The lion dance is a traditional Chinese dance performed on big occasions, such as the Chinese New Year. Susanne Martin

The lion dance is a traditional Chinese dance performed on big occasions, such as the Chinese New Year. Susanne Martin

On January 28, millions of people around the world will usher in the Year of the Rooster. Canadians across the nation will join Chinese New Year celebrations, embracing a tradition steeped in history, customs, symbolism and cultural significance.

As Chinese families and communities around the world welcome the Year of the Rooster, many of Canada’s multicultural hubs and organizations are joining the festivities. Public parades and performances will mark the holiday in cities across the county. Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, for example, is expecting over 100,000 spectators as well as 70 participating community and cultural groups, such as lion dance teams, dance troupes, marching bands and martial arts performers.

Returning for the 44th time this year, the Chinatown parade will wind its way through a neighbourhood that is undergoing rapid changes, lending the event special significance in highlighting the important contributions of Chinese Canadians and the need to protect their visible cultural heritage.

Chinese New Year celebrations also present an opportunity to highlight Chinese traditions and customs. Bao Bei, one of Chinatown’s most celebrated eateries, will offer special dishes laden with symbolic meaning, says owner Tannis Ling. “We’ll have noodles, which symbolize long life, and duck with bamboo coins that signify prosperity.” She adds that many people eat fish at Chinese New Year because the pronunciation of the word for “fish” is similar to that of “abundance.”

Another new year tradition Ms. Ling grew up with – she was raised in Vancouver by parents hailing from Hong Kong and Taiwan – was receiving hongbao, “lucky money” stuffed into little red envelopes, she says. It’s a custom she’s happy to continue by preparing red envelopes for her employees.

It was her passion for Chinese cuisine that inspired Ms. Ling to open Bao Bei seven years ago. “I love Chinese food,” she says. “When my mom was cooking, she was always looking for the right combination that reminded her of the flavours of her childhood.”

Bao Bei takes a modern approach to traditional dishes, and considers their impact on health and the environment. And the commitment to supporting sustainable food and local businesses starts right at the restaurant’s doorstep, says Ms. Ling, who shops at the neighbourhood’s herbal stores whenever she can find the quality and price she is looking for.

Chinatown, she believes, currently has a balance of old and new, traditional and trendy. “We still have the old fish markets, barbeque joints, groceries and herbal stores,” she says. “But I feel we are sitting on a precipice.”

Ms. Ling, who has been actively engaged in initiatives aimed at preserving Chinatown’s character, is not alone in this assessment. Henry Yu, associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of history, says, “Vancouver’s Chinatown is under great threat.”

While businesses like Bao Bei contribute to a revitalization of Chinatown in a culturally respectful way, other changes are less positive, says Dr. Yu. New condominium towers, for example, attract a different demographic, driving up rents, land prices and commercial leases, he adds. “Many of the traditional businesses are closing down, including the produce markets that make Chinatown so iconic and attractive to tourists.”

This trend is not unique to Vancouver’s Chinatown. Many historic districts in North American cities are no longer the traditional cultural hubs they once were, says Dr. Yu. “In Vancouver, people of Chinese heritage live in all parts of the city now, and you can find Chinese groceries and restaurants in different neighbourhoods.”

Yet Dr. Yu believes that preserving visible cultural heritage is an important part of honouring the underlying social values and practices. “Respect for elders – and taking care of them – are a big part of the Chinese tradition,” he explains. “Historically, Chinatown has taken care of those in need. If you were a new immigrant or a senior, you found a community that honoured your traditions and helped to take care of you.”

This fabric of society is threatened when seniors on a fixed income can’t afford to live in their old neighourhood or when the stores they rely on disappear. “Lion dancers still come to practise in Chinatown because societies promoting Chinese heritage and tradition are still active. And there are still many Chinese seniors living in Chinatown,” says Dr. Yu, who speaks out in support of retaining some of the social glue that makes Chinatown a vibrant and inclusive community.

“Values like respect for family and elders and contributing to the good of the community are central to the celebration of the Chinese New Year. If those values become an abstract concept that we only remember once a year, things like the parade would become meaningless gestures,” says Dr. Yu, who celebrates the Chinese New Year with his parents as well as his children. He is also planning to attend the Chinatown parade on January 29 with his family.


Year of the Rooster

In the Chinese zodiac, each year is represented by an animal and its reputed attributes. Traditionally, zodiac animals were used to date the years in a cycle repeating every 12 years. The upcoming year, the Year of the Rooster, follows the Year of the Monkey and precedes the Year of the Dog.

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