Lunar New Year 2020 celebrations in Australia

How Australians celebrate Lunar New Year.

Lunar New Year is about food, family and (joyfully) making a mess. Also called Chinese New Year, it’s celebrated with firecrackers and feasts across the world, in Asian countries and local Chinatowns everywhere. 


When does Lunar New Year take place?

The event revolves around the lunar calendar’s first new moon: so, you’ll start to see lion dancers and reunion dinners take place around late January or during February in Australia. In 2020, we’ll celebrate the Year of the Rat on 25 January. But just as Christmas stretches beyond 25 December, Lunar New Year isn’t confined to one day – or one glorious over-eating session. “You don’t just celebrate it over one dinner with your family,” says Billy Wong, who runs Sydney’s Golden Century and XOPP restaurants. “You’re celebrating with your close family. And then you go out with your colleagues, then your suppliers, business partners. It’s pretty much two weeks when it’s just non-stop going out, eating and having fun.”


Sydney Lantern Festival, Virgin Australia, credit DNSW.png

Sydney Lantern Festival, part of local Lunar New Year celebrations: credit DNSW


Famous Lunar New Year dishes

Lunar New Year runs for 15 days, stretching from the new moon to the first full moon phase. “It’s one of the most festive times during the year,” he says. “But it’s also symbolic if you eat well – that [good luck] leads onto the rest of the year.” People will enthusiastically order lobster, which represents health and energy, or the yee sang prosperity toss (also known as lo hei), a colourful salad that diners interact with. “Everyone grabs the chopsticks, and toss the lo hei salad as high as we can,” Wong says. 

“And when you do toss it high, what it signifies is … wealth,” says Diana Chan, host of SBS’s Asia: Unplated show. The aim is to propel the ingredients as high as possible for greater prosperity. Even if a mess is inevitable afterwards, with salad strips and shreds landing all over the table. 

“It’s certainly the most theatrical dish of the new year,” says Adam Liaw, author of books such as Destination Flavour and Adam Liaw's Asian Cookery School. He’s added his own twist: organising the different colours of the salad to visually depict the zodiac animal of the year. “It’s started a bit of an arms race and now the different Liaw family dinners held around the world all do it as well!” he says. 


Family Lunar New Year traditions

Hetty McKinnon, who wrote the Community and Family cookbooks, credits her mum for educating her in the festive traditions. “My mother would make dishes that are symbolic during new year celebrations: spring rolls and gok jai dumplings (dumplings symbolise wealth), noodles (for long life) and whole steamed fish (for surplus and good fortune). She would also make nian gao (new year cake), which are chewy cakes made with glutinous rice flour and dotted with wrinkled red dates.” 


Billy Wong found these cakes tricky to swallow (they’re “quite chewy and stick to your teeth”) but would persist because nian gao symbolises improvement and prosperity: it means “higher year”. The fat choi ho si, though, was a tough ask.


Chinatown, Victoria, Virgin Australia, credit Visit Victoria.png

Melbourne's Chinatown, a central point for local Lunar New Year festivities: credit Visit Victoria


“It's dried oyster and black moss,” he says. “As a kid, I hated it.” Wong always asked for the smallest portion, because the oyster was intensely pungent. This New Year staple combines two lucky foods: fat choi (black moss, aka ‘hair vegetable’ in Cantonese) and ho si (fried oyster), which makes for an especially auspicious dish. It’s also similar in name to a popular Lunar New Year greeting that conveys luck and wealth. Wong couldn’t avoid eating it – but like blue cheese, he gradually adjusted to “hair vegetable” and oysters. “And now I love it.” (So do his kids.)


Classic Lunar New Year Dishes

Tony Tan, author of Hong Kong Food City, is quite the Lunar New Year expert. His book has a chapter on how to buy chicken for the occasion. Serving the whole bird is important: like the phoenix, it represents rebirth. And whole steamed fish with ginger and spring onion is a key staple. Including the head, fins and tail is essential, because it symbolises “the beginning and end of a story”, he says. Tan gets a “little bit carried away” and adds shredded shiitake mushrooms and spiced chillies. McKinnon, a vegetarian, used to cook this dish for her kids. “A couple of years ago, when I lifted the lid off my steamer, the fish’s eyes stared back at me and I kind of freaked out, so since then, no fish for the family!” She now offers a tofu and shiitake version, prepared in the same aromatic way. For Diana Chan, pineapple tarts are a New Year highlight. The Hokkien name for these sweet treats (ong lai) means “bring wealth”, but for her, it’s always been about flavour. “Going out as a kid, I’d just say, it’s really tasty!”


Lunar New Year celebrations, Hong Kong, Virgin Australia credit istock

One of Hong Kong's many picturesque scenes during Lunar New Year: credit iStock


The Lunar New Year Reunion Dinner

A key Lunar New Year event is the reunion dinner, a family feast on New Year’s Eve. The event is a homecoming: triggering the largest migration on the planet, with people returning to visit their families in China for reunion dinners and Lunar New Year celebrations. Tan compares it to Christmas, where you prepare as much beforehand. “Like Christmas, you have to put your best foot forward.” Even if it means cooking 20 dishes to serve the next day – and Tan has a small family. Adam Liaw’s reunion dinner has to feed more than 50 people. 

Overseas, Liaw was struck by Singapore’s tradition of putting up lanterns to celebrate Lunar New Year, “like Western countries do with Christmas lights,” says the Destination Flavour host; in Hong Kong, Tan witnessed nian gao being passed “from one family to another family, which is something I’ve never seen before”. 


Flower Drum, Melbourne, Australia, Virgin Australia, credit Flower Drum

The modern Chinese-Australian setting at Flower Drum restaurant, Melbourne: credit Flower Drum


When celebrating back home, he’ll go to Melbourne’s Flower Drum for a festive banquet, while Chan heads to Shark Fin Inn, Dainty Sichuan or Golden Dragon Palace for steamed fish, noodles and yee sang.


Wong, who has spent every Lunar New Year at his restaurants, will spend his time in Sydney’s Chinatown, between Golden Century, XOPP and his other venues, The Century The Star and Golden Century Wine Bank. But working in the thick of Sydney’s Lunar New Year celebrations means he’ll witness “30 people running down the street with a dragon” in between shifts, or he’ll notice the ground strewn with red paper after firecrackers go off. Consider it another part of the joyous mess that’s Lunar New Year. 


Words by Lee Tran Lam; published Tuesday 24 December 2019.

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