Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Jungle Ling
Meet Jungle. I (unknowingly) knew of him before I’d met him. At my neighbour’s one night, who had bought my photo book, he told me that a few of the mural photos in the book were ‘that guy’s art’, and pointed to a long-haired Chinese guy talking to a few other people who were there. Excited to meet him, I went over and introduced myself. Jungle and I have been ‘regulars’ at this friend’s weekly drop in, so we’ve gotten to know each other a bit more over the last few months. I knew his was a story in the making.
Born in Taiwan, Jungle’s family had a hard road. They are Hakka, more or less gypsies, who settled in areas of the mountains in China. After being treated brutally by the ruling class they left on on a boat to Taiwan. Initially lucky, his father became an employee of the state, working his way up to manager of their equivalent of Canada Post. However, when he discovered his superior was embezzling money, he did the right thing and reported him, only to have his world cave in on him. In Chaing Kai Shek’s Taiwan, ‘whistle blowing’ is tantamount to treason. Taiwan in the 1970s was corrupt to the core and ruled with an iron fist. His father was fired and pretty much run out of town. No one would hire him, and Jungle’s family, all 7 of them (his parents, Jungle and 4 younger sisters), were moving from shanty to shanty. One day his father could take no more & sent his mom & their youngest to Niagara Falls to stay with her sister. She did, but after a time, they were kicked out by her brother-in-law and left for dead. Jungle’s mom was literally on the street when a newspaper that kept blowing around her caught her eye. It was the ‘Help Wanted’ page. She picked it up, saw a ‘Nanny wanted’ ad, applied and got the job working for a hippie family, who later would become their family’s sponsor to Canada.
When Jungle and the rest of his family arrived several years later, (his father used all his money to bribe officials to let them leave Taiwan), he didn’t recognize his mom and his dad was a broken man. He was a stranger in a strange land. At 9 years old, he knew no English. The kids were put to work on paper routes and his dad picked up menial jobs here and there. A gifted artist, Jungle, at the behest of his mother, entered his artwork into contests, that he constantly won ($10 or so) until his father’s violence and abusive behavior put Jungle into the role of caregiver to his mom/siblings full time . It wasn’t until he was 12 that he was enrolled in school where they made him change his name to John, “for his own sake”, he recalls. “A name I would go by until university”. He was put in the Special Ed class and deemed himself a ‘misfit’ from that point on. His teacher was his lifesaver. She loved the ‘misfits’.
After high school, Jungle studied Structural Steel Fitting at Mohawk College, which allowed him a chance to make some money and gave anything extra to his mother to help support her and the rest of the family. After several years in the workforce, he went on to university (Brock) to study Psychology, but it was Sociology that he got hooked on and opened the door to helping him find the ‘meaning of life’. He left Brock after one year and came to Toronto to study Human Services Counselling at George Brown. “The best way to avoid your own hurt, is to help other people with theirs. Being an enabler is cool,” he smiles.
His first placement was at Padhabun Lodge in Parkdale, an open door to Native people who wanted a traditional way to heal . Padhabun was a life changer for Jungle. “The first thing I noticed was that no one questioned me when I introduced myself as Jungle. At the age of 26, for the first time, I felt accepted”. He taught art there and after having put it aside for over 15 years, he started drawing, sketching and painting again. He also started to heal himself. “After years of being numb from the neck down from emotional trauma my art and the Lodge gave me a new lease on life”.
He left Padhuban to put some of that healing to the test and took to the road on his bike. “My name, ‘Shungo’ (Jungle) Ling means ‘standing forest’. It was time to be with the trees”. His self discovery journey first took him Kapuskasing to plant trees, then Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. for over 3 months. He was shellshocked being back in the city on his return but the journey taught him to accept the emotionally dark places in his life and he embraced it. He used music; Lou Reed & Leonard Cohen and while he suffered a short depression, got back to living and returned to counselling work.
In 1997, he worked at Covenant House, (where he met his wife, Sandra with whom he had a daughter, Heron, in 1999), Metro Association for Community Living, and became the Harm Reduction Coordinator at Youth Clinical Services and finally Manager. When the bureaucracy took hold and made his working life impossible, he quit (fired himself!) and did a 180 degree turn. He bought a friend’s diaper business.
In 1994, unbeknowns to him, the money he had sent his mother years before to help out when he was in the fitter business, had been put aside for him. A mother’s love hath no limit! It was that money that set him free. He had enough to put a down payment on a house in Leslieville, where he lives today. He set up the diaper business from home. It was a veritable cloud of white; diapers everywhere, a serger, industrial washing machines, and a ready-made client base. Jungle cycled his service around the neighbourhood for 5 years. While he loved the business and met a plethora of new people, he returned to counselling work again, this time at South Riverdale CHC, then as an Outreach Worker for the Homeless, where he visited people living on the edge, connecting them to city services.
“I’ve always believed art was a healing therapy and I started doing more and more, eventually showing my work in exhibitions around Toronto, pitching the ‘art is therapy’ idea to the City/Woodgreen Committee, where I ended up teaching at-risk youth. The kids worked with me on the painting/mural at the corner of the TD Bank on Queen & Logan. They helped research the era (1926), published a booklet and I painted.” Have a close look at it next time you’re at Pape/Queen. It’s full of funnies that only an eye for detail and humour will pick up.
In 2003, Jungle met John Chang, who he describes as “a local visionary”. John had lived in the area since the 80s and was a huge advocate for improving Sth Riverdale (as Leslieville was known then) by initiating community gardens, selling the food, working as part-time outreach worker, bringing the crime down and the prosperity up and looking for God. At the corner of Colgate near Pape (in the Colgate condo grounds) the park there is named after John. Several pieces of Jungle’s work (metal sculptures made from rebar plucked out of Leslie Spit and several benches of reclaimed wood from Manitoulin Island) were donated in John’s honour. The attached film includes clips and interviews with Jungle and others in this homage to John. It’s a fascinating look at John, his life, old(er) Leslieville and an insight into the park. (58 minutes).
Around this time, Jungle was offered a commission by the TTC for a mural. If you walk down Connaught you’ll see it. Again, look closely and you’ll see the humour in his work. And even a neighbourhood icon; Nash the Slash, who he used to play video games with at Strats. He had no idea until months later Nash was the guy in the band wrapped up like a mummy.
In 2011 Jungle felt the journey bug bite him again and he went off to Dawson City, Yukon. For 2 winters he called his forays north ‘Drinking & Drawing’. He hung out getting to know the locals and drawing them. His collection is vast; hundreds, if not thousands of small portrait sketches from his days there adorn his ‘elephant’ installation (see pic) and a prayer flag of sketches is blowing in the wind in Dawson City as I write. He gave each person he drew the original and kept a carbon copy for himself.
Jungle returned home in 2012 to continue his art, work/volunteer in the community in various capacities (he started the free cycle fix-it at Riverdale CHC) and was the inspiration for Bikesauce, the volunteer-run DIY bike repair space, teaching low income people to fix their bikes. He also continues to paint, draw, sketch, sell/exhibit his art and work as a local handyman in Leslieville & Riverdale.
If you want a glimpse of Jungle’s work, take yourself to Pape & Queen, Connaught just south of Queen, Danforth & Donlands, East Lynn Park and Colgate/Pape parkette.
And if you ever want to chat with him, you’ll likely find him up at GGs on occasion having a late night drink. I’m sure he has a few (dozen) stories left in him.