The culture-keeper

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© Copyright 2013, Ruth Lor Malloy. Ruth Malloy at Afrofest, with musician Njacko Backo, who teaches African music in Toronto’s schools.

Meet  Ruth Malloy, the lady behind Toronto’s definitive multicultural festival guide

by MARITES N. SISON

City officials often rave about how multicultural Toronto is: “Over 140 languages and dialects are spoken here!”

But there is one person who can claim to know just how diverse the city’s culture is and can easily rattle off what celebrations and commemorations are taking place almost any day of the year.

For the last four years, Ruth Lor Malloy has been behind TorontoMulticulturalCalendar.com, “the tell-all blog about Toronto’s free or almost free multicultural festivals and events.”

Anyone who wants to sample the unique offerings from Toronto’s 200 ethnic communities needs only to visit Malloy’s blog and marvel at how one can visit the world over without leaving the city. Information about where to go on a particular day is immediately available, and should one decide to be a virtual tourist, Malloy’s evocative articles and colourful photographs are a trusty guide.

In person, Malloy has a rather serious, no-nonsense mien that belies her earthy passion for people and big-tent ideals.

On a rainy Halloween Day, we meet at the Bread and Roses bakery, a cozy but a bit worn-down café in the heart of her neighbourhood—Bloor West Village—to talk about why she has devoted much of her retirement years to her blog. She often wakes at 3 a.m. to update TorontoMulticulturalCalendar.com, and spends most weekdays photographing and interviewing people.

Malloy, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, said that like many of her colleagues, she decided to blog when the regular freelance pool just about dried up with the information revolution. For decades, as she and her journalist-husband travelled and lived in the U.S., Hong Kong, Vietnam, Philippines, Kazakhstan, India, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Mexico and Brazil, Malloy had been a regular contributor to various publications in Canada. But times changed.

“I got sick and tired of getting no replies from the [Toronto] Star and Globe and Mail,” Malloy said. “Why bother, I thought.”

Malloy decided that the web was the way to go. She started to provide self-guided, downloadable photo tours about the Calgary Stampede, the Quebec Winter Carnival, The World in Toronto, Toronto’s Many Chinatowns, Botswana, Mongolia and Helsinki, for VisualTravelTours.com (These mixed media tours, made for mobile devices,  are available for $9.95 and are written by professional travel writers and locals “who have inside information about destinations,” according to its website.)

Along the way, Malloy realized she had a yen for covering the city’s multicultural festivals. “I loved taking pictures and going to festivals so much, I just kept on going. I had to have some outlet, so I started a blog,” she said. Malloy, who started freelancing travel stories in 1957, routinely submitted photos with her articles and developed strong photography skills. In today’s social media world where multitasking journos are the new normal, photography skills are essential.

Isolation and exclusion

“I’ve always been interested in helping out others. …It’s curiosity. It’s adventure. It’s a willingness to help solve problems when you can,” said Malloy, explaining the reasons behind her tireless devotion to her blog, where she is the only full-time staff.

It could be partly due to her Presbyterian background, she added, or it could have come from a place of exclusion.

Born and raised in a Chinese restaurant family in Brockville, eastern Ontario, Malloy recalled how she and her four siblings felt the pain of having been perceived as “the other.” It was the 1950s, there were only two Asian families in the nearly all-white community. Sure, people patronized her family’s “New York Restaurant,” which served the only live lobsters and oysters between Toronto and Montreal. “We had tablecloths,” she recalled, and officers from a nearby Canadian Army training centre often went there for lunch and dinner.

But they were never seen as equals. “The thing that really hurts is that as teenagers, we didn’t get invited out. We were not dated. Nobody asked us for a date the whole time I was in high school,” she said. “Generally, we were accepted…but my brother had a friend that he wanted to date, and he was not allowed to date her because he was Chinese.”

There were instances of name-calling on the streets—“Chinky, chinky, Chinaman.” She recalled sitting down in a movie theatre and hearing someone say, “Chinese,” before changing seats to avoid her. “We were seen as different. There’s a feeling that you don’t understand,” she said, “and you feel kind of uncomfortable.”

The sense of isolation that Malloy and her family experienced is documented in one of three stories of immigrant Chinese families in a new book, Lives of the Families: Stories of Fate and Circumstance, by Denise Chong, a third-generation Chinese Canadian who is a two-time Governor General’s Literary Award finalist.

When Malloy came to Toronto to attend university, she said she felt such a huge relief when people from various backgrounds embraced her. “I started dating. There was nothing wrong with me!” she said, laughing.

Exotic Toronto

Ruth Lor Malloy at South Asian Bridal Show. Copyright ©2013 Ruth Lor Malloy

© Copyright 2013, Ruth Lor Malloy. About five South Asian bridal shows take place every year in Toronto.

Malloy has been to hundreds of multicultural events and had to think hard when asked to pick one indelible experience. It would have to be the Tamil Chariot Festival, she said, which includes the self-mortification ritual of putting stakes on the backs of men as they are pulled by a chariot. “I can’t get friends to go because they are so squeamish.” This is as exotic as you can get in Toronto, she emphasized.

She also recalled being the only non-Portuguese Canadian in the “Humane Bloodless Portuguese Bullfight” at Downsview Park last June, an event that caused quite a ruckus. “It was very controversial because a lot of Canadians are animal lovers,” she said, adding that the bull in question wasn’t really hurt. There was no actual spearing as one might find in Spanish or Portuguese bullfights. “They had Velcro attached to the back of the bull and the spears just stuck to them.” At best, it was entertaining to see a male and female toreador (bullfighter) dressed up in fancy costumes, she said.

By now, Malloy has taken thousands of photographs that she hopes to donate one day to a place like the Multicultural Historic Society. She has been so much a fixture at events that people trust her to take their photographs. “Nobody else is doing what I’m doing here. I don’t see the same photographers at every event,” she said.

Donating the photographs won’t probably happen any time soon, however. Retirement is far from Malloy’s mind. She’s having way too much fun. Just this March, she was so taken by the friendliness of a Tatarstan group she met at the International Norvuz Festival that she joined them as a member.

A Chinese-Canadian becoming a member of a Tatarstan-Canadian group is as good as it gets in Toronto, she says, smiling broadly. “You’ve got the world here.”

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