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Yo Yo King

And now a word from our occasional Vancouver correspondent Tom Hawthorn, whose recent obituary of Harvey Lowe caught our eye:

The obituarist's working life is peopled by worthies and notables --
generals, statesmen, captains of industry.

Their stories often follow a predictable path from good schooling to
achievement to honors in retirement.

Being in the newspaper biz, we keep an eye open for the unusual.

So, when a paid notice described the departed as "King of the Yo-Yos,"
I knew I'd be following the trajectory of a life with more than the
usual ups and downs.

Harvey Lowe had done a number of interviews over the years and had
even been the subject of an eight-minute documentary, "State of Yo."
An interview with his daughter in San Francisco filled in other
details on what by any measure was a remarkable life.

Lowe was born in 1918 in Victoria, British Columbia, into a
traditional Chinese family. His mother had bound feet. His father, an
immigrant tailor, paid a hated "Chinese head tax" of $500 Cdn to enter
the country. (The sum was equal to about two years' wages for a
Chinese laborer.) Harvey was the youngest of 11 children, not all of
whom survived childhood, in a household that included his father's
concubine and her son.

He bought his first yo-yo for 35-cents, soon taking part in
neighborhood competitions. A promotor signed him for a tour of England
to promote the Cheerio company's No. 99 yo-yo.

A yo-yo craze swept the British isles in those dark Depression days of
1932. Harvey did demonstrations for audiences of schoolchildren and
royalty, performing at a ball whose audience included the aviatrix
Amelia Earhart as well as the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne.

In a showdown against other budding yo-yo whizzes, Harvey won what was
described as a world championship. He was just 13. His prize was a
year spent abroad, including a stint in Paris, where he appeared in
white tux and tails at nightclubs. Many years later, he would complain
of having been ushered out before the performance by nude dancing
girls.

After returning to Canada to complete his high school education, his
mother insisted he learn to write his birth name -- Lowe Kwong Yoi -- in
Chinese characters.

"You've got a Chinese face," she told him, "you've got to learn Chinese."

He was dispatched to live with an older sister in China. He survived
the Japanese occupation, only returning to Canada soon after the
Communist takeover of Shanghai in 1949.

In an era when a night club show might include a half-dozen acts, he
found steady work on the thriving Vancouver supper-club circuit with
his yo-yos, opening for such acts as the Ink Spots.

A prominent figure in Chinatown, he was asked by the film director
Robert Altman to round up 100 ethnic Chinese for a scene he was
shooting. Lowe enlisted friends, family and customers of the
restaurant he managed. He even got a credit in the 1971 movie, "McCabe
& Mrs. Miller." During the filming, the actress Julie Christie asked
him to show her the proper technique for smoking opium.

In 1988, he performed some of his repertoire of more than 1,000 tricks
on a television broadcast of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He
wore an elaborate robe while portraying a Confucius Yomaster.

Any obituary with bound feet, a famous aviatrix, a prince, nude
dancers, Communists, the Ink Spots, a famous movie director and a
beautiful actress, not to mention opium, is a story worth the telling.

But Lowe's tale is incomplete.

What happened during the war?

Lowe once described his time in Shanghai under the Japanese occupation
as one of intrigue. He was a bilingual foreigner who could pass as a
local. He said he had been recruited as a spy by Japanese
intelligence. He insisted he used his privileged position only to
protect friends. Though the occupation was a time of brutality, Lowe
described a life in which he travelled by limousine protected by
bodyguards. He described tossing packs of cigarettes to Canadians
interned by the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Time, distance, and language made it impossible to learn more about
his 12 years in China. Questions linger. How did an enemy alien escape
imprisonment? How was he regarded by the Japanese? By his friends? If
he was deliberately sabotaging the information he passed to the
Japanese, how did he avoid discovery?

I know he emerged after the war as a popular radio host. But much else
of his time in Shanghai, the city whose very name whispers intrigue,
remains unknown. I can't help but wonder what Robert Altman would do
with those missing years.

By Adam Bernstein  |  May 17, 2009; 7:15 AM ET
 
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