Walking into Victoria’s Chinese Public School on Fisgard Street is like entering a world of controlled madness.
It’s not that the children attending here after their regular school day are misbehaving. But one senses an excitement in the air, not unlike the nearing of Christmas holidays.
It’s the lead-up to Chinese New Year, which officially starts Sunday (Feb. 10) with the Year of the Snake. Student-painted banners in good-luck red adorn the classrooms and hallways. Women upstairs busily hand-wrap and boil up Chinese dumplings to hand out at break time.
A group of older students are dressed in red satin costumes as they demonstrate the dragon dance, the giant head bobbing and weaving like a punch-drunk boxer.
University of Victoria education major and former Chinese Public School student Gary Sum, 23, is one of a number of graduates who return to help with special activities, including guiding young students through the dragon dance.
He admits the students don’t get much time to learn the tricky steps and precision required, but once under the red-and-yellow tail of the dragon, they simply have to hope for the best.
“Overall, this is a pretty exciting time,” he says, acknowledging the buzz around this K-12 school.
The dragon dance is just one aspect of Chinese New Year the children learn about and practise, says school principal Kileasa Wong, sitting in a classroom in the heart of the city’s Chinatown.
“They do drawing and painting, and things like making lanterns and goldfish,” she says. “We talk about traditions and how to celebrate Chinese New Year.”
Most of the students are already familiar with this time of year. Chinese families routinely spend about a week reconnecting with relatives, starting with a New Year’s Eve dinner, Sum says.
“It’s all about the celebration, food and visiting family,” he says. While people’s busy lives make it tough to stay in touch through the year, he adds, “It’s really important to get together with family.”
Chinese New Year presents not only a change on the calendar, it’s a time of renewal and hope in all aspects of one’s life, Wong says – a fresh start, if you will.
The various foods consumed, from chicken and fish to lettuce and bok choy, all symbolize hopes for good fortune or profit, while sweets and fruits represent wishes for a positive road the rest of the year.
Wong describes age-old traditions of receiving new clothes “from top to bottom,” good food shared with extended family and the traditional red envelopes with money inside.
“We would come home (after visiting) and lay all the envelopes on the table and count all the money we made,” she says, grinning.
Lee Mong Kow founded the school in 1899 and was its first principal. Little record is available about how he celebrated Chinese New Year, either with students or personally.
Wong suggests that scarcity of both traditional foods and other items – not to mention the reluctance by other residents of Victoria to fully embrace the Chinese community – likely made it a more subdued event in the early 20th century.
In fact, Wong recalls that when she arrived in Victoria in 1970, there still wasn’t much hoopla surrounding the event.
“Chinatown was very quiet at that time,” she says.
Today’s support of ethnic diversity and the active nature of members of the Chinese community make Chinese New Year celebrations popular in Victoria.
“I think we try to carry on the traditions more here than people in China,” Wong says.
On a day meant to be one of rest, one of Victoria’s more active traditions – the annual lion dance through Chinatown – happens Sunday.
While children and graduates of the public school learn the dragon dance as part of their Chinese traditions, members of the Wong Sheung Kung Fu Club, operating out of Chinatown since 1974, have handled lion dance duties on the street for decades in the city.
Their colourful outfits, staccato drumming and train-like dragon performances are a big part of Chinese New Year celebrations, not to mention a much-admired part of the annual Victoria Day parade in May.
New Year’s festivities start at noon outside the school, 636 Fisgard St.
While he enjoys the festival nature of Chinese New Year celebrations, Sum comes back to the family aspect of turning over this cultural calendar.
“It’s a good time to look at your roots,” he says of visiting relatives. “And you’re always wishing for the best in the new year, or at least as good as you had the previous year.”
Happy snake year
• According to the website HanBan.com, this year is “meant for steady progress and attention to detail.” It goes on to say “ancient Chinese wisdom says a snake in the house is a good omen because it means your family will not starve.”
• Kileasa Wong, principal of the Victoria Chinese Public School, describes people born under the sign of the snake: “The snake is known as the ‘little dragon.’ They are smart and quick-thinking.”
• Famous Snakes: Queen Elizabeth I (born 1533), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929), Oprah Winfrey (1954) Sarah Jessica Parker (1965), Taylor Swift (1989), Daniel Radcliffe (1989)