A black and white photo of children supporting a Chinese lion head and body. Only there legs and knee socks are visible. They are standing in a park with a fence around it in the background.
A group of children operating the Chinese lion head and body, which is now part of the Vernon Museum’s collection, circa 1935.

Asian Heritage mONTH

The Chinese Lion Head in 1977.

With May being Asian Heritage Month, it is a perfect time to uncover one of the Vernon Museum’s most fascinating, but rarely seen, artifacts.

In 1985, a traditional Chinese lion head was donated to the museum by the Chinese Free Masons. Due to its fragile condition and rarity, the head is rarely put on display, but spends most of its time in a custom-made storage container.

It is made from a framework of bamboo and wire, with brightly-coloured paper fleshing out its shape. Levers and pull-strings on its underside allow the eyes and mouth to be manipulated, and a long swath of fabric forms its body.

aN iMPORTANT cULTURAL aRTIFACT

The Chinese Lion Head in 1983.

Although its exact age is unknown, the head is believed to be more than 120 years old, and was the first to be used in Vernon. This incredible artifact made appearances at many important city events, including festivities hosted in honour of B.C.’s 100th Anniversary in 1958.

The head was also used at local Chinese New Year celebrations. While the traditional dragon dance requires at least nine performances, lion dances only require two, with one managing the head and one the body. Vernon’s lion costume was usually operated by two members of the local Chinese community, Walter Joe (1916-2005) and John Wong (1921-2001).

Lion dancing is believed to have originated in either the Han (206 BC-220 AD) or Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), and has continued to evolve as form of cultural expression ever since.  

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

 

An early photo of Vernon’s Chinatown, taken in the lunar year 4608 (1910).

Chinese New Year 2022

This Tuesday, February 1, marks Chinese New Year. 2022 is a Year of the Tiger, and those born under this zodiac are said to be ambitious, daring, enthusiastic, generous, and self-confident.

This festival is celebrated each year in China (as well as Vietnam, North and South Korea, and Tibet, under different names) and is based on the ancient Chinese lunar calendar (as opposed to the western solar calendar). Each month in the lunar calendar is 28 days long, so a year lasts between 353 and 355 days. Determining the date of the Chinese New Year requires some complicated calculations, but it typically occurs on the second new moon after the winter solstice, either in late January or early February. A variety of beliefs and traditions are attached to this special occasion.

A celebration 100 years ago

In 1922, a reporter from the Vernon News was granted the honour of attending a Chinese New Year celebration in Vernon’s Chinatown. That year, the festival fell on Saturday, January 28. He started off by saying that although the celebration was great fun, he hoped it would be the last for a while, since with Christmas, the Solar New Year, Robbie Burns’ Night, and the Lunar New Year all occurring in a little over a month, many of Vernon’s business men were struggling to get back on the “Water Wagon.”

Decorations of red and gold

To celebrate the occasion, Chinatown was wonderfully decorated with strings of fruits, vegetables, and gold-and-red emblems. (Tangerines, mandarins, and kumquats, in particular, are a popular decoration for Chinese New Year, as they are said to symbolize wealth and good luck. In a similar manner, the colours red and gold are symbolic of joy and prosperity, respectively). The reporter also noted that genuine “greenbacks,” dollar bills, had also been used to decorate.

Ringing in the New Year

A thrilling performance was held in the center of a square in Chinatown, including acrobatic and magical acts, and of course the celebrated Chinese Dragon Dance (distinguishable from the Lion Dance in that is requires a larger group to manipulate the creature).

The reporter remarked on the hospitality of the crowd, and a lucky number of Vernonites who were later invited to a somewhat-secretive New Year’s feast hosted by one of Chinatown’s leading business owners loudly praised the generosity of their host. The final moments of the lunar year 4619 exploded in firecrackers and fireworks, as a new Year of the Dog was ushered in.

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

 

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

 

 

glory days

 

August 25, 2020

“They used to have the like of Sing Le Lung, Mr. Lee, Mr. Kwong, Mr. Loo Jim who were the head ‘boss.’ If anybody had any problems they would go to see him and he would say ‘now let’s think this thing out. What seems to be the problem?’ And then he would say ‘well, I think you’re wrong. You should just pour a cup of tea—offer your friend a cup of tea and an apology, and the case will be all settled.” – Walter Joe (born Chow), talking about the resolving of interpersonal conflicts within Vernon’s close-knit Chinese community.

Chinatown was one of the most culturally rich and lively parts of our city’s downtown. Despite the fact that they were immersed in a larger settler community that, throughout the years, regarded them with alternating detached curiosity and out-right intolerance, Vernon’s Chinese population was unabashed in their traditions and lifestyle.

 

 

McCulloch’s Aerated Waters Coca-Cola ‘Cooler’ float, used for a parade in 1934

 

In fact, they were known for their hospitality, and particularly so on Chinese New Year. According to the Vernon News of 1905, “during this special season of rejoicing, the Chinese are peculiar in the open-hearted manner in which they welcome stranger as well as friend and acquaintance to share their best and join with them in the festivities of the occasion.” Shops and dwellings throughout Chinatown were elaborately decorated, and cigars, wine, sweet-meats, and fruit were handed out to visitors to the light of fire crackers. Other cultural practices enrichened life in Vernon over the years, from the Dance of the Dragon, to the flying of kites, to the secretive rituals of the Chinese Freemasons.

A variety of businesses and residences formed the physical bounds of Chinatown, including several restaurants that were frequented by both Chinese and non-Chinese. The smorgasbord at Goon Hong, which opened in 1950, was particularly popular; a heaping plate of fried prawns, egg rolls, roast pork, chop suey, chow mein, and fried rice cost only $4 in 1976. Other businesses included laundromats, cobblers, groceries, stables, a boarding house, and a church. 

One such business was a dry goods and grocery store run by Eng Shu Kwong. Kwong immigrated to Canada from a village near Canton, China. After failing to strike it rich in the Cherry Creek gold rush, he moved himself and his family to Vernon, and opened a business. The two-storey building, which housed the family on the top floor, had a facade with the store name printed in block letters — KWONG HING LUNG & CO. DRY GOODS & GROCERIES. “Hing Lung” translates roughly to “abundant prosperity,” and this is indeed what the Kwong family brought about for themselves. The second youngest of Kwong’s 15 children, Larry, would go on to become the NHL’s first non-white player.

How is that so few traces of Vernon’s one-vibrant Chinatown, which allowed families like the Kwongs to prosper, remain in 2020?

Gwyn Evans