She might not know an ollie from a shuvit, or ever attempted a backside 180, but Joyce Wong has carved out a sizable spot for herself in the tightknit community of skateboarders at Hastings Skatepark.
On Monday night, dozens gathered at the picnic tables near the Italian Garden at Hastings Park, skateboard in one hand, Old Milwaukee or Pabst Blue Ribbon in the other, to throw Wong a birthday party.
And not just any old birthday bash — her 75th.
“Joyce is pretty amazing,” said Julia Dennis who, like many people at the festive gathering, wore a black T-shirt with a graphic of Joyce’s smiling face across the front.
A logo of Joyce’s name and the words “75 years strong” is also spray-painted across the south bowl of the skatepark, and two weeks ago more than 3,000 people attending the Van Doren Invitational skate competition sang an early “Happy Birthday” to a tearful Wong. “When everyone sang ‘Happy Birthday’ there was a moment where a few of us got choked up,” Dennis said.
So what brings an elderly Chinese woman with three kids and a handful of grandchildren deep into the fold and loving embrace of East Vancouver’s rough-and-tumble skateboarding scene? In a word: cans.
Tosh Osaka, 42, has been coming to Hastings Skatepark since it opened in the early 2000s and says Joyce and her husband Henry have been fixtures for just as long, collecting empty cans and bottles in their cart, as part of their daily route, which includes New Brighton Park and the back alleys of Hastings-Sunrise where they live. Because skateboarders tend to be a thirsty bunch, Joyce makes sure to attend all of the skateboard competitions, even travelling by bus to North Vancouver’s Seylynn Skatepark for its annual Canada Day Bowl Series Jam. And if there’s a new skateboarding event coming up, the community is sure to inform Joyce about it.
“She’s like the grandmother of Hastings,” said Osaka, who like the others often saves his empties at home for Joyce and Henry to collect. Lore has it, the retired couple has been able to put their kids through university and finance a yearly trip back to China through their recycling efforts.
“She’s the sweetest woman in the world,” added Amy Byers, 33. “She’ll come by your house to pick up cans, she’ll plant vegetables in your garden. She’ll bring you food.”
According to Amy’s husband, Jonny, it was the younger skaters who first took a shine to Joyce. Unlike the usual can and bottle collectors who would come by the skatepark, Joyce was nice to them. “What first attracted the connection was how she would be considerate and friendly and engage with us,” Jonny, 39, said. It was also comforting to know that she and Henry lived nearby and could be trusted, he added. And it’s not uncommon for Joyce to find lost items at the park and return them to people’s homes.
“A lot of people here are from somewhere else, so she’s become kind of like family,” he said. “She’s been part of the culture here for 14 years or so.”
In fact, Joyce and Henry have become such a presence at the skatepark, they are now part of the community’s social circle.
Mike Telford, 37, recalls going to house parties and being initially surprised to see Joyce and Henry among the revellers.
“It’s like her social scene. It’s kind of cool that she actually enjoys us, because we’re a lot younger,” he said. “It would always surprise me seeing her at competitions… And then seeing her at house parties was the next step. I’d be half-cut and be like, ‘That looks like Joyce over there.’ She's part of our little society.”
Chris, a 40-year-old skater who wouldn’t give his last name and goes by the nickname “Bumbles,” had a similar experience while partying.
“A few years ago, we threw a sausage-themed party and had people dress up as German beer maids. We invited Joyce and Henry, and we have these photos of them sitting on our bed drinking tea with all of us just raging around them. And they were there for hours.”
When Henry and Joyce arrived at Hastings for the birthday celebrations, Joyce was greeted with hugs, bouquets of flowers and bags of empties people had brought from home.
“I don’t think I’d get this many people to show up to my birthday party,” quipped Krista Shaw, 33, also wearing a Joyce T-shirt.
For the party, Joyce insisted on bringing massive trays of chow mein and fried rice, which she cooked earlier in the day, and handed everyone a red envelope containing a five dollar bill. She’s also brought several cases of beer for her crew.
According to Jonny, Joyce wouldn’t have it any other way. “One of the things she said about tonight is don’t bring anything. ‘Just come so I can take pictures and show my grandchildren how many friends I have.’”
So what does Henry make of their celebrity status among the skateboarding community?
“A lot of Chinese people who come from China ask me, ‘Why are they so good to you?’ I say, I don’t know. We just go along with it,” he said. “Myself and my wife like to associate with people. We don’t want to be alone at home. I see them as family.”
As for getting a T-shirt with his wife’s face on it, Henry hasn’t received one yet. “They don’t have anymore,” he said. “I was told they’re ‘limited edition.’”
Henry confided that he even bought himself a skateboard from Canadian Tire but his requests for lessons have been turned down. “They say after you turn 80 your bones don’t recover so well if you break them,” said the 84-year-old.
Monday not only marked Joyce’s 75th birthday, it was also the anniversary of the day she arrived in Canada. She remembered the immigration officer had wished her happy birthday, but at the time she didn’t understand English. That was 47 years ago — long before Hastings Skatepark and most of the skaters there were even born.
Now she’s celebrating another milestone, surrounded by her unlikely adopted family members, who have taken her in as much as she’s taken them in.
“I have a big family now,” Joyce said with a grin that never left her face as she hugged well-wishers, posed for photos and urged people to eat. “I’m so happy. Everyone’s so nice to me. I’m so happy.”