Foundation trustees discuss
how they celebrate the Lunar New Year

Chinese New Year celebrations are increasingly well known and well attended by New Zealanders across the country, but the Lunar New Year is also celebrated in other Asian countries. Asia New Zealand Foundation trustees Melissa Lee and Mitchell Pham share their experiences of the Lunar New Year traditions of South Korea and Vietnam.

In both Korea and Vietnam it is traditional to light incense to mark the new year

Korean people travel back to their traditional family and ancestral homes to mark the Lunar New Year, says Auckland MP and Asia New Zealand Foundation trustee Melissa Lee, who has lived in New Zealand since 1988.

Growing up, on New Year's Day her family performed charye ­– a form of ancestral rites where women make special dishes that are aranged before an altar. Men take turns bowing before the table to pay their respects to their ancestors. The ritual is usually held at the house of the oldest male in the family.  “Then the whole family gather and eat all the food that was made for charye.”

One of her favourite dishes as a child was tteok manduguk, rice cake and dumpling soup.

“We had to have a bowl in order to be a year older on New Year's Day. We also bowed to our parents wearing new clothes ­ – often traditional hanbok – and we received lucky envelopes which contained money. Parents and elders often gave us something called deokdam, which is life advice for the coming year.

“After the feasting and deokdam - family often played Yut Nori - which is a traditional board game played with four flipping sticks.”

Her family has continued many of the traditions in New Zealand, with Lee making her own dumplings for the soup.

About 30,000 people of Korean heritage live in New Zealand and most are based in Auckland. Lee has already attended a new year event held by Auckland’s Korean Society, an annual Chinese and Korean New Year festival held in Northcote, Auckland, and she will sing traditional songs for senior citizens at a feast organised by a Korean charitable trust.

But she says Korean New Zealanders often travel over the New Year period. “New Year is about family and ancestral rites so often you will find people returning home to Korea for it.”

Fellow Asia New Zealand Foundation trustee Mitchell Pham says Tết, Vietnamese New Year, is a time to stop and reconnect with family and friends. “It brings festive spirit, kindness and generosity to everywhere and out of everyone. The new year brings new hope into our lives and new energy into our relationships and the things that we do.

“The weather at this time of year in Southern Vietnam is relatively cooler, so it’s nice to be out and about without the intense heat.”

Pham grew up in Ho Chi Minh City before arriving in New Zealand as a refugee in the 1980s.

During his childhood, his family shopped for new clothes and for flowers to decorate their home in the lead-up to Tet.  “We prepared traditional dishes such as Bánh Chưng and Bánh Tét (types of rice cake), Tôm Khô Củ Kiệu (a prawn and garlic dish), Mứt (candied fruits) – designed to last so that we don’t have to do any cooking over the week of new year.”

On new year’s eve, they would visit a Buddhist temple to light incense and make donations, before eating a vegetarian dinner. “On new year’s day and the several days thereafter, we dressed up in our new clothes, visited family, relatives and friends, received visitors, and let off more fireworks. We wished our elders best wishes, and received red envelopes with money as acknowledgement, gifts and good-luck wishes in return.”

Schools and most workplaces stopped for two weeks, with some people taking leave for up to a month to visit family in distant provinces.

In New Zealand, he and his brother and sister bring their families together. “Sometime it’s a picnic lunch at a beach, where we share the traditional food, bought from Vietnamese markets. We teach the children the culture and maintain the tradition, give them the red envelopes.

“Another time it’s a gathering at a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, to light incense to our ancestors and the Buddha’s, make donations and eat vegetarian food.

“We do as much together as possible as a family, and we share as much of the celebration as possible with our Kiwi spouses’ families and our friends in New Zealand.

Mitchell Pham says he likes sharing Vietnamese New Year's traditions with Kiwi family and friends

“Stripping away all the food, language, climate and geographical location that makes Vietnam very different to New Zealand, the Tet holiday to the Vietnamese is exactly the same as Christmas/New Year holiday to Kiwis, in cultural and family values and festive spirit.”