Of red roosters and white rabbits: Notes from an outsider looking in

At this time of year red lanterns of all shapes and sizes dot the streets and malls of Sydney, Australia. There are large installations of roosters, dragons and the Chinese character Fú, meaning ‘fortune’ or ‘good luck’ is seen on posters and painted on shop fronts.  It’s Chinese New Year – a time to honour deities and ancestors, to wish each other well and for families to come together.

The Chinese New Year celebrations span roughly two weeks and will end on 12 February. This year is the Year of the Rooster, the only bird in the Chinese Zodiac, consisting of a 12-year cycle of animals. The new year celebrations in Sydney have been huge, with lion dancing, street food markets, Chinese opera, red roosters in shop windows and a much anticipated dragon boat race this coming weekend.

With almost 20 per cent of Sydney’s population of roughly five million people being of Asian descent means that Chinese New Year celebrations are not taken lightly and I have been lucky to be part of this spectacle.  In a world that is increasingly focussed on dividing people, rather than reconciling them, I find spending time in a culturally diverse hotpot like Sydney refreshing and intriguing. I should add that I can only comment on what I see from my vantage point as a semi-tourist. I call myself that because I will soon be returning to my home country, South Africa, after spending months in Australia as a very privileged voyeur of Australian life.

Food features prominently in New Year celebrations. Traditionally, this is a time to eat dumplings and steamed buns, symbolising the birth of a new year. Few things make me happier than ordering a bamboo basket of dim sum at the Dainty Dumpling in China Town. These lovelies arrive at the table steaming and from this point on, timing is everything. Fill a little dipping pot with vinegar and a few drops of chilli oil. Wait until the right moment to pick up a dumpling with your chopsticks, dip it in the vinegar and pop it in your mouth. You are rewarded with a soupy treat and a small knob of filling, be it pork, prawn or vegetarian. Time is of the essence – pop the dim sum in your mouth too soon, and burn the skin off your mouth and tongue. Wait too long and the little dumplings turn rubbery and flaccid. Needless to say, I have tried my fair share of dumplings to celebrate New Year in Chinese style.

Another exposure to Chinese life in Sydney has been visiting the White Rabbit Gallery of Contemporary Chinese Art in Chippendale in Sydney’s CBD. Started by one of Australia’s wealthiest women and patron of the arts, Judith Neilson, this gallery has been an eye-opener and a delight. Judith was born in Zimbabwe, studied at the Natal Technikon and has been living in Australia with her property tycoon husband for several decades. She spends more than a month every year in China, sourcing work for her gallery and shows contemporary Chinese art that is rarely seen by outsiders. The show that has just ended, Vile Bodies, had me enthralled with installations, 3-D printing and multimedia displays. It is truly amazing what is happening on the art scene in China at the moment.

I am privileged to have be exposed to people from so many different cultures here in Sydney. And, it seems that everyone is getting along swimmingly. It might be that the lack of racial tension apparent to me, as semi-tourist in this cosmopolitan city, is only due to the fact that I have not burrowed deeply enough into the Australian psyche or that the Australian abhorrence of making a scene has added to my perception of racial harmony. Whatever it may be, it’s a relief to observe people of so many nationalities living and working together in seemingly perfect harmony.

I am, however, deeply aware that Australian life did not start in 1788 when Governor Phillips arrived here with his convict ships in tow. The spectres of the First People of Australia move silently through the streets of Sydney, and if you don’t look closely, you will not see their shadows over this urban sprawl. But more about them when I write again.


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