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Lunar New Year organizers forced to make the best of a pandemic situation

COVID-19 means major changes to Metro Vancouver’s celebrations
Richmond’s Aberdeen Mall and other public venues have put up Lunar New Year decorations, but have suspended traditional festivities because of the COVID-19 pandemic | Chuck Chiang

Lunar New Year in Vancouver typically sees some of the region’s biggest gatherings, festivities, parades and social events – driven by the Lower Mainland’s massive Chinese and other Asian communities.

However, this year is anything but typical.

At major centres of celebration in Metro Vancouver such as Chinatown and Richmond, the usual hubbub of frenzied activity will be absent, with almost all of the parades, fairs and other in-person celebrations cancelled to comply with provincial health orders prohibiting public gatherings.

When asked about plans for celebrating 2021 – Year of the Ox – officials all echoed the same words: “Very different.”

“Everybody feels kind of lost,” said Fred Kwok, president of the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver and a lead organizer of the Chinatown New Year’s Parade. “The parade has been in place for almost 50 years, and this is the first time we’ve had to put it on hold. People are trying to scramble together things like virtual shows, but it’s never the same.”

The Chinatown New Year’s Parade had become a staple in Vancouver’s mainstream cultural fabric, running for 47 years before COVID brought it to a standstill this year. The event usually includes 3,000 participants and more than 100,000 onlookers, which result in a significant knock-on effect for local retailers and restaurants as families look to gather and celebrate over the two-week period.

Not only is the parade not going to draw those people to Chinatown this year, but also with provincial health orders in place prohibiting public dining of more than six people within one’s immediate household, even those who would have had traditional, large family dinners in Chinatown without the parade will not be coming this year, Kwok said.

The Chinatown parade was already diminished last year, as the COVID pandemic was ravaging the Chinese city of Wuhan in January and February 2020 – months before the virus hit Canada. Kwok said last year suffered a roughly 10% drop in attendance for the post-parade banquets, but nothing prepared them for the impact of a complete wipe-out this year.

“Pretty much everything has evaporated,” he said. “Before, all the restaurants in Chinatown benefited from New Year’s. Quite a few of them would be sold out; the one that wouldn’t would be busy enough that they would have to limit the items they serve. The evening banquets, they really bring people joy and fun as the whole family can actively participate. Now, people can just sit and watch.”

The same can be seen somewhat in Richmond, where Aberdeen Centre has been the anchor for local Chinese-Canadians for three decades. Tiffany Ho, senior vice-president and senior general manager of Aberdeen owner/operator Fairchild Developments Ltd., said 2021 will be the first time in 25 years the mall will not host any of its usual activities: the Flower & Gift Fair, the New Year’s Countdown and the Lion Dances.

The combined two-week festivities, some of them televised live to audiences around the world, usually draw 6,000 patrons to Aberdeen Centre just for the countdown portion of the celebrations. Thousands more would pack the mall’s hallways during the fair for days.

“It’s very different this year,” Ho said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we did plan for having a celebration. But in early January, we checked in with the provincial health authorities, and everything around that day [Feb. 12] will still be covered under public health orders – indoors or outdoors. So everything had to be suspended – all the activities. We simply can’t do it this year.

“We don’t want to put anyone at risk,” she added, noting Aberdeen has made public health its highest priority since the pandemic hit B.C. in earnest last March.

What replaces the typical crowds, officials said, are attempts to create the atmosphere of Lunar New Year either for the in-person visitor to a place or for audiences in the virtual sphere. Ho noted that the stores inside Aberdeen Centre have increasingly turned to e-commerce. Some retailers have gone as far as requesting to access their stores at midnight to run live-streamed promotions to overseas customers in different time zones.

In addition, malls like Aberdeen and Richmond’s Lansdowne Centre have put all the Lunar New Year decorations up, including (in Aberdeen’s case) giant figurines of deities signifying health, wealth and fortune on the countdown stage, as well as blossoming peach trees and a few temporary booths to boost the holiday atmosphere and provide patrons with photo ops.

That is the same idea being used at Lansdowne, where staff have set up several Instagram/social media selfie sets in the mall to encourage patrons to take photos and share online with the hashtag #lansdownecentre. That, said marketing manager Bronwyn Bailey, is to create an online “gathering place” where people can share a sense of being together for the holidays without gathering in person.

“That’s a very important message to send out to the community,” Bailey said. “Lansdowne is Richmond’s community shopping centre. That has always been our focus. So historically, we’ve held huge events [like Lunar New Year celebrations] that are a big part of the community. We sponsor scholarships and try to be a responsible corporate citizen, and that’s still happening this year – albeit in a safe way.”

Others have taken entire chunks of the in-person festivities and performances online. The downtown Vancouver Lunarfest has done so while also maintaining an elaborate Lantern City exhibition at Jack Poole Plaza and the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza until February 28.

The decision to move many of the more interactive events online, said lead organizer Charlie Wu of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association, is both a meaningful reflection of what should be done in the times of a pandemic – as well as an opportunity to try to connect people in other ways.

“One of the things we are trying to advocate is that we are in very different times,” Wu said. “We are in a pandemic, so is this something we have to celebrate the same way as we did before? Do we have to live the same lifestyles as before? There are potentially up to two million families around the world who are now different because of the pandemic – they’ve lost loved ones to the disease – and who are we to say that we have to be entitled to a tradition, a lifestyle we had before, given the situation?

“Maybe this is the year where we can think of different ways to celebrate our traditions. Perhaps we can come out as winners because we’ve learned more about ourselves.… We may be so used to doing things the old way that we are missing good, meaningful messages that can inspire us.”

For Chinatown, the task will be to continue the neighbourhood’s definition of itself to the community at-large, said Chinatown Business Improvement Association president Jordan Eng.

Eng said that, while Kwok’s observations about traditional Chinese restaurants’ fortunes during COVID Lunar New Year are correct, the newer, trendier shops catering to a younger, more individual-centric demographic have seen fairly strong business as local condo residents venture out to dine with their immediate household members.

That’s the spirit of evolution that Chinatown must embrace to emerge from COVID stronger than before, Eng said.

“We’ve really focused this year more than other years – I guess it’s a change in the way of how we look at promotion – but we’ve been shifting our focus on marketing Chinatown as a discount place,” Eng said. “Now, we are advertising about what makes us different. What makes us distinct? Our theme this year is ‘De-mystify Chinatown.’ That is where we are coming from: We are different, and you can support local businesses; we are not just a mall. Chinatown is the heart and soul of the community. It’s where the roots of this community came from.

“We are seeing places like Bao Bei and Korean doughnut shop Mello doing gangbusters business, and that shows the evolution of the neighbourhood in new businesses taking up vacancies. Existing, traditional businesses are now also benefiting from this infill, because new people are coming into the neighbourhood.… So I’m on the optimistic side. When businesses come out the other end of this, I think we will be stronger.

Kwok, however, is more pessimistic.

While the CBA is working on a virtual parade containing footage of previous parades, Kwok noted the group is still deciding on a publishing channel.

Meanwhile, concerns are already high about Year of the Tiger: 2022.

“We’ve been hoping that things would settle down, and the pandemic would go away as time goes on,” Kwok said. “Now, with all the virus variants spreading everywhere, all of a sudden, it looks like there’s only a faint hope this [parade] would happen next year. We are crossing our fingers, because if this stops for two or three years, it will be hard to get it going again. All the organizing needed to get everything together – the performance, the logistics – that’s going to be difficult.”