A Brief History of Chinese Canadians

The first Chinese people to settle in Canada were 50 artisans who accompanied Captain John Meares in 1788, when he came to build a trading post to expand the sea otter pelt trade between Guangzhou, China, and Nootka Sound, in British Columbia. The Spanish, who were trying to establish a monopoly on the west coast, ran Captain Meares out, leaving the Chinese to inhabit the area. Some of them later married Aboriginal women.

In 1858, the Fraser River Gold Rush began to draw Chinese immigrants from San Francisco. As a result, Barkerville, British Columbia, became the first Chinese community in Canada. In 1860, the Chinese Canadian population consisted of approximately 7,000 people. A large number of these first immigrants were young farmers from southern China who were brought to Canada to build the Canadian Pacific Railway (see also The “Other” Last Spike). The creation of this transnational rail link helped Chinese communities develop across Canada. Today, Chinese Canadians make up the third largest ethnic group in Canada, after English and French Canadians.

Why is the Chinese New Year Not Always Celebrated on the Same Date?

The Chinese New Year marks the first day of the New Year calendar, which dates much further back than the regular Gregorian calendar. It is a lunisolar calendar based on astronomical observations of the longitude of the sun and the phases of the moon. The beginning of the new year is calculated based on Lìchūn, the new moon located nearest the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. The Chinese year always begins between 21 January and 21 February. Most of the time, the new year begins 11 days (sometimes 10 or 12) before the date on which the previous year began. However, if this date does not fall between 21 January and 21 February, a leap month is added, and the Chinese New Year occurs 19 or 18 days later.

Symbols

There are a number of symbols, such as flowers, that feature prominently in Chinese New Year decorations. Homes and businesses often display written messages that bring good luck; these messages are typically drawn with a paintbrush on a piece of red paper folded into a diamond shape. Oranges and mandarins, considered signs of luck and good fortune, are also found in homes and other locations.

Celebrations and Traditions

The Lunar New Year is a time to share food with those less fortunate and to participate in charitable activities. Celebrations last for several days and include a variety of events, such as fireworks displays, arts and crafts, special foods, and performances showcasing dancing, drumming and traditional dress. The highlight of the festivities is, without a doubt, the Chinese New Year parades, starring the famous lion dancers: tucked inside a costume, they dance one behind the other, holding the body of the lion above them, with the first person wearing a mask that represents the animal’s head. The dance itself, which varies from region to region, is vigorous: the lion roars, twists and turns, and moves around shaking its head, stopping occasionally to scratch itself or mimic other feline behaviour.

The lion portrayed by these dancers is a colourful and complex mythological character whose exact origins have been lost over the centuries; however, its existence is believed to date back to the Han dynasty (c. 205 BCE to 220 CE). There are several legends explaining its significance, including one that tells of Nian Shou, an evil beast that lived underwater or in the mountains and that terrorized Chinese villagers year after year by attacking and eating people — children in particular — at the beginning of spring and, therefore, at the beginning of the new year. One year, however, the monster was defeated by a lion, who chased it away. Nevertheless, Nian promised to return the following year. That year, having no lion to protect them, the villagers worked together to create one to scare away the beast. They made a lion costume that two people quickly put on. Since the monster was known to fear loud noises and the colour red, the people inside the costume scared the beast as it entered the village and began causing a commotion, while the other villagers, dressed in red, banged on saucepans and set off firecrackers. The ruse was successful, and the beast fled. Since then, drums, fireworks and the colour red have all played a major part in Chinese New Year festivals. On this occasion, families get together and exchange gifts consisting of red envelopes (called Hong Bao Ang Pao or Lai See) filled with money. These traditional gifts are usually given to children. The red colour of the envelope symbolizes happiness, luck, success and good fortune.

Each year of the Chinese lunar calendar is associated with one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, all of which have different characteristics. For example, the rabbit is known for being talented and affectionate, despite its timidity; it works well with other people and is successful in business. The dragon, although stubborn, has a loving heart and a passionate side, and is healthy and energetic. The New Year says farewell to one animal and welcomes the next. For instance, 2016 was the Year of the Monkey, and 2017 is the Year of the Rooster.

Significance in Canada

Since 1997, Canada Post has celebrated the Chinese New Year by issuing stamps featuring the astrological sign of the current year. Since 1999, it has offered stamps of different denominations: one for first-class domestic mail, and one for international mail (which is also available in a souvenir sheet).

In Canada, the Chinese New Year is celebrated publicly. In many cities across the country, Canadians of various backgrounds and religions take part in the festivities. Like for Christmas and Hanukkah, the prime minister issues a statement for the holiday, wishing a happy New Year to all Chinese Canadians. On 1 June 2016, the Parliament of Canada passed a proposal to recognize the Chinese New Year as an official holiday in Canada.

See also Religious Festivals in Canada; Montréal’s Chinatown.