Across Auckland, dances, fireworks and feasts will usher in the Year of the Monkey. Lincoln Tan looks at a festival being welcomed to the cultural landscape.

A platter of pineapple, bananas and mandarins with a "hong bao" (red envelope) will be served when the Wongs meet for dinner on Sunday.

Monday marks the start of the Chinese Lunar New Year, a festival with many myths and traditions.

Among them, the New Year's Eve reunion dinner, or "Nian Ye Fan" - where foods like fish, specialty meats, dumplings and black, hair-like algae call "fat choy" are usually eaten - is considered most important.

"We consider the reunion dinner to be the most important meal of the year, a time when three generations of our family come together," said Glendene mother Karen Wong, 45, an immigrant from Malaysia.


The fruit platter, she explained, was a family tradition passed down for generations.

Mrs Wong believes that during the festival, eating certain foods based on their names or appearances brings good luck.

"Pineapple, when pronounced in Cantonese, sounds like prosperity arrives, a banana bunch looks similar to Buddha's fingers and mandarins represent gold," she explains.

"In the red packet, there will always be $11 inside, because when you have 10 plus one, the plus one means we will have in excess, and an abundance of good things throughout the year."

Fish is a must because the Chinese word for fish sounds like surplus, so it is believed that eating fish will bring a surplus of wealth and luck.

Being five hours ahead of Asia, New Zealanders will be among the first in the world to usher in the Year of the Monkey.

Known as Tet to the Vietnamese and Seollal to South Koreans, the Lunar New Year is celebrated by many other Asian cultures as well.

In Auckland, the Lunar New Year will be welcomed with prayer, firecrackers, lion dancing and a skyjumping God of Fortune.

Mrs Wong first came to the city as a student in 1988 and decided to settle permanently five years ago with her husband, Vincent, now 53, and children Matthew, 17, and Chloe, 7.

Her parents and sister, who also live in Auckland, will be at Sunday's reunion dinner.

Mrs Wong said Chinese New Year was the one time in the year that reminded her of the importance of her culture.

"The public celebrations, like the lantern festival, show an acceptance in Auckland of what multiculturalism is all about," she said.

"On a personal level, wearing my Chinese costumes, keeping the traditions, Chinese New Year reminds me of my culture and makes me feel important about my culture."

Auckland lawyer Arthur Loo, a locally born Chinese, recalled that Chinese New Year celebrations used to be nonexistent in New Zealand.

"We didn't celebrate so much as a child. The Chinese population in Auckland was so small so any celebration was within the family."

Now, about 175,000 Chinese call New Zealand home.

University of Auckland Professor of Asian Studies Manying Ip said Chinese New Year had become part of New Zealand's cultural landscape.

"Celebrations have gone from what was just something that happened privately within homes to public spaces, with huge participation from non-Asians," said Professor Ip, who is also a trustee of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

"The Lantern Festival, for example, provides a window to the Chinese culture and the festival, and is one example of how the Chinese New Year experience is being shared today."

Chinese New Year fairs and festivals now take place in venues across Auckland, from the ASB Showgrounds in Greenlane to Vodafone Events Centre in Manukau and to suburbs including Northcote, Whau, Parnell and Remuera.

Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley said the public Chinese New Year events were important in helping migrants settle in Auckland and sent two messages.

"That you, immigrants, are welcome and the festivals recognise that your culture is important, and they provide something which is familiar.

"Festivals are one of those moments that all New Zealanders, new and old, can come together to celebrate and share.

"The Lantern Festival has become one of Auckland's most important annual events and the participation levels continue to grow, including from non-Chinese communities."

Massey University China specialist Henry Chung said Lunar New Year was regarded as the most important Chinese festival.

"It is traditionally a time to be with family and reunions, and a time when the entire year is assessed and plans for the future year are made," Dr Chung said.

On New Year's Eve, devotees will head to Fo Guang Shan temple for a dharma function to offer prayers.

According to some astrologers and feng shui experts, the new year will be volatile, with more transport accidents and spread of airborne diseases.

Danny Thorne, of Fengshui Consultants New Zealand, is predicting the Year of the Monkey to be "a year of disharmony".

In the central city, firecrackers and lion dancing at SkyCity will start festivities with a bang.

The God of Fortune, one of the festival's key characters, will descend from the Sky Tower and present guests with hong bao.

"There's considerably more awareness of Chinese New Year and how it is celebrated ... and there is a growing expectation for different communities to hold Chinese New Year celebrations," said Vivien Bridgewater, general manager destination Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development.

She said Ateed worked closely with various community and business organisations to ensure their celebrations, like the Lantern Festival, were as authentic as possible.

For the first time this year, the Lantern Festival - which traditionally marks the end of Chinese New Year celebrations - will be held at the Auckland Domain instead of Albert Park.

8 Ways you can celebrate the festival in Auckland

1. Organise a reunion dinner

Chinese New Year is a time to be with family and close friends. Gather your mates and loved ones, head out to a Chinese restaurants and order dishes that will bring you luck for the coming year, such as fish, prawns, noodles and dumplings. If unsure, find a restaurant that has Chinese New Year festive set meals.

2. SkyCity firecrackers, God of Fortune skyjump

Firecrackers, lion dance and acrobats, believed to ward off evil spirits and ensure a prosperous year, kick off celebrations this Sunday, February 7 at 7pm. New Year's Day, Monday February 8, is the biggest celebration. The auspicious "eye-dotting ceremony" will be at 7pm followed by the descent from the Sky Tower of a Chinese God of Fortune character. Have your name written by a Chinese calligrapher for free.

3. Auckland Lantern Festival

The very popular Auckland Lantern Festival returns, but this time at a different location. More than 800 handmade Chinese lanterns, including new monkey lanterns, will feature at the festival's new Auckland Domain location. Enjoy the visual feast, soak in the atmosphere and watch performers from New Zealand and China, martial arts displays and a fireworks finale. The festival runs from Thursday February 18 to Sunday 21.

4. Predictions and feng shui for the Year of the Monkey

Find out about your Chinese zodiac and what's in store for you in the coming lunar year. Danny Thorn, an experienced and sought-after feng shui consultant will speak about "The Chinese Calendar and the Year of the Metal Monkey" at the Blockhouse Bay Library on Tuesday February 16 at 11am.

5. Have a 'lo hei'

Sample very special raw fish dish that is considered a must-have for Chinese New Year by some in New Zealand. Yusheng, also known as lo hei or prosperity toss, is a kaleidoscopic sweet-and-savoury dish consisting of raw fish mixed with shredded vegetables and a variety of sauces and condiments. Before eating, diners at the table will stand and toss the ingredients in the air with chopsticks, while shouting auspicious wishes.

6. Parnell Monkey Exhibition

An exciting exhibition will showcase 30 life-sized monkey art pieces over two weeks. Led by Parnell galleries, well-known artists and celebrities add their creative touch to these sculptures. It will conclude with an auction for the Starship Foundation at Webb's auction house. Saturday February 6 to Sunday 21, 46-545 Parnell Rd.

7. Chinese New Year in the suburbs

Neighbourhood celebrations are usually smaller but can be just as fun. The Northcote Chinese and Korean New Year Fest takes place on February 12 and 13, Remuera's party is on the evening of February 12 and Whau will be holding its second Chinese New Year festival and fireworks on Sunday February 14. Over in Parnell, lion dancers will perform at Heard Park on February 13 at 12.30pm and 2.30pm.

8. Go to the library

Head to the library and learn to make your own lucky dumplings and noodles. Watch gu zheng and cultural performances, tai chi demonstrations and take part in Lunar New Year gala events.

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