone waved and said hello back. It was cool to hear my dialect being spoken, even if only for a split second. Soon, we were learning how to dragon dance before the big performance that was taking place in a couple weeks. Forecasts predicted over 100,000 people would attend the event, so we had a lot of work to do, especially considering we were the lead dragon in the parade.

Indoor Dragon Dance practice at Chau Luen Tower

During one of our breaks (which I was grateful for since I was so out of shape), I sat down near the room where the Toisan grandma was. She was having a full Toisan/Hoiping conversation with her friends, talking about how well we haey-sang (後生) were doing with the whole dragon dance thing.

Mrs. Tse of Chau Luen Tower

This was especially heartwarming since the only other Toisan I was exposed to by strangers was at a public mahjong event in Chinatown. I was considered “too good to play with the white people” so I was sent to a table with older ladies. Turns out I was no match for them and had to pretend to not understand them as they insulted me in my own dialect. Needless to say, I eventually went back to the “white table” and taught new players how to read the numbers one to nine.

Lion dance blessings and being complimented in my own dialect

Fast forward to having a whole year of kung fu, dragon dance, and percussion training under my belt – I was about to put it to good use.

One of our kung fu club's most anticipated events is our door-to-door lion dance blessings at the Chau Luen tower. Here, all of the residents are invited to sign up to receive a blessing from our lions. We go door to door, from top to bottom, doing a short but entertaining lion dance routine to bless the seniors and wish them a year of happiness and good health.

Even in the cramped hallways, we’re overjoyed to see all the smiles and hear the words of encouragement (often in a dialect I could understand) from all the residents.

Lion dancer accepts red pocket

Sometimes, the seniors invite us into their homes as well, giving us the chance to bless homemade shrines, something that I remember praying to when my grandparents were alive. It brought back memories of the well-practiced, perfectly cadenced Chinese prayers my grandmother offered.

Lion dancers performing for seniors in Chinatown

Every floor we did, we got a round of compliments from all of the seniors, again, many of them in a dialect I could understand.

I’m more inspired than ever to continue my Toisan journey

In a way, learning lion dance, dragon dance, and kung fu with Chau Luen Athletics has sort of enabled me to find my roots. Instead of being embarrassed by my lousy Chinese and “weird” accent, it’s become really fulfilling to go to class every week and hearing this dying dialect – the same dialect I heard growing up.

Jonathan Lee practices traditional Chinese drumming for lion dance

Since my grandparents have all passed on, I found it hard to find a reason to speak in my dialect anymore. But because I joined kung fu and am now surrounded by all these seniors who also speak Toisan, it’s given me the freedom to speak again, even if most of the time it’s because they need help with the TV or they want me to translate the ingredients on a juice bottle.

I always had the goal of having my future children learn some sort of martial art. Partially so they can get in shape and learn to defend themselves, but with kung fu and lion dance, to also understand their culture and origins. Maybe my desire to pass on my dialect to my children, a dream that I felt would be impossible, could eventually happen as well. Who knows, I could follow the footsteps of my parents and one day visit the ancestral village in rural China where I came from.

Lion dancers receive red pockets

That chubby Toisan kid being laughed at by his peers would never have thought about it or even wanted it. But the good news for him is that the days of wanting to hide my dialect from the outside world. I can be proud of who I am – the upbringing I had, the culture and heritage I come from, and the language I speak.

Like that classic Molson Canadian beer commercial, I can go in front of a crowd and say…

My name is Jon. And I am a Hoisan ngin.


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