Harvey Lowe 1918-2009

He kibitzed with Fats Waller, wowed Parisians with his yo-yo, and taught Julie Christie to smoke opium

Harvey Lowe 1918-2009Harvey Lowe was born in Victoria, B.C., on Oct. 30, 1918, the 10th child of Ming Yook and Lowe Gee Quai. His dad was one of three brothers who set up tailor shops on Government Street, near the B.C. legislature and the iconic Empress Hotel. According to Chinese tradition, Harvey’s father wore his hair in braids and kept a concubine; Yook, who was Canadian-born, had her feet bound. When Harvey was three, Gee Quai died suddenly. Yook supported her large brood as best she could by tailoring. Harvey, who attended Northridge Elementary School, was her delivery boy. In Grade 6, he saved up for a week to buy a 35-cent tournament yo-yo, a Duncan 77. Quickly mastering the toy, he began entering competitions in Victoria and Vancouver, picking up a Raleigh bike as a prize, and catching the eye of local promoter Irving Cook.

Cook, who would become like a father figure, got a tutor to help with Harvey’s studies and took the 13-year-old across Canada by train (in B.C., the Trans-Canada Highway was then no more than a couple of wagon tracks hanging from the walls of the Fraser Valley). After winning every Canadian competition he entered, Harvey set sail for London on an ocean liner, where he won the first ever World Yo-Yo Championship at the Empire Theatre in 1932, collecting $4,600 in prize money. The yo-yo fascinated Europeans, especially the French; for three years, as the craze swept the West during the Great Depression, Harvey, who had over 1,000 yo-yo tricks up his sleeve, performed at soda shops and nightclubs across the continent. (He visited the Eiffel Tower so often that guards began letting in “the little China boy” for free.) Cook sent Harvey’s mother $25 per month. Harvey, who performed in a white tie and tails, earned an additional $1.25 per diem—most of which he spent on clothes.

He tooled around the U.K. in a car supplied by the Morris Motor Company, kibitzed with Fats Waller, and stayed a month at the Savoy Hotel, across the hall from vaudeville stars Laurel and Hardy. (“It isn’t just a shtick,” he told his family on a visit home. Offstage, “one would be holding a glass of water, the other would ask what time it was, and he’d turn his hand over, dumping the entire thing on the carpet!”) Harvey opened at the Café de Paris, but “they’d whip him out, as soon as he finished his routine,” his daughter Melanie says. Off-curtain, half-naked women were waiting to take the stage.

In late 1934, he returned to Victoria. Yook sent him to Shanghai to learn Mandarin, and he finished high school there, living in the French Quarter with his sister, who’d married into a wealthy family. He managed to avoid internment camps during the Japanese occupation, but fled China with his new wife when the Communists took over in 1949. They left just before all mainland ports were closed. But their marriage wouldn’t survive the move: his wife later left for San Francisco, where she had family, taking their two daughters, Vivian and Cynthia, with her.

At the time, Harvey—still a “flashy, sharp dresser,” according to his friend, retired Vancouver police sergeant Bob Cooper—was working as a doorman at Dye Ning, one of a handful ofChinatown gambling dens. In 1953, he helped open the Smilin’ Buddha cabaret—famous for its neon sign depicting a carnal Buddha—and began hosting “Call of China” on CJOR, the country’s first Chinese-Canadian radio program, according to his friend Jim Wong-Chu, a local writer and historian. He was also a regular on the Smothers Brothers TV show, performed a regular 20-minute yo-yo extravaganza at the Orpheum Theatre and at legendary Vancouver club the Marco Polo, and taught Julie Christie how to smoke opium for McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

When he was 45, a Marco Polo showgirl introduced him to Tessie Santos, a bubbly 27-year-old ER nurse. They married in 1967, and a year later, Melanie was born. Harvey always carried two yo-yos in his pocket. “Okay, don’t move,” he’d say before “whizzing” yo-yos around her friends’ heads at blinding speeds. In his 70s and 80s, Harvey worked as an airline greeter and in PR at Richmond’s Aberdeen Mall. He dyed his hair black and lied about his age.

In 1995, Harvey had a 10-hour operation to deal with a tumour. It was too big to remove, so surgeons cleaned it up as best they could. But he was left with memory loss. It was the yo-yo, his ticket to global fame, that won him back his identity: yo-yoing literally helped Harvey recover his memory. But eventually, health problems caught up to him. In December, Harvey, who’d do the odd yo-yo show at seniors’ homes, had a fistula, an artificial vein implanted in his right arm for dialysis. “Every now and again” he’d pick up a yo-yo, and take it for a half-hearted spin, says Melanie. But “with a fistula, circulation in your arm isn’t so good.” Soon, he gave up on dialysis too: fluid was building up in his kidneys, regardless. Harvey died three weeks later, on March 11. He was 90.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.