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Celebrate Chinese New Year in British Columbia
By Steve Bergsman
Everyone makes plans for New Year's Eve weeks in advance, but very few plan for the Chinese New Year, unless, of course, they're of Chinese ancestry. Maybe that should change because one of the great winter parties on the way to the Whistler ski area in British Columbia is the Chinese New Year celebration in Richmond.
If you're heading to Whistler, you're probably flying into Vancouver International Airport, which is actually located in the city of Richmond. If you time it right, you can spend a few days feasting and celebrating before heading to the ski lifts.
While Richmond may look like just any other suburban city, it is actually the most multicultural town in North America. As of the last Canadian census in 2006, 45 percent of the city's population was Chinese; 25 percent was other Asian, including Thai, Malaysian, Filipino, Indian and Vietnamese; and the remaining 30 percent were Caucasian. Today local pundits estimate the Chinese population is well over 50 percent.
In fact, so many Asians have come to this city that it has become one of the best places in the Canada — maybe all of North America — for great Chinese cuisine and other varieties of Asian food. Alexandra Road has been renamed Food Street because it is home to more than 200 restaurants, most of them Asian.
My introduction to Food Street was a casual diner with the unlikely name of the Cattle Cafe, which has standing room only at lunch. My recommendations here are the noodle dishes paired with the strange concoction of coffee mixed with tea and evaporated milk to drink.
For dinner there's the more upscale Shanghai River Restaurant, where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg goes when he's in town, or the award-winning Jade Seafood Restaurant (truffle-mushroom dumpling to die for) or the Szechuan Claypot Hot Spot and Barbecue, where I munched fried fish skins and pickled pigs' ears
More traditional fare can be found at Steakhouse Carver's, where it's possible to feast more traditionally Canadian with Manitoba quail, Nova Scotia lobster salad, breast of Fraser Valley duck and Lois Lake salmon. The seafood at Blue Canoe Waterfront Restaurant in historic Steveston is also excellent, and for breakfast try the delightfully quirky Nooch Snack and Chill or the always-popular East-meets-West No. 9 Restaurant.
Chinese New Year, which is the most important of the Chinese holidays, doesn't fall on the same day every year because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar, which is why the holiday is known as the Lunar New Year. The festival begins on the first day of the first month on the traditional Chinese calendar. This year the celebration will begin on Feb. 10.
Unlike at traditional New Year's celebrations, such as the one in New York, the streets of Richmond aren't closed for an evening of outdoor festivities. That's not a bad thing because Richmond-Vancouver winter weather is typically wet, which can also mean good snow in the mountains for skiers.
The interesting thing about Richmond is that is has traditional shopping malls, the biggest being the Richmond Centre, which is anchored by The Bay department store. There are also indoor Chinese malls that cater to the Asian market.
It's in these three malls that it is possible to experience the Chinese New Year first-hand. Not only are they decorated for the occasion, but there are also numerous holiday events. Indeed, the Chinese New Year is such an important occasion in Richmond that there is not a politician in town who would miss any second of it.
I was at the second big shopping extravaganza, the Lansdowne Mall, for the kickoff celebration, a family-fun event highlighted by an extraordinary amount of speechifying by the organizers, the mayor and the city council. I saw this whole group again on Chinese New Year's Eve and at a New Year's Day event at Parker Place Mall, probably the most Chinese of all the malls in town.
The lion or dragon dancers are the entertainment that most people associate with Chinese New Year, and I first watched them with amusement and then with compete awe. Like full-body puppets, the phantasmagorical lion is manipulated by two people, while the dragon, depending on how long it is, gets worked by multiple bodies. The one I saw on the New Year's Day was worked by five people.
Lion dancers in their costumes are as extremely precise, coordinated and beautiful in movement as ballet dancers. However, at the New Year's Day event I attended, the troupe upped the ante by performing on a series of stilted platforms. It was like Cirque de Soleil for the Chinese New Year.
One New Year's Eve event was held at the Aberdeen Centre, a three-level buy-anything mecca with a wide atrium that held the stage, complete with Jumbotron. The mall stores were open all night, and individual booths like those at a fair stretched through the corridors. The whole place was mobbed with young, old, families nuclear and extended, and everyone else. Attendance, which is usually 5,000 to 6,000, might have been as high as 8,000 on the night I was there.
On the stage, which is visible from all three floors of the mall, a host of things went on all night — singers, dancers, games, contests, emcees and, of course, the usual official recognitions and speeches. Then as midnight approached, the countdown on the Jumbotron began and the new year arrived. Everyone screamed and cheered, and that was it. Men didn't sweep their wives or girlfriends into their arms, no celebrities ran through the crowd and there was no shower of confetti. Nevertheless, the new year had begun.
This year will be the Year of Snake. Whether you're in Beijing, Boston or British Columbia, wish your friends "Gung Hay Fat Choi," which in Cantonese means Happy New Year.
WHEN YOU GO
To find out about Chinese New Year and other activities in Richmond, British Columbia: www.tourismrichmond.com
In central Richmond, near to the airport yet within walking distance to the center of the city, there is a block of three mid-rise hotels, Marriott, Sheraton and Hilton. I stayed in the latter, where I had a room with balcony and good view: www.vancouverairporthilton.com.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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