January 25, 2020, Chinese communities around the globe welcome the Year of the Rat, as Chinese New Year festivities begin.

“This is the most important holiday for all Chinese across the globe,” says Tzu-I Chung, the Curator of History at the Royal BC Museum.

“People gather together to celebrate with families in their communities. In Canada, this has been celebrated ever since the immigrants came from China, with the parade and Lion Dance, and all these other activities.”

Over the years, the Royal BC Museum has collected important cultural material tied to Chinese New Year, such as a drum, donated to the Museum by the Chinese Free Masons in Victoria. The Chinese Free Masons was founded in 1863 in Barkerville.

“The BC Gold Rush started in 1858” Chung explains.  “And Chinese immigrants came from California directly, and then, very soon after that, from Hong Kong and Canton.

“In Barkerville, in the middle of the goldfields, [the Chinese] people really needed to band together to fight against racism, and support each other in their new life here.  Later, [the Chinese Free Masons] they became a really strong organization right across Canada,” Chung says.

Also in the collection are a number of red envelopes commonly handed out during Chinese New Year.

“Red is a really important colour in Chinese culture,” Chung says. “It shows festivities and happiness.”

Also in the collection, a Canadian Pacific Railway calendar from 1934, and a Farmer’s Almanac from Hong Kong, filled with intriguing forecasts.

“So [the Almanac] says, ‘if you were born at the foot of the Yellow Emperor, and if you were female, you would have two husbands in this life,'” Chung says.

Many of these fascinating items were either preserved by families, and then donated to the Museum, or set aside by the societies that received them.  But Chung points out that some were simply discovered as homes or businesses in Victoria’s Chinatown were renovated.

“These items actually were found between the walls, or in the cellar, or wherever people found them.”

There is also a Lion’s Dance headpiece, used by the Chinese Free Masons in Vancouver, donated by Out of the Mist Gallery in Victoria.  The gallery owners discovered it at an auction.

“Lion’s Dance was the most important part of the beginning of a Chinatown parade.  It was used to expel evil spirits, but also to bring in a new beginning.  This one we have here was probably used to train the youth to do the Lion’s Dance, so the size is considerably smaller than the big ones that we have in our storage,” Chung says.

Chung is understandably proud of this remarkably diverse collection.  “All the connections, trans-pacifically and globally, really attest to the Chinese-Canadian contribution to Canada.”

Chinese New Year festivities continue until Feb. 8.

Veronica Cooper