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Happy new year! (Images: Getty)
Happy new year! (Images: Getty)

SocietyJanuary 20, 2023

Gung hei fat choi! Eight ways to celebrate Lunar New Year without being a dickhead

Happy new year! (Images: Getty)
Happy new year! (Images: Getty)

The Lunar New Year is this Sunday, January 22, the first day of the year of the rabbit. Ruth Oy Har Agnew has some tips for marking the occasion in a fun but respectful way.

Chinese New Year has always been an important celebration in my NZ Chinese Pākehā family, and I’ve enjoyed the growth in events such as lantern festivals and noodle markets that allow the wider community to join in the fun. But while increased cultural awareness and embracing of Asian traditions is a positive, it remains a fact that anti-Asian attitudes are still prevalent among many New Zealanders. So how does a “spray and walk away” society celebrate Lunar New Year without leaning toward offensive stereotypes? Here are eight handy tips for welcoming the year of the rabbit without getting caught in any traps.

But before we start, a note about names. In China, Spring Festival celebrates the arrival of the new year, and has commonly been referred to as Chinese New Year outside of East Asia. It falls in January or February, and marks the beginning of a new zodiac cycle, with each year of the 12 year cycle represented by an animal. Last year was the tiger’s year, and we are about to enter the year of the rabbit. However, it’s not just China which celebrates the new year – roughly 56 ethnic groups throughout Asia traditionally have a Lunar New Year celebration. For this reason “Lunar New Year” is now more commonly used, as it is inclusive of non-Chinese New Year revellers.

Tip 1: Wear red (but no coolie hats with plaits attached please). Growing up, my mother dressed us in new clothes for new year – usually red, and never white or black. Relatedly, don’t wear Asian culture as a costume: yellow-face is never acceptable, and anything relying on or reinforcing stereotypes is, quite simply, racist. If you’re still puzzled why buck-toothed, ochre-faced caricatures aren’t acceptable at your local Chinese Association event, do some research into New Zealand’s institutional racism and history of anti-Chinese legislation. The persistent preconceptions about Asian people are genuinely hurting us, leading to a number of real-world harms including many in our communities receiving inadequate healthcare.

You’ll have plenty of time to read up on this if you stay awake all night watching the rabbit leap into the tiger’s place for its turn at the top of the zodiac table; we stay up all Lunar New Year’s Eve, to chase away demons and ensure our parents longevity and good health in the upcoming months.

Actual photo of me after staying awake all night last Lunar New Year’s Eve to ensure my parents’ good health. Both matriarch and patriarch survived and thrived throughout the year of the tiger, so my devoted-daughter duties were successful.

Tip 2: Don’t assume anything vaguely Chinese can be repurposed as Chinese New Year decoration; Ching Ming funeral papers for example, would be very offensive. Another misconception is that stereotypes with positive connotations aren’t offensive. Sorry, this isn’t the occasion to crank up Monty Python’s ‘I Like Chinese’, because pigeon-holing of ethnic attributes always reduces real people to inaccurate homogeneous tropes.

This is a paper cutting depicting a rabbit, which would be an appropriate New Year 2023 decoration. (Getty Images)
This is jos paper, used in funeral and Ching Ming ceremonies, not celebrating the start of a new zodiac season.

Tip 3: Use a greeting appropriate to the person you are addressing. My family says “Gung hei fat choi” because my mother’s mother-tongue is Cantonese, while Mandarin-speaking Chinese say “Gong xi fa cai”. Also, be aware of what the expectations are around the greeting you use – you may inadvertently invite a response like “Hong bao na lai”, Cantonese for “Please may I have my red envelope”. Red envelopes (lai see in Cantonese) are gifts of money. It’s not cheeky for youngsters to hold their hands out for red-wrapped cold hard cash at this time of year; it’s so widely accepted that some Mandarin or Cantonese teenagers use a humorous phrase that translates to “Happy new year, now give me my red envelope and it better have more than a dollar in it”.

Also keep in mind that the Aotearoa Asian diaspora is vastly diverse, with many languages, so try not to greet your Vietnamese neighbour with a Korean greeting (Vietnamese usually say “Chúc mừng Năm Mới” while a common Korean New Year salutation is “Saehae bok mani badeuseyo”).

Tip 4: Do your research but don’t Asiansplain someone’s culture to them. Asian New Zealanders are a complex group of communities, and our cultural experience may differ from what your google search suggests. To better understand the diversity of Asian experiences in this country, talk to your children about Lunar New Year, read books, watch YouTube videos, go to community events. Educators and parents may find this homegrown educational resource explaining Chinese New Year by poet laureate Chris Tse valuable for classroom and home use.

Tip 5: Eat yum cha – shout out to my favourite, Maxine’s Palace in Ōtautahi – or do as my family does and eat long noodles to signify long life. And remember to always boycott restaurants with racist names and branding.

Tip 6: Attend a Lunar New Year celebration event in your area. Not all events featuring dumplings and dragon dancers are created equal, so opt for events organised with respect for traditional and cultural values by people who have the appropriate backgrounds and knowledge to educate others. Don’t support businesses slapping a double happy character above their logo announcing a Chinese New Year sale; our culture is not your excuse for a discounted toaster.

A dragon in the Ōtakaro (Avon) at the Ōtautahi Lantern Festival 2014 (Photo: Ruth Oy Har Agnew)

Tip 7: Think before you speak. New Zealand has experienced a resurgence in anti-Asian prejudice since the start of the pandemic, a depressing callback to the legislative and institutionalised racism that has been part of New Zealand’s history from the very beginning. A reminder: Chinese immigrants had to pay a poll tax to enter New Zealand from the 1890s through to the 1940s, making China the only country of origin to incur such a levy; groups such as The Anti-Asian League were formed to fight the “Yellow Peril” in the early 1990s and in 1905, Joe Kum Yung was murdered in a Wellington St by Lionel Terry, a Pākehā man who wanted to eradicate Asian immigration. Acknowledging Aotearoa’s ugly history of acts of Asian-focused hatred isn’t easy but ignoring them can lead to white-washing history.

This Lunar New Year, don’t use Chinese-related topics to segue into something you heard on a podcast or read on Facebook about Covid. The anti-Asian sentiment stirred up by clickbait headlines and pandemic panic is perpetuated by off-colour humour and racist comments, and they definitely do not belong at a celebratory event.

Tip 8: Support an Asian artist in Aotearoa to kick off the New Year. Watch a Roseanne Liang film, stream Flat 3’s Creamerie, listen to Chye-Ling Huang and James Roque’s podcast, buy tickets to a Proudly Asian Theatre Company show, or watch Nathan Joe’s short film Homecoming Poems.

So enjoy the final days of the tiger’s reign, and leap into the year of rabbit with good health and prosperity. Oma rapiti, gung hei fat choi, and have a happy, non-racist new year.

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