It started 20 years ago as a one-night showcase of second-hand lanterns brought in from Singapore at Albert Park.

Now, the Auckland Lantern Festival has grown into a four-day event, becoming the country's largest cultural festival.

The 2019 festival kicks off this evening at the Auckland Domain, and will feature more than 800 unique lanterns, including a new Year of the Pig lantern.

There'll also be about 100 food stalls and a "traveller's avenue" to commemorate the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism.

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"The festival's 20-year reign really does speak volumes," said Stuart Turner, head of major events at Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development (ATEED).

"Its enormous popularity has dictated the festival duration, venue changes, and range of performances and attractions over the years."

Turner said unique performances, music, food and lantern displays meant "there's something for everyone".

Jennifer King, from Asia New Zealand Foundation, helps organise the annual Auckland Lantern Festival in Albert Park for Chinese New Year.
Jennifer King, from Asia New Zealand Foundation, helps organise the annual Auckland Lantern Festival in Albert Park for Chinese New Year.

Jennifer King, a former culture programme director for Asia NZ Foundation, has worked on every festival since its inception until last year.

She recalls the modest beginnings in 2000, which featured 300 second-hand lanterns imported from Jurong Gardens in Singapore and half didn't light up because the generator broke down.

But despite the hiccup, King said the festival was a much bigger success than anticipated.

"I remember standing near the Albert Park fountain with a broom at about 1am, when everyone had left, knowing in my bones that something quite special had just happened," she said.

First night of the Lantern Festival at the Auckland Domain. Photo / Nick Reed
First night of the Lantern Festival at the Auckland Domain. Photo / Nick Reed

About 40,000 people came that night which prompted the police to ask the event organisers to stop using Albert Park again because the central city became blocked with traffic.

But the organisers got around it by turning the festival into a three-day event to ease congestion of both the crowds and traffic.

More lanterns - made in China's Sichuan province, where the lantern festival was said to have originated - were added on over the years, depicting elements of Chinese culture including goldfish, dragons, good luck peonies and scenes of traditional life.

By it's 10th anniversary, the festival was drawing about 150,000 people and had become an iconic feature for Auckland.

In 2016, the festival finally outgrew Albert Park and moved to the Auckland Domain, where it has been held since.

Now 20, more than 200,000 people are expected to attend the festival this year.

King said she was not surprised to see the festival reach this milestone.

"The lantern festival has lasted generations in China for the simple reason that it is a very beautiful event which appeals to all ages," she said.

"Now Aucklanders have made it their own."

King, now retired, added that she was looking forward to attend the event for the first time as a member of the public.

Over the past two decades, about 800 performers have come from all over China to take part in the festival, along with thousands from around New Zealand.

These included Chinese rock bands, reggae acts, traditional puppet shows and tea ceremonies.

Lion dance troupes from Singapore had also taken part in earlier festivals.

The Macang Dance Company, based in Parnell, have performed at the festival every year since 2001.

Macang dancers have been performing at the festival since 2001. Photo / File
Macang dancers have been performing at the festival since 2001. Photo / File

"Auckland Lantern Festival is an event that brings all of us together despite our differences, " said Macang director Stephanie Lin.

"We see ourselves as 'founding members'...we will continue to support this great event for the years to come."

Eric Ngan, festival producer, said this year's event was "doubly special" as it also coincided with Auckland's 30th anniversary with Guangzhou as its sister city.

The traveller's avenue at this year's event will feature a 7-metre lantern of a China Southern Airline plane in the Guangzhou skyline.

Teen artist Noon Seeto with her painted pig art for the Year of the Pig auction to raise money for starship. Noon's sister was diagnosed with cancer when she was 6 years old.
Teen artist Noon Seeto with her painted pig art for the Year of the Pig auction to raise money for starship. Noon's sister was diagnosed with cancer when she was 6 years old.

Little pig sculptures, 22 of them, are being displayed throughout various Parnell galleries, stores and retail shops until Feb 22 as part of Parnell Business Association's charity auction.

Vector Lights is presenting a new light show for this year's celebrations, with animations being beamed onto the Harbour Bridge from 8.30pm to midnight for the duration of the festival.

There's also a competition to name a panda lantern that's been commissioned from China for the festival by the Hits radio station.

Visitors can either name the panda at the festival or enter via www.thehits.co.nz website. The best name chosen will win $500 cash, and announced on the station on Monday morning.

The lantern festival, which dates back to the Western Han Dynasty, is traditionally celebrated to mark the end of the 15-day Chinese New Year celebration.

It is also often regarded as the Chinese Valentines Day, which takes a special significance at this year's festival in Auckland which is holding a lantern only evening on Valentine's Day tonight.

AUCKLAND LANTERN FESTIVAL TURNS 20

When:

Tonight until Sunday, Feb 17

Where:

Auckland Domain, Domain Dr, Grafton, Auckland

For more details:

aucklandnz.com/lantern

• First held in 2000 in the Year of the Dragon, and opened by then PM Helen Clark.

• Helen Clark was nearly hit by a huge lantern pole that was precariously balanced on the chin of a visiting Singaporean lion dancer.

• Lanterns now mainly come from Zigong in China's Sichuan province and fill 20 containers.

• 40,000 came for the first festival, about 200,000 are expected this year.

• Visitors to festival are mainly female, who make up 63 per cent.

• Around 800 performers have come from China to take part in the festival over the past 20 years.