Subscribe to our email newsletter to get summary and breaking news in your inbox.

Joel and Cecilia: From the Boardroom to the World’s Most Opulent Stages

Joel and Cecilia stand outside the Chinese embassy in Toronto, Canada

Joel and Cecilia stand outside the Chinese embassy in Toronto, Canada

When Canadian Joel Chipkar first came across Falun Gong in 1998, he wasn’t looking for a spiritual practice and didn’t have time for a human rights cause.

On the other side of the world, Cecilia Xiong had just moved from China to Belgium, bringing her belief in Falun Gong with her.

They didn’t know that four years later, they would be by each other’s side, opposing a brutal persecution each in their own way.

“The stress from my business caught up to me so I followed my mom to a local Falun Gong practice site one evening, where she guided me through the exercises,” says Chipkar, a successful real estate broker of 19 years. “That night I had the best sleep I’d had in years.”

The next morning, he started to read Falun Gong’s teachings, reaching a section that emphasized following Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance. When it was time to leave for work, he put the book down and got in his car.

“As I rolled onto the highway, a red convertible swerved in front of me. I raised my fist and opened my mouth to swear at the driver. Then, from out of nowhere, a word popped into my head—‘Forbearance.’”

He put his fist down and started to laugh, amazed at his quick change in perspective. After that, he was hooked.

Meanwhile in Belgium, Xiong was studying economics, having said goodbye to her parents back in China, where they practiced Falun Gong every morning.

“I started practicing in 1998,” says Xiong. “At first I joined just to please my mom, but then I felt the exercises started to help my spinal problems so I started to take it more seriously.”

She never thought that a year later, their lives would be turned upside down when the spiritual discipline they shared would be violently suppressed.

Shock and resistance

“The day I heard about the ban, I was in shock,” says Xiong. “I couldn’t understand why the government would do that. When I heard people were getting arrested, I was afraid for my parents.”

Her fears turned out to be well-founded. In 2000, Xiong learned that her parents had been detained.

“My dad was put in jail and my mother was beaten until she was blind and deaf,” she says. “They shocked her with electric batons until her body was black and blue.”

Xiong started appealing for her parents’ release, traveling across Europe to seek help from Western governments. Eventually, her parents were released, but they remain in hiding, living in exile in their own country.

Back in Canada, Chipkar experienced the persecution more indirectly—as a victim of hate incitement.

“After I learned the practice, I stuck a poster in my office window advertising, ‘Free Falun Gong classes on Monday nights’,” he says.

For a year the poster hung in the window without incident. Then, in July 1999 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) banned Falun Gong and launched a vitriolic propaganda campaign against it.

“I sat at my office desk, when a lady walked by and read my poster,” recalls Chipkar. “Then she popped her head through the doorway.”

“I don’t appreciate you advertising cults in your window,” she said.

“I sat stunned,” says Chipkar. “I tried to follow her but she disappeared into the elevator. I was shocked at how people in my own community started to become poisoned by the CCP’s hate propaganda.”

Chipkar became a media spokesperson for Falun Gong to help expose the realities of the CCP’s campaign. Then, in 2003, the local Chinese Vice Consul General was published in one of Canada’s largest newspapers attacking Chipkar and his belief in Falun Gong.

 “I have never been so scared in all my life,” he says. “But I was determined. I felt that this was not only about protecting my dignity, but about stopping Chinese officials from attacking people in North America as if it were China.”

A year later, in a landmark ruling, a Canadian judge ruled in Chipkar’s favor noting that

the Vice Consul could not claim immunity because he acted outside of his official capacity when he attacked Chipkar. He then awarded damages. A few weeks later the Vice Consul fled the country to escape paying.

“I was so happy,” says Chipkar, “I didn’t care about the money. It was all about principle.”

Not long before Chipkar’s lawsuit, he and Xiong met at a Falun Gong conference.

“The minute I saw her I knew she would be my wife,” he says.

They were married in 2002.

As Chipkar spoke in boardrooms and courthouses against the Chinese regime’s hate incitement, Xiong discovered an alternative way to counteract the CCP-spread animosity toward Falun Gong —performing classical Chinese dance.

“Ever since I was young I loved to dance,” says Xiong.

Cecilia (C) performs Chinese classical dance - her own way of promoting peaceful change in China

Cecilia (C) performs Chinese classical dance - her own way of promoting peaceful change in China

When she moved to Canada, she auditioned to dance for the Divine Performing Arts Troupe, a classical Chinese dance company known for its international sell-out shows of traditional Chinese culture.

“We want to give people a glimpse of some of the finest traditions of China’s 5,000 year-old culture,” she says. “The show is about the spirit of ancient China."

For Xiong, dancing has also become part of her journey of self-discovery—and resistance.

“Performing these dances is a learning experience for me too because I’m exploring my true heritage,” she says. “Growing up in China, you’re not exposed to it.”

In addition to Chinese ethnic dances and historical narrative pieces, the dance troupe also tackles portraying contemporary China, including artistic portrayals of the persecution against Falun Gong. 

“The CCP teaches that their culture of social and political struggle is Chinese culture,” she says. “Our dances show people that’s not true and I hope those who see our show will also appreciate the beauty and dignity of Falun Gong and see through the CCP’s lies about it.”

Still, she wishes her parents could be in the audience, sitting beside Chipkar and his mother, watching their daughter realize her childhood dream.

“I haven’t seen them in a long time.” she says. “I hope to be reunited with them soon. But for now they’re in my heart when I’m on stage.”