While COVID-19 cast a shadow on many cultural holidays this past year, our community remains focused on finding ways to celebrate and connect, while making safety our priority. Lunar New Year a holiday celebrated by many East Asian communities begins on February 12th. Many people in our community with Asian backgrounds will participate in the two-week holiday to connect with their culture and share special moments with their family, largely online. This year, we say goodbye to the year of the Rat and usher in the year of the Metal Ox.
The Chinese zodiac calendar follows a rotation of 12 different animals corresponding to 5 earthly elements, influencing everything from personality traits to the best time to make big life decisions. After a particular challenging year in 2020, the Metal Ox represents a year of shinning prosperity through diligence. Metal also has connections to supporting the lungs – a good sign for a world in the middle of a pandemic.
For many Victorians, this time of year represents a flurry of excitement, with lion dances, fireworks, exchanging lucky envelopes filled with money and dinners out at restaurants as staple holiday activities. Alan Lowe, former Mayor of Victoria, current chair of the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society, has many fond memories of celebrating Lunar New Years, having grown up in Victoria’s Chinatown. “When I was young, we always looked forward to Chinese New Year, as we would see a lot of friends and family,” Alan recalls. “This year is going to be completely different, and unfortunately, very quiet.”
For Alan, Victoria’s historical Chinatown is an important part of his celebrations in the past. Growing up in Chinatown, Alan recalls that, as a young person, “everyone was an aunt or an uncle to you.” Victoria boasts the oldest Chinatown in Canada, and the 2nd oldest – but most intact – Chinatown in North America. As a port city for incoming Chinese immigrants in the 1800s, Victoria’s Chinatown became an important centre for commerce, culture and connection, spanning 6 city blocks. It is also home to the oldest Chinese-owned business in North America – The Loy Sing Meat Market on Fisgard Street. Because the community faced so much discrimination from the wider community, Chinese Associations became important. information hubs for new Chinese immigrants to navigate their settlement journey in Victoria.
Nowadays, it remains an important cultural and tourism hub, although greatly reduced in size. Efforts to preserve physical spaces, support local Chinese businesses and to connect the public to the neighbourhood’s past, present and future remain a priority. “Our physical structures are like living museums,” explains Alan. “They tell an important story.” Over the summer of 2020, the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society, partnering with the Royal BC Museum and Salient Group, created a Chinatown Museum Pop-Up (located at #103-3 Fan Tan Alley) highlighting the neighbourhood’s history. The Pop-Up intends to raise awareness and support for a dedicated network of Chinatown Museums across British Columbia to show the impact of the past on our future. “The best part about the museum is that once you step on to the street, you will see, smell, hear and feel Chinatown,” Alan explains.
The prospects of a permanent Chinatown museum will also help connect newcomers and Chinese immigrants to the efforts of previous generations. “It is an exciting opportunity for newcomers to understand the hardships of those who came before them,” says Alan.
Many of Canada’s early Chinese immigrants faced incredible barriers to establishing a healthy life – systemic discrimination and violence against their community made it difficult for people to thrive outside of dedicated Chinese neighbourhoods. In connecting the past to the present, Alan explains, “We have come a long way, but discrimination still exists. COVID-19 has shown us racism and harassment for the Asian community still exists in our city.” Despite many longstanding barriers, Alan believes Victoria’s Chinese communities have remained incredibly resilient despite facing many barriers.
While the holiday’s exciting ceremonies and activities will look different this year, there are many ways for the public to still engage with Chinese culture during the Lunar New Year. Alan suggests supporting local Chinese businesses and restaurants as great ways to show your support. Victoria City Counsellor Charlayne Thorton-Joe is also encouraging residents to decorate their doorways on February 12th with Chinese elements and red decorations. Red is the main colour of celebrations in Chinese culture, bringing prosperity and good luck.
However you find yourself celebrating Lunar New Year this year, ICA wishes everyone a happy Lunar New Year and hopes the Year of the Ox brings much good luck and prosperity to all.
There’s lots more to learn about the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society.