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Here's why you'll see lettuce hanging in Chinatown during Lunar New Year

You'll see the lion dancers head for anywhere that puts produce out for them.
As part of the lion dance lettuce is left out so the lion may bestow good luck on a dwelling or business.

This weekend, Vancouver's Chinatown will be bustling with activity as the Lunar New Year (also known as Chinese New Year or Spring Festival) takes place.

A highlight every year is the parade that makes its way around the historic neighbourhood. And those who show up to watch the celebration may notice a certain vegetable being carefully hung up.


There may be other produce set out, but lettuce is the main dish.

Danny Quon, the Dragon and Lion Dance Director with the Hon Hsing Athletic Club of Vancouver, explains this is a tradition that goes back at least hundreds of years.

"It's basically an offering to the lion when the lion comes to the house or the store," he says, as lettuce is symbolic food for the lion.

The word for lettuce in Cantonese is choy. It's also a homonym with the word for fortune or prosperity, Quon adds. Think of bok choy and the phrase often heard around this time of year 'gung hay fat choy' which essentially means 'wishing you great happiness and prosperity.'

"When you hang up lettuce you want to make the lion happy," says Quon, who's also the chief dance instructor for the club.

In Chinese tradition the lion can bring luck, he explains.

Attached to the lettuce will be a little red envelope, which will contain a sort of gratuity for the dancers. The money goes back to the school at which the dancers trained.

More may be offered, but the "absolute minimum to give as an offering is lettuce and a red envelope." Quon says he's seen green onions and carrots before, but that's unusual.

Another offering occasionally seen is mandarin oranges. A circle of mandarin oranges is a sort of puzzle for the dancing lion and it'll have to do a specific dance. 

The Lion Dance has a long history, with records stretching back to the Han Dynasty 2000 years ago (despite lions not living in China).

When immigrants arrived from China in B.C. and Vancouver they brought with them many traditions, including the lion dance. Quon has been performing them for 47 years, and his father used to tell about dances before then. The Hon Hsing club has existed for 84 years and has regularly performed the dances, and Quon says precursors to the club also performed.

"It's a time-honoured tradition that what we're doing goes back at least 2000 years," he says. "It's an ancient art form and I'm glad it's being carried on by youth today."