Lunar New Year is determined by the new lunar calendar, and while it can be referred to as Chinese New Year, is actually celebrated by various communities across Asia.
In 2020 it’s the Year of the Rat, signifying the re-starting of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals.
The animals of the Chinese zodiac rotate on a 12-year cycle, beginning with the Rat and ending with the Pig. These animals also rotate through the five elements — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — creating a 60-year cycle. The animal and environment elements are the two components that determine the dominant character traits of people born in any given year.
Many communities celebrate Lunar New Year with lion dances to repel bad spirits, the giving of red packets to symbolise good fortune, and family feasts that often feature specific foods such as dumplings, mandarins and lychee.
This year Lunar New Year falls on January 25, though festivities continue for many days.
Here’s what Lunar New Year means to 10 Asian Australians.
Benjamin Law - Writer
“Lunar New Year – or Chinese New Year to us – has always been about family. It’s perhaps my folks’ cultural equivalent of Thanksgiving, a time to reset, reconnect with the ones who matter, and then eat until you feel like you’re going to explode. Oh, and lae-si: Cantonese for lucky red packet money.
“Growing up, it was a given that we’d have a big family meal. As kids, it was my grandma (Ma Ma) on cooking duties: steamed fish with ginger and spring onion; deep-fried dumplings filled with sweet red-bean paste.
“Nowadays Ma Ma is over 90 and definitely off-cooking duties and the families live across different states. So it’s a good effort if you can simply make it back for the weekend for a yum cha.”
Melissa Leong - MasterChef Australia Judge
“The Lunar New Year means celebration, reunion and reflection; an opportunity to reconnect with our family and friends and celebrate the diverse range of cultures that celebrate this significant date. We set our sights on inviting prosperity and good things for the year ahead, and of course, lots and LOTS of delicious food!
“It always starts with reunion dinner on the eve of the Lunar New Year. An open invitation to family and friends to share an abundance of delicious food, catch up and wish each other well.
“Over the years, our family has spread out around the country and the world, so it is not always possible to get together. No matter who we are with though, we always find a way to share food and spend time with the people who are important to us. To be present and to honour this time of the year continues to be a point of pride for me. I especially love the symbolism of Lunar New Year foods: noodles for long life, fish for abundance, dumplings for prosperity… everything has meaning and it’s about sharing generosity and kindness to all who cross your path.”
Remy Hii - Actor
“Growing up, the Lunar New Year was always a special time for me. It meant going home to Malaysian Borneo and seeing my grandfather and extended family.
“It meant more noodles and char siu bao than I could stuff into my little belly. It meant learning the traditions and customs and being able to reconnect to my Asian-ness after spending a year in a very white neighbourhood. And most of all it meant Angpau!
“These days a lot has changed, my family is scattered over the world and those reunions are less and less common. Nobody gives me angpau any more, but it’s still a chance for me to reflect on how lucky I am to be where I am and how proud I am of both my cultures.”
Angela Liu - Influencer
“My perception of Lunar New Year is a mark of new beginnings and a reminder of the importance of family. We start the new year with the right people and right mindset!
“We celebrated Lunar New Year with extended family every Lunar New Year but I never understood the importance of the tradition. To me it was a time of year I would receive an exorbitant amount of money (for a 10-year-old!) and it felt like a second Christmas.
“This is the first year I’ll celebrate Lunar New Year as part of a married couple and it’s very different on the other side! We’ve been calculating how many children we’ll encounter across the New Year period and there’s a feeling of wanting to encourage their growth and happiness. Our parents used to encourage us through these Chinese traditions and now it’s flipped - we’re looking after them and the younger generation!”
Derek Lau - MasterChef Australia Contestant
“For me, Lunar New Year means FOOD! Nah I’m only kidding, for me LNY is a chance for family to get together and celebrate together to bring in the year (in this case) of the Rat. It is a chance to go and see some of the older family members that you may not have had the chance to at other times of the year, and if you have had people that have passed, a chance to go and pay your respects.
“I quite enjoy going to Asia for LNY, and I absolutely love seeing all of the decorations in Chinatown. And of course, me being me, I also love to eat all of the different dishes that are usually only brought out during Chinese New Year. One particular one is Lo Hei which is the act of tossing (for prosperity) a number of different vegetables, condiments and fish. That of course with all of the other food which has different meanings makes for quite an enjoyable time at LNY. I usually have to go on a diet afterwards.
“We did celebrate LNY growing up. There is a stigma associated in that LNY means as a child it’s all about the red packet, however in our case mum and dad would make it more about the food and the time spent together rather than the money. I think the actual meaning of LNY can get lost when people start to think that is the only reason you are celebrating. We’ve always made it about the time spent, rather than the money received.
“Growing up, it was just my immediate family in Perth so we would celebrate at home, with a meal cooked by mum. Nowadays, my elder brothers all have kids, so it becomes about them and less about us. I’m quite excited (and I literally just booked flights), to head up to Singapore this weekend and to spend some time with my nieces for LNY.
“It is a bit different now in that we are slightly all spread around the world, so it makes it hard to see everyone at once.”
Ping Sheng - Optical Assistant
“To me, Lunar New Year is the Chinese celebration of the new year. It usually happens late Jan/early Feb and I distinctly remember my childhood being dotted with red pockets and a delicious sum of money being delivered to my hands.
“Growing up, my grandmother would ask us (brother, sister and I) to help her bring our coffee table to the backyard door. We would help with the set up of mangoes, mandarins and other offerings. At the end of the table, there were incense sticks lined up - smoke wafting out. Everyone in the family took turns praying.
“It is only now, after a recent chat with my mother, that I understand why we did that. It was an act to remember our ancestors - to pray for them to protect us, and give us good health and luck. Nowadays, it’s different. I’ve moved out of home, so it’s a little harder to practice. We’ve simplified our celebrations to family dinners and thankfully, I still get a red pocket.”
Andy Trieu - Television Presenter, SBS PopAsia
“I get excited over everybody getting excited during Lunar New year. It’s a time where I clean up, throw stuff out, add new things , reset - mainly because my parents said if I don’t my life will be a mess for the rest of the year.
″[Growing up] I would go to the local temple in Canberra where it’s super crowded to watch the Lion Dancing and martial arts performances. When I was old enough to be involved in the activities, I ended up performing the lion dances every year so this period was extremely busy with training and performances. Nowadays I do the occasional martial art performances and just eat the food.”
Kim Dao - Account Manager
“Lunar New Year to me is all about family. Everyone in my extended family is super busy, so getting a few days to spend together and eat to our hearts’ content is a miracle.
“When I was younger, Lunar New Year was a bigger deal than it is now that we all work full time and have different commitments. When I was younger, we would wake up every morning and greet our parents, wish them a prosperous new year and in return, receive a ‘red pocket’ with $20/$50 (depending on how generous my parents were feeling that year).
“We would then spend the day driving around to relatives’ houses, fill up on tea and snacks and wish them all a happy new year as well.
“Nowadays it’s a bit more casual. We just all gather at someone’s house for a fun lunch. Being 25, I’m at that limbo age where I’m too old to get “red pockets” but too young to start giving it away so I’m just hanging on the sidelines and enjoying all the food and company for now.”
Grace Koh - Television Presenter
“Lunar New Year for me is about family time. It’s a time to celebrate with food and colour and catch up with relatives in Singapore, but growing up in Australia made it difficult to connect to them. Every now and then, Mum would bring me to Singapore for Lunar New Year and it was so much fun being with all of my extended family.
″[Growing up], Lunar New Year was never a huge deal for us. Most of the time when I was living at home, it would mean hot pot dinner, which was the BEST. It was cool when we’d visit relatives overseas because I’d rake in all the red packets and we’d all make cookies and celebrate over food. But I don’t think we had any specific traditions or anything like that.
“I live away from home now so I don’t really get to celebrate with my family anymore, but I’ll still smash a whole box of pineapple tarts by myself.”
Victor Liong - Chef, Chuuka Sydney
“Lunar New Year is a significant time of the year to spend quality with family. It’s also a time of prosperity, tradition and celebrations with family and close friends - and at the Liong household we always celebrate with a range of dishes.
“For me, food plays a central role, and a big part of Lunar New year is to eat luxurious, auspicious items and symbolic dishes such as a whole steamed fish to signify good fortune, noodles for a long life and fried wontons to signify eating gold.
“It is a very special time for my family. Growing up we used to always eat at least one Prosperity Salad every Lunar New Year. The dish has origins in South China and in many migrant communities in South East Asia - especially in Singapore and Malaysia, where I spent my early childhood. This is a continued tradition for our family and one of the main reasons why we’ve brought it to CHUUKA this Lunar New Year and is a vibrant addition to the dinner table and a way to share a little of my traditions with our diners.”