Farewell to a Tai Chi master at a Richmond mall
Five mornings a week for nearly three decades, staff at the Richmond Center unlocked the doors to welcome hundreds of people before the shops opened. The crowd, mostly made up of elderly people, gathered rain or shine under the skylight of the main gallery. It’s not a school or a monastery, but in a suburb of Vancouver, there’s no better place than an empty mall to practice tai chi.
At 8 o’clock in the morning, Wei Foung Yuan was still there with his wife, even until the late 90s. He helped start these mall meetings, and the regulars respectfully and affectionately call him sifu, which in Cantonese means master. Even the Queen honored him with a Diamond Jubilee Medal.
From his place near the Starbucks, Yuan led the group, demonstrating tai chi and luk tung kuen — good for traffic — in front of the windows of Coach handbags and Foot Locker sneakers. Other volunteers then stepped in to lead dances, stretches and other low-impact workouts. It was the perfect lineup for older commuters looking to get moving.
At 9:30 a.m. when the mall opened, he was off to the food court to chat over tea and coffee.
For the better part of 30 years, it was a ritual unique to Richmond.
Called the Richmond Wellness Club, the group had around 600 members, with an average of 200 filling the mall each weekday. While there are many other formal and informal tai chi clubs that meet in parks and community centers around Metro Vancouver, there was nothing in the area that met regularly on this scale.
But when the pandemic hit, that meant no more dating at the mall.
Members were encouraged to practice at home. But for seniors who loved moving together, COVID-19 has robbed them of a special community.
From machines to master
Yuan may have helped found the club, but he didn’t create a sifu. He was an engineer by trade who took exercises the same way he would later teach them to others: shared in the community.
Yuan was born in Haimen, China in 1920. Like many others from his city, he traveled to the nearby metropolis of Shanghai for work. There he met his wife and got a job at the Nanyang Cotton Mill, owned by a local industrialist.
They survived World War II in Shanghai, when Yuan’s factory was bombed by the Japanese. When this war ended, Yuan’s boss feared the escalation of civil war in China and decided to move to Hong Kong in 1948. Yuan and his family followed him there. Over the years, he rose through the ranks to become plant manager.
“His professional life was very intense,” said his son Henry, who recalls his father being sent to Buenos Aires for a five-year stint to help open a mill.
It wasn’t until retirement that Yuan became interested in exercise and learned tai chi from a master. He immigrated to Richmond in nineteen eighty onewhere his family had moved, but returned to Hong Kong, where he learned and practiced with other tai chi and luk tung kuen enthusiasts in Victoria Park.
The same reciprocity occurred in Richmond. When Yuan was exercising in a park with a friend, there was enough interest from locals that he started teaching a class. As the group grew, they moved to the community center in Thompson. It wasn’t long before he grew too small to keep up with the band’s popularity.
Another friend who worked for the Heart and Stroke Foundation suggested we team up and apply for space in one of the largest indoor buildings in their city: the Richmond Center mall.
Much to their delight, the mall not only accepted, but hosted them for free.
“It’s the perfect place,” Kitty Tang, the club’s secretary, said in Cantonese.
“It’s weatherproof, no need to worry about rain, snow or wind. It’s in a central part of Richmond whether people are driving or taking public transit. And there’s the food court, where everyone can mingle afterwards.
The club charged an annual administration fee of $10, which later increased to $15. “Think how affordable it is if you come every day,” Tang said.
For a time, the mall even had t-shirts made for attendees who attended 200 sessions.
Malls may be the de facto public plazas of the suburbs, but they are ultimately commercial enterprises and do not always condone the types of activity that take place in truly public spaces. In 2016, West Vancouver’s Park Royal shopping center threatened to stop regulars playing chess in the food court, only to reverse the decision and create a special chess area for players away from the food court. of restoration.
“It’s really unique for a place like Richmond Center to host us,” Tang said. “No rent? Just as a favor to the community? Also, they need to open the mall earlier, provide security guards and even help if there is an elderly person who is not feeling well. We are truly grateful for the partnership.
Strangers in the suburbs
The health club held its first session at the Richmond Center in 1992.
It came at the right time for a growing community. Hong Kong immigration to Canada hit an all-time high in the years before the territory was ceded from Britain to China in 1997. Richmond was a popular destination for newcomers.
But there are plenty of challenges for immigrant seniors, many of whom have moved with children and grandchildren. How to make friends? How do I find things to do? How do you find meaning outside your family? Richmond’s sprawling landscape also makes getting around difficult for those who don’t drive.
Tang recalls the first time he heard of the club in 1994.
“My mother was from Los Angeles,” Tang said. “My neighbor – who’s not Chinese, he’s actually Greek – suggested, ‘Why don’t you take your mother to Richmond Centre? There are lots of other old people exercising there. Of course, she loved the opportunity. That’s how a lot of people hear about the club, by word of mouth.
The club started with a majority of older people of Hong Kong descent, but has branched out over the years to include young adults, Canadian-born people and other immigrants from countries like Japan, Korea and the United States. Philippines, with a large influx from mainland China. It was a rare space for multicultural mixing in a city that often struggles with diversity.
The friendly Yuan welcomed everyone.
“He has a very good memory and is good at names,” Tang said. “If it’s your first time, he knows it. If you did the exercises well, he might ask you to consider being a leader.
Yuan’s granddaughter, Jen, who lived with her grandparents growing up, remembers her warm and lively personality.
“He really liked to have fun,” she said. “We had a bit of a language barrier, but he always made me laugh. He liked to dance in public! He had no embarrassment or shame about it. He even brought musical instruments to restaurants. One time I remember he was riding with my sister on the children’s train to Lansdowne [Centre] mall. Every time I went out with him, especially for dim sum, people recognized him.
Missing the mall
When the pandemic hit, Tang said they sent out exercise videos for members to watch at home.
“But it’s not the same,” she said. “I also kept pace at home, but it’s not like being with everyone at the mall.”
Through the ups and downs of each wave of COVID-19, Tang met club members in supermarkets and restaurants, who asked if she knew when the mall would welcome them again.
She was getting calls from the adult children of the senior members. “People I don’t even know know!” she says. “They tell me how much their parents miss it.”
Yuan and his wife stayed home, doing exercises with the help of a chair to lean on.
But unfortunately they couldn’t go back to the mall. She died in August 2020 and he followed in December 2021.
In Yuan’s obituary, his family notes that after excelling in his career, he lived a full life in retirement. They made sure the title “sifu” lived up to its name, a testament to his teaching and the community he helped build.
Yuan had always said that health and happiness go hand in hand. He was 101 when he died.
A quiet goodbye
It turned out that none of the club members could return to the mall either.
In March 2022, Cadillac Fairview, the Canadian company that co-owns and operates the mall, told the club it could no longer accommodate them. The company told The Tyee in a statement that it has been a “pleasure” to be associated with the club for so many years.
In typical Vancouver fashion, the reason is massive redevelopment. “Transformation from a world-class mall into a planned world-class destination,” the lofty announcements promise. Construction has already begun and will continue in phases, adding new homes and more commercial space.
The club’s management met in July to decide his fate. It was difficult to find a place that could replace Richmond Centre. They considered community centers, but they were too small to accommodate the club, let alone the more expensive ones. Even a $2 per session fee would be unaffordable for some of their senior members, Tang said.
So, with the loss of the mall, the club decided to cease operations in the year that would have marked its 30th anniversary.
“Even when we took a break during the pandemic, our group had grown. Maybe we would have run out of space anyway,” Tang said with a laugh.
Some health club members continued to do tai chi in various parks and Lansdowne Center, the second largest mall in Richmond. In Vancouver, you’ll find busy morning and evening sessions at parks like Sunrise and Slocan on the east side, with music and swords in the mix. And unlike 1992, now there’s social media to help bring people together.
Tai chi and other exercises are easier to find these days, but Henry says his father was around when it was harder for people to “find their own kind”.
Henry admits he never exercised at the mall with his parents, but he saw how they touched the lives of so many new Richmond residents looking for a connection and a way to stay healthy in the suburbs.
He said with a chuckle, “I guess sometimes circumstances make heroes.