When the Raptors asked me to write something for Asian Heritage Month, I thought about this photo of myself I dug up from my parents’ basement several years back (That Leafs hat is going for $200 in certain places, so word of advice: keep all your stuff).
So many memories come flooding back when I look at this picture.
I immigrated with my parents and sister from Hong Kong to Canada in 1992. As an eight-year-old with just a brief grasp on English living in a new country, everything was foreign.
I look at this picture and remember how frightening that was, for myself, my sister, and my parents.
I also remember two things that made me feel at home.
The first was the neighborhood where I grew up.
Markham was called a “majority-minority” city in an article a few years ago. This is what I remember most about my childhood. The Chinese grocery stores, the Saturday Mandarin classes, the dim sum restaurants, and begging my parents to buy me the new Dragon Ball Z manga.
They were all little things which made me feel more at home.
The second thing was basketball.
My parents were avid fans. When we moved to a bigger house, they installed a basketball net on the driveway for me. I lowered the basket and won so many dunk contests against myself. My favorite memories come from playing on the high school basketball team.
I still remember how exciting it was when an NBA team came to Toronto.
Having your own basketball team to cheer for can be life-changing.
But enough about me.
We’ll get back to that later.
I want to tell you about the community I am a part of, the one I belong to, and the one I am proud to represent.
I want you to know their faces, their names, their experiences, and their stories.
Let me tell you about the Chinese community of Raptors fans.
I want you to know about Lisa Louie, a project manager born and raised in Toronto by her parents, who immigrated from Macau and Hong Kong in the 1960s.
The newspaper photo above of her is from 1994, when Lisa attended one of the Raptors’ earliest community-building events at Jarvis Collegiate Institute.
Lisa grew up in a hockey household. The main television belonged to her parents, who watched the Leafs religiously. She crowded with her siblings around the smaller TV watching the Raptors and eventually became a season-ticket holder and a section 318 regular.
Basketball helped Lisa find and establish her identity. Things changed once people around her realized how passionate and knowledgeable she was about basketball.
“Suddenly, the stereotypes about girls not knowing about sports — especially a geeky Chinese girl — were thrown out the window,” Lisa recalls. “Being a Raptors fan was about defying the stereotypes of Chinese women and what we were supposed to be.”
When I exchanged emails with Kelvin Kwan, a Chinese-born Canadian who grew up in Scarborough and now lives in Guelph, he said something that resonated with me.
“It was when the ‘We The North’ era began that I knew something special was about to happen,” he tells me. “The franchise made a genius move and embraced being the other. We accepted who we were and who we were going to be and held our head up high.”
Kelvin is another day-one Raptor fan.
I know because only the day ones mention watching games on The New VR and instantly point to beating the 72-win Chicago Bulls as the franchise’s lone highlight from its inaugural season.
I also know Kelvin is serious about his fandom because he sent me the photo above.
He convinced his wife to go with purple as their complementary colour at their wedding with custom Raptors players’ jerseys as table numbers.
What he said about the ‘We the North’ slogan resonated with me. Accepting being an outsider is central to any immigrant experience. To grow up in a new country while reconciling with the way your life differs from your parents can be difficult.
Tony Liu grew up in Toronto and lives in Vancouver today.
He’s been a Raptors fan since 2001 and remembers not sharing any interest or hobbies with his father, who is from Hong Kong.
It was basketball that brought them closer.
“We both had trouble communicating our emotions with each other,” Tony recalls. “There was always a language and cultural barrier between us. But when the Raptors came on the television, we shared the same excitement and passion for the team. The awkwardness went right out the window.”
As an adult, I feel closer to my parents in a way that a son always feels close to mom and dad, but also further now because of our generational differences.
But like Tony, my parents and I also bond over talking about the Raptors.
My mom still sends me WhatsApp messages almost every game (mostly to ask whether the Raptors have hit enough threes for her to redeem some free McDonald’s fries, but you get the point). My dad and I talk about the Raptors all the time.
One of my favorite things during the Raptors championship run was seeing how many fans in the Chinese community got to share so many great moments with their families.
Dennis Chow was born and raised in East York. A long-time Raptors fan, the championship run officially became a family affair when he attended his uncle’s 80th birthday banquet at Scarborough’s Bamburgh Circle.
The banquet took place during Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks.
“Everyone was streaming the game,” Dennis recalls. “My uncle didn’t mind. He kept coming to our table to ask us about the score every 15 minutes.”
The Raptors won and clinched a spot in the NBA Finals.
A few weeks later, they won it all.
When Dennis attended his cousin’s wedding after the championship, his grandfather wore a Raptors hat (pictured above) for the entire day.
The photos Jerome Cheng posted of his father Luke during the title run brought me so much joy.
Jerome credits his father for his basketball fandom.
They watched games together regularly at home.
Jerome even brought his father to a St. Louis Bar & Grill in North York to watch a Game 7 once with his friends.
As he grew up and earned money, Jerome started taking his parents to Raptors games.
The first call he made after the Raptors won the championship was to his dad.
“I cried,” Jerome recalls. “Basketball and sports in general have been a natural way for us to connect as parent and son. As many Asians know, it's not a common thing for us to be very expressive. Through sports, it has opened avenues for us to figure out how to communicate better and understand each other better. Even if we struggled to talk about anything, he could give me a recap of last night's game, and naturally, it would be an opening to talk about more things.”
Basketball fosters this sense of belonging.
It helps bridge gaps in households.
There’s a sense of community that takes hold beyond just rooting for wins and losses.
Clement Chu has been helping to build this community for years.
He is one of the co-founders of the Canadian Chinese Youth Athletic Association (“CCYAA”), founded in 1995, the same year the Raptors entered the league.
Over the years, Chu and CCYAA have worked closely with the Raptors, who he calls “pioneers” in the area of community-building.
He pointed to 1997 when the Raptors became the first team in NBA history to have a cultural heritage night.
“It was a flyer that was translated into Chinese with a discounted price point with a hotline where people could get tickets with a hotline number which was my phone number,” Clement recalls. “The Raptors had a Chinese language broadcast with Fairchild Television the following year. They had their first Chinese radio broadcast a few years later.”
Clement played high school basketball for North Toronto growing up and remembers seeing maybe one (or two, at best) Chinese players across all the teams he faced.
CCYAA was created to give the Chinese community a place to become part of the growing basketball subculture in the city.
The association has helped foster an entire generation of kids who grew up watching the Raptors and wanted to pursue playing basketball themselves.
Clement points to Cecilia Chan, who played at Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute, was the anchor of CCYAA’s women’s basketball team, and got a NCAA scholarship at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Jeremy Lin, a member of the 2019 Raptors championship team, as people who have left a lasting impact on the Chinese community.
“A lot of it has to do with role modeling,” he explains. “If there isn't somebody that the kids can see actually doing it, they don’t think it’s possible. This kind of role modeling creates a roadmap for a young person to see in terms of them being able to play at the highest levels.”
Clement says the most significant growth area for the association has been with the age 3-5 program.
“It’s neat to see parents say sports is a priority and basketball is what they want the kids to play,” he says. “A lot of it has to do with the influence of the Raptors.”
The team has been around for over two decades now, and the people who grew up following them are now passing their fandom on to the next generation.
James Cam is a design director living in Toronto and playing basketball for the first time at a Hamilton school court.
“It was a crappy wooden pole with a crooked net,” he recalls. “Kids would jump off the pole and hang off the rim. It was the closest we got to dunking.”
James organizes Raptors nights twice a year at work now, going to home games with co-workers and teaching the game to anyone who wants to learn.
He is also passing on his passion for basketball to his son (pictured above).
“My son is convinced that when I go play basketball, I’m going to play for the Raptors,” James says. “He knows that I like the Raptors, so he gets really excited watching the games with me and wearing their gear. I can’t wait to take him to his first game and share more moments with him in the future.”
Cliff Lee is 37 and lives in Brampton.
He has traveled to 20 different cities so far to watch the Raptors and intends on completing his NBA arena tour with his eleven-month-old daughter Evelyn (pictured above).
“She has been the best thing that's ever happened to me,” Cliff says. “I've made sure to stock her wardrobe with lots of Raptors jerseys and onesies, so she will know who her favorite team is. I'm so excited to share my love of the Raptors with her. I’ve purposely saved Orlando for a family trip.”
Eddie Chan, 48, grew up on the Danforth before moving to Scarborough during high school.
“Basketball as a father really changed my love for the game,” he says.
Eddie decided early on his boys would play basketball.
He enrolled them in House League, where they played every Saturday for two hours.
Eddie started helping with drills and eventually became an assistant coach on the rep league team.
He still remembers his kids getting a chance to run drills with Kyle Lowry and Sherman Hamilton at the Scotiabank Arena practice facility.
Susanne Woo was born and raised in Toronto with parents who immigrated to Canada in the 1960s.
She has been an elementary teacher for over ten years in Markham and integrates her passion for the Raptors into her Grade 1-2 classrooms.
Susanne uses Raptors game scores as a way to ask her students to solve basic math problems, finding any reason to tie basketball-related things to the curriculum.
Parents have told Susanne their families started watching Raptors games together at home because of her passion.
Others credit her class for inspiring their kids to start playing basketball.
“My hope is that through the exposure to the Raptors in the classroom, it will translate to quality time my students will cherish and spend with their family and friends like I did while cheering for our team,” Susanne says. “On a larger scale, I hope they see themselves represented in the sport of basketball, in media, and in important roles of an organization.”
Back to me.
Three generations of my family are connected through the Raptors and basketball. From my parents to myself to my nephews (pictured above in beautiful championship gear) Henry, nine, and Owen, who is turning seven in August.
They became avid Raptors fans during the championship run and are now both part of CCYAA.
Did I ask Kawhi Leonard a question while covering the 2019 NBA Finals so my nephews could see me on television? Well, technically it was for a story I was working on but that might have been the secondary season at the time.
It’s a silly anecdote about a basketball reporter wanting to be a cool uncle, but truthfully, I also want my nephews to know that there’s someone who looks like them who can do this too (Also now they think I’m friends with every Raptor player).
I want them to understand when they’re older being in sports and covering basketball is an option for them, should they wish to pursue it (At the moment, they appear only interested in Pokemon and Beyblade).
I wanted to share all these stories today so you can understand the experiences we have as not just basketball fans but as immigrants.
The Chinese community is just one part of a much larger Asian diaspora that exists across Toronto and across Canada.
Visibility and representation have always mattered.
I always come back to this: if Toronto is indeed one of the most diverse cities in the world and the Raptors indeed have one of the most diverse fanbases, then the people covering the sport and the stories being told by the media should reflect that too.
These fans are the people that I write for.
This is the community I think about when I brainstorm story ideas.
I try to write at least one feature a year that tells an Asian-focused story.
The first thing I think of when I compile an interview list for any story is how many Asian voices can I feature?
We need more voices like myself.
We need more stories that consider the communities where basketball means so much on a personal level.
Take a moment next time you read a Raptors story, like a photo from a Raptor game on Instagram, or watch an episode of Open Gym on YouTube, and think about the people involved in capturing these moments and telling these stories.
So many of these people are Asian.
I’m proud of that.
But we need to do better.
Let’s celebrate Asians when it’s not Asian Heritage Month.
Let’s talk about the stereotypes and challenges Asians face when it doesn’t conveniently fit into the mainstream conversation.
Until then, I’ll continue telling these stories.
I hope eventually you’ll join me too.