British Columbia

Year of the Cat: Vietnamese Canadians want their zodiac recognized this Lunar New Year

As Lunar New Year approaches, some Vietnamese Canadians — who will celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Cat — feel their calendar should be more widely recognized.

Vietnamese Canadians will usher in the Year of the Cat rather than the Year of the Rabbit

A man and a woman are pictured with three children wearing Vietnamese áo dài dress in a home.
Kim Phan Nguyễn-Stone, second from right, is pictured with her husband Dave and their children John, 6, Moses, 2, and Raphaela, 8, at their Vancouver home adorned with Vietnamese Lunar New Year decorations. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver mom Kim Phan Nguyễn-Stone says she's excited about marking the Lunar New Year with her family starting this Sunday, but she has been dismayed by the red-and-gold decorations on the streets ushering in the Year of the Rabbit.

"[This] is very much a Chinese expression of Lunar New Year," she said. "Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits, but no cats — it feels a little bit like we've been forgotten."

Nguyễn-Stone is one of the many Vietnamese Canadians who will celebrate the arrival of Tết Quý Mão (Year of the Cat), but feel that the Lunar New Year's celebration of diversity doesn't extend to the Vietnamese calendar.

Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese lunar calendar runs on a 12-year cycle, with each year corresponding to a zodiac animal. 

But the two cultures have developed slightly different lineups of astrological signs. While the Chinese have the ox as the second sign and the rabbit as the fourth, the Vietnamese have the water buffalo and the cat instead.

A round chart showing Chinese and Vietnamese zodiac animal signs, with years attached to each of the sign.
The Chinese and Vietnamese have developed slightly different lineups of astrological signs. (CBC Graphics)

There are numerous folk theories as to why the Vietnamese calendar has a cat instead of a rabbit. According to University of Tennessee religious studies professor Megan Bryson, one explanation is the Chinese astrological term for rabbit, mǎo (卯), was misinterpreted as mèo ("cat" in Vietnamese) when ancient Vietnam adapted the Chinese zodiac.

Latest census data shows that the number of people of Vietnamese ancestry grew 14.5 per cent across Canada from 2016 to 2021, a higher rate than people who identify their ethnic origin as Chinese (–3 per cent) or Korean (9.8 per cent), another Asian community that commemorates the Year of the Rabbit.

But growth in the Vietnamese population hasn't translated into greater recognition. In recent weeks, hundreds of Vietnamese people in Canada, the U.S. and beyond have taken to social media — such as Subtle Viet Traits, a Facebook group subscribed by more than 110,000 members — venting their frustration that the wider community doesn't seem willing to acknowledge the Year of the Cat.

Two rabbits on the left and a cat on the right, with one of the rabbit pointing finger at the cat.
Vietnamese people in North America and beyond have been circulating this image inspired by the popular 'woman yelling at a cat' meme to poke fun at their frustration with the lacking recognition of the Year of the Cat. (Kris Nguyen)

Group member and Victoria resident James Le (Lê Đức), who was born in the Year of the Cat as were his parents, says the zodiac animal is an important part of their identity and he expects other people will respect it.

"[If other people] see the regular Western zodiac signs, you can imagine if you thought of yourself as, say, a Capricorn, but then you see some other name for it, it throws you off a little bit," he said.

Le says he hopes public organizations and private companies can honour Vietnamese culture in the future.

WATCH | James Le marks the Year of the Cat with his mom's gift, a cat figurine:

Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebrates the Year of the Cat

16 days ago
Duration 2:20
The Vietnamese community in B.C. is spreading awareness about the animal they are celebrating this Lunar New Year: the cat.

But business professor Wootae Chun of the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, who specializes in cross-cultural marketing, argues that in order to make this happen, Vietnamese community associations across Canada should actively promote their culture to decision makers in private and public sectors through better social media strategies.

"Once you make them feel the importance of the cultural differences [between] Lunar New Years of the Cat and Rabbit, they will be trying to apply those cultural meanings to their decision-making process," Chun said.

Nguyễn-Stone says as a second-generation Canadian with limited proficiency in Vietnamese, she's doing her part to pass on her Vietnamese heritage, teaching whatever she knows about the culture to her three children.

"If I don't do it, they're not really going to learn as much as they could."

A woman and a girl in Vietnamese áo dài dress sit on a sofa at a home, with a cat toy and Lunar New Year decorations around.
Nguyễn-Stone and her daughter Raphaela are pictured dressed in the Vietnamese áo dài. She says she teaches whatever she knows about Vietnamese culture to her children. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Vietnamese Canadians James Le and Kim Nguyen-Stone, and Wootae Chun, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, spoke to CBC digital journalist Winston Szeto about how Vietnamese zodiac animals may differ from Chinese and Korean ones.

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