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Breaking Gender Barriers in Kung Fu and Lion Dance with Leanne

Updated: Mar 19

This International Women’s Day is about investing in women and accelerating progress. In a cultural sport that’s traditionally dominated by men, meet Leanne Yu, one of the many women who joined Chau Luen Athletics to practice kung fu and lion dance. Hear her story, family ties to martial arts, and what made her want to join the Chau Luen kung fu family.


Kung fu roots and beginnings


Leanne has always had a special connection to martial arts and lion dance, thanks to her grandfather and father's legacy. Her grandpa practiced Fut Ga-style (佛家) kung fu, a predecessor to the Choy Lee Fut (蔡李佛) style embraced at Chau Luen Athletics. Meanwhile, her dad learned Choy Lee Fut in China, and then became a kung fu master (師父 or “sifu”) and taught in Vancouver's Chinatown during the '80s.


Shon Yee Athletic Club at Chinese New Year Parade in 1985
Leanne’s family at the Chinatown Spring Festival Parade in 1985

With strong family roots in martial arts, Leanne’s exposure to kung fu and lion dance began at an early age. Learning directly from the master himself, she was only five years old when her dad began teaching her. But as a third culture Chinese kid in a western country who also felt intimidated as a girl in a male-dominated sport, she ended up pursuing other mainstream activities such as gymnastics and dance.


Reconnecting with her Chinese culture


Then in 2018, a documentary featuring Chau Luen Athletics caught her eye. It was the club’s focus on preserving cultural heritage, as well as their inclusive and accessible classes, that resonated with her. The club’s name stayed in the back of her mind until the pandemic hit – a time where many found resilience in their culture in the face of rising Anti-Asian racism. Leanne found a welcoming community at Chau Luen Athletics after seeing so many women performers at the 2022 Fire Dragon Festival.


Fire Dragon Festival Volunteers
Chau Luen Athletics at last year’s Fire Dragon Festival with Hung Hsing Choy Lee Fut, UBC Kung Fu Association, and community volunteers. Credit: Mayowill Photography.

But starting in her 30s brought its own challenges. Usually, most people begin their martial arts training at a young age and would already have at least a decade’s worth of experience by the time they reach adulthood.


Leanne optimistically thought her family's kung fu legacy and her own athletic background in western sports would make things easier, like a natural chi flowing through her veins. Turns out, she was a beginner just like everyone else, and has been happily humbled by the experience.


Leanne Yu practicing Choy Lee Fut
Leanne training with the club’s head instructor sifu (“master”) Michael Tan

Making her lion dance and kung fu debut


After months of rigorous training, Leanne made her lion dance debut at the 2024 Chinatown Spring Festival Parade. The reactions from her family and friends were heartwarming. Her little nieces eagerly waited in the rain, and their eyes instantly lit up the moment they saw their favourite aunt approach them in the lion.


Leanne Yu of Chau Luen Athletics with a red pocket at the Chinatown Spring Festival Parade
At the 2024 Chinatown Spring Festival Parade, Leanne accepts a red packet as the lion.

At Sunset on Fraser’s Lunar New Year Lion Dance and Parade, both her parents came out to watch and support their daughter. Leanne even wore the same lion dance belt her dad used to train with, representing an heirloom being passed down to the next generation.


Leanne Yu performing a lion dance in Vancouver

"Being a kid who grew up in two cultures, I've always felt a big gap between my dad and me,” said Leanne. “We come from different places, we've lived different lives, and essentially speak different languages. But now, through kung fu and lion dance, we finally have something special that brings us together."

2024 marked one of many firsts for Leanne. At Hui’s 45th Anniversary Spring Festival Celebration, Leanne also made her martial arts debut. She performed Siu Mui Fa (小梅花), a kung fu set she had been learning over the past year.


Leanne Yu performing kung fu at Hui's Association Spring Festival Celebration
Leanne performs the kung fu set Siu Mui Fa for the first time.

Defying gender stereotypes for the next generation


Leanne is one of many women at Chau Luen Athletics who is showing the next generation that kung fu and lion dance is and should be accessible to anyone with an interest to learn. This International Women's Day, she encourages more women and girls to pursue their passion without hesitation.


"An impediment women often hear, even today, is, 'The lion is too heavy for you,' but that's not true. Lion heads are more awkward than heavy to hold,” said Leanne. “I've discovered it's all about the technique, and anyone can master it if they're taught well.”


“Every day, I’m inspired by the women who have paved the way in this community, and I feel honoured to carry the torch alongside them,” she adds. “I hope just by being here and my willingness to learn is enough to inspire a different perspective. There’s nothing inherently gendered about martial arts or lion dancing.”


All-women's lion dance team and dragon dance team
An all-women’s lion dance team with Chau Luen Athletics, Hung Hsing Choy Lee Fut, and UBC Kung Fu Association at the 2024 Chinatown Spring Festival Parade

Looking to kick start your lion dance and kung fu training in a welcoming and inclusive environment? Email us at hello@vancouverliondance.com and ask us about our trial classes!

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