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The celebration of Lunar New Year dates back to the Zhou dynasty in ancient China. It’s the most significant annual festival for Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans around the world.
In China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, festivities start on New Year’s Eve and end on the fifteenth day of the first month.
In Korea, “Seollal” [soul-nal] or Lunar New Year, lasts three days.
Each lunar year is represented by a different zodiac sign out of twelve animals and 2019 is the Year of the Pig.
Before the New Year, families spring-clean their homes – symbolically sweeping off the past year’s bad luck and make room for good fortune and homes are decorated with lucky words written on red paper.
The most popular Chinese character is Fu – meaning happiness.
It’s an especially exciting time for children who receive money wrapped in red envelopes gifted by parents and older relatives.
Hong Kong-born Beona Chen has lived in Brisbane for ten years. While she now calls Australia home she says it’s in her D-N-A to celebrate Lunar New Year.
"It’s just about the love and caring with those you love"
“Because we are Chinese I can’t see any excuse or reason I can’t celebrate it. It’s something so great to enjoy the food and being with family greeting each other. It’s just about the love and caring with those you love - your family and friends.”
City of Sydney Councillor Robert Kok is of Malaysian-Chinese descent and he shares similar traditions.
"During Chinese New Year, many dishes, special dishes that are prepared has a special meaning to it as to bringing in good luck, or bringing good fortune, good prosperity, good health to family and friends"
“Chinese New Year lasts for 15 days. Each day has a significance. Most significant would be the CNY’s Eve where all the family anywhere in the world would come back to the family home and have a family reunion dinner. And during Chinese New Year, many dishes, special dishes that are prepared has a special meaning to it as to bringing in good luck, or bringing good fortune, good prosperity, good health to family and friends.”
The menu of the New Year feast varies from region to region.
Koreans celebrate their New Year with rice cake in a savoury broth called “tteokguk” [dduk-gook].
The Vietnamese version of the New Year rice cake is the Banh Chung - made of mung beans and pork and wrapped in green leaves.
Festive dishes served around this time often imply success or opportunity based on their pronunciation.
In Chinese, the word fish sounds like “surplus” and is symbolic of abundance.
And dumplings, or jiaozi [jao-tz] is an essential food for families from northern China, they represent the idea of ‘bidding farewell to the old and ushering in the new.'
Melbourne’s Chinese Museum Curator Sophie Couchman says Australia’s first Lunar New Year celebrations took place on the goldfields in Victoria and New South Wales in the 1850s.
She says Chinese migrants celebrated the event with other Australians.
“Some of these early reports talk of the Chinese communities inviting key white Australians to join them in their celebrations either coming to the meal, or coming to take part in visiting people.”
Lunar New Year celebrations at the goldfield’s tent camps often involved lighting firecrackers.
“So there’s a number of cases people where were arrested for letting off fireworks, taken to court, in some cases they were just let off with a warning, in other cases there was a fine.”
Lighting firecrackers is a tradition linked to the Chinese myth of the nian beast.
On New Year’s Eve people would stay up late to welcome the New Year and set off firecrackers to scare off the ferocious monster. Particular taboos are also observed around this time.
It’s important not to say negative words such as death or illness. And instead of wearing black or white, coloured clothing, notably red, which symbolises good luck, is the preferred colour.
Curator Sophie Couchman says at the turn of the century Lunar New Year is acknowledged as a cultural event.
"It’s basically telling people how to wish any Chinese friends that they might have"
“So I’ve got a newspaper article here from the Advertiser in Adelaide dated 1903. And It’s basically telling people how to wish any Chinese friends that they might have, a Happy Chinese New Year, so the article is titled ‘Gong Hei Fat Choy – Chinese New Year celebration’.”
She says around this time there’s also references to familiar Lunar New activities including lion dances.
“Once you get to around the turn of the century you’re starting to see people talking about lions or dragons. These are the lions that dance in front of the shops, the smaller creatures rather than a big lion procession and of course there’s lots of feasting that goes on."
Modern Lunar New Year festivities are much bigger in scope.
Sydney’s Chinese New Year festival is one of the city’s signature events. Thousands of performers from China and Australia perform in its annual parade attracting over a hundred thousand spectators each year.
Local Councillor Robert Kok says the massive turnout is a result of Australia’s growing interest in its regional neighbours.
"It’s important to have that cross cultural awareness to know the customs and cultural differences, cultural dos and don’ts"
“Because of the rise of Asian century and because of the rise of China where a lot of trade and commerce and businesses are being conducted with China, so it’s important to have that cross cultural awareness to know the customs and cultural differences, cultural dos and don’ts ”
He says it also enables the younger generation to reconnect with their roots.
"I think a lot of parents and a lot of communities don’t want their children to lose that identity"
“That’s why Chinese New Year is so important. Important in terms of the cultural identity for each Chinese person especially living overseas. If not, people of Chinese heritage living overseas, if they don’t continue or don't know anything about their culture they will lose that cultural identity. I think a lot of parents and a lot of communities don’t want their children to lose that identity .”
Brisbane resident Beona Chen says following the same Lunar New Year traditions each year allows her to preserve her identity.
“I’m really satisfied how I celebrate the New Year, such as watching the lion dance, having a big meal, greeting people, preparing the red packet. That is what our Chinese culture been doing for thousands and thousands of year .”