Wednesday, January 29, 2014

3. Bloody Superstition and Bold New Philosophy

Georgia Straight Magazine
April 1997
Pessimist give the world's tigers 5 years.  Realists, 10.

They're the kind of numbers that make you want to quietly despair, to give up, to flip the channel and think about something more pleasant.  Melrose Place maybe, or Roseanne.  Mark Lee, however, whether from a sense of conceit, ignorance, or a staggering sense of confidence, saw nothing impossible in the task of bringing the tiger back from the brink...  

... To highlight the extent of Vancouver's tiger trade, Lee kicked off a media blitz in January 1996.  Local journalists were invited on an endangered species tour through Chinatown's apothecaries.  The tour began in the low-ceilinged warren that serves as WCWC's headquarters.  Lee upended his briefcase, spilling out 15-20 boxes of Chinese patent medicines: tiger plasters, tiger pills, tiger-based medicaments for rheumatism, tired blood, soft bones, and sexual impotence, all of them purchased in shops in Vancouver's Chinatown.  Pointing to the ingredients lists on the diverse packages, Lee picked out the symbols, words, and phrases that in Latin, English and Chinese spelled out “tiger bone”.

The next part of the tour was a trip along Pender, Main and Keefer Streets, with Lee indicating here and there the shops and apothecaries dealing in tiger medicinals and inviting journalists to go in and check the shelves for themselves.  Six shops out of 10 stocked a variety of boxes, cartons and bottles labeled with some variation of the word Os Tigris - tiger bone.

The media loved it.  Lee made it on to TV news both locally and nationally, and stories appeared in city magazines and community papers.  He used his pulpit to heap scorn upon Canadian wildlife regulations.  “Canada's wildlife laws could use an aphrodisiac,' Lee said, “because right now, they're totally impotent.”

He was equally hard-hitting in his presentations to Chinese community groups and at Eastside Vancouver high schools.  Traditional Chinese medicine's use of parts of animals like tigers and rhinos, Lee said, and the cutting of many urban trees for that matter, were based on nothing but pure superstition.  That superstition was destroying a magnificent species.  The fact that the practice was tolerated by the Chinese-Canadian community only blackened their reputation in mainstream Canadian society.

Environmentalists heaved a sigh of relief.  Here was someone tackling a problem they had long known about but dared not touch.  “It's great that it's a Chinese person doing the work he's doing.” said Nathalie Chalifour, World Wildlife Fund Canada's tiger expert, “because when it's a person like me doing it, well, I'm white; I'm more likely to be accused to being racist, which is really unfortunate, but it does happen.”

Vancouver's Chinese media were as quick to jump on the story as their English counterparts.  Lee's campaign was covered by both the Ming Pao and the Sing Tao newspapers, and he appeared on several Chinese language radio programs.  According to Ming Pao columnist and CJVB radio host Gabriel Yiu, the Chinese community's reaction to Lee's campaign was mixed.  His straight talk on superstition did offend some, but there was also those who took pride in the fact that a Chinese Canadian was working on environmental concerns.  “For a long period of time when people are talking about monster homes, tree cutting, killing wild animals for some of their body parts,” Yiu said, “people do have the impression that the Chinese community is the cause of that.  I think the work Mark did set a very good example that we do have people in the Chinese community who are concerned about these issues.”...

According to Vancouver city councilor Don Lee, Lee's effectiveness was limited... “I don't know Mark Lee that well.  The Chinese Community doesn't know him well at all,” Lee said.  “We don't know where he comes from.  We don't know why he's doing all this.”  As it turns out, those are two of the most interesting questions that could be asked about Mark Lee.

Born in February 1944, in southern China, Mark Seeu-Sung Lee fled to Hong Kong along with the rest of his family shortly after the Communist revolution.  Family legend has Lee's father burning the deeds of the family's extensive land-holdings for a moment's warmth during the first refugee winter...

(In 1965), Lee came to Canada to study science at the University of Manitoba... At the same time, his relationship with a Hong Kong girl fell to bits when she dropped him on orders from her parents.  Lee has never forgiven Chinese culture for the snub.  “As a result of that incident, I have never dated a Chinese girl again,” Lee said.  It's a decision that isolated him somewhat from the Chinese community, but, according to Lee, it also allowed him to integrate more fully into Canadian society than other Chinese immigrants of his generation.

In 1966, Lee switched over to the physics department of the University of British Columbia.  His summers he spent in the bush in northern Manitoba and British Columbia, working as a geologist's assistant.  It was work that can only be idealized by someone who has never done it.  Lee said, “The student is the geologist's personal servant - more like slave, considering the pay, which was only $280 per month.  I made and carried his lunch, and every few feet, the geologist would pick up a rock sample about twice the size of my fist and drop it into my knapsack.  I had to carry that ever-heavier thing all day, wading into swamps that would sometimes come up to my chest or higher.  Your shirt would be black with flies and mosquitoes.  There could be a bear behind every tree.  It was brutal, but also absolutely beautiful.  And this was how I bonded with nature.”

After he graduated with a B.Sc. in 1970, Lee took a job as a live-in house-father for emotionally disturbed kids, then a career in real estate.  He said he had a heavy student loan to pay off.  One senses he also had a need to gain acceptance among the Vancouver business community.  “I made rookie of the year, then Gold Club, Diamond Club, all that,” Lee said.  “I bought a couple of horses - hunters-jumpers - and got involved with the high social elite you see down in Southlands.”  Snap shots from the time show a short-haired Lee in boots and riding breeches, sitting atop a bay Thoroughbred gelding.

The real estate phased continued for several years.  Lee bought a small acreage in the suburbs.  He dated but never Leeied.  “The work first became routine, then boring, then irksome, then unbearable.  I was still good at it, but the initial challenge was gone,” he said.  

Although some conservationists predict the tiger will be extinct in five years, Mark Lee is convinced he can reverse the prophecy…
China imported the equivalent of 400 grown tigers and exported 27 million tiger derivative products from 1990 to 1993… About 39,000 individual tiger containing products were seized in BC in 1996, including everything from medicinals to tiger claws…

A Vancouver branch of Asian Conservation Awareness Program is planning to begin an ad blitz this June, timed to coincide with the dragon-boat festival.  Ironically, Lee will likely not be invited to participate.  According to ACAP's Vancouver organizer Ling Zheng, Lee's confrontational style doesn't fit in with ACAP's approach, which hinges on establishing partnerships with the Chinese community groups and obtaining sponsorship from prominent corporations.  “We're trying to reach out to the Chinese community, so we try not to use his name,” Zheng said.  “If we mention Mark Lee, I will probably not get any help from organizations like SUCCESS or the Chinese Cultural Centre.  He can be quite harsh towards certain Chinese people, and I've even heard that in the Chinese community he's considered like a traitor.”

Whether that’s true or not, Lee has shifted his efforts from reducing consumption into preserving tiger habitat. With the aid of a $75,000 grant from the Canadian International Development Agency, Lee has gone to India to work towards protecting two Indian tiger reserves from encroachment and poaching by local villagers. The plan is to take a traveling multi-media show to villages around the tiger reserves and convince the villagers that the tiger is worth more to them alive than dead.

Do you think these women enjoy walking five miles every day into the bush to collect a bunch of twigs and carry it back to the village on top of their heads? They do it because they have no choice,” Lee said.  “If we give them a choice and say, Look, we’re going to develop ecotourism, we’re going to organize tourist groups to come to your village, and maybe you can develop some native products to sell to them… Wouldn’t you rather stay at home and weave baskets with your kids than walk five miles to haul water?” 

Other conservationists from other groups have made these arguments before, often with little success, but with characteristic confidence, Lee is convinced he will succeed.

Back in the offices of Western Canada Wilderness Committee, the video tiger rolls up from the ground and twists back through the gruesome contortions of death; the dark-haired man lowers a battered rifle and walks backwards out of the picture, and the orange-and-back form of a Bengal tiger stands once again beneath the forest canopy, proud, free, and alive. For a brief while longer.

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