At Gung Haggis Fat Choy, a holiday that melds Chinese New Year with Robbie Burns Day, we eat gung haggis dumplings: Chinese dumplings filled with haggis—the savory pudding made from sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs; minced with oatmeal, suet, and spices; stuffed into the stomach lining of the sheep; and usually plated as a football-sized lump. They’re a fitting tribute to the undeniable cultural amalgamation of Vancouver, where the celebration was founded—a city with a bustling Chinatown and a curious array of Asian fusion, from Japanese-inspired street meat to Indian Chinese food. And, in 2015, the year of the sheep, gung haggis dumplings are especially fitting.
Most years, Gung Haggis takes place at Floata, a giant banquet-style Chinese restaurant that has two stages and takes up the entire top floor of a Chinatown mall. The event draws four hundred people, including the mayor and local personalities, and features dragon dancing, poetry, and live music. The mastermind behind this event is Todd Wong, who’s been hosting Gung Haggis Fat Choy since 1998.
Wong is the undisputed face of Gung Haggis Fat Choy. The fifty-four-year-old, fifth-generation Chinese-Canadian works as a library assistant in the Downtown Eastside. Like Robert Burns, Scotland’s famous bard, Wong has a hairline receding several inches above his forehead (though it doesn’t descend into a triangular peak in the middle, as Burn’s does). A local celebrity, he’s been described by other journalists as being “accessible”—he’s not hard to nail down. If you try to arrange a date with him, he’ll give you his whole week’s schedule, which usually involves community parties and dragon boat practice.
His family’s history in Canada dates back to 1896, when Reverend Chan Yu Tan, Wong’s great, great grandfather on his mother’s side, followed his brother to Victoria, B.C. to help set up the Methodist church. Most of his immediate family was born in Victoria, home to Canada’s oldest Chinatown. His grandmother has memories of being segregated from her classmates in school, while his uncle had a hard time finding work in engineering because of anti-Chinese sentiment.
Wong grew up in Vancouver, and remembers being frightened by the thunderous noise that would come from bagpipes in Canada Day parades. While studying psychology at Simon Fraser University, he decided those fears had to be quashed.
Wong took on a part-time job as a student tour guide. On his tours, he would tell the story of the university’s namesake, an American fur trader and explorer of Scottish descent who charted much of the province of British Columbia. The university honors Simon Fraser’s heritage by playing up his Scottish-ness: the football team is called the Simon Fraser University Clan and the school’s mascot is a Scottish terrier named McFogg the Dog. On January 25, Robbie Burns Day—which celebrates the Scottish bard—a marching progression snakes through the campus, with a haggis in tow.
In 1993, the school’s media department, which organizes the event as well as coordinates tour guides, was lacking volunteers and begged Wong to participate. At first, he wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to—there was the long, complicated history between the Chinese and the Scottish to consider. There was also the fact that he would have to wear a kilt in the dead of Vancouver’s bone-dampening winter.
Canada’s ties to Scotland date back to the seventeenth century, when Scotsman William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, was granted a charter for the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia. He attempted to establish a settlement, but did not succeed. It wasn’t until 1815 that immigration picked up, and by 1871, after Canada became an official British colony, 157 of every thousand Canadians was of Scottish origin. That includes the country’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
Canada’s Chinese population didn’t have such a smooth transition in the country they now widely represent. From the 1880s, tens of thousands of Chinese laborers came to British Columbia to work for lousy wages on the Canadian Pacific Railway. About six hundred of them died in the unsafe conditions—four for every mile. Despite their role in the foundation of Canadian transportation, Chinese wishing to enter Canada between 1885 and 1923 were faced with a head tax. It started as $50 and eventually spiked to $500, a deterrent to Chinese thinking of leaving for Canada. Things got worse from there: between 1923 and 1947, Chinese were outright forbidden from immigrating to the country. It wasn’t until 1967 that a more lenient immigration policy was drafted, based on a points system.
In 1924, a Scottish nursemaid in Vancouver named Janet Smith was found at the affluent home of her employers with a shot to her head. Although it was originally ruled a suicide, the case was reopened and Wong Foon Sing, a Chinese houseboy who also worked at the estate, became the prime suspect. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict him, but his fate turned very Jerry Springer, very quickly. He was abducted and tortured for forty-two days by the Klu Klux Klan, some of who happened to be high-ranking Scottish members of the police force and active members of the city’s Scottish societies. The tensions between the two communities were so strained at the time that one reverend denounced it as a holy war.
Relations between the Scots and Chinese have softened over the decades, though that’s been a long time coming. In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized to Chinese-Canadians for the head tax and granted compensation to any surviving head-tax payers.
In the end, Wong agreed to take part in the Robbie Burns Day progression. He wound up carrying the Claymore—a Scottish broadsword—and donning a kilt, despite the brisk temperatures outside.
The media department wrote up a story about Wong’s role in the progression, in which he referred to himself as Toddish McWong. Local rags picked up on the story, and when the province’s daily newspaper came to Wong’s basement suite to interview him, it happened to be Chinese New Year. He greeted them at the door by exclaiming “Gung Haggis Fat Choy!” He was wearing a kilt and balancing a platter of Chinese pomelos and oranges, as a symbolic offering to the deities. Toddish McWong had arrived! He marinated in the attention.
In 1998, Chinese New Year fell three days after Robbie Burns Day, and Wong invited a few friends—many from Chinese or Scottish backgrounds—over for dinner. They feasted on traditional Chinese food mostly made by Todd—noodles to symbolize long life, gold coin beef to represent prosperity, Buddha’s feast—alongside a haggis. And Gung Haggis was born.
As attendance at Gung Haggis has ballooned over the years, the menu at Gung Haggis has become even more elaborate. Haggis is now the featured meat in a handful of Chinese staples—spring rolls, wontons, siu mai, lettuce wraps topped with Chinese barbecue sauce. Neeps and tatties (Scottish for mashed turnips and potatoes) are served dim sum-style as a pan-fried cake.
Though the Gung Haggis celebration at Floata has been postponed this year due to Wong’s undisclosed health issues, he arranged a smaller-scale Scottish-Chinese Gung Haggis celebration dinner at a private residence in North Vancouver.
Upon arrival, I’m handed a paper bag full of tartan skirts and traditional Chinese silk blouses. The majority of those in attendance are wearing one or the other, or both. Wong stands out more than the rest, with a yellow tartan on the bottom, a yellow silk tie with a panda bear pattern, and a red silk Chinese vest.
“Before each course is served, someone must recite a song or poem,” Wong loudly instructs our table of twenty-four, who range in age from two to seventy, and are mostly of Scottish or Chinese heritage. And so, between Hainan chicken, winter melon soup, and stir-fried snow peas, the party is treated to ditties like Burn’s “A Red, Red Rose” and “Mo Li Hua” (“Jasmine Flower”), a classic Chinese folk song. We eat haggis dumplings that were prepared at Floata, with haggis that’s been in Wong’s freezer since last year. (The restaurant’s manager, Antonio Hung, tells me that the smell of haggis is “very special,” tastes “smooth,” and mixes well with seafood in a dumpling. Yet, when asked if he’d consider putting haggis dumplings on the menu permanently, he scoffs. “Not many people will like it.”)
Just as at traditional Robbie Burns dinners, there are many toasts. There’s the Toast to the Lassies, a short speech given by a man, followed by the Reply to the Laddies (which, at this dinner, is followed by Harry Belafonte’s “Man Smart [Woman Smarter]”).
Before the haggis progression begins, Wong raps Burn’s “Address to a Haggis,” while men in kilts huddle together around the edge of the table with their instruments. The haggis is triumphantly brought out on a platter and danced around the table—probably more times than necessary—followed by several bagpipers and dragon dancers. It’s a dizzying array of ear-popping sounds, tartans and silks, and steamy smells.
The haggis, from Jackson’s Meat and Deli in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighborhood, is served alongside an assortment of haggis-stuffed dumplings—haggis-and-pork siu mai, steamed haggis-and-shrimp dumplings, and deep-fried haggis-and-prawn dumplings. We eat the stand-alone haggis in a lettuce wrap dappled in hoisin sauce. A few people note the mild flavor of this particular haggis, which is made with barley instead of oats. We eat everything on our plates with chopsticks.
The meal is paired with Auchentoshan whiskey, which we drink from Chinese teacups, and a barbera by Sandhill, an Okanagan, British Colombia-based winery founded by Chinese-Canadian Howard Soon. My plate is piled with strange, steaming dumplings that look familiar but taste slightly tweaked. The texture is no different than the finely chopped meats that are used to fill a dumpling, and the flavor of the haggis isn’t a distraction, though it tastes distinctly un-Chinese—like minced meat pie, wrapped in a dumpling skin.
This array of unlikely pairings is a testament to Vancouver, which many consider the most Asian city outside of Asia. It’s one thing for a culture to acclimatize to its surroundings, but it’s quite another for it to fuse so boldly that it fosters its own city-specific holiday. (Other cities like Nanaimo and Seattle have put on similar celebrations, though they aren’t affiliated with Wong, who’s trademarked “Gung Haggis Fat Choy.”)
Once the food is cleared, the instruments are brought out again. Caroline Ng, a photography teacher and member of the Gung Haggis dragon boat team, has given everyone a neatly organized folder of song lyrics. The jam session lasts for hours; we sing along to Cracker, and to Celtic tunes. We round out the evening appropriately with Burn’s best-known poem, “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s a fitting tune to end the party, a subtle tip of the hat to the evening’s theme—celebration, amalgamation, and tradition—of the Scottish, Chinese, and distinctly Vancouverite kind.