Register Sunday | June 24 | 2018

Piping In the (Chinese) New Year

How Vancouver’s Chinese New Year celebration is promoting interculturalism in Canada’s western metropolis

Each year, Vancouver celebrates Chinese New Year like no other city on the continent. People flock to Chinatown for the traditional parade just as businesses are gearing up for one of the busiest spending periods of the year. Festivities large and small erupt across the city with a joyful exuberance otherwise seen only occasionally in this laid-back West Coast metropolis.

The biggest of these parties is thrown by the Chinese Federation of Commerce Canada (CFCC), a non-profit organization that offers business services and helps immigrants integrate into Canadian society. For fifteen years, the CFCC's Lunar New Year bash has drawn tens of thousands of people to the Pacific National Exhibition grounds-this year they're expecting up to 150,000 visitors-to shop for New Year goods, take in some entertainment and soak up the convivial atmosphere. The festival's success is hinted at in its list of sponsors, which range from Rogers Wireless to Toyota to Ikea. Local and national media outlets, English and Chinese alike, have also lent their support. What makes festival organizers proudest, however, is its designation as a "Spirit of Vancouver" event by the Board of Trade in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics. "It's a very exclusive name," enthuses Edmund Leung, the co-chairman of the CFCC festival.

Every year, politicians make a big show of glad-handing at Chinese New Year festivities, distributing Chinese pamphlets and business cards and posing for photo-ops. Leung's event is no exception, drawing big shots such as British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell and federal health minister Ujjal Dosanjh. "Politicians know you are not just talking about Caucasians anymore," says Leung. "Talk about Asians, talk about East Indians, talk about Filipinos-you have to cater to those people too as a politician, because you are working for the public." But just as the Lunar New Year is an occasion for politicians to reach out to the Chinese community, it is also a chance for the Chinese community to embrace the rest of Vancouver. Two years ago, the CFCC pushed its festival in a more multicultural direction, including non-Chinese talent in the entertainment and aggressively targeting the English media. It is a trend shared by many other New Year events-in the Chinatown parade for example, Brazilian dancers working their way down Pender Street right after the lion dance. The dancers, together with the people looking on, help represent the full spectrum of Vancouver's diversity.

Vancouver's Chinese community is one of the largest and most influential in North America. Numbering about 400,000-nearly one-fifth of the metropolitan area's population (this figure rises to one-third in the City of Vancouver itself)-it supports three daily newspapers, two television stations and a number of radio stations. Chinese-Canadian enterprises and entrepreneurs have had an immeasurable impact on Vancouver's business, physical and cultural landscapes. (So does Chinese New Year: each holiday period sees a spike in retail spending in Vancouver, with consumers indulging in new cars, appliances and even new condos.) Politics in Vancouver is changing too, with politicians now working to understand Chinese concerns and target Chinese voters. The new mayor of Vancouver, Sam Sullivan, actually learned Cantonese to better serve his constituents.

Much of this influence can be traced back to the massive influx of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan from the nineteen-seventies to the eighties. While Vancouver has always been a culturally diverse city, sporting significant Chinese and Japanese communities even when it was a muddy backwater, it was long dominated by an incestuous British-Canadian elite; one that cloistered itself in the exclusive neighbourhoods of the city's West Side, away from the immigrant masses to the east. At some point in the past twenty years, however, that changed. Confronted by the new middle- and upper-class migrants from Asia, the guardians of the mainstream institutions-media, politics and business-have had no choice but to step aside. The result has been an unprecedented openness, one that has given birth to a cultural blending that can be seen in every aspect of Vancouver life.

This much is obvious when you talk to Todd Wong, the cheerful founder of Gung Haggis Fat Choy, one of Vancouver's newest and most intriguing cultural events. It all started when Wong was a student at Simon Fraser University. "I was asked to participate in the Robbie Burns Day celebration and nobody wanted to. Nobody wanted to wear a kilt! It was too strange, it was too weird. But I realized this is a multicultural statement. You've got a fifth-generation Chinese-Canadian wearing a kilt. It really put a flip on the stereotypes." That was in 1993. Over the next several years a series of small dinners with friends based around the Chinese-cum-Scottish theme eventually ballooned into what is now a 600-person banquet featuring a twelve-course dinner, big-name guests and a number of fun and prominent performers. Traditional Chinese New Year dishes are served for dinner but the real star is the haggis which finds itself transformed into wontons, lettuce wraps and spring rolls. The cross-cultural culinary experience is upstaged only by the list of entertainment. This year the long list of talent includes iconic Japanese-Canadian author Joy Kogawa, who will speak to the audience some time after Lala, a Chinese-Canadian artist who blends soul and hip hop with traditional Asian and Canadian music, has performed. "We have to have fun with multiculturalism," says Wong.

But Gung Haggis Fat Choy isn't just about multiculturalism; it's about interculturalism.There's a fine but important distinction between the two. "It's like a marriage," explains Wong. "When you have an intercultural marriage, somebody's actually coming into your family. For me, all my cousins on my maternal side and half my paternal cousins have interracially married. So we celebrate and everyone in the family is included." That's a pretty apt metaphor for Vancouver, even in a literal sense-last year, Statistics Canada determined that Vancouver is home to the largest proportion of mixed-race couples in Canada. Vancouver's character is being built around cultural blending and exchange. "In Vancouver's search for its own identity, everybody gets to express their own. We don't have a long history-we are creating our history and identity in this moment," adds Wong.

Perhaps inevitably then, in our lovely land of order and good governance, comes the question of how to enshrine part of that identity in a legal sense. Last year, a debate in Vancouver's Chinese media about whether to make the Lunar New Year a public holiday made it into the pages of the Vancouver Sun, which asked, "Is it time to make it official?" Vancouver's schools already throw multicultural New Year celebrations and, last year, all of the city's high schools and half of its elementary schools closed for Lunar New Year. So why not make it a public holiday? Both Wong and Leung are skeptical. "It's unfair to other cultural groups to isolate a Chinese holiday," says Leung. Wong concurs. "I think that it is better presently to continue the status quo," he says. "Should St. Patrick's Day and Robbie Burns Day become official holidays? Or Diwali? or Persian New Year?"

They have a point, but it's helpful to remember that, unlike Robbie Burns Day or even Diwali, the Lunar New Year is celebrated by a huge number of Vancouverites. Not only is it a traditional festival for the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese population, many non-Asians celebrate it by attending parades, the CFCC fair or by simply getting together with friends for dinner. Making it a public holiday in Vancouver would be an important symbol of the city's dynamic character, one that is just as Asian as it is European. Still, making the Lunar New Year a holiday would ultimately be a token gesture; Vancouver's character will continue to evolve regardless. "When I travel through Vancouver," says Wong, "to me it's intercultural. I don't want to go to all the traditional dances and all that; I want to see what's exciting. How do we create our own culture? How does Vancouver create its own identity by drawing on all its ethnic ancestries?"

The answer will be something for future generations to discover. In the meantime, have a good Year of the Dog. Gung Hay-er, Haggis-Fat Choy!
Christopher DeWolf wanders our streets as Maisonneuve's urban affairs critic. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Christopher DeWolf.