As koi fall victim to an otter, Chinese community sees loss of cultural symbol

Staff at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese have so far found the carcasses of 10 adult koi. For the Chinese community, it's the loss of an important cultural symbol in a space that has deep roots in Vancouver's Chinatown.

'There is a lack of cultural awareness,' says one advocate about the loss of 10 koi at the Sun Yat-Sen garden

Koi fish swim in a pond as people sit at in a traditional Japanese garden on a sunny autumn day in Tokyo, November 17, 2015. Koi are seen as symbols of fortune and prosperity in Chinese and Japanese cultures. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The elusive Sun Yat-Sen otter has become one of the year's social media superstars. 

The otter first appeared at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden two weeks ago and has since achieved international fame after nearly decimating the garden's adult koi population.

Social media has divided the city into two camps — Team Otter and Team Koi — and a furtive glance shows that the otter is winning. The saga has garnered the hashtag #OtterWatch. A parody Twitter account of the animal has gained nearly 2,500 followers. 

But some members of the Chinese and Japanese communities see it differently. Garden staff have so far found the carcasses of 10 adult koi, which advocates say is the loss of an important cultural symbol in a space that has deep roots in Vancouver's Chinatown.

"There is a lack of cultural awareness," says Kevin Huang, executive director of the Hua Foundation, a non-profit that works with Asian youth.

Koi symbolize fortune, prosperity

That ignorance is most egregious on social media, Huang says, where pundits have pegged the koi fish as an invasive species in B.C., meaning they could threaten native species.

The logic follows that the otter is in its rightful habitat and naturally preying on a pest.

But Huang says it's important to place the koi in the context of the space. The Sun Yat-Sen garden is modelled after the classical gardens in the Chinese city of Suzhou, where plants, ponds and stones are meant to be a microcosm of the natural world.

Koi fish, which symbolize fortune, prosperity and perseverance in Chinese culture, are a natural extension of that setting.

"They have been in Chinese leisure gardens for centuries," says Sun Yat-Sen spokesperson Deanna Chan. "They're part of the cultural heritage, just like the architecture and the design that we have in the garden."

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden pictured in 2011, when it celebrated its 25th anniversary. The garden is modelled after the classical gardens in the Chinese city of Suzhou (CBC)

Sun Yat-Sen staff have so far avoided siding with either otter or koi. The wellbeing of both animals is their priority, they say. But Chan's voice is tinged with emotion.

"We see the koi when we walk around the garden during the summer and we have the gong that we ring to call the koi for lunchtime," she says. "So it's been tough to be finding their remains around the garden. And to know how they've been ending up like that."

If there's a silver lining, she says, it's that more people might learn about the significance of the koi and garden in the coming days.

Otter 'attractive for people on the outside'

Louis Lapprend says he senses a shift in the conversation.

Lapprend is the founder of the website, Chinatown Today, where he's covered his neighbourhood for five years.

The web developer tapped into the initial playful narrative by producing cartoonish Team Otter and Team Koi buttons, whose proceeds will either go to the garden or a wildlife conservation group.

"I feel like the otter is attractive for people on the outside," he says. "But people in the neighbourhood have been living with the story and its consequences for a full week."

There is a reprieve in sight.

Three of the surviving adult koi, and several hundred junior koi, have been relocated to the Vancouver Aquarium for safekeeping.

The two remaining adult koi were corralled by a 30-metre seine net. (AquaTerra Environmental)

The otter is likely to leave without any food source, and the garden intends to re-open Friday.

Lapprend says people can still have fun with the story, but should recognize the gravity of the garden losing its koi.

"Seeing them gutted is a pretty shocking image if you hold them as a symbol."

About the Author

Alex Migdal

Journalist

Alex Migdal is a web journalist for CBC News in Vancouver. He's previously written for The Globe and Mail, Guelph Mercury and Edmonton Journal, and most recently reported on the refugee crisis in Turkey. You can reach him at alex.migdal@cbc.ca.