British Columbia

Welcoming the Year of the Rat in Vancouver's changing Chinatown

On the Coast spent the week in Chinatown to find out how people are preparing for the arrival of the Lunar New Year in a fast-changing neighbourhood.

Sunday's Spring Festival Parade draws over 100,000 spectators each year

Susanna Ng has run Chinatown's New Town Bakery for 40 years. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The annual Spring Festival Parade in Vancouver's Chinatown is one the largest Lunar New Year celebrations in North America, drawing over 100,000 spectators each year.

But outside of the Lunar New Year, Vancouver's Chinatown struggles to draw the crowds it once did. It's a neighbourhood in transition, as businesses face rising costs, lower traffic and development pressures.

Yet it remains the historic heart of Chinese-Canadian culture for people like June Chow of the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown, one of many organizations working to revitalize the 130-year-old neighbourhood.

Chow says she hopes people come to Sunday's parade, and invites them to return because "Chinatown is here as a community every day of the year."

June Chow is one of the founders of the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown. (CBC/Margaret Gallagher)

The Lunar New Year signifies renewal in Asian cultures. CBC Radio's On the Coast spent the week in the changing neighbourhood as people prepared for the Year of the Rat.

New Town Bakery: A Chinatown institution

Susanna Ng of the New Town Bakery is celebrating 40 years of the Pender Street eatery, which continues to attract customers from throughout Metro Vancouver. In preparation for the new year, staff will prepare thousands of special pastries and cakes to bring good luck for the Year of the Rat. 

"People love to come here because they can taste all the good things that they used to know when they were young. And it means a lot to me and and I love Chinatown," says Ng.

Susanna Ng serves thousands of special Lunar New Year pastries at New Town Bakery. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Alfred the barber

It's tradition to visit a barber before the new year, as it's considered bad luck to cut your hair during the festive season for fear of severing your stream of wealth. 

Alfred Cheng performs an average of 24 haircuts a day, with his record being 38. He charges $10 per haircut at his shop in the Chinatown Plaza Mall. 

Cheng stays busy because of his diverse clientele. "I'm lucky I can speak some English so that's why I can generate Western customers  If you cannot communicate in English you will lose some potential clients."

Alfred Cheng gives a client a pre-New Year's Eve haircut at his barber shop in Chinatown Plaza. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Spring Flower Fair

Helen Chu runs a two-week flower fair filled with plants meant to bring you luck in the upcoming year, including bamboo, orange trees, jade plants and a "Five Generation" fruit. These seasonal flower fairs are held all over Asia.

Helen Chu, a florist, is pictured at her shop in Vancouver on Friday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

New year, new clothes 

It's considered good luck to start the year off in new clothes, and Jennifer Koh of Rising Sun Fashions brings in traditional clothing and jewellery from China, Korea and Macau. At the height of her business, she had three shops in Chinatown. She now runs a small storefront across from the Chinese Cultural Centre. 

It's her custom at this time of year to give small gifts to her customers, most of whom are mainly non-Chinese people, she says. She's grateful for the support, and hopes the new year brings peace to the world and an end to poverty for everyone.

Jennifer Lok has been selling an eclectic selection of traditional Chinese clothing and jewellery in Chinatown since the 1980s. (CBC/Margaret Gallagher)

Chinatown House: Revisiting old traditions in a new context

Chinatown House opened as a co-working collective and community hub in November 2018 and describes itself as a place "where community and entrepreneurship meet for Chinatown's next 100 years." It houses community groups, design firms and a small food counter.

Qin Wang is pictured outside of Chinatown House. As the community manager, she runs outreach events like the Creative Chinatown Fair. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Chinatown House is home base for Christine Wong. She's a cultural educator who gives language classes, Chinatown walking tours and tea tastings. 

Christine Wong prepares a special Lunar New Year tea tasting at Chinatown House in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

To celebrate the Lunar New Year, Chinatown House organizes a "creative Chinatown fair" to showcase artists like Elisa Yon. She produces the Makers Artist United (MAU) calendar, an updated version of the traditional Chinese rice paper calendar. It's filled with original art, recipes and stories from the Chinatown community.

Elisa Yon created the Makers Artists United calendar with the input of the Chinatown community. (Ben Nelms/CBC)



Margaret Gallagher is the reporter for On the Coast and the host of Hot Air on CBC Radio One.


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