Sunday, February 10 marks the Lunar New Year. For others it has already been the new year for some time. For Jews, the year 5774 will begin on September 5. For Thais, Cambodians and Laotians the new year will be celebrated in April.
The lunar new year festival begins on the first day of the first month of the traditional Chinese calendar and, like Easter and other festivities, moves around from year to year. Last year it was January 23 and next year it will be January 31. Although often called Chinese new year, it will also be celebrated by Vietnamese, who call it Tet; Tibetans, for whom it is Losar; Mongolians, Tsagaan Sar and Koreans, Seolnal. Everybody has their own way of celebrating. For those who aren’t members of these communities we probably identify Lunar New Year, if we live in a biggish city, with the Dragon Dance, fireworks, and red envelopes filled with lucky money.
As the various Asian communities in Canada have grown, there are concerts of both traditional music and “world” or “fusion” music based in the tradition. This is particularly true in larger cities where culturally and ethnically diverse musicians collaborate to create an authentic Canadian music that comes from everywhere but lives here. Like the food we eat, the music we listen to is increasingly a hybrid of influences, loyal to its origins but setting off in new and pleasing directions. By and large, you can have it both ways, dipping your ears in the unadorned tradition or participating in some very interesting experiments.
One of the latter is a Vancouver-born event that seems, at first glance, like an unlikely union. Gung Haggis Fat Choy is the creation of Todd Wong. In 1993, fifteen years ago Todd, then a Simon Fraser University student, was asked to help out at the annual Robbie Burns Day on January 25. Given that Chinese New Year fell two days later, Todd had a brilliant idea – he would combine the two festivals into a “twofer”. Incorporating the word for that Scottish delicacy, haggis, into the Cantonese new year’s greeting, “Gung Hay Fat Choy”, Gung Haggis Fat Choy began with dinner for 16 friends and has grown exponentially with about 500 expected attendees this year. There will be pipes, traditional music and, of cours, haggis!
Perhaps less adventurous but equally sublime will be performances by some of the exceptional artists who have arrived in Canada over the last 25 years or so. Some will be performing concerts in celebration of the new year, others you’ll have to keep an eye out for. I have chosen four of note. The Vietnamese ensemble Khac Chi have been in Vancouver since the early nineties. Virtuosi in both “mainstream” Vietnamese instruments as well as tribal folk instruments that defy description, Bic and Chi, along with various musical friends, have introduced Vietnamese music to tens of thousands of folks. Listen to them at CBC Radio 3 and below:
Another Vancouver ensemble is Silk Road, who, like Khac Chi, is a professional and personal partnership between two exceptionally talented musicians. Qiu Xia He is from Shaanxi province in China and came to Canada with a troupe of musicians in 1989. She decided that the diversity of music here was what she needed. Andre Thibault is from Montreal. He, too, was attracted to Vancouver by the fearless cross cultural experimentation of the city’s world music scene. Attracted to flamenco and Arab music, amongst other things, he and Qiu Xia discovered that they shared the same musical dreams, many of them found along the Silk Road, the caravan route that connected the west and east.
Another traveler on that road is Montreal multi-instrumentalist Liu Fang. Since arriving from China along with her climatologist husband Risheng Wang (now her manager) in 1996, Fang has built an international career as a soloist and collaborator with artists from various traditions. One particularly tune is “Spring on the Tianshan Mountains.” In China the lunar new year is called the Spring Festival, and spring is the inspiration for this tune.
Another virtuoso Chinese-Canadian musician is George Gao. Born in Shanghai, George arrived in Toronto, already an award winning erhu player, to attend the Royal Conservatory. He is still there, a teacher now, and has built an international career. Like the other artists mentioned in this piece, George, too, is passionate about going beyond the traditional to mix and match with other artists from other places. One of his collaborations is with the fiddle ensemble, Bowfire. Together they perform the Chinese standard erhu showpiece, “Galloping Horses.”
So, get out there and find some wonderful food, celebrations and, most of all, music that brings in the lunar new year. As Robbie Burns would’ve said, for Auld Lang Syne!
Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Chinese New Year in Canada.