Celebrate the Lunar New Year in Joburg

The Lantern Festival The Lantern Festival

Joburg's Chinese community is gearing up to celebrate the New Year and this year marks the Year of The Horse. The annual festivities are among the longest and most important celebrations on their calendar.

The Chinese year 4712 begins on 31 January; in the Chinese calendar, calculated using lunar months (the time between each new or full moon), each month starts on the darkest day. The Chinese New Year is a time for reconciliation, forgetting past grudges and wishing for peace and happiness.

Johannesburg's rich Chinese heritage

Several blocks north of Fox Street in Johannesburg's central business district (CBD) is the city's original "Chinatown"; here the Transvaal Chinese United Club Mansions is the oldest building in the precinct. A major revamp in the area included installing concrete benches and new paving, and planting trees.

The area falls into the 94-hectare Westgate Precinct, and is in Ferreirasdorp, one of the city's oldest suburbs and where Joburg's earliest mining town, a precursor to the now world-class city, developed.

Making the area much more accessible is the Westgate Rea Vaya Station, recently built under the direction of the JDA. It is an integral component of the city's continent-leading Bus Rapid Transit project, which signals to investors the confidence the City of Joburg has in its future.

"New Chinatown", along Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene, is also undergoing refurbishment by the JDA. The Agency is reshaping Bruma Lake to spruce up the once vibrant eastern edge of the city.

The mammoth task, commencing in 2013/14, will aim to sustainably rehabilitate and restore the lake.

Chinese new year traditions

During New Year, or Spring Festival, families decorate their homes with poems written on red paper wear red clothing, and give children "lucky money" in red envelopes. The red, symbolising fire, is believed to drive away bad luck and bad spirits. The lucky money is said to ensure a long, healthy life for the children.

Most families begin preparing for New Year a month or more in advance. Preparations include a haircut, a must as cutting anything over the festival is considered bad luck; and cleaning the house thoroughly. All dust and dirt must be swept towards the door to sweep away ill fortune and make way for good luck. As in many cultures, food plays an important role in the New Year festivities, and families buy and prepare for their favourite dishes. Traditional foods at a New Year meal include dumplings and laba zhou, a special hot rice porridge.

On New Year's Eve, families hold the important reunion dinner; much as Western families reunite for Christmas, so do too Chinese families come together. Visitors bring customary gifts to their hosts and everyone wears new clothes, often red items.

Pork, duck, chicken and sweet delicacies are on the menu, and the family usually ends the night by burning firecrackers. Burning fireworks date back to ancient times, when people lit bamboo sticks, believing that the crackling noises from the flames would frighten away evil spirits. In Johannesburg, merchants burn bunches of fireworks outside their shops to invite good fortune for the New Year.

On New Year's morning younger people greet their elders by wishing them a healthy and happy new year.

The lantern festival

The New Year's festivities culminate in the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month. The lanterns, all red, are painted with scenes depicting birds, animals, flowers, zodiac signs, and Chinese history and legends. In many areas, the highlight of the Lantern Festival is the dragon dance. The dragon – which can stretch up to 30 metres – is typically made of silk, paper and bamboo and is traditionally held aloft by young men who dance the colourful masterpiece through the streets.

About China

China is the most populous nation in the world, with 56 ethnic groups totalling more than a billion people. The Han is the largest ethnic group, numbering 1.1 billion people, or 93.3% of the country's population. Minorities total 160 million people, just 6.7 % of the Chinese nation. Some 20 of these minority groups have fewer than 50 000 people each.