Love and Dumplings

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 20 February 2017

Chinese New Year is now the largest community festival in the capital. Three generations of the Tom family tell Lynda Chanwai-Earle why it's such a special time of year.

Subscribe to Voices for free on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Tears of joy well up in 77-year-old Wellingtonian Stephanie Tom's eyes as she reflects on the more than 60 years she has spent living in  in New Zealand.

"All the NZ people so friendly, so nice to us, happy to be together - everybody in one family now. When I come over it was only 1,000 [or so] people. All one big family now."

For Stephanie, surrounded by the intense bustle of another Chinese New Year Festival, it wasn't always this way. Her tears in past weren't always from joy.

"Life used to be hard. Couldn't speak a word of English" she says, her Cantonese accent still strong.

Stephanie came here as a child on the long boat trip from the See-Yip region in Canton and paid the anti-Chinese poll-tax along with her whole family. She says back then there were no celebrations to mark the Chinese New Year.

"Nothing. Nothing at all until 20 years ago. We don't even have a Chinese calendar, so we don't even know if it is New Year!"

So much has changed.

It's nine in the morning and ribbons are flying at the Wellington Chinese Sports and Cultural Centre. 16 year old Jacqueline Tom and her cousins are teaching the younger children (some of them fourth or even fifth generation Chinese New Zealanders) the art of the short and long ribbon and the parasol dance. 

Later today, the children will dance on floats in front of thousands of spectators in a street parade from Courtenay Place to the TSB Arena in Frank Kitts Park. They'll then perform for another six hours that evening on the main stage as part of the East meets West show. It's a long day, but their energy is infectious and it's just day one of a week of festivities.

Jacque (as Jacqueline likes to be known) has been participating in these cultural events since she was... well, in her mum’s tum and is the third generation of her family working tirelessly behind the scenes.

A group of cheeky 6 to 8 year old children, many of them cousins or extended family, surround Jacque, tugging on her pony tail. Instruction in the traditional dances start at Yau Yi Yun (Chinese kindergarten) when the children are just toddlers and the last three weeks of rehearsals building up to these performances have been intense

"Every year as soon as the festival finishes you're back to rehearsals." says Jacque. "It's kind of normal for me 'cause I've done it for so long."

Jacqueline Tom (right) passes on her dance skills

Jacqueline Tom (right) passes on her dance skills Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

The Chinese community meet every weekend to practice Cantonese, their heritage language, and other elements of their unique and now global Chinese sub-culture. The group began in 2000 with just 50 volunteers but sixteen years later they now stage the largest annual community event in the capital. Three generations of the Tom family, from the grandparents to the grandchildren, have been there since the beginning. Jacque’s elderly grandmother works on the dumpling stall and mother Rita Tom is one of the three “super-mums” in charge of the Asian Events Trust (AET) running the festival.

In the VIP room of the TSB Arena, Rita and fellow AET co-ordinator Stephanie Timms delegate to a large team of volunteers, most of them their children. 

"It makes you feel proud; everyone in the room has been involved since a young age" says Rita. "Jacque has been involved since pre-birth. I was in the Yau Yi Yun float pregnant with Jacque, now she's entrenched. She can't get out!"

Rita says this degree of involvement means the festival work runs deeper than just dancing or dumplings.

"There's a greater awareness. It's not just food and dance - it's to let people know there are other ways for the culture to come in and be part of everyday New Zealand."

Next to Rita the other "super-mum", Stephanie Timms,  is glad the festival has become a feature of the Capital's social calendar.

"The reason why we started it 16 years ago is still very valid. When we were at school in the late '70s we didn't raise our heads above the parapet. We want our children to be proud to be Chinese."

"The good thing about the festival is that it has encouraged a lot of art forms; there's more of an educational element."

But perhaps predictably, the young kids rehearsing at the sports centre have a different take on what the Chinese New Year Festival means to them.

"Food!"
"Dancing!"
"Celebrating the Year of the Rooster!"
"Gung hei fat choi!"
"Happy New Year!"