Chinese New Year in New Zealand: Celebrating resilience and recovery

Qiuyi Tan

29 Jan 2022

East Asian communities across New Zealand are gearing up for the most important event on their cultural calendar.

Joanne Chin and her sister-in-law thought they were organising a Chinese New Year potluck for family and friends, until it ballooned into a festival of 160.

Everyone is still expected to bring a dish to the party next month, which will be at a local community centre with a bouncy castle, firecrackers, and a lion dance performance.

The headline act is lou yee sang, a Malaysia and Singapore tradition of tossing a salad of raw fish on colourful shredded vegetables with a sweet and sticky dressing. Eating it afterwards is optional.

"We were thinking 50, maybe 60 people at most," said Chin, a mother-of-three who runs a dumpling and bao restaurant in downtown Auckland.

"We invited family and close friends, they asked more friends and friends of friends. Then boom!"

The overwhelming response to Joanne's surprise festival is a common thread running through many Chinese New Year celebrations this year.

Asians in New Zealand are celebrating in situ, unable to travel to their countries of origin or anywhere else for the festivities because of closed borders and travel restrictions. Many are coming together or reaching out to Kiwi friends to celebrate.

"We have non-Asian friends coming too," Chin said, "Like my Samoan colleague and his wife from the Cook Islands."

The festival has many names
Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year to be more accurate, marks the first day of the lunar calendar, the most important event on the Chinese cultural calendar.

Known as Spring Festival in China, Tet in Vietnam, Seollal in Korea, it is celebrated across many parts of East and Southeast Asia, and in global cities with significant Chinese diasporas.

The first day of the New Year will fall on February 12, 2021. It is the Year of the Ox, known as the most hardworking animal on the Chinese horoscope.

Celebrations vary across cultures and regions but there are key similarities. Visiting friends and family on the day, red packets of lucky money for children, and the most important meal of the year - reunion dinner - on New Year's Eve.

But before any of that, a deep spring clean in the run-up.

"We need to clean the house before the New Year and not during the actual celebrations, because cleaning can literally sweep away all your good luck," explains Victor Diem, deputy chairman of the Wellington-based Vietnamese Community in New Zealand.

Diem is expecting at least 350 people at the Vietnamese community celebration in Wellington on January 31, double the attendance of pre-Covid years - because people are here.

Lunar New Year is not a public holiday in New Zealand and the festive atmosphere is often lacking, Diem says, so in the years before Covid-19 many Vietnamese usually went home for Tet.

Seollal is also a low-key family affair for many in the Korean community in New Zealand, says Imsoo Kim.

His family tradition is making mandu, or Korean dumplings, says the counsellor and father of two.

"My sons [both in their 20s] will come home for Seollal and we make dumplings together. The saying goes that whoever makes a well-shaped dumpling will get a good-looking partner," he said, chuckling.

Freedom to celebrate
We're celebrating the freedom to celebrate, says Linda Lim, one of the organisers of Wellington's Chinese New Year Festival marking its 20th edition this year.

"People feel very lucky to have to have the freedom to get together with family and friends over food, which is indeed core to Chinese New Year celebrations."

If New Zealand remains at alert level 1, the festival will roll out its flagship street parade, food and craft market, and fireworks in the Wellington CBD in February.

But organisers are prepared for every alert level change, including a fully digital programme for alert level 4.

"The pandemic has permanently changed the arts and events landscape," Lim said, referring to the added challenges of organising major events with health and safety and risk assessment plans in place.

But there is a sense of recovery and positivity, leaving behind a tumultuous, "ratty" Year of the Rat, says Kai Luey, chairman of the Auckland Chinese Community Centre.

Equally important is a celebration of the resilience of Asian communities who have survived crises far worse than a pandemic, says Diem.

"The Vietnamese have suffered years of war and hardship.

"Many of us are grateful for the social welfare, the political and economic structures in New Zealand that have taken care of the people and been a source of healing for those affected by the pandemic."

Auckland festivities
Auckland celebrations kick off today (Saturday, January 30) with the Auckland Chinese Community Centre's annual festival and market day at the ASB Showgrounds in Epsom.

The city's iconic Lantern Festival is also scheduled to return in February after last year's cancellation to take place for the first time on the Auckland waterfront.

Event producer Eric Ngan describes a "cosmic coincidence" of central city buzz, public transport accessibility, and proximity to the America's Cup Village that is bringing the festival to the Ports of Auckland.

"It's very different from the parks and lawns festival of previous years," he said, "Hundreds of lanterns, installations, performances and food, but with an urban port aesthetic."

Also for the first time, this year's festival will have daytime sessions on the weekend, handy for families with young children "who tend to crack up and get grumpy by 7 o'clock", Ngan said.

Children are one traditional focus of the New Year, and keeping them happy is key to Chin's surprise private festival.

"I'm a mum," she said, smiling.

"Having an activity for the kids to have fun at the party is important, so that the parents can have fun too."

She's a born organiser and loves seeing an event - and people - come together.

"Making something out of nothing, the energy of people talking. It's magic."