COVID-19 cancels wide range of Lunar New Year festivities

Large restaurants brace for loss of bottom-line boost from banquet business

Charlie Huang
Canada Catering Association chairman Charlie Huang: the entire Asian restaurant sector will have an unusually quiet Lunar New Year season this year | Rob Kruyt

Restaurant owners expect a quiet Lunar New Year in 2021, with revenue down substantially from what is normally a festive two weeks of celebrations. 

Vancouver’s Asian communities customarily visit family, hold parties and feast during the Lunar New Year holiday, which started February 12. This year, Vancouver will not even have a parade.

The only glimmer of hope for many restaurants is that takeout and delivery orders may increase during Lunar New Year, said David Chung, president of the BC Asian Restaurant Café Owners Association and owner of Jade Seafood Restaurant.

Those who go to Asian restaurants for Lunar New Year meals are likely to follow B.C.’s health order that bans people from dining with individuals from other households, he said.

“Chinese people are very vigilant about these things,” Chung said. “For a year, already, they have been wearing masks, and they are very respectful of the government.”

Adhering to provincial health orders means that customers will be eating only with members of their direct household. Chung said he believes this will mean that they will be less likely to order extra dishes or more extravagant items, such as geoduck, Alaskan king crab or live fish. Those items tend to be bought as a treat, to mark a special occasion or as part of a meal with extended family, he explained.

“It’s totally different than before,” said Charlie Huang, chairman of the Canada Catering Association and owner of the nine-restaurant Peaceful Restaurant chain. 

“There’s almost no business at all. Before, at Chinese New Year, for one or two weeks, we have all the associations having parties, and family parties, and everything – every restaurant is busy all the time. This year, there are no orders.”

He estimates that his restaurant chain generates about 20% of the sales that it did pre-pandemic, and that sales at about half of all of the region’s Chinese restaurants i are down by about 50%, with the others down much more than that. 

Restaurants that specialize in hosting banquets and have large, round 10-seat tables are the hardest-hit, he said.

With more than 1,000 seats, Floata Seafood Restaurant, at 180 Keefer Street, is one of the city’s largest restaurants. 

Manager Brian Yu told BIV that in a normal year, his restaurant would host banquets on every weekend night between January and March – many of them in connection to Chinese New Year. 

Last year, virtually all of those banquets were cancelled, he said. 

Lunar New Year in 2020 launched on January 25, which was the same day that Ontario health officials detected Canada’s first case of COVID-19. 

While B.C. did not start to impose restrictions on dining until mid-March, Yu said many in the Chinese community decided on their own to forgo Chinese New Year celebrations.

Vancouver’s 47th annual Chinese New Year Parade took place on January 26, 2020, in Chinatown, but other Chinese New Year celebrations across the region – such as the Live in Langley Chinese Association’s gala in the Township of Langley – were cancelled.

This year, Floata is surviving thanks to government initiatives, such as rent and wage subsidies, Yu said.

It has stayed open daily for dim sum lunches, and it offers dinner service on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but with a maximum of six people per table. 

Most of its tables, however, remain empty because of health orders and general public reticence to eat out, he said.

With no Chinese New Year parade, and government health orders forbidding events, the entire hospitality sector is hurting this year, agreed Bao Bei owner Tannis Ling. 

“Normally, it’s fairly busy during this time of year for us, and we have a big party to celebrate our anniversary, because it’s around the same time,” she said of her 11-year-old eatery.

“It’s normally a pretty joyful time of year. The restaurant is very busy, it’s bustling, and there are lots of people coming in and out. 

“It’s been almost 11 months of restrictions now, so I’m pretty used to the idea that we’re not going to make the same amount of money.” •