Celebrating the Year of the Dragon

Dragon and Lion Dancers at the St Albans Lunar New Year festival. (Provided)

Liam McNally

February 10 is the first day of the 2024 Lunar New Year. Across the west Lunar New Year celebrations in Footscray, St Albans, Sunshine and Braybrook have grown into culture-spanning events that attract tens of thousands each year. Liam McNally spoke to some of the organisers behind these events to gain an understanding of their significance as we enter the Year of the Dragon.

Thich Phuoc Tan remembers life as a boy in post-war Vietnam as hard, but during difficult times Tet festival, the Lunar New Year celebration, always brought people together.

He remembers a joyous energy – running around with the neighbourhood kids through air filled with the noise of music and firecrackers and smells of delicious food, seeing what treats and gifts they could collect amid crowds and colourful performers.

At just 11 years old, Thich was forced to flee Vietnam in a boat, a dangerous journey that saw him wanting for food and water and face three encounters with pirates while he was at sea for nine days.

In 1981, the year he came to Australia as a refugee, Thich took his Seminary Precepts with The Most Venerable Thich Phuoc Hue in Sydney in 1981.

Since 1997 The Venerable Thich Phuoc Tan has been the Abbot of the Quang Minh Temple in Braybrook.

In his role he said he takes great pride in continuing and sharing his religion and traditional Vietnamese culture through events like Lunar New Year.

“The role of my temple in our community is to preserve our faith, for sure, but I think more than half of our activity is cultural – to preserve what we have lost for the country,” he said.

“I enjoy my role, but the responsibility is not small.

“The temple role is very important to keep people together and also harmonise the community.”

This Lunar New Year, on February 9, the Quang Minh Temple temple is expecting about 4,000 attendees.

The festivities will get underway at about 6pm, with Lion and Dragon dancing performances, food, and midnight fireworks.

Thich said the entire community is invited to join.

It’s exciting, when you blend the atmosphere with the drums and you see the dragon and the firecrackers,” he said.

“We try to create what brings us joy and happiness when we think about home, back in Vietnam. We tried to create those for the next generation to come to enjoy.

“We welcome all to come and join in the New Year celebration with us.”

On February 10, we will enter the Year of the Dragon. Dragon is considered to be the most powerful animal in the Zodiac, and signifies strength. Year of the Dragon is considered a good time for growth and boldly starting new things.

The dragon and lion dances are some of the most iconic traditions of Lunar New Year events, and have existed for thousands of years.

Andrew Caihoang began lion dancing through the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association at five years old, now with 22 years of experience he leads performances at events at the St Albans, Sunshine, Footscray, Quan Minhn Lunar New Year celebrations and many other events throughout the year.

His team of up to 40 volunteers undertake demanding training and conditioning to prepare for the performances which will include a team in a lion costume, alongside a “Happy Buddha” or monk, dancing to drums, gongs and cymbals.

“The music acts as a heartbeat of the lion,” he said.

“Everyone in our team is very passionate about Lion Dance. So when we hear the drum… that’s what gets us fired up and motivated because we like to perform for the community.

“There’s a lot of cultural symbolism. Lion Dance is believed to bring good luck, fortune and ward off evil spirits during its performances… and bring joy and happiness.”

Andrew said that he’s proud to be able to continue the Lion Dance tradition for both people that immigrated to Australia, and the wider community.

“A lot of people when they immigrated to Australia, they pretty much left everything they had behind, including some of their cultural traditions. I took a while for them to slowly adapt or bring those traditions over and for it to be accepted within Australia,” he said.

“It’s something to be grateful for to see that it’s not going to die, it won’t go away at this point, it’s very profound now in the community… It’s a vibrant cultural performance that people are willing to enjoy and watch. So that’s something that I think we should all be grateful for.

“We’re all volunteers and to be able to continue doing what we’re passionate about without having the expectation or being rewarded is something that I feel quite proud of.”

Along with Lunar New Year’s Eve at Quang Minh, Andrew’s team will perform at the Lunar New Year celebration in Footscray Park on February 17 and 18, organised by the Vietnamese Community in Australia Victorian Chapter (VCA-VIC).

VCA-VIC president Duy Quang Nguyen has been helping to organise Lunar New Year events since he came to Australia in 1982.

Duy said Vietnamese community has been organising Lunar New Year celebrations in Australia since 1975, they started small in backyards, but the first major one was at Footscray Park in 1982, which attracted more than 50,000 people, so he is excited to be bringing it back there.

“Australia has become my country now, I have lived here for over 40 years – over two-thirds of my life, I love this country” he said.

“For the first few years I missed Vietnam very much, it takes time.

“We had to try to adapt with the new country and we tried to keep our culture and we try to pass it to our children… now Tet has become a part of the Australian multicultural [fabric].”

“We are proud of what we contribute to the Vietnamese community and the Australian community as a whole… now we are Australian so anything we do is for Australia.”