Two progressive and LGBTQ+ groups have been rejected from Vancouver's Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown this weekend, with march organizers telling one that it was due to a ban on "political activism."
Sunday's Spring Festival Parade in Vancouver is celebrating its 50th anniversary and marks the year of the dragon, which starts on Saturday.
Chinatown Together, organized by community activist Melody Ma, and LGBTQ+ group Lunar New Year For All both said their applications to march were denied by the committee that runs the event.
In a letter to Ma, parade organizers said previous approval of Chinatown Together's participation had been rescinded because "political activism finds no place within the spirit of the event."
The letter dated Feb. 3 said the parade was "dedicated to a sense of unity" and was intentionally distanced from religious or political affiliations.
The letter, which Ma posted on social media and which organizing committee co-ordinator Frank Huang confirmed was authentic, told Ma that "your passion for advocacy has been recognized."
"We decided to participate in the Lunar New Year parade despite the fact the organizers were pro-Chinatown gentrification because we wanted to put that all aside," said Ma, who is a vocal opponent of gentrification in the neighbourhood.
"For this, the largest celebration of Chinatown, we're going to put all these political differences aside and participate in this together.
"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."
Pearl Wong, co-organizer of Lunar New Year For All, said they didn't understand and weren't told why their application to join the parade was rejected.
"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."
In a statement released Friday, the organizing committee said 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.
In a previous statement released late Thursday, the committee said it accepted or rejected applications based on "promoting community, collaboration and tolerance" and ensuring the parade is "safe and inclusive" for participants and spectators.
"Lunar New Year is a celebratory time to promote harmony and prosperity in the community," the statement said. "It is a time to reflect on the accomplishments of the past year and to look forward to an even better year ahead."
Huang said in a brief interview in Mandarin on Friday that it wasn't uncommon for groups to be rejected.
The parade is organized by a consortium of six organizations — 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.
SUCCESS said in a written response about the exclusion of Chinatown Together and Lunar New Year For All that it isn't the lead organizer of the parade and isn't involved with operational decisions.
Both rejected groups had been hoping to take part in the parade for the first time.
Ma is known for opposing projects such as a residential tower at 105 Keefer Street, which was approved by Vancouver's permit board last June after years of dispute.
She said Chinatown Together was born from community opposition to 105 Keefer, but added none of the group's banners on Sunday would have mentioned gentrification or the tower project, in accordance with parade rules.
Wong said the parade organizers gave no explanation for their rejection of Lunar New Year For All in a letter to the group.
Wong, who is from New York, said Manhattan's Chinatown parade had incorporated LGBTQ+ members and groups since 2010.
"I don't see why this would be in contention with celebrating our cultural heritage because it is our cultural heritage, and we also happen to be queer," Wong said.
"We just wanted a group that was focused on LGBTQ individuals, and to make sure that there was a safe space for everyone to join so that folks who identify similarly with us as being queer, as being Asian, they can join us if they wanted to."
Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, said the situation highlights 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.
"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 Vancouver police officers will be deployed to Sunday's parade and celebrations, but the VPD said there were "no specific public safety risk(s)" and the move was aimed at managing the large crowd.