Covid-19: Move to red disrupts culturally significant events for New Zealand's East Asian community

Eda Tang

25 Jan 2022

Large celebrations such as Lunar New Year and Cambodian New Year have been put in jeopardy due to the weekend move to red in the traffic light system.

Many important social events for East Asian families in Aotearoa, including those from China, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and IndonesAuckland mayor Phil Goff said that the festival was New Zealand’s largest cultural celebration. Having been cancelled for the past two years, “this year’s event was highly anticipated, and we are disappointed to have to cancel it again”.ia, may not be able to go ahead as planned given the 100-person limit at events.

On Tuesday, a media release announced the cancellation of the Auckland Lantern Festival which could only be delivered at the orange or green settings in the Traffic Light Framework.

The Lantern Festival commemorates the Lunar New Year, which is celebrated by more than a billion people worldwide. Omicron’s arrival is now threatening the February 1 Lunar New Year festivities and Cambodian New Year on the April 13.

Rounh Chhumvichhouk, a monk at Wat Khmer Puthearam, a Cambodian Buddhist temple in Manurewa, said the celebrations “form solidarity, no matter where you are from”. In normal circumstances, the temple would attract up to 300 visitors for New Year.

On Cambodian New Year, the Auckland Cambodian community enjoy an array of culturally rich events at the temple. They pray together, dress in traditional clothing, play folk games, feast on traditional foods like sticky rice cake and Cambodian vegetable stew, and offer food to the monks to pray for their ancestors. Without the opportunity for a social gathering, such activities for Cambodian families were limited.

Chhumvichhouk added that the New Year was also when people went to the temple to offer food, clothing and basic supplies to the monks which they depended on for a living and to pay off the mortgage on the temple. Without the large influx of visitors during the New Year, monks were dependent on casual donations for things like masks, winter clothing and English lessons.

The absence of social gatherings also made it difficult for migrant communities to practise their traditions.

Aiwa Pooamorn, a theatre artist and Thai-Chinese mother, would normally travel to Bangkok to visit her family during the Lunar New Year but Covid-19 border restrictions have made that impossible in recent Lunar New Years.

Since Covid, going to a restaurant with friends and giving red pockets filled with chocolate coins to her children have been the extent of her celebrations. This year, the plans for a celebration are on hold.

In Bangkok, Pooamorn’s family would have a feast, set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits and set up a long table with food offerings for their ancestors. “It’s usually my mum who does all this, but I just don’t have the knowledge and know-how … I wish I learnt more from my mum.”

Pooamorn said that part of the diasporic experience was the feeling that some traditions felt tokenistic and performative when doing them away from home. She said that sometimes “I feel like a fraud even though I’m not [when] trying to do this traditional stuff when I don’t even know what I’m doing”.

As a way to celebrate her culture, Pooamorn tries “to incorporate my own culture into [my shows and poems]”.

“I keep saying that I’m going to do all these New Year traditions, like I’m going to cook a Chinese feast. But it just never happens” she laughed. “I just don’t have the time … and it feels weird doing it by myself.

“Everything is more expensive now,” she added.

Abby Ren, the manager of Furein Asian Supermarket, said that foods consumed during the Lunar New Year, such as dumplings, lollies and sunflower seeds, were low in stock due to a combination of “slow and very expensive shipping” from international suppliers and “a lot of [them being] very restrictive on their income stock”.

Even sourcing local supply had been a challenge. “Vegetables are very expensive now and [the supply is] short.”

The supermarket, which is tucked downstairs on Auckland’s Queen St, has felt a “big, big difference” without international students and people working in offices in the city.