Classmates tried to use my Asian identity against me, but kung fu anchored me

Growing up in the Prairies in the 1990s meant little Asian representation. 

By Marvin Chan 

“Let’s see your kung fu, Jackie Chan.”

This was the last thing I heard before being pushed into a circle of kids.

I remember thinking, “Do they really think all Chinese people know kung fu?”

They just happened to pick one who did.

My most vivid elementary school memories in Regina during the 1990s were ones like these.

My teachers and principal were often confused. I was a quiet kid. I got good grades. I barely spoke and, when I did, I raised my hand first.

But then something like this would happen — someone would call me “yellow” or something else racist — I’d black out and end up back in the principal’s office.

Chan at his childhood home in Regina. His parents gave him the typical ‘Asian bowl cut’ — a haircut he says was common among many early-generation Asian kids in North America in the 1990s. (Submitted by Marvin Chan)

My mom put me in kung fu lessons in early elementary school. I learned how to kick before ever properly throwing a ball.

The specific style of kung fu I learned was called Bak Hsing Kwoon. This system was derived from a greater Kung Fu lineage called Choy Li Fut, which originated in the 1800s from southern China.

My sifu (teacher) was Henry Suen, a fourth-generation Bak Hsing Choy Li Fut grandmaster from Hong Kong. He also owned Hot Wok, one of Regina’s only dim sum restaurants at the time.

Every Tuesday, my mom dropped my brother and me off to kung fu at the local legion and every Saturday, my parents drove us to Chinese school after dim sum.

Tuesdays were the best day of the week. Saturdays were the worst (except for dim sum). 

Chan, sixth from left, and Henry Suen, right of Chan, with their Bak Hsing Kwoon class after performing for Chinese New Year celebrations at the Delta Hotel in Regina. (Submitted by Marvin Chan )

Throughout elementary school, I was the only Chinese kid in my grade. I felt more normal at kung fu and Chinese school where all the other kids looked like me.

Still, I struggled in Chinese school. I could barely read.

At elementary school, I was invisible. At Chinese school, I was illiterate.

But at kung fu, Sifu Henry gave me something I couldn’t find anywhere else.

Suen, right, in Calgary’s Chinatown, with a fellow student and their teacher, Lun Chi, middle, who was a first-generation grandmaster who learned directly from Bak Hsing Choy Li Fut’s founder, Tam Sam. (Submitted by Marvin Chan)

I wasn’t an overly physical kid. I was more of a gamer than an athlete. I usually got picked last in gym class.

But kung fu was more than just physical self-defence. It was about defending myself culturally.

With kung fu, motion was language. I could express emotions through movement. 

Bruce Lee explained in his 1971 interview with Pierre Berton that martial arts is a means for those who “want to learn to express themselves through some movement” and is “in combative form, the art of expressing the human body.”


A time of little Asian representation 

Growing up as a Chinese Cantonese and Thai Canadian on the Prairies was weird, especially during the 1990s and early 2000s.

There weren’t Asian Canadians in films like there are now: no Simu Liu as Shang-Chi or Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in Star Wars

There were no Asian cast shows winning Emmys like Beef or movies like Everything Everywhere All At Once winning Academy Awards. 

There were no Asian artists in music such as Thuy or Blackpink at Coachella nor BTS or NewJeans on the Spotify playlists.

Chan, third from left, with his Chinese school class, held in the basement of the Chinese church in Regina’s east end. (Submitted by Marvin Chan)

Sifu Henry taught first and second-generation Chinese kids to be proud of who they are.

He had famous one-liners like, “No. 1 thing: don’t get hurt.” and taught concepts like how to “rest while fighting.”

I realize now that these weren’t just lessons about kung fu. They were lessons in perseverance and preservation for ourselves culturally.

Chan, fourth from right, with friends after performing kung fu and lion dance demonstrations at the Mosaic Multicultural Festival’s Chinese pavilion in Regina in 2011. (Submitted by Marvin Chan)

I realize now that my mom didn’t even put my brother and me into kung fu for self-defence or even to exercise. My parents are academics. They hated finding me in the principal’s office with more bruises or a black eye.

My mom wanted us in kung fu and Chinese school and around dim sum and Sifu Henry because it was the only way for us to connect to ourselves culturally, especially during the 1990s in the small-town Prairies.

Suen taught, trained and competed in kung fu all over North America before settling in Regina. (Submitted by Jordan Tsang)

Sifu Henry passed away while I was in university. Since then, I’ve trained in Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu but kung fu remains the foundation for my martial arts.

Sifu Henry gave me strength through kung fu to pursue all the art forms I followed, including becoming a singer-songwriter.

Kung fu not only gave me the means of surviving my childhood but it also allowed me to embrace myself today as an artist, a martial artist and a Chinese Cantonese and Thai Canadian.

  • The article was first published by CBC News

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