Westender: Gung Haggis celebrates Canadian interculturalism – article by Jackie Wong

West Ender newspaper celebrates Chinese New Year and Robbie Burns Day with a profile on Todd Wong aka “Toddish McWong”

Jackie Wong interviewed me last
week, and asked me about my early years growing up in East Vancouver
and North Vancouver. This is a very nice interview that addresses some
of the cultural identity issues I faced growing up, that has led me to
creating Gung Haggis Fat Choy as an expression of BC's Scottish and
Chinese pioneer history.

Todd Wong established the annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner — a merging of Chinese New Year and Robbie Burns Day celebrations — in 1998. It now draws over 500 people. “People leave [the dinner] saying, ‘That is so Canadian,’” he says.

Wong established the annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner — a merging of
Chinese New Year and Robbie Burns Day celebrations — in 1998. It now
draws over 500 people. “People leave [the dinner] saying, ‘That is so
Canadian,’” he says.

Credit: Doug Shanks

NEWS: Gung Haggis celebrates Canadian interculturalism

up in East Vancouver in the 1960s, Todd Wong was one of many children
who had a surname in common with his classmates at Laura Secord
Elementary School. But when his family moved to North Vancouver when he
was 14, Wong’s Chinese ancestry distinguished him from his classmates
for the first time. “Suddenly, the only other Wong in the entire school
was my brother,” the 48-year-old librarian recalls over tea at a
Chinatown diner. “The other kids would ask if I was Chinese or
Japanese, because they didn’t know the difference at the time. I kept
being asked about Chinese culture because nobody else knew about it.”

Wong’s family has lived in Vancouver for five generations, and he
was raised in what he describes as a “Canadian” household. But it was
his immediate family’s move to North Vancouver that spurred him to
further explore his ancestry. His great-great-grandfather, Reverend
Chan Yu Tan, immigrated to Canada in 1896, and was part of Canada’s
vast pioneer history in which Chinese-Canadians are frequently
overlooked. “I’m one of the invisible-visible minorities,” he says.
“The Chinese culture I grew up learning from my families really doesn’t
exist anymore. [My ancestors] came over when China was still an
Imperial Qing dynasty.”

Wong’s curiosity about his family history led him to start
introducing Chinese New Year celebrations to uninitiated friends as
early as Grade 12. Years later, in 1998, he hosted a private dinner
that combined celebrations for Chinese New Year and for Robbie Burns
Day, the annual Scottish celebration marking the birthday of that
country’s national poet. The event gained momentum over subsequent
years as a restaurant-hosted fundraiser for Wong’s dragon boat team.

Word of the innovative celebration travelled fast, and within a few
years an annual inter-cultural celebration known as Gung Haggis Fat
Choy became a highlight on Vancouver’s cultural calendar, and has grown
to host as many as 590 attendees.

In 2008, Wong received a B.C. Community Achievement Award from
Lieutenant-Governor Stephen Point and Premier Gordon Campbell, and, as
part of B.C.’s 150th anniversary celebration, a life-sized photographic
rendering of Wong, also known as “Toddish McWong,” was installed at the
“Free Spirit” exhibition at the Royal BC Museum. Previous to earning
provincial recognition, Gung Haggis Fat Choy was the inspiration for an
annual cultural festival on SFU’s Burnaby campus, and was the subject
of a 2004 CBC television special.

“The Gung Haggis dinner is inclusive and it recognizes every part of
every person, and I think that’s important,” says Wong. “We don’t have
to be one or the other. We can be everything, all at the same time. I
don’t think we have a lot of events that speak to that.”

This year’s event, on January 25, rings in the Year of the Ox at
Floata Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown. Inter-cultural dinnertime
performers include the Scottish/Chinese Silk Road Ensemble,
multilingual opera soprano Heather Pawsey, DJ Timothy Wisdom, and
rapping bagpiper Joe McDonald. The Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner is a
10-course traditional Chinese banquet that also features haggis, the
traditional Scottish dish that is a Robbie Burns Day favourite.
Proceeds from ticket sales go to the Historic Joy Kogawa House Society,
the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop/Ricepaper magazine, and the Gung
Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team.

“It’s about hybridization — Haggis wonton, haggis lettuce wrap —
where we purposefully put haggis in Chinese cooking,” says Wong.
“People leave saying, ‘That is so Canadian.’”

While Wong often finds himself “running to catch up” with the
momentum Gung Haggis has created over the years, the event shows no
signs of slowing down. It’s even spread to Seattle’s Chinatown, where
150 attended the first event there in 2007. “People are continuing to
discover the spirit of Gung Haggis Fat Choy,” he says. “It’s something
everyone can participate in. I would like to see Gung Haggis dinners
across the country. I think that’s how you contribute to Canada being
better. It’s the good-heartedness of how you describe Canadians, and
that openness to other cultures.”

The “good-heartedness” Wong describes as a trademark of his event
also translates to political points on the municipal scene. At the 2008
Gung Haggis dinner, Wong notes that the 10 Vancouver city councillors
who were later voted into office in the November municipal election
were at the event, including Gregor Robertson and a kilt-wearing
Raymond Louie. This year’s special guests include Musqueam elder Larry
Grant; Leith Davis of the SFU Centre for Scottish Studies; Jan Walls,
formerly of SFU’s International Communications program; and
poet-translator Tommy Tao. This year’s Gung Haggis dinner is also the
only dinner in the province to feature one of 250 limited-edition
bottles of 37-year-old Famous Grouse scotch, made in a limited batch
for Robbie Burns celebrations around the world.

“We’ve always attracted people who are good-hearted and open to
interculturalism,” Wong says proudly. “That’s the Vancouver I see. We
want to create the Vancouver we believe in.”

For more information on Gung Haggis Fat Choy and to buy tickets, visit www.GungHaggisFatChoy.com

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