Some things are quite predictable about Lunar New Year.
In non-pandemic years, there will always be lion dances on West Pender Street. Moreover, someone in the English-language media will invariably interview a person of Asian ancestry about the animal for which the New Year is named. And politicians of all stripes will issue Lunar New Year greetings to their constituents of Asian origin.
All of this reflects Canada’s multicultural society.
However, it’s much rarer to hear discussions about what Lunar New Year might mean for First Nations and Métis people. In addition, it’s unusual to hear perspectives from those whose ancestral roots go back to countries outside of East Asia.
The Asian-Canadian Special Events Association is trying to change that with its annual LunarFest Vancouver celebrations. On Friday (January 20)—two days before the start of the Year of the Rabbit—its Lantern City exhibition kicks off at three outdoor locations: Jack Poole Plaza, šxwƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square (formerly known as the Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza), and Ocean Artworks on Granville Island.
Walis Labai (Wu Diing-Wuu) designed one of the large lanterns at Jack Poole Plaza. His father was born on the Chinese mainland and his mother is Indigenous Taiwanese of Seediq ancestry. This artwork is part of Coastal Lunar Lanterns, which includes designs by Coast Salish artist Ovila Mailhot, Plains Cree artist George Littlechild, and Taiwanese Paiwan artist Arucanglj Rusagelet.
The Coastal Lunar Lanterns gallery was created to acknowledge that Vancouver was built on unceded Indigenous territory. This display explores the relationship between people, culture, and nature.
Tree-born people celebrated on Lunar New Year
According to legend, the Seediq were born from the root of a tree that grew on Baishi Mountain in Central Taiwan.
It’s worth noting that Labai grew up thinking of himself as Taiwanese and Chinese. But after studying in the United States, he returned to Taiwan with a much broader worldview. Since then, he’s become a strong advocate for Indigenous traditional culture, which is reflected in his artwork.
His hybridized name demonstrates the revitalization process of Indigenous peoples in the island nation. This coincides with Indigenous people in North America rolling back the effects of colonialism on their cultures.
Moreover, Labai’s lantern at Jack Poole Plaza is part of his Tree Myth series of his images combining human portraits with images of trees. He’s been inspired by the Seediq’s “tree-born” legend. In creating these works, uses image-processing software.
“It conveys to modern society the innocence and purity of the natural world, and urges the return to the endlessly caring heart of nature,” Labai says in his artist’s statement.
Pancouver’s art director, Jessica Sung, chose Labai’s artwork for the Lunar New Year cover image because of the message it conveys. She points out that Canadian multiculturalism is, in a sense, about making ourselves smaller so that we can see the richness of more perspectives.
By combining lantern art with Indigenous art, she says Asian immigrants like herself can express gratitude to these lands, which Indigenous people have not ceded. To Sung, it’s also a way of offering thanks to the imagination of a better model of life upon these lands.
Bringing cultures together
Starting on Friday (January 20), Indigenous-designed lanterns are also on display at the two other Lantern City locations. At šxwƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square (formerly known as the Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza), Métis artist Phyllis Poitras-Jarrett and culture keepers Ocean Hyland and Jessie Recalma’s lanterns will stand alongside those created by Malaysian-born and Vancouver-based muralist and illustrator Arty Guava and South Asian artist and sociology professor Angela Aujla.
Over at Ocean Artworks will be lanterns designed by Kwakwaka’wakw carver and artist Richard Hunt and Kwakwaka’wakl-Oweekeno artist Rachel Smith. They will be beside other lanterns designed by South Asian artist Jessie Sohpaul and students at Arts Umbrella.
These installations are just one of several ways in which LunarFest Vancouver is bringing different cultures together to usher in the Year of the Rabbit. On January 24, there’s also major concert at the Orpheum Theatre, entitled Together We Are! This will featuring conductor Nicholas Urquhart and the Harmonia Orchestra, family folksinger-songwriter Ginalina, Vivaldi Chamber Choir, West Van Youth Band, Out in Harmony, and renowned Ukrainian pianist Anna Saglova.
In addition, the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association is presenting The Colours of Formosa by the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute. Also taking place at Ocean Artworks at Granville Island, it will show how Taiwanese dye and fabric artists, including the legendary Ching-Lin Chen, are inspired by the wondrous natural beauty of the island nation. Chen has developed a persimmon dye workshop, which is being offered to thousands of schoolchildren in Vancouver and Burnaby.
“The workshops are intended to help encourage youths to be closer to Mother Nature and to be curious about our surroundings in exploring their creativity,” said Charlie Wu, managing director of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association.
For more information on LunarFest Vancouver, visit the website.