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The surprising origin of one of our largest traditions
Every January or February, Meadowridge School begins a slow transformation. Parents hang lanterns and drape the school in red, while student performers begin to practice and prepare.
Food is organized—an array of teas, treats, and snacks—as are classroom activities, cultural attire, and a full-school celebration. Today, the procession of Lunar New Year celebrations is efficient and smooth running, a thing to behold. It might surprise you to learn, then, that it wasn’t always this way.
It all began some 18 years ago with two students, lots of cardboard and glue, a couple soup containers, and plenty of imagination and determination.
Jasmine Mah ’09 and Sandra Wan ’09 don’t entirely remember what first sparked the idea. “I just remember wanting to do a dragon dance,” Jasmine laughs. Sandra nods, agreeing, “and I just wanted to help.”
It was 2004, the year of the monkey, Jasmine and Sandra were in Grade 7. The two students approached their teacher Mr. Terry Jung and asked if they could perform a dragon dance at school. Met with enthusiasm and support, they were then tasked with creating the dragon head… from scratch! Without many resources, this fell to the girls’ creativity and imagination. “YouTube and the Internet were not what they are today!” they explain.
Jasmine’s living room became the pair’s hub, a place they spent hours over many weeks working. Creating the dragon head was not without its difficulties. The dragon was going to “eat” the lettuce hung from the doors, so the jaw had to move up and down. They tried a paper towel holder—that broke—but solved the issue with a sturdier wooden dowel. The dragon nose also gave them grief until two painted Noodle Time containers were found to make excellent nostrils – a “eureka!” moment they both remember and relish. It was, as they put it, a project of trial and error and love. “It took us at least a month, on and off.”
In the weeks leading up to the dance, the pair also choreographed some steps, planned for lettuce and red envelopes to be hung, and went to Chinatown to purchase matching black pants and red shirts (though they can’t agree whose mom took them that day).
Ultimately, the parade was a success and a big moment of pride for the two. For Jasmine, who is half Chinese, the initiative helped her feel more connected with “both of her sides” and came away with a better appreciation for her culture and heritage. Sandra, who was shyer, left feeling emboldened and empowered. “I was never the performative type, and this pushed me outside of my comfort zone.”
As for how their efforts have evolved, the pair is still amazed. “We had no idea what we were doing,” they confess, admiring what the Lunar New Year Celebrations have now become. For this, they commend all the teachers, students, and parents at Meadowridge School. “We just got the ball rolling, that’s all. It was definitely Mr. Jung, Ms. Chow, and all the teachers and parents who have been involved over the years,” they nod. “Starting a project is easy but keeping with it takes a lot of praise.”
Since graduating from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Sandra (left) has been working in different student development roles at the same University. Currently, she is working as the Manager, Scheduling Services, at the UBC Vancouver campus.
After graduating from the University of Waterloo, Jasmine (right) went on to earn her Master of Science at the University of Guelph. Jasmine now works as a research consultant for Opto Diode Corporation in southern California.
The Chinese word for lettuce in Cantonese sounds also like the word for obtaining wealth. During the Lion Dance, the lion “eats” the hanging lettuce and spits it out to symbolize the spreading of wealth and good fortune. Wearing Red & New Clothes During the 15-day festival, red is worn to ward off evil spirits and promote good luck. New clothes are worn as a symbol of the new year and new beginnings.
The Lion Dance
This dance is performed to bring happiness, good luck and fortune. During Lunar New Year, the lion eats the lettuce and the red envelopes that are hung. The lettuce is spit out to shower prosperity to the surrounding spectators and businesses. The act is also symbolic of a “new start” for a new year. The red envelopes are gifts for the dancers and performing groups as a thank you.
The Dragon Dance
A dragon is an important Chinese mythical creature that has power, wisdom, and is known to scare away evil spirits and bring good luck. This dance has multiple dancers that chase a ball which represents the “dragon in continuous pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.”
Elders gift children red envelopes filled with money on important occasions like Lunar New Year. Wrapped in red—symbolizing energy, happiness, and good luck—the money is hoped to bestow good fortune and blessings to its receiver.
Ms. Chow helps to keep the tradition alive
During her 28 years at the school, Ms. Connie Chow has assumed many roles. An educator first, she has also been a fencing coach, parent, alumni parent, and lunar new year pioneer. You see, what Jasmine and Sandra first started, Ms. Chow has since nurtured and grown. Every year for the last 15, she has found ways to add to the celebrations and get more people involved.
For the smooth-running Lunar New Year processions that we see today, we have Ms. Chow and Mr. Terry Jung to thank. Despite her involvement, Ms. Chow admits that she had, back when she started, lots to learn.
Though she had always celebrated Lunar New Year—she remembers red envelopes, family celebrations and delicious meals— she didn’t know the significance or history of these things she had practiced for so long. With celebrations happening at school, Ms. Chow figured she too had a thing or two to learn. “I decided to be an inquirer,” she smiles. As an inquirer, she had many questions.
Why do we hang lettuce?
Why do we hand out red envelopes?
Why do we perform a dragon dance? A lion parade?
What innovations were borne in China?
Ms. Chow began incorporating different displays and engagements to answer these questions. “When celebrations started, we were opening a book and flipping through the first few pages, but over time we’ve gone through chapters.” As years went on, more resources and artifacts were added, Ms. Chow dogged in her search.
Wherever she went, she was on the lookout—including, as it turns out, the local supermarket. Grocery shopping one day, a dragon display at T & T caught her eye. She approached the manager, made her case, and was able to purchase it later on. She did the same thing a few years later, acquiring the big ‘tanggu’ drum next. With two dragons and a drum, she had all the makings of a parade. It was then she got the music teachers involved (“let’s teach students to drum!”) and more students (“let’s teach them to march!”).
Community members were quick to join Ms. Chow’s vision. Over the years, different parents have contributed in significant ways. Teachers and staff members too. Once championed by Ms. Chow, Lunar New Year celebrations have become a community-wide initiative, something many people plan, host, and put on. “Our community knows we value what they know and what they can share—” Ms. Chow reflects “and that’s key to a successful school community.”
What began in the living room of one elementary school student has grown into a school-wide event, with assemblies and activities, performances and parades, cultural food and ceremony and dress. “It’s an entire experience of Asian influence,” Ms. Chow concludes.
Looking for more Lunar New Year stories? Click here to read about the student-led dragon dance.