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Vancouver Lunar New Year parade reverses decision to bar progressive, LGBTQ+ groups

VANCOUVER — Organizers of the Vancouver Chinatown Lunar New Year parade have changed course and rescinded their rejection of two progressive and LGBTQ+ groups that they previously barred from participating.
Progressive and LGBTQ+ groups say they've been excluded from Vancouver's Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown, with one organizer saying they were ousted for "political affiliations." Performers carry a dragon as people gather to celebrate Lunar New Year celebrations in Victoria, B.C., Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

VANCOUVER — Organizers of the Vancouver Chinatown Lunar New Year parade have changed course and rescinded their rejection of two progressive and LGBTQ+ groups that they previously barred from participating.

Organizing committee spokesman Frank Huang said letters had been sent to the groups Chinatown Together and Lunar New Year For All, approving their participation in Sunday's parade.

Huang didn't give any reasons for the reversal in a brief interview in Mandarin late Friday.

Chinatown Together's organizer, Melody Ma, said in a statement that neither group had received a formally signed invitation from the parade organizing committee. 

Chinatown Together and Lunar New Year For All released a joint letter Friday night addressed to the groups organizing the parade, saying they were looking for a public apology for harms caused to the LGBTQ+ community, and the youth and elders in Chinatown. 

"In the last week, despite being initially invited to apply for the Chinatown Spring Festival Parade, your committee has chosen to place our groups through a series of turbulence, disappointment, public humiliation, character assassination, and harmful stigmatization stemming from your committee’s dissemination of baseless, unprovoked accusations in the public sphere after rejecting us from participating in the parade," the letter said.

In addition to the public apology, the two groups wrote that they were also looking for a "commitment to transparent communication regarding the qualifications for participation in future parades for all groups." 

In previous letters and statements, the parade's committee had told Chinatown Together that it couldn't march because of a ban on "political activism," while it rejected another group it didn't identify because of "the potential for disruption and protests."

Sunday's Spring Festival Parade in Vancouver is celebrating its 50th anniversary and marks the year of the dragon, which starts on Saturday.

The event is organized by a consortium of six groups — the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver, the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver, the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association, the Chinese Freemasons Vancouver Branch, the Shon Yee Benevolent Association of Canada and social service agency SUCCESS.

Ma is a community activist and vocal critic of gentrification in Chinatown. She has opposed projects such as a residential tower at 105 Keefer Street, which was approved by Vancouver's permit board last June after years of dispute.

On Tuesday, she posted a letter from the parade's organizing committee on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, which said Chinatown Together's participation in the march had been rejected because "political activism finds no place within the spirit of the event."

The letter dated Feb. 3 said the parade is "dedicated to a sense of unity" and is intentionally distanced from religious or political affiliations. It told Ma "your passion for advocacy has been recognized."

In an interview before the committee changed its mind, Ma said the group wanted to participate in the parade "despite the fact the organizers were pro-Chinatown gentrification because we wanted to put that all aside."

"What's ironic is that by rejecting and citing political activism — whatever that means to them in this case — they are inherently politicizing the event and the decision," she had said.

Pearl Wong, co-organizer of Lunar New Year For All, said in an interview before the decision's reversal that they weren't told why they were banned.

"Our thought process was, hey, it would be really cool if we could form a group that is dedicated for queer and trans folks of Asian descent," Wong said.

"We don't really understand why it has to be this hard because I don't think it's very hard to be inclusive and welcoming."

The organizing committee had said in a statement late Thursday that it accepted or rejected applications based on "promoting community, collaboration and tolerance" and ensuring the parade is "safe and inclusive" for participants and spectators.

Then on Friday it released another statement saying that "we welcome members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community to walk alongside us."

But it said "a group did not meet our expectations because of the potential for disruption and protests at the parade that were not related to the 2SLGBTQ+ community."

It said the committee hopes to "work through these issues" with the group, which it didn't name, so it can take part next year.

Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, said the situation highlighted the complexity of Chinatowns and their social and economic fault lines.

"Chinatown is like a city in itself," with strong opposing views on issues such as gentrification, Eng said before the committee's reversal.

"On 105 Keefer, even within those legacy organizations, that was a really hard decision," Eng said, noting many groups changed positions over time to support the project.

"Our views don't necessarily align with the legacy organizations, and the last go-around for 105 (Keefer), most of those organizations did not support it as well."

Eng's groups supported the project.

He said this year's parade, celebrating both the year of the dragon and the event's 50th anniversary, would play a crucial role in the revitalization of the neighbourhood after the pandemic.

"This is really a time for us to showcase Chinatown in a very positive light, in a unified light," he said. "We need good news stories. We don't need people trying to bring us down."

Extra police officers will be deployed to the parade and celebrations, but Vancouver police say there are no specific public safety risks and the move is aimed at managing the large crowd.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2024.

Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press