Lunar New Year: Much more than a Dancing Dragon!
When we think of the Chinese New Year (CNY) images like the famous dancing dragon and night markets with delicious dumplings come to mind. It is a vibrant and noisy event for most of us celebrating in our own way alongside the Chinese community. Behind the trademark dancing dragon and food abundance is one of the most successful East meets West initiatives in the Southern hemisphere and outside China. Emerging from humble beginnings in Sydney in 1996 as a local community event, sponsored by the City of Sydney. The cultural and economic gains of the festival are huge bringing many delegates to participate in the festival. Mixing tradition with food and dance to celebrate has helped entrench the festival into our national culture and psyche.
Once regarded as ‘celestials’, the Chinese community have successfully bridged the cultural divide from once selling produce door to door and enabling them to come face to face with a ‘white public’ paved the way for their community to be seen as less alien. According to Dr Nicola Teffer Museum of Sydney’s curator of Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story
Australia’s first Chinese ancestors became trusted ‘market gardeners, store keepers, cabinet makers, bankers or traders’ With 6.5% of Sydneysiders having Chinese heritage they are not just our merchants anymore but fellow colleagues, neighbours and friends (http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/celestial-city-sydney%E2%80%99s-chinese-story).
CNY is by no doubt rich in tradition and families look forward to it with eagerness not dissimilar to our dominant cultures Christmas. It is a time of renewal for the Chinese community as they seek to gain deeper insights into themselves while joining together with family to celebrate. A midnight mass is common for most families to ask for good fortune, safety for family, continued or gained prosperity and the blessing to receive a long and happy life. Like Christmas, old and young look forward to coming together and red packets are passed to children with money or hidden under the pillow by parents. Special dishes are prepared such as yuanbao, (simply ‘dumplings for those outside the community’)these pay homage to the ancient, ingot-shaped Chinese currency and are believed to increase prosperity (source– 10 Good luck foods for Chinese New Year). Traditional sweets such as oranges, mandarins, lychees and sticky plums are also favoured.
The Demystification of Symbols
What can be hurtful to the Asian community is when these valued traditions are made a mockery of for example when those outside the community ridicule the symbolism. For instance, it may seem ridiculous to some watching a cloth dragon eat lettuce from the red-posted doors. But the lettuce is meant to appease the angry dragon. The firecrackers & extra noise is to scare away the monster ‘Nian’ who runs terror over the Lunar Year. To this day the colour red is believed to ward off evil spirits and bring prosperity – it is also the colour of currency in China and parents continue to place red packets until their child’s pillow to protect them. This year Art Gallery New Sales Wales is helping demystify the symbols used throughout the festival by hosting an ‘Auspicious Symbol Tour’ in English http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/calendar/auspicious-symbols-tour-2015-english/ This year is the wooden sheep – a colleague of Cantonese descent informs me it is a great year for pending nuptials.
Schisms in the Wider Asian Community
In Sydney CNY is not only celebrated by those of Chinese descent and westerners but many other cultures. The festival holds great importance to many in the wider Asian community. So much so that a petition has been drafted in support of an official name change of the event to “Lunar New Year’, citing the disrespectful nature of using the Chinese New Year name while also celebrating the cultures of Thailand, Korea and Vietnam. Anthony Ngo, a Vietnamese man who started the petition, (told SBS)
“If I greet some Chinese man with ‘Hey happy Vietnamese New Year – it’s not right. It’s just like greeting a Vietnamese man with Happy Chinese New Year,”
(source- http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/sydneys-chinese-new-year-festival-celebrates-the-year-of-the-sheep-20150210-138uws.html Sydney’s Chinese New Year Festival celebrates the Year of the Sheep Feb10, 2015), Matt Burgess
The festival continues to attract guests in considerable numbers sometimes reaching tens of thousands. The dragon boat races are becoming an iconic part of the festival, as is the twilight parade and lunar markets; this ‘Year of The Sheep’ giant terracotta warriors lanterns illuminate our skies against the iconic Sydney harbour. Just as meeting for Yum-Cha is a weekend outing for many or popping out for a ‘Thai’ dinner. We are Australasia after all and Asian culture is a big part of us. So, let’s celebrate it.
Charles Price, one of Australia’s most respected demographic experts has already published his projections: “the year 2020 would see some 2.7 million persons of unmixed Asian origin and about 3.9 million persons of part Asian ancestry; a Total Descent figure of 6.6 million persons of whole or part Asian origin; that is, 26.7% of the total Australian population”. In twenty years, a quarter of Australia’s population will be Asian (source-The Future Asian Population in Australia-Ironbarkresources.com). We can estimate that close to 1,749,374 Aussies of Asian descent will reside in Sydney in coming years – the festival can only become bigger and better for us all.
The debate will no doubt continue regarding an official name change. It is apparent some community members do not feel the same sense of social inclusion that those involved in the festival hoped to create. As some of us continue to try to foster a sense of ‘home’ away from home, we can continue to share culture and learn from each other. It seems to me, at least, that Chinese New Year is on its way to becoming a quintessential Australian tradition with a Lunar New year in the making.
What do you think of a name change for the festival?
Would it make a significant difference to you or your family?
Do you have any ideas for better social cohesion for Asians and those outside the culture in Australia? Or do you think we manage cultural assimilation quite well?