The pandemic hasn’t been easy on the organizers of Vancouver’s annual LunarFest celebration.
Last year, COVID-19 was creating havoc in Asia just as Lunar New Year approached.
And fears about the novel coronavirus spread across the Pacific Ocean just as the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association was organizing its giant Coastal Lunar Lanterns display at Jack Poole Plaza.
This year, on the eve of the arrival of the Year of the Ox to ring in Lunar New Year on Friday (February 12), the organizers were thrown another curveball by the pandemic.
That’s because the Coastal Lunar Lanterns display, featuring the work of Musqueam and Taiwanese artists, can no longer be shown at Jack Poole Plaza as planned.
Instead, these enormous pillars are going to be installed in the plaza on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery, ideally by Thursday (February 11).
They will remain at this location, called šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square, until the end of the month as part of the "Lantern City" exhibit. It's organized by the Society of We Are Canadians Too, which is headed by Charlie Wu.
This organization was founded in 2017 to promote public appreciation of arts and culture and to forge connections between diverse communities.
A separate display of six other lanterns—originally intended to be at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square as part of the We Are a Family installation—will be placed at a different location once it’s identified.
But fear not, We Are Canadians Too has offered assurances that LunarFest will go on with a cornucopia of virtual events.
In addition to the Coastal Lunar Lanterns, LunarFest offers a multitude of videos and images showcasing family dinners on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, family portraits and stories, crafts for young students in local schools, and fortune-telling that mixes Taoism with romance.
Family ties emphasized
Wu told the Straight by phone that members of three generations of renowned Musqueam artist Susan Point’s family—including her son Thomas Cannell, daughter Kelly Cannell, and granddaughter Summer Cannell—have created designs that will be wrapped around four of the Coastal Lunar Lanterns in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
They will be placed alongside four other lanterns with designs created by a Taiwanese Indigenous family, the Pavavaljungs, from the Paiwan people in the southern part of the East Asian country.
“We wanted to expand the definition of family from individual families to community to, in a sense, the world and nature together,” Wu explained.
He added that this reflects Indigenous thinking on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, where human beings are not seen as separate from the animals and plants that surround them in the world.
Taiwan has rich Indigenous heritage
Taiwan is seen as one of the sources of origins of Indigenous Austronesian languages.
In conversation with the festival's organizers, Pavavaljung family members pointed out that past colonizers from Europe, Japan, and China had a very drastic impact on the Indigenous communities in Taiwan.
Like in North America, the arts have been one of the most important ways for the Pavavaljung family to preserve their identity.
Another similarity? Indigenous artists in Taiwan also place a premium on bringing forward the voice of nature in their work.
This year, LunarFest has added augmented reality to the installation, which enables passersby to use an app on their phones to learn more about the artists.
“It’s all free,” Wu said.
That attitude of bringing people from diverse backgrounds together is also reflected in the We Are a Family community lanterns.
Wu said that artists from a variety of communities—including an Italian Canadian, LGBT person, and Filipino Canadian—were invited to present their art on huge pillars. Wu noted that in some families, LGBT people are sometimes left out of Lunar New Year celebrations.
“We want to make sure they’re seen and celebrated as well,” he said.
Local members of the Mongolian, Slovak, Vietnamese, and Mauritian community are also participating, as is artist Janey Chang, who works closely with Indigenous communities.
Finding love through prayer
One of the more unusual components of this year’s LunarFest is a video showing the matchmaking role of a Taoist temple in Taipei.
Wu said that before the pandemic, the Xia Hai temple attracted large numbers of Japanese tourists who went there in search of love.
There’s an actual matchmaker god, known as Yue Lao, which was carved on the premises in 1971.
According to Wu, the temple also welcomes gays and lesbians who are looking to find the right partner.
In addition, there are seven versions of this matchmaker god that they can take away with them in their suitcases.
Shacha sauce history explored
Other videos filmed in Taiwan are bunched together in the “Melting Pot, I Think Not” program.
Wu explained that because Taiwan has managed to ward off the worst of COVID-19, he was able to invite newcomers there from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia for a discussion about their cooking.
They had some things in common—for instance, all boiled food in pots—but some never used the term “hot pot” to describe these creations, unlike the Taiwanese.
“Through this conversation, they talk about their own culture and how they celebrate the new year,” Wu said.
LunarFest also features a video of the Taiwanese author of a new book, The Untold Story of Shacha Sauce, who explains how it originated from Malacca in Malaysia and made its way back to China.
Then when the Chinese nationalists moved to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War, this sauce became popular in the island nation.
“Taiwanese don’t know about that,” Wu said. “They think it’s their own staple food, but the origin is from Malaysia. It’s very much like satay; however, there is no peanut in it.”
Safe firecrackers created
Lunar New Year is associated with the massive use of firecrackers in Asia to scare away beasts and evil spirits.
In Canada, the LunarFest organizers came up with a different way to reflect this tradition.
Wu said that almost 3,000 students in Vancouver and Richmond schools were encouraged to create nonexplosive firecrackers out of paper.
As part of this project, they were asked to reflect on what they wanted to change about themselves or the world in the wake of the pandemic as a New Year’s resolution.
Then they wrote this on the paper firecrackers.
“We made a video showing them how to pop it,” Wu said. “They were having a lot of fun.”