Sydney Celebrates the Year of the Snake

Few cities are as vibrantly alive and enthusiastically multi-cultural as Sydney, Australia. Few events show off those traits better than the city’s celebration of Chinese New Year. Granted, Sydney has perhaps the largest Chinese community outside the mainland (about 6% of Sydney’s population is Chinese and the various Chinese dialects are the second most spoken languages in the city after English) anchored by a flourishing Chinatown. But for the two weeks of the traditional New Year’s observances, every “G’Day” in Sydney becomes “Nín Hāo” and pubs offer dim sum and spring rolls as well as Barramundi sandwiches and vegetarian burgers. The shells of the Sydney Opera House glow Chinese red. Even the fashionistas’ bible, Harper’s Bazaar, publishes an edition in Mandarin.

This is the Year of the Snake, which in Chinese cosmology is a symbol of transformation and rebirth. During the Twilight Parade, the first event of the celebration, downtown Sydney transforms into the lights and activity of Hong Kong.

One of the largest parades in the world, over 2900 performers, musicians, and athletes entertain spectators entertain spectators who clog the sidewalks and vantage points overlooking the parade route. The parade figurehead – Lady White Snake – a large, long “puppet” propelled by dozens of dancers, “sheds” her skin as she sways and twirls along the street. Floats feature serpents from history and legend – Cleopatra, Eve, and Snakes and Ladders (better known in the US as Chutes and Ladders). The crowd cheers the dance troupes wearing brilliantly hued costumes and marching bands, but this year’s crowd favorite was the acrobats dressed as pandas riding unicycles.

Australia’s economy is tied far more to the growing Chinese fortunes than to Europe or the US. Understanding China’s unfamiliar philosophy and traditions is as much a practical exercise as a cultural adventure. The festival is the ideal time to showcase, inspire, and inform. There are lectures on the meaning of yin-yang and feng shui; demonstrations of brush painting, calligraphy, and Bonsai; tours of temples, and discussions comparing Australian and Chinese news coverage. Many of Sydney’s art galleries and studios have mounted shows featuring both traditional and contemporary Chinese art and artists. Kids learn how to make Chinese lanterns and hear the legends about the Year of the Snake at bi-lingual story hours. A workshop in Mandarin promises to teach you how to say at least a few basic phrases.

Then, of course, there’s the food. China’s sheer size mandates that the many regions develop their own cuisine based on the ingredients and spices available. It’s far more than stir-fried rice and General Tso’s Chicken. In addition to “foodie” walking tours of Chinatown, at least a dozen restaurants have partnered with the Chinese New Year’s Festival organizers to offer special menus designed to introduce diners to dishes they may have never heard of or never had the chance to try before.

The Chinese Zodiac is a 12-year cycle. “Snake” years are 1918, 29, 41, 53, 65, 77, 89, and 2001. People born under this sign are considered smart and calculating. If one of these years is yours, you are in good company: Oprah Winfrey, Darwin, Malcolm Young, Audrey Hepburn, and Queen Elizabeth I were all “snakes.”

This year’s festival runs from Feb. 10-24 (from the new moon to the full moon of the 1st month of spring in the Northern Hemisphere). For more information about the Sydney Chinese New Year’s Festival, including schedules, accommodations, transportation, and suggested itineraries, visit the festival’s website:

Photo credits: Sydney Chinese New Year’s Festival; Sydney Tourism