For 19 years, the annual Auckland Lantern Festival has lit up the city — first at Albert Park, and now the Auckland Domain.

But for Jennifer King, who as Asia New Zealand Foundation's culture director has played a key role in bringing the festival to New Zealand, it will be a bittersweet moment when the event comes to a close on Sunday.

Having been involved since its inception in 2000, this will be the last time King will play any part in the event before retiring.

"Three things stand out in my memory - hugging Barbara Strong-MacKinnon, the council organiser, at the end of the very first festival. She and I had worked so hard to make it happen," King said.


"The second is seeing a middle-aged Chinese man in a sharp suit standing by the amazing lion puppet show ... his whole face softened as he watched as if he were being transported back to his childhood."

The third was meeting Shen Xin, a lady who was part of a visiting delegation from Zhejiang in 1999, who revealed Zhejiang-made lanterns and whose presence marked the start of a partnership that continues to this day.

King is fondly referred to by colleagues as the "Mother of Lanterns".

King never imagined a festival that started as a showcase of second-hand lanterns from Singapore would grow to become New Zealand's largest cultural festival.

With more than 200,000 visitors each year, the festival is today the biggest celebration of Chinese culture in the country.

More than 800 lanterns, mostly made in Zigong, are delivered to the festival site in 20 shipping containers.

"I saw my first lantern festival in the park next to the Forbidden City in Beijing back in 1987 ... the whole thing was magical," King said.

"So when a potential sponsor suggested that the foundation come up with an idea for a Chinese festival, my mother reminded me about the lantern festival I'd raved about in letters home."


Today the festival is run in partnership with the Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED).

The event, to be officially opened on Thursday night, will mark the closing of the Year of the Dog Chinese New Year celebrations.

From Friday to Sunday, the festival will feature local and international performers, street food stalls, art and craft displays and demonstrations and roaming entertainers.

Headlining the international performers is Lao Qiang, a group from China's Shaanxi province that plays "ancient Chinese rock 'n' roll" or "old tune" music.

Other performers from China include a shadow puppet troupe, a saxophonist, throat-singing or khoomei artist and the Xingguang Acrobatic Troupe.

"I will miss travelling to China and negotiating performers and lanterns for the festival with all the partners we have built there over the years," King said.


The sense of nostalgia for the old traditional folk customs was what festival organisers had tried to capture, she said.

King described her time running the festival as a "humbling experience".

"I remember standing in Albert Park around midnight at the end of the first festival 19 years ago knowing that something very special had just happened," she said.

It was the Year of the Dragon, the park was packed and everyone had a smile on their faces.

"I knew we had struck a chord in people's hearts. It was an event waiting to happen. It felt like opening a door and watching people come pouring through."