Chinese New Year and the Robbie Burns Day: Gung Haggis dinner brings cultures together

Photos by Benjamin Yong

Chinese tradition met Scottish pride at the 15th annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy, a mix between the Chinese New Year and the Robbie Burns Day holiday on Sunday. 

Several of the 275 guests, and host Todd Wong, described the Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner at Floata Restaurant in Chinatown on Sunday night as “so Vancouver”.

Asians, Canadians, Scottish and everything in between filled the dining room for the multicultural extravaganza featuring bagpipes, literary readings, lion dancing, and a nine-course traditional Chinese New Year meal featuring, naturally, haggis (in both traditional and wonton form).

“This is one of the few events where Canada’s past – where we came from and where we’re going is really so explicitly collided,” said co-host Tetsuro Shigematsu, dressed in a top hat and kilt.

“I really do often tell my friends who are considering coming that this is one of the most unique events on the cultural calendar.”

Unique barely describes the cultural fusion dinner created by Wong, who assumes the guise of Toddish McWong for the evening, to celebrate two pioneers that shaped the province and the country.

“We give substance -- we don’t just pay lip service to multiculturalism,” said Wong, a fifth-generation Chinese Canadian. “You see the musicians, the performers and the food, and everything flows so naturally.”

The idea was born when Wong was still a student at Simon Fraser University in the early 1990s and, as part of his duties as a campus guide, was asked to carry the claymore (sword) in the Robbie Burns (Scottish poet and writer) Day celebration. Since then, he has championed all things Scottish and even joined a Celtic band called the Black Bear Rebels who performed that evening.

Band member Jay MacDonald agreed that Gung Haggis is a natural fit for the city.

“I grew up in Vancouver (as a) Scottish-Canadian White kid on the west side, and you know there was no mixing when I was a kid between the two cultures. Now, it’s just so wonderful, I mean that’s what we wanted when we were kids was to mix with everybody – now as adults we are, it’s great.

“This is a complete mashup and for whatever reason works. You know, that’s the beauty of it, that’s what Vancouver is all about.”

The success has spawned imitation groups in Nanaimo, Ottawa and even Whitehorse where several friends checked into a cabin in the mountains with Chinese food and haggis to create their own version of GHFC.

The local Gung Haggis ended with everyone singing a Chinese-version of "Auld Lang Syne", based on a poem believed to have been written by Robbie Burns.

While still very well attended, the numbers fell short of years past when the dinner has seen some 600 invitees. Usually held around the same time as Robbie Burns Day -- Jan. 25 to observe the Scottish poet and writer’s birthday – it happened to coincide with this year’s lunar New Year on the 23 which may explain the drop in registration. Keeping with the theme of multiculturalism, Wong said he‘d like to work in Elvis Presley into next year’s performances.

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