There’s a lion dance costume head sitting on the floor of the back room on the second floor of China Harbor Restaurant, as bagpipers warm up just beyond. In the main room, diners kitted out in Scottish clan kilts and embroidered Chinese tops laugh, chat, and carouse at family-style tables, waiting for their nine-course Chinese Lunar New Year meal.
Welcome to Seattle’s annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy, which celebrates both the Chinese New Year and the Scottish poet Robert Burns, both of which tend to fall roughly around the same time.
The event’s Vancouverite founder, fifth-generation Canadian Todd Wong, said he created it by accident when he served as a student tour guide at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. The university asked him to wear a kilt, carry the haggis, and walk with a bagpiper during its annual Robert Burns dinner, celebrated on the Scottish poet’s birthday, Jan. 25. The dinner usually celebrates Burns with a haggis dinner, a hat tip to his famous poem, “Address To A Haggis.”
“I realized I was learning something about Canada's ethnic Scottish heritage. I had been busy on student newspapers learning more about cultural diversity and anti-racism issues. Me, a Chinese-Canadian wearing a kilt? I could flip the stereotypes about Chinese in North America!” Wong told me in an email, recalling the start of the whole affair in 1993. “Chinese New Year was two days away that year. I called myself Toddish McWong, and made [a] pun of the traditional Cantonese Chinese New Year greeting ‘Gung Hay Fat Choy’ and turned it into ‘Gung Haggis Fat Choy’.”
While Wong didn’t intend for it to go any further, five years later, his friends were still calling him Toddish McWong—and, once again, the Chinese New Year was two days away from Robert Burns Day. So, along with a friend, Wong decided to put on a combined dinner.
“I cooked most of the Chinese food such as [winter melon] soup, poached salmon with ginger and hot oil, snow peas with scallops. We ordered out for lettuce wrap and pan-fried spicy prawns. Somebody bought a haggis. My co-host hired a bagpiper. The guests took turns reciting Burns poetry, or sharing a song. I played my accordion and read a Chinese-Canadian poem,” Wong said.
The following year, Wong decided it was too much of a hassle to cook the dinner on his own, and hosted it at a restaurant—which was for the best; that year, the event saw 40 attendees. By 2006, Wong said they had a record 600 attendees, and decided to scale back on advertising.
By that time, Seattleite Bill McFadden had stumbled across the event. He asked Wong about bringing it to Seattle, and Wong said, “Sure, why not?” So, for the last 13 years, McFadden has hosted the event, which now serves as a fundraiser for different Seattle Chinese and Scottish youth music, dance, and martial arts scholarship programs.
The meal revolves around the presentation of the fabled haggis—McFadden appointed a man he calls his “Haggis Meister,” who prepares the dish the same way every year. For all the lore surrounding it, haggis is fairly unremarkable-looking. With a sheep’s stomach serving as its casing, it’s a shiny, tan balloon-like lump that, when split open at the literal seams, pours forth a grain-and-offal filling that doesn’t look like much at all.
Here, however, the haggis is presented to great fanfare. Haggis Bearer John Bolton, trailed by a literal platoon of bagpipers, brings the dish to the main table. The entire room stands, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sepia balloon. Judging by the hooting and clapping, the sobriety level in the room is decreasing exponentially.
But, before they cut into it, Wong and fellow emcee Christian Skoorsmith recite Wong’s special rap version of Burns’ “Address To A Haggis,” inviting raucous yells of, “Gung Haggis Fat Choy!” and “Like amber bead,” both to the rhythm set by Wong and Skoorsmith.
Both Wong and Skoorsmith gleefully take a tipple of Scotch before cutting into the stomach casing. They lean over the steaming contents, and Skoorsmith wafts the aroma into his nose. Wrinkling his brow in delight, Skoorsmith declares, as in the poem: “Warm-reekin’ rich!”
And then, it’s over: The haggis departs as it arrived, trailed by bagpipers and cheers from hungry, excited guests. Waiters bustle out with warm platters of the stuff, setting them down at each table for guests to eat with plum sauce.
The haggis is followed by large, family-style appetizer platters of crunchy, golden egg rolls, tangy barbecue pork, and thick strips of crunchy, sweet and sour cucumber. Joining the regulars are American Chinese food staples like General Tso’s Chicken; delicate egg flower soup; and a riotously colorful vegetable chow mein.
Dessert involves fortune cookies and cut fruit—but the real action is at the buffet table, where diners fight via bidding war for the rights to some very elaborate cakes, pies, and themed chocolate… things. (There’s a chocolate cake shaped like a fish with a distinctly Scottish theme: the happy-looking aquatic creature sports a Balmoral bonnet, and one of its pleated fins rests atop a set of bagpipes).
But woe to the table that loses the bidding war for these beauties: tucked away behind all the good stuff is a platter of lime green Jell-O. A sign advises attendees to “Bid High, or you will get … Lime Green Jello.” It’s followed by assurances that the stuff is both sugar-and gluten-free, and even comes with some whipped cream to soften the blow, but I still can’t help thinking of R.L. Stine’s Monster Blood.
If you’re a Pacific Northwesterner agonizing over missing this, there’s always next year—plenty of time to brush up your Burns.