22 February 2014

Auckland Lantern Festival

Last weekend’s Lantern Festival was the 15th to be celebrated in Auckland and it was touted as the biggest and best so far. I’ve only been to a couple so I can’t really testify to the truth or otherwise of that claim but it was certainly popular and attracted the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen in Albert Park. In fact, the park was so jam-packed on Friday and Saturday nights that you couldn’t really enjoy – or easily photograph – all the wonderful displays.

Luckily, one of the features of this year’s festival was a lantern-only night on Thursday night, which attracted less people – a photographer’s dream. As I live just around the corner, I also visited several times during the previous week as displays were being erected so shot a lot of daytime photos as well.

The Lantern Festival is timed to coincide with the first full moon following Chinese New Year and has formed an important part of New Year celebrations in China since the Han Dynasty (from 206BC to 221AD). Apparently, the festival also has some of the attributes of the Western Valentine’s Day as, in centuries past, it was one time that young Chinese could venture out in the evening without a chaperone. I suspect that idea persists today as there were a huge number of young people amongst the crowds in Albert Park.

The lanterns are hand-crafted, made to order in a factory in China. Fish and birds, masks and teapots hang in Albert Park’s huge trees and, on the ground, there’s an eclectic mix of traditional Chinese street scenes, traditionally dressed women and sword-carrying warriors, buffalos, dragons and, bizarrely, a flock of sheep and their sheep dog. They are beautifully colourful and quite spectacular once illuminated.

As well as the lanterns, there are exhibitions of martial arts, and dance and live music performances by local and international artists, as well as demonstrations of traditional dragon and lion dances – always entertaining to watch and a great favourite with the crowds.

Princes Street, which borders one side of Albert Park, is closed to traffic for the duration of the festival and turns in to a food alley, with all kinds of delicious Asian food for sale. The smells are divine, the tastes delectable, especially the traditional Lantern Festival called tang yuan – round glutinous rice dumplings with sweet and spicy fillings. The spicy dumplings were particularly delicious.

This year, Albert Park wasn’t the only location for festivities. Queen’s Wharf was home to child- and family-friendly events, from outdoor movies and puppet shows to paper-lantern-making workshops. Auckland Museum also got in to the spirit of the season. The exterior of the museum was lit in the colours of China for the week, and they also held related activities: a display of Chinese art and calligraphy, expert discussions on Chinese and Maori culture, plus kite-making workshops followed by a kite flying display on the lawn in front of the museum.

The finale to the highly successful festivities was a spectacular fireworks display from the Sky Tower at 10.30pm on the Sunday night. So, Happy Chinese New Year and welcome to the Year of the Horse, the character that symbolises graciousness, dignity and momentum.

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