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Aging immigrants transform mall into dance hall

Karl and Yukee Tsai hang out at a Richmond mall almost every morning—not to shop—but to teach up to 270…

By Vinnie Yuen , in City , on March 31, 2011 Tags: , , , ,


Karl and Yukee Tsai hang out at a Richmond mall almost every morning—not to shop—but to teach up to 270 middle-aged and elderly seniors a Chinese dance.

Yuan Ji originated from Hupei province of Mainland China. It incorporates martial arts, dance, chi exercises, and is meant to increase blood circulation to the brain and throughout the body. The dancers begin at 8 a.m. – before Lansdowne Centre opens for business.

“It’s a wonderful way to start the morning. You come into work and they’re all greeting you with this beautiful thing,” said Bronwyn Bailey, the mall’s marketing director.

The opportunity is important because while studies show that recent immigrants are generally healthier than Canadians, this “healthy immigrant effect” decreases over time, according to scholars at the University of Victoria.

Recent immigrants tend to be healthier because they are younger and those with serious medical conditions are disqualified from migrating. Studies show that the health of immigrants declines over time, however, when their lifestyle behaviours become more Westernized.

‘Healthy immigrant effect’ limited for seniors

Seniors who migrate later in life experience a particularly difficult time when it comes to their health. For example, new immigrants over 65 years are 33 per cent less likely to rate their health positively, according to research done by sociologist Dr. Karen Kobayashi and colleagues. They are 1.5 times more likely on average to have a limitation of activity compared to Canadian-born individuals their age.

Yukee Tsai demonstrates the Yuan Ji dance to learners.

The majority of the dancers in Tsai’s group are 60 to 70 years old. Many emigrated to Canada from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.

Karl and Yukee Tsai, the founders of this group, both 69 years old, serve as examples of how the exercise has kept them healthy and active.

Karl Tsai said he remembers a time when exercise was not a part of their lives.  Twenty years ago, his wife’s health suffered due to stress and a lack of exercise.  Yukee had difficulty sleeping, heart problems and pain in her shoulders.

“She couldn’t even comb [her] hair,” Karl said in Mandarin.

The couple began with chi exercises and eventually learned the Yuan Ji dance in Taiwan.

Today, the couple’s health is better than it was 20 years ago.  Yukee’s arm movements are no longer restricted.

Lansdowne Centre supports dancers

Karl and Yukee Tsai emigrated to Vancouver, BC, Canada in 1993, and in 1997, began to practice the dance in parks and corners of malls.

After two years of dancing at Richmond Centre, the number of students increased and they had to look for a new venue with more space.  Finally, with the support of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, they secured Lansdowne Centre as their exercise space in 2002.

The Tsais were used to practicing the dance in Taiwan at 5 a.m. on school grounds before class started.  They expressed gratitude for the large indoor space Lansdowne Mall offers them – for free.

Lansdowne Centre lets the dancers use the facility and sponsors a muffin and coffee breakfast once a month. In return, the couple encourages students to shop and dine at the mall, providing businesses with a steady customer base.

When asked how long they will continue to dance, Yukee said with a smile, “Until I can’t walk!”

Giving back to the Heart and Stroke Foundation

The Yuan Ji dance group are not just exercising for their own sake. They give back to the community by fundraising for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.  Members of the group pay $20 a year, $12 of which goes to the Foundation.

Dancer, Cecilia Cheung, 58, is familiar with the impact of stroke.  Her husband suffered a stroke in 2009 shortly after Cheung began to practice Yuan Ji.  It took a lot of persuading, but her husband finally agreed to exercise with her. Cheung said he used to stand far apart from the group, reluctant to join in. Today, he has regained much of his physical abilities and dances close to other members.

The dance group also participates in the foundation’s fundraising events including its annual Big Bike event. Teams of 29 riders pedal through their community in support of heart disease and stroke research.  The Yuan Ji dancers raised over $5,000 with its Big Bike team in 2010.

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