Masters in Toronto: Hong Luck Kung Fu Club

[多倫多的功夫大師: 康樂武館]

In Memoriam: Grandmaster Paul Chan (1932-2012)

While preparing to do a video interview for this project, Grandmaster Chan passed away at the age of 79. Grandmaster Chan was one of the original founding members of the Hong Luck Kung Fu Club, and was recognized as “the Father of Canadian Kung Fu”. He had a profound influence on the lives of many Torontonians, both young and old, and from a range of nationalities. Grandmaster Chan’s long standing commitment to his community and to the city is a legacy that belongs to the heritage of Toronto.


Written by Catherine Qian

In 1974, what is now the Toronto District School Board decided to introduce the first heritage language class in the public school system. This initiative came as a result of the hard work and determination of some members of the Chinese community who recognized the retention of their language as an effective means of preserving their cultural heritage and identity. Their accomplishment reflected the size and influence of Toronto’s Chinese Community, and built on its deep roots in the history of this city.

The Hong Luck Kung Fu Club, located near the corner of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown, is one of the oldest martial arts schools in Canada. Since it was established in 1961, the Club has offered traditional martial arts training, while at the same time showcasing Chinese culture. The Hong Luck Club originated from a small, tight knit group of Chinese men who felt the need to strengthen the Chinese community through training others in this ancient martial art. Today, the club is a primary heritage symbol within the Chinese community and beyond. Open to people of any culture, the club’s diverse students have represented well the building of the city’s inclusive environment.

Welcoming diversity was not always the Canadian way. The Chinese Immigration Act, passed in 1923, banned most Chinese from immigrating to Canada. Following its repeal in 1947, however, a steady stream of Chinese began to enter Canada, settling in large numbers in major urban centres like Toronto. Toronto already had a Chinese community, one that had begun in the 1880s and had already found a niche in the city. They had opened businesses, started organizations and joined various Christian churches in downtown Toronto. The pre-World War II community of Torontonians of Chinese descent would lay the foundation for those who would come after the 1940s, and paved the way for the formation of organizations like the Hong Luck Kung Fu Club.

East Wall of the training hall. Kung Fu practitioners begin and end all sessions with respectful acknowledgement of their predecessors, shown in this display. Credit: Hong Luck Kung Fu Club

In the early 1950s, Toronto was a vastly different city from what it is today. Its population was largely of European descent, and an unfriendly environment often faced the groups of young Chinese men who arrived in Toronto to start a new life. Many of them found employment at local Chinese restaurants or laundries, working long hours and earning enough money to cover their basic needs. Despite their low profile in the city, they encountered racism and discrimination on a regular basis. Verbal abuse was accompanied by physical confrontations.

This threatening environment ultimately led to the creation of the Hong Luck Kung Fu Club. Master Paul Chan came to Toronto in the early 1950s, began working in restaurants, and eventually became the owner of his own establishment. Unlike many of the other Chinese men new to Toronto, he was a trained martial artist, having studied under Grandmaster Wong Chuen Yip and Grandmaster Chan Dau. Master Chan gained a strong foundation in Chinese martial arts, excelling in Do Pi, fighting application techniques and heigong. Once in Toronto, he became a part of the small, tight knit Asian martial arts community, and took the opportunity to learn judo under Sensei Frank Hatashita, eventually earning a black belt.

Master Chan recounted that his first years in the city were full of hardships and prejudice. Despite his success in the restaurant business, discrimination, racism and physical confrontations were a continuing problem for him and the broader Chinese community, which received little protection from local police.

Increasingly angered and frustrated by the situation, Master Chan and a group of young Chinese men came together searching for a way to defend themselves and their community. With this mission in mind, they set out to learn and train in martial arts. This led to the founding of one of Canada’s first traditional Wushu/Kung Fu schools, the Hong Luck Club, where martial arts were taught as a method of self-protection during a hostile period for the small but growing Chinese population in Toronto.

In 1961, in the lower floors of a small building at 100 Elizabeth Street in Toronto’s old Chinatown, the first ever Martial Arts Study Conference took place in Canada. The Hong Luck Club grew out of that conference, and began with a membership of 13 men. Its small size made it hard to collect enough membership fees to cover rent and purchase quality materials. Furthermore, most members had limited funds as they were often underpaid and sent a large portion of their earnings back to their families in China. Still, private member contributions became the pillar of the club’s initial financial base, and the members’ dedication to succeed became the driving force behind the club’s survival.

The name of the club stems from its dedication to studying and practising martial arts in order to protect and defend. The club’s goal was not to provoke conflict, but rather to provide a safe environment for the building of healthy and happy lives in Toronto. The words “Hong” and “Luck” come from the Chinese characters that form the words “Healthy” and “Happiness”.

Within a short time, the club began to receive support and praise from the local Chinese community for its meaningful mission and purpose. As the years passed, the popularity of the Hong Luck Kung Fu Club spread. A small lion dance performance team of 40 grew into a team of no less than 500 members at its peak. In 1968, all members pitched in to purchase a property near the corner of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street which remains the home of the club today.

Grandmaster Paul Chan with successful competitors from a high-level tournament. Credit: Hong Luck Kung Fu Club

Amongst the many principles of Hong Luck now stands one in which they “teach to anyone who is willing to learn with spirit, effort and heart”. As Toronto changed to become more welcoming of diversity, the Chinese community faced less discrimination. In the 1960s and 1970s, relationships between newly arrived immigrant groups also influenced, and were influenced by, the club. It continued to serve as a centre to teach and showcase Chinese martial arts, and found itself welcoming more non-Chinese members. For example, a young African-Canadian named Al Cromwell, affectionately nicknamed “Ah Al”, entered the doors of the club to learn Chinese martial arts. He was followed by “Ah Sil” and soon thereafter, more arrived. This was the beginning of the multicultural membership that has defined the club for decades and has helped to build this centre into a historical treasure in Toronto.

Over the last 50 years, thousands of people have passed through the club where Master Chan and his colleagues have shared the art of Chinese Kung Fu. In the heart of Chinatown, this martial arts school has become one of the many social spaces, begun by a particular culture, but later shared by people of many cultures. Its success is demonstrated by the long list of its graduates who hail from cultures around the world. The school now employs numerous instructors who are of non-Chinese descent and its student base is even more diverse.

Group photo of club members, 1991, taken after a performance on the basement stage at the Chinatown Centre on Spadina, south of Dundas. Credit: Hong Luck Kung Fu Club

The Hong Luck Club has played a significant role in Toronto’s transformation into a diverse, inclusive and welcoming city. Starting in a small room on Elizabeth Street, the Club has expanded and evolved into an important vehicle for cultural expression and cultural unity, through Chinese martial arts. The connections it has helped establish between people of different backgrounds have clearly strengthened the broader community. Furthermore, the myriad philanthropic activities of the club, including lion dance performances at community events, are an example of its continuing influence in the city. The Hong Luck Club has earned a place within the broader historical narrative of Toronto for its contributions to the well-being and identity of the people who call this city home.

Sources

Interview with Gordon Glasheen
Interview with Grandmaster Paul Chan
Hong Luck Kung Fu Club commemorative magazines for 1991, 2001 and 2011 anniversaries, including historical essays by Mr. Gee Poy Ing and Mr. Ming Lin Chow.
Arlene Chan, The Chinese in Toronto from 1878 ‘From Outside to Inside the Circle’,(Natural Heritage, 2011).

Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.

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