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Gung Haggis Fat Choy: This Canadian Celebration Combines Robert Burns Night and Chinese New Year

Started by “Toddish McWong” in 1998, the annual dinner has grown and grown

"Gung Haggis Fat Choy" may be the only celebration that combines both traditional Robert Burns Night festivities, including bagpiping, with a celebration of the Chinese New Year. (illustrator: Maya Wei-Haas; source images: Jakub Halun/Wikimedia Commons, Dave Conner/Flickr CC; postdif/Wikimedia commons)
smithsonian.com

Sometimes, you just have to look at something a little differently.

Take the example of Todd Wong, a library assistant from Vancouver, British Columbia. Eighteen years ago, he started an event that brings together different cultural heritages into a tasty celebration. This year will be the nineteenth anniversary of the fusion holiday, as well as what would have been poet Robert Burns’s 258th birthday. 

The phrase “Gung Haggis Fat Choy” combines two cultural traditions. Gung Hay Fat Choy is “happy new year!” in Cantonese, while haggis is a traditional (perhaps the traditional) Scottish recipe, traditionally associated with Robert Burns because of his “Address to a Haggis.

It started with an accident of timing, writes Sarah Hampson for The Globe and Mail. Or more accurately, it started in 1993, five years before the first "Gung Haggis Fat Choy" dinner was held, when Wong was a student at Simon Fraser University. He agreed to help out with that year’s Robert Burns dinner, telling Hampson, “I thought it was this weird ethnic tradition.”

Wong wore a kilt and carried traditional Scottish accessories. “There was a lonely piper. And the haggis tasted really weird,” he told Hampson. “So I decided I would have some fun with it. I called myself Toddish McWong and thought it would make a good statement about multiculturalism.”

The name stuck, and Wong, or McWong,  a fifth-generation Canadian of Chinese heritage, saw an opportunity in 1998, when Robert Burns's birthday was only two days away from Chinese New Year. Wong told Hampson that he went to the library and researched Robert Burns dinners, and invited friends of Scottish and Chinese descent.

After that year, they moved the dinner to a restaurant because it was so much work. The event has become a popular part of celebrations for some, with Vancouver’s mayor even stopping by in 2015 and attendance nearing 400.

Two aspects of the celebration are particularly anticipated: serving of fusion dishes like the haggis wonton, first created for the event in 2003 according to Ricepaper magazine and described as “strangely tasty” by JoyTV’s host in the clip above; and a reinterpretations of the “Address to the Haggis,” including a rap version.

Wong has said it’s a very British Columbian event. The province’s settler-colonial history is filled with Chinese people (and racism towards them), and it’s also filled with Scottish people, writes Elianne Lev for Lucky Peach magazine. The celebration creates a way for people of all heritages to navigate that history, and have a good meal while doing so.

Seattle, which shares some of Vancouver's history, has also picked up Gung Haggis Fat Choy, and it is celebrated elsewhere in British Columbia, too. This year is the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese zodiac, and it starts on January 28 — only three days after the Scottish Bard's birthday.  Given the multicultural nature of North American immigration, who knows — soon Gung Haggis Fat Choy could be celebrated in a city near you. Until then, maybe try your hand at making haggis wontons at home.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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