A big collection of red Chinese hanging lanterns with yellow tassles

Lunar New Year 2021

History of Lunar and Chinese New Year in Australia

Celebrating the Year of the Ox
 Mel Bondfield

We're celebrating the Year of the Ox in 2021 with newly uncovered footage of Lunar New Year celebrations dating back to 1937.

Outside of Asia, Australia holds some of the biggest Lunar New Year celebrations in the world.

The Lunar New Year, also sometimes referred to as Chinese New Year, is commonly commemorated by members of the Chinese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian communities.

It begins and ends according to the cycles of the moon. The new year starts between 21 January and 20 February – whenever the new moon appears. The Chinese calendar also aligns itself with a 12-year cycle, with each year represented by a different animal from the Chinese zodiac. 

This year, the new year will begin on 12 February 2021 and will mark the start of the Year of the Ox. People born in the Year of the Ox are thought to be faithful, loyal, hard-working, honest and persistent. 

To celebrate, we’ve collected news footage from previous Years of the Ox – in 2009, 1985 and dating all the way back to 1937.

Lion Dance in Sydney, 1937

The lion is one of the most iconic symbols of Lunar New Year festivities. The following Cinesound Newsreel, filmed in Sydney in 1937, features a lion dance performance accompanied by drums and percussion and could be the earliest known film of Chinese New Year celebrations in Australia:

Chinese New Year celebrations, Sydney, 1937. Courtesy: Cinesound Movietone Productions. NFSA title: 11067.

The lion dances are a highlight of traditional Chinese New Year celebrations. The lion, as well as the noise from the fireworks and music, is intended to scare away evil spirits to make way for good luck to come to the community. 

Chinese New Year in Melbourne, 1985

The following clip features two news stories from Ten Eyewitness News, Melbourne showcasing Chinatown as it prepares to celebrate the Year of the Ox in 1985. It features an explanation of what the New Year means to Chinese people, and shows how Chinatown's streets transform within a matter of days, from a quiet enclave to a bustling, vibrant and colourful cultural centre:

Ten Eyewitness News: Chinese New Year Celebrations in Melbourne, 1985. Courtesy Network Ten. NFSA titles: 644169, 643726.

The dragon, which features prominently in the second news story above, is an enduring and powerful symbol to Chinese people. It represents, among other things, prosperity, power and wisdom.

Chinese New Year and Australia Day coincide, 2009

In 2009, as many people marked the start of white settlement in Australia on 26 January, thousands of others held ceremonies for the start of Lunar New Year.

The following Sky News Australia clip attempts to bridge both observances. Prominent Chinese-Australian chef Elizabeth Chong talks about some of the contributions that Chinese people have made to Australian food and language. As Elizabeth is interviewed in Melbourne, we also see split-screen footage of an earlier Chinese New Year performance that took place in Sydney:

Chinese New Year and Australia Day Celebrations, 2009. Sky News Australia. NFSA title: 796344

While the above clip does not focus directly on Chinese New Year festivities, Chong's stories reveal just how broadly the Chinese way of life has helped to enrich Australia's diverse culture.

Lunar New Year will be commemorated in the days prior to, and following, 12 February 2021. Please check the relevant COVID-19 restrictions in your state or territory. 

Main image: Chinese Lanterns by wiroj.