Lion dancers will bring in the Lunar New Year to Victoria’s Chinatown to celebrate the upcoming Year of The Rabbit with music, food and tradition.
Celebrations of Lunar New Year, also called Chinese New Year, are steeped in traditions that go as far back as time and while the first day of the new year falls on Jan. 22, celebrations will be held in Chinatown on Jan. 29. This year’s celebration is sponsored by The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
On Jan. 22, you’ll find most families relaxing at home, eating food and enjoying time with each other, Daniel Low said. Low works with the Wong Sheung Kung Fu Club, which provides lion dancers for special events like weddings, business openings and multi-cultural events, as well as celebrations for Lunar New Year.
“Chinese New Year to me, is like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter all rolled into one,” he said. “It is about family, food and celebrating coming together.”
Holding celebrations on the weekend following the actual start of the new year allows more people to come out and gives performers the chance to spend the holiday with their families.
This year, the lion dance parade and Kung Fu demonstrations will begin at the Gates of Harmonious Interest and will move through downtown, visiting merchants who offer the vegetarian lion leafy greens and lucky red envelopes.
“When the lion sees a leafy vegetable, he says ‘Oh! I’m getting offered, so I’m going to go cleanse’,” Low said. “He goes to the business or the storefront and does his dance and kind of just clears the bad vibes from the year before to ensure there are good vibes for the year coming.”
These modern celebrations stem from the legend of a village in the mountains of China, which had to scare away a monster every year during the spring harvest. The monster would come out of the mountains and wreak havoc on the village, ravaging the harvest and crops and killing animals.
“That monster, the sound it made, it would say “nian” and that sounds like the word for year in Chinese,” Low said. “For the Chinese people, everything about superstition, we use a lot of word play.”
The tradition of scaring off the monster is where we get our modern version of the celebration, during which people beat a drum, symbolizing the lion’s heart beat and bang on a gong, which replaced the pots and pans villagers would hit to scare the Nian Monster away.
“That is the myth,” Low said. “They’d think, if we create the costume and make it more ornate and have purpose-used instruments and set off fire crackers for loud noise, it scares it off.”
The term Lunar New Year is used to encompass the celebrations for every culture that celebrates it. It is also called Tet by the Vietnamese, Solnal by Koreans and Losar by Tibetans. It is also referred to as the Spring Festival, as it marks the harvest and beginning of spring.
“Chinese New Year itself lasts for about 15 days,” Low said. “Basically, its the Lunar New Year - it is the spring festival, it is the beginning of spring, so people are celebrating the welcoming of spring and the harvest.”
Traditionally, those chosen to participate in the lion dance were the most advanced of Kung Fu students, because the foot work and choreography of the lion was a direct reflection on the Kung Fu teacher. It was also reserved for male students. Today’s lion dance teams are more inclusive, allowing women to participate as well as less experienced Kung Fu students, but it is still deeply entrenched in tradition.
Each lion is decorated with bright colours, traditionally just black and red, black and white or rainbow, but today you can find lions of all colours. They have a mirror on their forehead because legend holds that if evil sees itself, it will be scared away.
The frames are made of bamboo and the heads are made with paper mache, making them relatively light, despite their sturdy look. The costume, however, is still challenging to hold up while moving, jumping, kicking and pawing. Each lion requires two people.
Students at Wong Sheung Kung Fu Club train for hours at a time, several times a week to perfect the foot work and discipline necessary to put on the 10-15-minute performances they do nearly 10 times a month. The first half of their training time is focused solely on the practice of Kung Fu, which lays the foundation they need in order to do the lion dances.
The concept of cleansing bad auras and vibes from the year before is central to the lion’s purpose, but other cleansing on new year’s day is a bad idea, said Dr. Melissa Lee, CEO of the Chinese Canadian Museum.
Lee said superstition holds that cleaning on the first day of lunar new year puts you at risk of accidentally clearing out good luck.
“So before the actual start of new year, everyone will clean and everyone will wash their hair and clothes right before but on the actual new years day, no on will do it,” Lee said.
This tradition lasts for the first few days of new year celebrations, which take place over a 15-day period. Those 15 days of celebration have a practical purpose, Lee said, as many people in China work away from their home towns. During the 15 days of the new year however, everything shuts down to allow people to travel home and spend time with their relatives.
This is the year of the rabbit, which Lee said symbolizes luck and prosperity, but for some zodiac animals which don’t interact well with the rabbit, like the snake or the rooster, it can mean bad vibes.
“It is also related to the character of the animal, so rabbits are meant to be really quick-minded and ingenuous,” Lee said. “Everyone has their zodiac animal, so even if you’re not the year of the rabbit - if you’re a the year of the rooster or the dragon, there are also astrologers that can tell you how the rabbit interacts with your animal and that way you can see whether or not it is a lucky year for you or if you need to be careful.”