Our first Chinese New Year in Vancouver after an absence of many years proved to be both educational and amusing. Educational because we had to relearn the “local” Chinese customs here, which at times seem both familiar and baffling. Amusing because many of the expressions of so called Chinese customs displaced in the popular media here are quite funny, having been made up, no doubt, through a creative mix of Chinatown myths and stereotypes.
Chinese New Year here in Canada certainly does not have the atmosphere of Hong Kong. It is not a public holiday and you do not celebrate a festival when you are at work. So Chinese New Year here is a bit of a notional affair and there are little of the celebratory activities we were used to. To be sure, there are a variety of activities revolving around the Chinatowns and the Chinese shopping malls such as the ubiquitous lion dances and street parades, but they lack the scale and style of city-wide happenings. We miss the spectacular fireworks over the Victoria Harbour, the giving and receiving of red packets, to partake as part of the thousands who throng the late night flower markets and the Chinese temples in the morning.
And there is that intangible thing, a mood one only experiences during the Chinese New Year: the delicious sense of calm and joy during those sweet precious few days of the Lunar New Year when the frenetic pace of Hong Kong comes to a stop. Suddenly the pressure of the daily grind is off, and in the air there seems to be a pronouncement: forget work, time for fun! One recalls spending time with our long neglected family and friends, visiting the New and not so new Territories, hanging around one’s favorite streets and neighborhoods, or having a delicious meal or two or three. All of a sudden, your life and the world seem whole again. More than any time of the year, the Chinese New Year is when Hong Kong manages to slow down to a more leisurely human pace to take account and reflect on the passing of yet another year.
None of that is possible here in Canada, and Chinese New Year is just another workday — but not quite. Most Chinese Canadians try to make the most of the Lunar New Year. The Chinese restaurants, at least the popular ones, are booked well in advance, for gathering over a good meal is still the easiest and the most enjoyable way to celebrate the Chinese New Year. In this, Chinese dining indulgence dovetails very well with the rest of the Vancouverites. This city takes food very seriously. Neighborhoods are lined with a united nation of cuisine restaurants: Italian, French, Spanish, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese, to name only the most obvious. And of course there are all varieties of Chinese restaurants. The Lunar New Year is when the Chinese Canadians show off their cooking and recipes. The local newspapers are full of pictures of Chinese dishes, interviews with family and professional chefs. All seem to have a whale of a good time espousing the esoteric aspects of Chinese culture. It is at such a time when everything we do seem to be impregnated with meaning. The New Year banquets are usually eight to nine courses as the numbers represent prosperity and longevity; and how the multi-course meals represent “wealth, luck, happiness and long life”. Others claim that the Chinese New Year banquet must include a whole fish as the latter in Chinese sounds like “wish” and eating fish at such a time ensures one’s wish always comes true in the new year. More incredulous still is the claim by one columnist that roast pig represents peace and purity! It soon occurs to us that many of the “experts” are making up such claims based on heresy and their own fancy. But the Lunar New Year here seems to be an open season for such stereotyping, spun by both Chinese and Caucasians alike.
Behind all these is a discernable keen interest in things Chinese in the society at large. Everyone talks about the “rise of China”. When asked about her strategy to spur economic growth in the BC province, our provincial Premier often repeats the mantra of increasing trade with Asia, particularly China. You would think it is a no-brainer strategy but for the politicians, it seems they are discovering a lost continent!
It appears there are also quite a few non-Chinese people here who look to the Chinese New Year with glee and anticipation. Some how the word got around that it was a Chinese tradition to make a big purchase or investment during the Chinese New Year, so there would be an influx of wealthy Chinese buyers to Vancouver to snap up luxury houses. Being Chinese we are unaware of such Chinese tradition, but the real estate agents all point to recent Chinese New Year long holidays when such phenomenon did happen.
To us, coming from Hong Kong these things have an eerily familiar feel. There is no denying however, that Chinese money is increasingly becoming the “elephant in the room”, particularly in the case of Vancouver real estate, and is becoming a divisive issue, especially among those who have been priced out of the market.
And there is a local sculptor who spent two years fashioning a giant stainless steel dragon sculpture and put a price tag of C$10 million on it. But after months of finding no taker, the dragon sculpture was recently unveiled again just in time for the Chinese New Year at a casino resort in Richmond where most of the customers are Chinese. Hoping that the Year of the Dragon will bring him good fortune, the price is now dramatically halved!
Our homecoming to Vancouver after years of absence has proven to be quite an experience and the distance between Hong Kong and Vancouver suddenly seems rather shortened.