“… So I suggested we have a lantern festival and everyone was keen.”
Well then. How simplistic could the beginnings of one of Auckland’s biggest festivals possibly be?
Jennifer King, newly retired events coordinator for the Asia New Zealand Foundation, brought the Lantern Festival to Auckland in search of a festival celebrating Chinese heritage.
The inception of the festival was in 2000. For one night, the people of Auckland strolled in to Albert Park to view lanterns and displays, telling tales of Chinese folklore and sharing a bit of their rich history. The festival has since moved to the much bigger Auckland Domain park, where the displays now stay bright for four nights instead of one.
I was fortunate enough to experience my first lantern festival with my roommate Chan Tsz Yuet, and her friends from Hong Kong. Getting to see their reactions and excitement for the festival was my 最中意嘅部分 ("favourite part" in Cantonese).
When you walk into the Domain, it isn’t long until you see the lanterns illuminating the trees and faces of the gleeful visitors.
Not even three metres in, I heard Winnie, who is from Hong Kong say, “[this is] better than my imagination. I’m going to cry.”
“I think that’s because Auckland is one of the world’s most diverse cities,” Jennifer explained. “It’s very important that everybody has the chance to share their culture and that everyone feels comfortable with other people's cultures.”
My other friend Laura is from Switzerland, and I’ve never seen someone more ecstatic to see lights. One could say she was shining brighter than the lanterns themselves, but that could’ve just been the constant stream of flashes from all the pictures she took of herself.
“I didn’t expect it to be this beautiful,” she said wondrously, moving one foot after the next, relishing in the exhibits.
The festival contains much more than just lantern displays. There are also food carts, contests, and live performances. Some of the artists at the festival were brought by the Asia New Zealand Foundation from China for authentic performances.
These artists featured many Chinese traditions such as Chinese folk and rock music, the Shanghai Xingguang Acrobatic Troupe, shadow puppets, throat singing, and more.
Jennifer explained the importance of having authentic acts: “[p]eople actually learn a lot from coming... Each year we have brought performers from China. It‘s good because it gives people a chance to see something they wouldn’t normally be able to.”
I can guarantee you that even without the performers, you’d still be seeing things that you haven’t seen before. For example, as we walked through the displays of the animals of the year, Sandra, one of my Hong Kong friends, pointed at me and yelled, “cow!” repeatedly because I was born in 1997 (the year of the Ox).
Never has someone jabbed their finger in my direction, looked at me, and shouted, “cow!”. Firsts for everyone.
Underneath many of the displays, including the animal-of-the-year lanterns, is a short blurb about the exhibit, explaining its history and meaning. These blurbs were provided by a New Zealand real estate firm.
Harcourts New Zealand is one of the top partners supporting the event. This being their first time sponsoring the festival, Chris Kennedy, the company’s CEO, explained the importance of the event for not only their company, but for the city of Auckland.
“This festival a vibrant, joyful celebration that attracts tens of thousands of people from many different cultures and walks of life, gathered together to celebrate Chinese culture, but also to celebrate what it means to be a part of the Auckland community,” says Kennedy in an email statement.
“We hope [people have] a fun time because that is really what it’s all about,” he continues. “But we also hope that they [come] away with a new appreciation of celebrating Chinese New Year and how exciting it can be to live in such a multicultural city.”
On my way out of the festival I saw some girls marvelling at displays and asked them what their favourite part of the festival was.
“I love the pretty colours,” says one of the girls. “I think it brings everyone together.”
The Chinese New Year happens between February and March. The lantern festival is on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar. Thanks, lunar calendar.