The first day of this year's Lantern Festival is also Valentine's Day, making it a perfect time to celebrate love and friendship between communities

Chinese business student Wen Ching will be among the tens of thousands of Aucklanders who will be starting their weekend of love and romance at Albert Park.

The 21-year-old, who hails from China's Heilongjiang province, is thrilled to get a chance to celebrate Valentine's Day with her New Zealand boyfriend on a date the Chinese also consider a day for love.

For the first time since 1995, Valentine's Day will fall on the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, or "Yuan Xiao Jie" - a day commonly also known as the Chinese Valentine's Day.

It is also the day when the lantern festival is celebrated to mark the close of the Chinese New Year festivities on the first full moon of the lunar year.

Fans attending the annual Auckland Lantern Festival, the NRL Auckland Nines and rapper Eminem's concert are well assured that ATEED and its major stakeholders are well prepared for a smooth running, fun filled, weekend ahead. NZ Police Inspector Gavin MacDonald wants to remind people that there will be no-tolerance for public alcohol consumption and people who are clearly intoxicated will be refused entry.

"This is our first Valentine's together, and it will be so romantic to experience how both our cultures celebrate our special day of love," Miss Ching said. "We are so fortunate that Auckland also celebrates the lantern festival in such a big way."

In the past, young Chinese would go out with lanterns on the day of the festival in the hope of finding love, hence why it is known as the Chinese Valentine's Day.

Manying Ip, professor of Asian studies at the University of Auckland, said many Chinese still considered the lantern festival to be the most romantic time of the year.

"The lantern is considered a symbol of love and romance and Chinese romantic novels and poems often refer to them," Professor Ip said. "These days people do not go out on lantern festival day to find a spouse, but it is still a big day for love."

David Soh, editor of Mandarin Pages, an Auckland-based Chinese language newspaper, said it was a day when Chinese people went out to celebrate.

"Chinese restaurants will be packed, not just with dating couples but also families celebrating the 15th day," Mr Soh said. "During Chinese New Year people gather twice for reunion dinners, once on the eve and the second again on the day of the lantern festival."

Once celebrated only within families, the Asia New Zealand Foundation transformed the festival into very much a public event in 2000 when the first Auckland Lantern Festival was held. Since then it has expanded to become a four-day affair attended by tens of thousands, including a high number of non-Asians.

Foundation chair Philip Burdon described the festival as the "largest expression of friendship" between Auckland and the Chinese community.


"We have been involved in the festival since the very first event, and it is wonderful to look out at the audience on opening night and see how much it is embraced by all cultures in Auckland," Mr Burdon said.

The first festival was pieced together using second-hand lanterns from the Jurong Gardens in Singapore, and half didn't light up on the night because the generator broke down.

New lanterns have been added each year, and this year's festival will see more than 800 lanterns displayed - enough to fill more than 20 shipping containers - ranging from lanterns depicting elements of Chinese culture and life in China, to horse lanterns, depicting the Chinese zodiac sign for the year.

Foundation culture director Jennifer King said festivals in Asia now have a commercial focus, and the lantern festival here aimed to be "quite a nostalgic event".

There will be lanterns that represent symbols of good luck such as peonies, ducks and goldfish, ones that show rural farming scenes, and a depiction of a hutong, or narrow alley in Beijing, complete with a grandmother and a child and old men playing chess outdoors.

"I wanted our lanterns to say something about the lovely old traditions of the spring festival [Chinese New Year] in China," Ms King said. "We install our own lanterns and also can't afford to replace our lanterns every year, so we end up keeping the lanterns for much longer than was ever intended."

For the first time, the festival this year will be held at Queens Wharf as well as Albert Park from tonight until Sunday. Queens Wharf will host outdoor movies, children's activities and a sand painting performance group from Hong Kong from 2pm each day.

At Albert Park, a popular Chinese rock band, a drumming troupe performing ancient war drums and an all-girl band playing "silk and bamboo music" will be among the international headline acts to perform.

Brett O'Riley, Ateed chief executive, said the festival has become "one of the biggest and most popular cultural events" in the city, and celebrates the region's vibrant ethnic diversity.

"By expanding the festival to two stunning locations, we can showcase the many sides of this diverse culture," Mr O'Riley said.

The festival will close on Sunday with fireworks from the Sky Tower.

The Lantern Festival

• Celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month
• Marks the end of Chinese New Year celebrations
• Also known as the Chinese Valentine's Day, Yuan Xiao Jie or Chap Goh Meh
• Lanterns are hung out, games are played
• Tangyuan, a sweet glutinous rice ball, is eaten for good luck
• Young hit the streets with lanterns to find love, and matchmakers pair couples

Auckland Lantern Festival
(Tonight until Sunday - Albert Park, Queens Wharf, SkyCity)

• Free annual festival with display lanterns, stage performances and street food
• Starts tonight, with a "lantern only" evening
• Queens Wharf: Outdoor movies, children's activities, sand painting demonstrations
• Albert Park: Lanterns, food, firecrackers, as well as rock band, drumming and silk bamboo music performances
• Sky Tower: Lion dance, acrobats and fireworks on Sunday

Festival by numbers

• 800 - number of lanterns
• 500 - performers
• 100 - food and craft stalls
• 100,000+ - estimated visitors over four days