In an event three years in the making, some of Calgary’s most prominent business and non-profit leaders joined with current and former Calgary politicians, Calgary Chinese community cultural leaders, and international dignitaries to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
The annual Sien Lok Lunar New Year’s Dinner, was last held in 2019, prior to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Former mayor Al Duerr is here, you got the current mayor here, and everybody of the who’s who is here because I think Sien Lok Society represents a good part of the community—and not just Chinatown, it’s all across Calgary,” said Danny Ng, gala chair for the Sien Lok Society.
The dinner has long served as an important date on the city’s social calendar, but also as a way of celebrating the heritage and impact that Calgary’s Chinese Canadian community has had on the city. This year marked its 54th anniversary with a sold-out crowd of 570 guests and a 10-course meal.
“This organization represents all of those that are born in Canada, and pays homage to all those that came before, like my grandfather and other people that came over 100 years ago,” said Ng.
Sien Lok formed in 1968 as a response to the 1960s proposal to bulldoze Chinatown to build a connector route through the district. Had the proposal been passed, it would have marked the third time in the city’s history that Chinatown would have been forced to relocate.
For the past 54 years, the society has promoted the culture of Chinese Canadians through a variety of projects and initiatives including the creation of public art and park spaces within Chinatown.
Ward 7 councillor Terry Wong called the celebration of the Lunar New Year an important way of getting the community back together.
“Three years was a long time, and people through Covid have had a lot of issues,” he said.
“Bringing people together for Chinese New Year’s gets people healthy again in terms of social connections, family connections, community connections.”
2023 a reminder of Chinese Canadian exclusion
Mayor Jyoti Gondek praised the society during her speech, saying that the Sien Lok Society stood strong to preserve Calgary’s Chinatown.
“Today as a city we are working with you to ensure that Chinatown evolves into a community that celebrates its heritage and focuses on a strong future,” she said.
“We are with you and ensuring that the history and stories of Chinese Calgarians are always heard and that they’re by everyone.”
Part of those stories is the shameful legacy of the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which will mark its 100th anniversary on Canada Day.
Ng said that part of the evolution of Chinatown would be the growth and change that comes from reconciling the past with Chinatown’s future.
“You know, when I was a kid, back then there it wasn’t easy—there was a lot of discrimination,” he said.
“Everybody needs to grow, everybody needs to change.”
Coun. Wong said that the city is beginning to better represent that change through projects like Tomorrow’s Chinatown Cultural Plan.
“There was certainly a lot of discrimination, a lot of racism, a lot of exclusionary things,” he said.
“We’ve done a lot of great things in the political arena, corporate arena, sporting arena, and I think this is what we want to recognize as we move forward. Tomorrow’s Chinatown cultural plan really says, ‘we’ve gone through a 140-year journey, now we’re going to build towards a 140 year future.'”
Dinner building bridges with Indigenous neighbours
Ng said that one of the things he’s working on as part of the society is having greater connections with Indigenous communities in and around Calgary.
“It’s all part of Truth and Reconciliation. I got many friends from the Indigenous community, I love them to death, and we work together on many projects,” he said.
“We are also learning, and I think all of Canada is learning how to overcome these difficulties.”
Corrine Eagletail-Fraser, Xàkújághá minor chief for Tsuut’ina Nation, attended the gala dinner alongside other dignitaries from Tsuut’ina.
She called the racism that Indigenous and Chinese Canadians have and continue to face a common interest.
“Racism is something that we struggle with as First Nations, and especially our Tsuut’ina Nation, due to the fact that we live so close to the city.”
“I know that that’s something that we were challenged with in all areas—the business sector and the school system—and I think it’s just something that we need to work together on and build better relationships with everybody.”
She said that the legacy of the 1923 Exclusion Act has parallels with what Indigenous Canadians face today through modern legislation.
“Even when it comes to dealing with the Finance Act, the government didn’t believe that we had the ability to take care of our own financial affairs,” Eagletail-Fraser said.
“With all of the development on Tsuut’ina, I think that that’s something that that we need to be at least given that opportunity to govern and take care of our own financial needs.”