Local love in Vancouver’s Chinatown

Sometimes, it’s our earliest memories that stick.

Experiences from childhood can shape our understanding of community. They can establish strong connections to our heritage and culture, and they can inspire us to help build beautiful, safe spaces for others.

For Edmund Ma, the time he spent with his maternal and paternal grandparents as a young child shaped much of the person he has grown into today.

Where it all began

“My parents were new immigrants, busy working two full-time jobs. So from the time that I was born, until I was about five years old, my grandparents helped raise me,” he says. “They really influenced much of who I am.”

A family stands in front of a green wall.

Edmund, second from left, and his maternal grandparents

He describes his early life as “typically Canadian”.

“You know – boy scouts, swimming lessons, Chinese school and kung-fu,” he laughs. “I loved spending time in Chinatown. Going on the weekends as a family to do our shopping, getting to know the neighbourhood. You don’t think about it as a kid, but those are the times that really shape you.”

As a child, Edmund could see how happy his grandfather was that he had a passion for kung-fu.

“Knowing how much it meant to him drove me to continue and progress,” he say, “including my time spent as a member of team Canada.”

Inspiring the next generation

Support from his grandfather is also the reason that Edmund continues to be active in the sport, now working as an instructor at the Mah Society – his clan society – in Chinatown.

“I love teaching because I get to be a part of the connection between the cultural, physical and social spaces,” he says. “I see all of these young people learning about history, getting physically active, making new friends and taking part in community.”

For him, there is something unique about seeing all of these elements working together.

“It’s a privilege to help build this empowered, open space for kids and youth,” he says. “Plus it gives them the opportunities to build up their confidence through performances and exhibitions. There’s nothing like being in front of a group of excited, happy and inspired people.”

Giving back

Edmund’s deep connection to and love of culture – particularly within the Chinatown neighbourhood – has inspired him in ways far beyond kung-fu. It’s also what drives Edmund’s other volunteer work.

He currently sits on the Mah Society’s board of directors, where he supports the organization’s mandate of connecting community members, and helping new families integrate into the neighbourhood.

“We’re a benevolent society, so our focus is to create positive friendships and relationships through cultural and business opportunities.”

A group of people smile with their drums in the back of a truck.

Edmund, centre, representing the Mah Society drum team at the Chinatown Chinese New Year parade

He recognizes that with an aging population, many current board members are retiring. He is encouraging of other young individuals who may be interested in getting involved.

“We really want more youth,” he says. “Chinatown is one of the last, true character neighbourhoods in Vancouver. The more energy and commitment we have focused on preserving what makes this place special, the better.”

Advocating for others

Edmund also volunteers on the board of the Chinatown Business Improvement Area (BIA), where he works to ensure that prospective businesses have the opportunity to learn about, and engage with the community in which they want to invest.

“If someone is interested in starting a business, we ask: ‘Are they compliant with current bylaws? Does the project fit into the neighbourhood fabric?’ ”

His work dovetails with that of many other individuals, agencies and organizations advocating for a UNESCO designation for Chinatown.

“Working at the Mah Society and the BIA, this is never far from my mind.”

He acknowledges that it is hard work, but its importance keeps him motivated, despite the occasional set-back.

“In Vancouver, money talks,” he says, of how prospective investments can sometimes interfere with their Chinatown preservation work. “But there are so many people committed to this cause. We are seeing tangible results, but it’s an uphill battle. It’s again why it’s so important to get young people involved. Ideas that were once considered new or radical are working because the community is making the effort to work together.”

New Year celebrations

Edmund will be celebrating successes, both past and future, at this year’s Chinese New Year festivities.

“My kung-fu students will be performing in the parade and at multiple locations over the weekend. It’s a great opportunity for us to show our community how much we appreciate it and what it means to us on many levels.”

Students perform traditional Chinese lion dances at a Chinese New Year celebration.

Edmund often brings his students to help with larger performances, like this one at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C.

For Edmund, local love means being a champion of others.

“It’s about standing up for your community. Seeing its value. Supporting its growth. Listening to and protecting others. And if your community needs to change, you will be a proponent for that change, because you see the value of doing it together.”

He nods, when asked if it’s about multiple generations thriving together.

“Yes, because most of all,” he says, “local love is home.”

Catch Edmund and his kung-fu students at one of the following performances celebrating Chinese New Year! February 5 at Aberdeen Centre, February 9 at International Village Mall and February 10 at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.