This article appears in the February 3rd issue of the Georgia Straight.
By Joanna Chiu
At this year’s Gung Haggis Fat Choy celebration, diners simultaneously celebrated the start of the year of the rabbit and Robbie Burns’s 252nd birthday by enjoying Chinese-Scottish fusion dishes such as “haggis won ton” while a bagpipe band skirled on-stage.
In Chinatown’s annual new year’s parade on Sunday (February 6), Japanese taiko drummers and First Nations dancers will join Chinese lion-dance teams and martial-arts troupes to delight an expected crowd of more than 50,000 spectators—half of whom do not traditionally celebrate the Lunar New Year but will brave the congestion anyway.
These scenes are typical of Lunar New Year celebrations in Vancouver, a city where cultural blending is the norm. But should the new year—which Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Tibetan communities observe—become a statutory holiday in B.C.?
In 2006, Vancouver–Mount Pleasant NDP MLA Jenny Kwan suggested that the legislative assembly adopt the Lunar New Year as a holiday. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Kwan said that she originally proposed the holiday to “recognize the contributions of B.C.’s multicultural communities and to acknowledge that the Lunar New Year has become a holiday that engages people across all cultures”.
“Canadians have overcome some dark chapters in history,” Kwan explained, “but there are still lessons to be learned, and embracing Lunar New Year as a statutory holiday is another means of furthering the celebration of multiculturalism.”
The legislative assembly did not implement Kwan’s suggestion, and the holiday debate had lost traction until recently, when Liberal leadership candidate Christy Clark proposed a “family day” holiday in February to break up the long stretch between New Year’s Day and Good Friday.
Although Clark’s proposal has gained a lot of attention, the mixed public reaction means the Lunar New Year may still be in the running to become the province’s newest statutory holiday.
One reason the government might hesitate to give such status to the Lunar New Year is that recognizing a cultural celebration of only some B.C. residents might seem exclusionary to those from other cultural backgrounds (although three out of B.C.’s nine statutory holidays are Christian-based ones).
Henry Yu, a professor of history at UBC, argues that “recognizing Lunar New Year is a gesture that comes with some unevenness. For example, Japanese people observe the solar calendar year and Persian people observe the Persian calendar. Multiculturalism should be about recognizing all ethnic communities.”
Yu also thinks that a Lunar New Year holiday might not make sense logistically, because “Lunar New Year falls on a different day every year, and in any case there are already established social practices in place that allow workers to take time off work to observe cultural or religious holidays.”
On the other hand, Todd Wong, founder of the annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy celebrations, is in favour of making the Lunar New Year a public holiday because he thinks it would help promote cross-cultural exchange among all B.C. residents.
This year, Wong is excited to have cohosted the first Nanaimo Gung Haggis Fat Choy Pow Wow Dinner to support reconciliation of and friendship between aboriginal and nonaboriginal people.
“Food and music are great equalizers,” Wong said. “The Lunar New Year is a celebration with great food and music, and that draws people together and helps people recognize their commonalities.”
Whether or not it becomes a statutory holiday, the Lunar New Year is an ideal time to reflect on how far Canada has come since the era of head taxes, internment camps, and residential schools.
The past century of Chinese immigration to Canada can be broken down into three parts, Yu suggested: “From 1885 to 1923, around 100,000 Chinese came to Canada despite exorbitant head taxes, but after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, less than a hundred Chinese came to Canada. It was not until 1967, with the revision of the Immigration Act, when you got mass immigration again of people who were nonwhite.”
Metro Vancouver now has the highest proportion of residents of Chinese descent in North America (18 percent, according to the 2006 census).
“The point is not about self-flagellation or doing penance,” Yu said. “It is about recognizing the reality that multicultural Canada is only about 40 years old. It is great that we are celebrating the Lunar New Year together, but we also have to look at how far we have left to go.”
Do you think the Lunar New Year should be a statutory holiday? Take the poll on the Straight’s website.