Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Lunar New Year Disappointment in Chinatown

I suppose I shouldn’t complain – after all, it was our wooden, weekend morning feet that prevented Mack and I from getting to Chinatown on time to take in the Lunar New Year celebrations on Saturday. Still, for the most significant date on the Chinese calendar, and the most mainstream holiday with which to attract the public, it was more than a little disappointing that the only information I could find about the day’s activities was limited to a tiny box on the Chinatown/Little Italy Business Revitalization Zone website.

From the looks of it, the event was the same as what they’ve organized in the past – remarks from various dignitaries, lion and dragon dances, and the lighting of firecrackers. It appears there was a modest crowd on hand for the hour-long festivities, but with more exposure and better advertising, I really think it could have been bigger.

Lunar New Year 2014

Party on the street

For one thing, there was no detailed program available online, just a single start time. It would have been helpful for prospective attendees to be aware of the schedule and the length of the program. At the end of the day however, I think the barebones event was a missed opportunity that failed to encourage Edmontonians to discover their Chinatown.

I recognize it’s not easy, planning an outdoor program to take place in the middle of potentially uncooperative winter weather, without the cushion of a large indoor back-up option on 97 Street. In addition, in the last decade, the family-friendly Lunar New Year carnival has moved away from Chinatown, from being staged in Heritage Chinatown at the Edmonton Chinese Multicultural Centre (drawing attention to the problem of “two Chinatowns”), to the Expo Centre, and now, at West Edmonton Mall.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that Chinese residents (and other Asian immigrants) also live all across the city, and may have more convenient shopping and hospitality options elsewhere. Chinatown has become somewhat of a destination, instead of a routine, but if the occasion of Lunar New Year can’t entice people, what will?

From what we caught of the tail end of festivities, bystanders were enthralled by the sights and sounds of firecrackers and colourful lions bucking around the pops and sparks.

Firecrackers!

We also tailed one of the lion dance groups into a few storefronts, as they performed inside to bless the businesses for the coming year.

Lunar New Year 2014

Inside Super Tasty BBQ

The potential is definitely there, to feed the curiosity of those unfamiliar with Lunar New Year traditions and the cultures that celebrate them. It was evident through organizing the night market last year that people had a hunger for learning (our tour groups were oversubscribed!), and the Chinese New Year dinner hosted by the Friends of the Royal Alberta Museum Society sold out in a matter of days.

I’d expect the Business Revitalization Zone to lead the charge – after all, they are tasked with the job of increasing the economic activity of the area, and have the resources and connections to do so – but they seem to be resting on their laurels. Their events throughout the year amount to this seasonal foray, and the annual East Meets West festival. No historical tours, food tasting events, and nothing to highlight the influx of exciting new businesses (such as the rise of hot pot).

I’m not sure what it will take for the shift to happen – I just hope it does, and the sooner the better.

  • Kim

    I wasn’t in town for Chinese New Year; however, had I been, it would have been unlikely I would have been in Chinatown, partially for the reason you mentioned: it wasn’t really advertised. That, and the fact there were other events, such as Ice on Whyte.

    In terms of bringing people to Chinatown, that brings a general problem Edmonton has: everything is spread out. While there is the attempt to revitalize Downtown, most Edmontonians do not live nearby which brings then the transportation issue. Other than paid the paid parkades in the Downtown area, there is only that much free parking within a short walk, which then brings topic of public transit: it does not spread through the whole city. And, of course, being a cold day certainly didn’t help – imagine trying to do a What a Truck? event in such a cold day for just half a day (compared to Ice on Whyte which was a whole day event). Suddenly it does not sound as enticing.

    I do not believe this problem is unique to Edmonton. Vancouver, with their larger Chinese population, has gentrification issues in the “original” Chinatown and the Chinese population has started to spread out to the nearby Richmond. However, unlike Edmonton, their rapid transit system is better compared to our LRT.

  • A Canadian Foodie

    I love Chinatown, but am so confused by it at times. I so appreciate the detailed personal tour LeQuan gave to me a couple of years ago – and that completely opened me to this important cultural centre in our city. Of course, i had visited it many times, but was too shy too ask too many questions. Tours for people like me of the markets, and of the area – with stories and samples of food would be a wonderful addition to this celebration or at any time of the year.
    :)
    V

  • http://www.onlyhereforthefood.ca/ Sharon

    Thanks for the comment, Kim. If the event/restaurant/area is worth visiting, people will find a way to get there, whether they have to pay for parking or not (how many people drive from all areas of the city to visit Corso 32?).

    As for the weather – it would have been equally cold visiting Ice on Whyte that day (which runs for two weeks) than for a one day Lunar New Year celebration. You’ve drawn attention to another Edmonton issue, however – how do we get people out and about in a city where (whether we like it or not), winter lasts half a year?

  • http://www.onlyhereforthefood.ca/ Sharon

    I agree wholeheartedly! A personal tour is of course the most ideal, but I think there is an opportunity for the BRZ to formalize this, and make it a year-round initiative. And though I am of Chinese heritage, I would be interested in participating, too!

  • Kim

    True, if it is worth it, people will find the means. However, in such cases, people will also try to make it worth to go to said place(s) by planning other things at the same time: a date or movies afterwards or something on those lines. Not much was presented in the case of the CNY event in Chinatown.

    Given the constrains in Edmonton during winter, my ideal scenario would be to hold events in a mixed area, that is, plan something with both indoors and outdoor components (in the event it gets too cold or there is a need to warm up, go indoors). And, of course, with somewhat easy parking and/or transit. Take for example, Deep Freeze: it had a mix of indoor and outdoor things going on, so, in the case it is too cold, you can still go inside to warm up. Or, in the case of Ice on Whyte, if it gets too cold and/or you are getting tired, swing by 104 Street and Whyte for some of the restaurants and/or coffee shops (and/or the Strathcona market if it is Saturday morning). Some community/rec centre might work quite well also. For example, Terwillegar Community Rec Centre has a large parking lot and large enough inside to hold some events.

    That brings a variable that is common between the two events I mentioned: make it multi-days. If you make it a single days (and, on top of that, limited hours), you might not be enticed to set up some infrastructure for winter, as it might be time consuming for the 4-6 hours of the event (and, most likely cost prohibitive). But, if you do it for Saturday and Sunday, then it might be worth it to install the heating lamps for people to warm up or set up additonal attractions.

  • Vanessa

    I too was a little disappointed by the festivities. We waited for things to start and then had to rush to try and get close to the group of people that surrounded the dancers and performers. We couldn’t really see anything. After the speeches (too many!) we were right frozen but tried to see what was next. By then everyone had dispersed and the lion dancers had went off to businesses, leaving those of us that are new to the festivities wondering what just happened.

    I think the concerns about parking and the weather are tired and unfounded. There a many parking options in and around Chinatown/downtown and people won’t mind paying or walking a bit to/from parking if an event it interesting and engaging. While an warm up area would be nice, there is a concern that people will only participate in indoor activities and neglect the firecrackers and activities outdoors.

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  • Jeff Samsonow

    Now that you mention it, it is sort of weird that I identify West
    Edmonton Mall as the location for celebrating the Lunar New Year. I was just at the new Boyle Street Community Centre (what a fantastic building!), which could be a good indoor location for events and is kind of part of Chinatown (or closer than West Edmonton Mall anyway). As The Quarters takes shape there may be other great spots for celebrations to centralize too.