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COLUMN: A Lunar New Year lucky dip with historian Bob Sung

‘To know the food is to know the culture, and to know the culture is to know the food,’ says Bob Sung
Bob Sung is seen at Tin Lee Market in this promotional image. (Photo submitted: Bob Sung)

Gong hei fat choy!

Time to dust off my lucky red and gold jacket to greet The Year of the Water Tiger, the Chinese Lunar New Year animal symbolizing bravery, courage and strength.

This colourfully dynamic historical celebration has long been a favourite with me, yet technically I know little about it.

With the Vancouver Chinatown Lunar New Year parade cancelled for a second time, I searched for enlightenment via Bob Sung, a third generation Chinese Canadian with an enviable in-depth knowledge of Chinatown history, culture, foods, and traditions.

Sung is the owner of Robert Sung Tours (A Wok Around Chinatown and A Wok Around Granville Island). Recently he was the online guest presenter of Chinese Lunar New Year 101 hosted by the recently opened Chinatown Storytelling Centre.

“To know the food is to know the culture, and to know the culture is to know the food,” Sung tells me after the seminar. Reminiscing about the eight-course Hong Kong Tourism pre-Covid Vancouver banquets we’d both attended in better days, he reminds me of the numerological good luck significances of the eight course, ten-guest round tables as well as the subtle choices of dishes and their order of service. At gatherings large and small each course choice is geared to promote and highlight good luck, prosperity, and longevity. “Everything has a meaning,” he reminds me.

Sweet and sour dishes for balance, fish for abundance, lucky New Year dumplings, tangerines (gold) symbolic of wealth, and noodles representing long life. “Never cut the noodles!” he warns sternly. At my age would I dare!

Almond cookies, fortune cupcakes, sesame balls, pomegranates and prickly rose-coloured rambutan also feature among the traditionally “lucky foods and fruits.” My taste buds activate and I suddenly yearn for those pinkish New Year rice cakes daintily decorated with the tell-tale five almond slivers and a dish of green tea.

As our Chinatown guru rattles off significant connections between the assorted elements of the 15-day long celebration the gaps in my knowledge become more apparent. Clearly one, or more, of his tours will be required to at least upgrade my education on this complex culture.

Sung reminds me that each day has its own significance. Day three caught my attention: “Stay home, avoid arguments.” He notes the fifth day is okay for “reopening businesses, no more taboos.” Let’s hope that includes COVID.

However, bad luck taboos still lurk. Sung produces a handy quick reference diagram. Included are, “no lending or borrowing” (financial loss) and “no scissors” (squabbling with people). “No hair washing” (washing away wealth) may be one I’ll have—with difficulty—to try. “No sweeping” (sweeping away good luck) will suit me fine!

It goes without saying your house must be immaculate to start the celebration, plus you’ll need to keep a supply of fire crackers handy to chase away Nian, a mythological sea/mountain monster with an aversion to noise and the colour red.

Bob Sung’s year-round tours begin from one of my favourite haunts, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (578 Carrall St.,Vancouver). Our brief conversation on that subject makes me realize I’ve missed much of the garden’s symbolism.

A refresher is clearly in my future, which will also include my first visit to the Chinatown Storytelling Centre at 168 East Pender. I’m intrigued to discover more about this influentially historical community dating back to the 1880s. Think Gold Rush, the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the subsequent impacts of the political ramifications told by those who endured them.

Roaming around Chinatown is an adventure, but the history and intriguing inside secrets are best revealed by this third-generation Chinese Canadian with deep roots in this dynamic multifaceted community.

Check online at and watch for more coverage of it in my upcoming column.

To book Robert Sung Culinary and Cultural Walking Tours of Vancouver’s Chinatown go to

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is the founding publisher and managing editor of the Cloverdale Reporter. Contact her at

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