LunarFest welcomes the Year of the Rat in Vancouver with help from Indigenous, Hindu, and Mongolian friends

Managing director Charlie Wu is hoping to make this event the most inclusive Lunar New Year celebration in North America—and attract a whole lot of tourists in the process

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      In cities around the world with large Asian populations, the Lunar New Year will be commemorated on Saturday (January 25) with feasts and other festive events. This will mark the transition from the Year of the Pig to the Year of the Rat, with parades and fireworks displays occurring in countless locations.

      But none of these celebrations will likely reflect the range of traditions being embraced at LunarFest in Vancouver. The Asian-Canadian Special Events Association is ensuring that it will showcase how Vancouver has become an example to the world in supporting diversity.

      “That’s the intent for LunarFest—to get people to see beyond what they normally see,” LunarFest managing director Charlie Wu told the Georgia Straight by phone. “There are a lot of stereotypes in how people perceive cultures here in Canada. I think this is a way to open up that conversation and invite people from different backgrounds to celebrate a tradition that they don’t necessarily celebrate on a regular basis.”

      People ordinarily think of the Lunar New Year as a holiday for people from countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Vietnam. But that’s not how Wu sees it.

      “We’ve got Mongolians involved. We’ve got people with Hindu backgrounds. And we’ve got Indigenous people involved,” he said with pride.

      To cite one example, LunarFest has already unveiled a row of giant, colourful lanterns at Jack Poole Plaza, overlooking Burrard Inlet. They feature intricate designs by Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, Stó:lō, and Dené artists placed on structures conceived by a Taiwanese lantern artist.

      Thomas Cannell's Salish Sea includes eagles, salmon, and black fish.
      Thomas Cannell

      Musqueam artist Thomas Cannell’s design, Salish Sea, is festooned with illustrated fish and eagles. The salmon is a symbol of abundance, wealth, and prosperity, as well as dependability and renewal. This iconic West Coast species is shown in pairs, which is a sign of good luck.

      Cannell also included “blackfish” (orcas), which symbolize family, community, and protection in his culture because they travel in large family groups. He points out in his description of the design that when great chiefs die, some believe they actually become orcas.

      Tsleil-Waututh artist Zachary George’s creation, Protector of the Mountain, represents his ancestors, including his grandfather, the famous Hollywood actor and artist Chief Dan George. The artwork’s moon face above a mountain is their prayer for the city; the salmon are in the image to demonstrate the connection between the snowmelt and the water in which they swim—and their gift for overcoming obstacles on their journey home.

      Protector of the Mountain pays homage to artist Zachary George's ancestors.
      Zachary George

      “The message I want to convey is to show the people of Vancouver the history of our nations—Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, and Squamish—and acknowledging our roots through art so we have a better understanding of each other,” George told the Straight.

      For George, being part of LunarFest is a “huge honour”. He also noted that Asian and Indigenous history and cultures share many similarities, including enduring European colonialism.

      Another Indigenous artist, Carrielynn Victor of the Stó:lō Nation, created Red Fawn to reflect this animal’s exuberance and gentle spirit. The zigzag patterns and colouring speak to the paths that this creature ventures along in forests. A different design by Dené artist John Velten, titled Lone Wolf, symbolizes how people who are abandoned, forgotten, or separated can gain strength as they fight for themselves.

      In addition, there will be an Anishinaabe tepee at LunarFest, telling the story of the “13 grandmother moons”, which reflect the annual 28-day moon cycles and their seasonal changes.

      Wu believes that for some Asian newcomers to Vancouver, the lanterns and tepee at LunarFest may be their first real exposure to Indigenous culture in Canada. And he’s hoping that LunarFest can join other landmark Vancouver events in late January and early February—such as Dine Out Vancouver and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival—in elevating the city’s appeal as a winter tourist destination.

      “Vancouver is not just about all the nice scenery and great food,” Wu emphasized. “It’s also got a lot of cultural elements and cultural assets—like our diversity—that we haven’t really tapped into as resources yet.”

      Jack Poole Plaza has never looked like this at night before.
      Toy Su

      In fact, Wu’s dream is to make LunarFest the premier North American draw for Asian visitors who want to spend their Lunar New Year abroad. To advance that goal, Wu’s association is working with Tourism Vancouver, Tourism Richmond, the Vancouver Convention Centre, Indigenous Tourism B.C., and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.

      The acting CEO of Tourism Vancouver, Ted Lee, told the Straight by phone that Vancouver’s deep ties with China and other Asian countries provide ample opportunities to create tourism products that appeal to these populations.

      One example is a Chinese Canadian museum, which the B.C. government and the City of Vancouver are attempting to create. Another is the ongoing effort to obtain a UNESCO World Heritage designation for Vancouver’s Chinatown.

      “We’ve been working with Charlie in the last couple of years, supporting him in terms of developing the lantern concept,” Lee told the Straight by phone. “Those things will become good anchor points for us as we reach out to the different markets.”

      Lee praised Wu as a creative visionary and for ensuring that the lanterns created last year with Indigenous patterns will be displayed at the 2020 Taiwan Lantern Festival. This 31-year-old event attracted 13.4 million visitors last year.

      Vancouver will be the first North American city to participate in the Taiwan Lantern Festival, which takes place this year in Taichung City from February 8 to 23.

      Andy Kang-I Chen, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vancouver, notes that both Taiwan and Canada have large Indigenous populations.

      Andy Kang-I Chen, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vancouver, told the Straight by phone that both Canada and Taiwan—in addition to sharing a love of democracy and freedom—have significant Indigenous populations.

      In fact, both countries are experiencing a revival of Indigenous culture, which distinguishes them from their much larger neighbours on the world stage. “And here in Canada, just like Taiwan, we respect multiculturalism,” Chen said.

      He stated that there are 16 Indigenous tribes in Taiwan, and the recently reelected president, Tsai Ing-wen, has Indigenous heritage through her grandmother. On behalf of the Taiwanese people, she has issued an apology for centuries of injustice meted out to her country’s First Peoples.

      “We have international meetings for First Nation people in the Pacific,” Chen said, “and we also want to invite the Canadian First Nation people to join us over there.”

      In addition to the Coastal Lunar Lanterns display at Jack Poole Plaza, there are significant LunarFest celebrations at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday and Sunday (January 25 and 26).

      It includes Taiwanese artist Kuan Chih-Su's elaborate drawings featuring animals in the Asian zodiac.

      Taiwanese artist Kuan-Chih Su's created this image to showcase the Year of the Rat.

      Plus, there's a show called Castles and the Lifestyles at Oakridge Centre with carvings and imagery showing the architecture of four Asian cultures: Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.

      TECO Vancouver's Chen pointed out that the Lunar New Year is the most significant holiday for Taiwanese people. But the rat is not only a key element of the Asian zodiac; it’s also important to followers of the Hindu faith—particularly to admirers of its elephant-headed god, Lord Ganesh, who removes obstacles.

      In addition, Lord Ganesh is the god of new beginnings, wisdom, and intelligence in Hinduism, which has more than a billion adherents worldwide.

      Legend has it that he used to ride on a rat as his chariot but it once tripped under his heavy weight. The moon found this amusing and started laughing, which infuriated Lord Ganesh.

      According to a version of this story on the Times of India website, Lord Ganesh cursed the moon and declared that anyone who looks at it on his birthday, Ganesh Chaturthi, would be falsely accused.

      The lesson is that people shouldn’t act on impulse. “Always think before you react because anger passes on but actions remain,” the Times of India advised.

      This image by Kuan Chih-Su features a rooster, which is also in the zodiac of Lunar New Year animals.

      Wu said he learned about Lord Ganesh from Vancouver police diversity liaison officer Darren Ramdour, who is of Mauritian ancestry.

      At last year’s LunarFest, Ramdour talked about how the 1.3 million residents of Mauritius, an island vacation paradise in the Indian Ocean, have embraced diversity to a remarkable degree. The country’s cuisine is a blend of Chinese, European, and Indian influences.

      “We need to continue to teach and show people what we are, where we came from—and we’re also Canadian,” Ramdour said at last year’s event. “I think that’s what’s so amazing about this country. We have people from all over the world.”

      This year, members of the local Mauritian community will again be at LunarFest to share their insights on the significance of the rat in Hindu culture. The B.C. Mongolian Community Society will also be there with two yurts made by people from this country now living in Vancouver.

      “The theme of this year’s LunarFest is ‘open door’, which really aligns with our culture,” society president Munkh-Orgil Batchuluun told the Straight by phone. “I don’t know how many people in Canada have experienced an actual yurt from inside. So it is truly a different experience, and that’s kind of what we’re planning.”

      He said that the Mongolian community traditionally does a great deal of cleaning on the Lunar New Year. Another community tradition is showing respect to elders by visiting them.

      “You’re not supposed to drink too much alcohol,” Batchuluun added. “This is you celebrating a tradition and showing respect. It’s not like having a party or, you know, getting crazy.”

      The participation of people from a range of countries reflects the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association’s devotion to bringing people of different cultures in Metro Vancouver together to promote greater harmony and understanding between neighbours.

      “Together, we celebrate in a way that no one else does in the world,” Charlie Wu said. “That’s the essence of our message.”

      LunarFest is on Saturday and Sunday (January 25 and 26) at the square on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Coastal Lunar Lanterns are at Jack Poole Plaza until February 9, and a LunarFest display is at Oakridge Centre until February 10. For more information, visit the website.