"Better to do it than to miss it!" This is Chinese motto for the upcoming Year of the Dragon. It is an especially auspicious year, said to be infused with the energy and ambition of the fiery creature itself.
It is the ideal time to start a business, get married and especially to have children. Surely cause to celebrate, and one of the best places to do just that is in Toronto.
With nearly 2.5 million people, the city has the largest Chinese population in Canada, and more than one distinct Chinatown. While many visitors are familiar with the downtown Spadina Chinatown featured in all the tourist maps and guidebooks, few realize that in the suburbs (with 5.5 million people in the metro area), thriving Chinese communities have emerged, all offering Asian cuisine, shopping and an authentic Far East experience -- minus the 15-hour flight.
Choose one or more and explore with a sense of adventure. After all, it is the year for action.
The centrally located Spadina Chinatown along Dundas West and Spadina is well-known and pedestrian-friendly. The busy streets are teeming with shops and market stalls selling traditional herbs, spices and exotic fruit, along with clothing, furniture and household accessories. You'll see signs for acupuncture, reflexology and more than a few whole ducks and pigs hanging in the windows.
Celebrate the holiday by taking one of the behind-the-scenes Chinese New Year Tours with Shirley Lum, offered now through Feb. 5. She will fill you in on all the traditions surrounding the holiday and fill you up with treats, including dim sum, moon cakes and herbal teas. She also offers a 10-course feast this Saturday in which guests can learn "the legends and the lore." If you are in town on Jan. 28 or 29, you will have a good chance of witnessing the Lion Dances. Twenty-foot dragons proceed from business to business accompanied by drummers whose constant beat is meant to exorcise evil spirits and bad luck from the previous year.
Just east of downtown, at Broadview and Gerrard Street, is the Riverdale Chinatown, which has many of the same features as its larger counterpart with an abundance of fruit and vegetable vendors selling inexpensive produce. A larger percentage of Vietnamese immigrants here means there are numerous pho houses serving up hot bowls of the traditional noodle soup. It's the perfect dish to indulge in for the new year, since noodles symbolize long life, so whatever you do, don't cut them!
> The suburbs
Scarborough, east of the city, was the first suburb to attract affluent immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China in the 1980s. Today approximately 35 percent of the population is Asian, and you'll find malls and plazas that serve that population, with names like Dynasty Centre, Dragon Centre and Cathay Plaza. Most of them are clustered in the Agincourt community along Sheppard Avenue between Midland Avenue and McCowan Road.
Also in Scarborough is the Chinese Cultural Centre of Toronto, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and understanding Chinese tradition and culture through art and education. Public events planned for this year include a New Year's Party on Jan. 22 from noon to 3 p.m. and a banquet on Jan. 29.
West of Toronto, in Mississauga among the apartment buildings and chain stores on a busy thoroughfare, you'll find something that looks as if it belongs in a fairy tale -- an ornate, 43-foot-tall entrance gate. It seems out of place until you drive through and discover it's just one of the Chinese heritage architectural features in this 10-acre commercial site aptly called The Chinese Centre. Modeled after the Great Wall of China, much attention to detail was put into the centre's design and craftsmanship. Along with the gate, which was made with wooden studs rather than nails, there's a 60-foot watch tower, the Soo Chow Garden complete with small pond and the Nile Dragon Wall, a colorful mural adorning the edge of the parking lot. Two supermarkets, a pharmacy, an aquarium and several restaurant are among the over 60 stores in the complex.
North are Richmond Hill and Markham, two communities which both saw a large influx of Asian immigrants and businesses in the 1990s. Some foodies claim that the most authentic Chinese dishes can only be found in this region, north of Highway 401. That may be going a bit far, but the food is certainly worth the trip, and believe it not, can often be found at a mall. In the numerous Asian shopping centres and plazas are restaurants ranging from luxury dining to mom-and-pop establishments. In Richmond Hill the Ambassador Chinese Cuisine at the Jubilee Square is well-known for its Dim Sum. At the food court in Markham's Pacific Mall, you can watch homemade noodles being pulled and cut before they're served in a delicious soup or a stir-fry at Sun's Kitchen.
While shopping, be sure to buy something red (underwear is a popular option) to bring even more good fortune into the already lucky Year of the Dragon.
Gung Hei Fat Choi (Wishing you great happiness and prosperity)
> If you go:
A Taste of the World Chinese New Years Tours (www.savouringthoughts.blogspot.com; 41 6/9 23-6813).
The Chinese Cultural Centre, 5183 Sheppard Ave. East (www.cccgt.org; 41 6/2 92-9293).
Mississauga Chinese Centre, 888 Dundas St. East (www.mississaugachinesecentre.com)
Ambassador Chinese Cuisine, 280 W Beaver Creek Road (www.ambassadorcc.com; 90 5/7 31-5570).
The Pacific Mall, 4300 Steeles Ave. East (www.pacificmalltoronto.com).