The Lunar New Year is usually marked across Canada and the world with loud celebrations full of traditional music, dance and food. However, like so many things during the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s festivities will be much more subdued.
The difference is evident after a short stroll through Toronto’s Chinatown. Usually bustling with customers, its small businesses have been running either in a modified form, or not at all during current lockdown restrictions.
“The year of the rat was absolutely horrible for everyone,” said Tonny Louie, Chair of the Toronto Chinatown Business Improvement Association.
“The businesses, some have gone as far as zero sales. Some companies have gone down as much as 85 per cent. That’s the norm. So we’re left with about 10, 15 per cent of business throughout the year really, because it is that bad.”
Area business owners are welcoming 2021, the year of the ox, with open arms.
“The ox signifies hard work, intelligence, patience and (reliability),” says Louie.
While the air along this stretch of Dundas Street West is not filled with the rhythmic pounding of drums and cymbals typical of the holiday, you will still be able to spot the hallmarks of it. Particularly an abundance of red, signifying luck.
“We will be installing 20 hand-made lanterns, about 15 inches big, to be hung in different locations in Chinatown, and be lit up,” said Louie.
“Each panel is made by an individual, so 90 people worked on these 20 lanterns. And on top of that, we have a stop-motion video to be projected on Huron Square … We also made a one-hour long video showing lion dances, traditional Chinese dinner (and) jewelry.”
Many East Asian cultural groups have taken to digital platforms to celebrate the new year. There is no denying that it’s not the same. The sound doesn’t hit you in the chest the way it does in person. You can’t smell the food and the colours don’t pop the same way on a web stream; but to those enjoying and putting on the performances, it’s just as important as any year.
“We’re fighting a pandemic. The spirit of the lion dance actually really helps in order to get rid of pestilence, plague, sickness and things like that,” said Rick Wong, an instructor at Hong Luck Kung Fu Club. He says the traditional dance was created for “chasing away bad spirits.”
Wong performed the costumed dance multiple times in physically-distanced performances Friday with his student Kelly Brooks, who told Global News “even though it’s virtual, it’s hard to get into it but it’s so important to try and bring people some joy.”
The Lunar New Year represents a new beginning and good luck in more ways than one for Toronto-based, Shanghai-born artist SSUN.
Her debut EP Eclipse was supposed to be released in January but had to be postponed due to the winter lockdown. It was finally released, coincidentally, on Friday.
“It actually surprised us when we found out it’s actually the same day as Chinese New Year,” she told Global News.
“There is a word in Chinese that actually can refer to this whole thing. It’s called ‘Yuán,’ and in English, that means ‘fate.’ So I would explain it as … (an) energy or natural force that binds people together, that brings people good luck and good karma in a natural way. So it naturally happened, so to me it’s actually a good sign.”
Giving and generosity are also focuses of the Lunar New Year. That’s why Toronto father Michael Wong and his wife, who is a doctor, wanted to ensure isolated seniors in long-term care didn’t miss out on the holiday. They got their daughter’s class at Northlea Elementary and Middle School in Leaside and kids at its connected child-care centre to draw up cards for elderly celebrants at Scarborough’s Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care.
“We got, I think, upwards of about 90 to 100 pieces of art and letters and cards for the seniors there,” said Wong.
“It’s a great feeling … We like to involve the kids as much as we could.”
Efforts like these are ways of keeping an age-old tradition alive in very unfamiliar times. Hoping the year of the ox lives up to its promise.