Ringing in the Lunar New Year will be a much quieter affair for Calgary’s Chinese community.
“We used to have a Chinese New Year carnival, which was attended by thousands of Calgarians,” Tony Wong, president of the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre, said. “And we are not able to do that this year.”
Like many other things during the coronavirus pandemic, Calgary’s Lunar New Year celebrations are going online.
The one-hour program will feature new year traditions like the dragon dance, the Calgary Chinese Orchestra and martial arts demonstrations. The festivities will be streamed on the cultural centre’s website on Feb. 15.
The ensembles will not be performing live that evening. They have instead recorded their performances for the celebrations.
“For example, the dragon dance, they have made recordings over the years,” the cultural centre president said. “They selected their best clips and they put it together. It’s the same with the Chinese orchestra, they have held concerts before and they recorded some of the concerts.
“For the martial artists, they did it earlier in the year when the pandemic was not so rampant.”
Wong said the cultural centre has been closed since March 2020, during the onset of the pandemic, and has not been able to host cultural events throughout the year.
According to the 2016 census, more than 102,000 Calgarians are Chinese.
Lunar New Year is also celebrated in Korea, Vietnam, Tibet and Mongolia.
Shops and restaurants are open in Calgary’s 111-year-old Chinatown, making COVID-19 the second pandemic the district has seen.
“Chinese New Year is probably one of the most visited time of the year for us, largely because we have a lot of banquets hosted by different cultural associations,” Terry Wong, Chinatown BIA executive director, told Global News.
“But those banquets are not are not showing up this year at all,” he said. “Most of the restaurants are opening up with the appropriate spacing two metres, six-person dining. And they are offering a lot of Chinese New Year specials as part of the menu.”
Terry Wong said Calgary’s Chinatown has, like the rest of the city, felt the effects of the pandemic, but has not faced the same degree of closures as in other sectors or parts of the city.
“A lot of businesses have held their own, albeit revenues are down,” he said. “But they believe that working through community and working through family and working with their employees in a collective matter, they’ll weather this.”
The year of the ox may be auspicious for the area’s businesses, he said.
“If you follow the year of the ox, it’s a year of hard work and with hard work, having great success,” the Chinatown BIA executive director said.
To mark the new year and as part of the city’s Chinook Blast festival, the Chinatown BIA is installing a number of outdoor, pedestrian-friendly experiences in the form of new paper lanterns, five ice sculptures of oxen and new banners, to be installed Friday and Saturday.
The ice sculptures will be coloured to honour the city’s Chinese, BIPOC, gender diverse and first-responder communities. The new banners feature art from three local Asian artists following a contest.
Spring Festival or New Year’s Day this year is Friday. Tony Wong said the decision to have the cultural centre’s online celebrations on Family Day was to allow for individual celebrations within homes around the city.
“Everybody is busy, so we want to avoid (timing conflicts) so that people can watch our program at their leisure.”
Part of those celebrations is a large family dinner on New Year’s Eve, a tradition that both Tony Wong and Terry Wong — who are not related — say is their favourite.
“Every year, we would gather at my in-laws’ place and all my wife’s siblings, we all get together for the big family meal,” Tony Wong said. “My mother-in-law and my sisters-in-law, they would spend days to prepare for that meal.
“It is a joyous moment. I think it is the same for all Chinese families.
“Now, this year we are not able to gather, so we will have our own family dinner at home and my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law as they all stay at their respective homes.”
Instead, the cultural centre president plans on having a socially distant exchange of gifts with his family.
Ward 4 Coun. Sean Chu said he plans to leverage technology to connect with family in Calgary and in Nepean, Ont., as he has dinner with his mother, who will join him as they are in a family cohort.
Growing up in Taipei, Taiwan, Chu said his favourite tradition was to receive red envelopes, symbolizing good luck and to ward off evil spirits. That good luck was sometimes short-lived when he used those funds to play dice, he remembered.
“Kids are allowed to play dice — gamble — only during Chinese New Year,” Chu said. “My mom said when you grow up to never gamble because you always lose.”
Terry Wong said he plans on taking his immediate family to enjoy dinner at a Chinatown restaurant, “with the notion of greeting and bringing good wishes and cleaning up 2020 and bringing in 2021.”
Chu said he thinks Calgarians can draw inspiration from the Chinese zodiac symbol of the ox.
“The ox is strong, resilient, and thus we’ll keep moving forward and onward,” the city councillor said. “And we’re not going to stop.”
The Chinatown BIA executive director said he’s looking forward to a return to normal in 2022, including banquets featuring hundreds of people to bring in the year of the tiger.
“Definitely next year the doors are open again and people will be invited to celebrate Chinese New Year, and watch the lions and dragons and all the performers.”
Until then, the cultural centre’s president had a message.
“I would like to encourage everyone to use your imagination to work around the problem and to enjoy Chinese New Year and to enjoy life at its fullest despite the pandemic,” Tony Wong said.