My colleague Alistair Kwun sometimes posts photos on Facebook which looks as if he's on holiday in China, Singapore or Malaysia but when I take a closer look, I realise he's here in Auckland.
In recent years, increased migration has led to Auckland becoming a far more cosmopolitan city. It's possible to step into some neighbourhoods or eating establishments and feel as if you're in another, possibly more exotic, world.
January provides a great opportunity for a "cultural exchange" while staying in Auckland as the country's Chinese community marks the biggest celebration on its calendar: Chinese New Year.
Auckland, as the city with NZ's biggest Asian population (estimated at around 260,000), hosts some of the biggest celebrations.
Where to celebrate
Today the Auckland Chinese Community Centre Inc welcomes the Year of the Dragon with its annual Chinese New Year Festival and Market Day at the ASB Showgrounds, Greenlane.
Prime Minister John Key and Mayor Len Brown officially open the festivities, which begin with a Lion Dance performed to bring good luck, fortune and health in the coming year as well as drive away evil spirits.
As well as more than 200 specialist market stalls, there's an extensive programme of Chinese cultural songs, dances and musical items (performed by groups as diverse as community organisations and Chinese pop bands), martial arts and tai chi demonstrations. This year, entertainment also includes a visit from a troupe of shadow puppet performers and traditional folk musicians from Gansu in northwestern China.
Later today in Manukau, World TV Limited presents the ASB LunarFest 2012 from 3-11pm at TelstraClear Pacific Events Centre. Organisers say it's an Asian tradition, especially in China, to have a festival before New Year's Eve. It's called a "flower market" where visitors can buy flowers and plants but also crafts, arts and other items.
The LunarFest has those elements but also the feel of a summer "music extravaganza" with cultural and magic shows, pop music and appearances by Chinese Idols and NZ Chinese beauty queens.
Fireworks are a feature of Chinese New Year, so they'll be a highlight of LunarFest. A 12-minute display begins at 10pm and features special sequences of red and gold along with choreographed new pyrotechnic effects.
The Fo Guang Shan North Island Temple and Tea House in Flat Bush was built based on the palatial designs of the Tang Dynasty. It occupies a four-hectare site and features expansive temple buildings as well as meticulously landscaped and maintained gardens.
Crowds will gather on Sunday evening for the New Year's Eve Dharma Function and First Incense offering. Incense is offered to Buddha to wish for good fortune in the New Year. On Monday, New Year's Day, there are further services - the New Year Respecting a Thousand Buddhas Service from 10am-midday, as well as the New Year Vegetarian Food Fair to which everyone is welcome.
The festivities don't finish on New Year's Day. A week later, the Northcote Town Centre celebrates Chinese and Korean New Year with a free family day featuring Asian food stalls, children's entertainment and special activities like fortune-telling. The party kicks off on Friday, 27 January from 5.30-9pm and continues on Saturday with activities from 10am-3pm.
Chinese Auckland all year round
There are a number of ethnic precincts around this city which provide a chance to experience Chinese culture: Northcote, Somerville and Botany Park Estate, Upper Queen St and the Chinatown Markets in Pakuranga to name a few.
Opened in 1997, the Somerville Business Centre in Howick is one of the oldest such purpose-built precincts. It includes a Tai Ping Supermarket, service businesses like accountants and travel agencies, Asian fashion boutiques, jewellery stores and a range of eating establishments.
Such areas make it easier for migrants to do business plus provide the chance for new arrivals to trial businesses in a familiar environment but the benefit for the wider population is a more varied range of goods and services - just check out the range of Asian and Pacific fruit and vegetables at Tai Ping.
On a wet, windy supposedly summer night, when a holiday somewhere tropical would have been welcome, Alistair and I visited Dominion Rd, on the border of Balmoral/Mt Eden. A much older shopping strip, it has been transformed in recent years thanks to the arrival of a number of Asian businesses.
On this stretch of Dominion Rd, there is a rich range of cheap 'n' cheerful Asian restaurants/cafes where the emphasis is strictly on the food. Forget about linen tablecloths, mood lighting or silver service and simply eat and enjoy.
We ate at Barilla Dumpling. The restaurant was filled with a mix of students, families and couples enjoying an incredible range of delectable, authentic and very reasonably priced dishes. The menu is huge and includes soups, rice and noodle dishes, sizzling platters, vegetarian options, casseroles, pancakes and, of course, dumplings - the house speciality. Think of a dumpling filling and Barilla is likely to provide it.
Next stop was further along Dominion Rd, towards Mt Roskill, at J's Tea. Tea houses and cafes are a feature of Chinese life and they're popping up all over Auckland. With its striking red and white decor, J's is a contemporary take on the cultural phenomenon and attracts a young Chinese crowd who wants to hang out, play cards, listen to and watch music videos, catch up on reading Asian fashion mags and, of course, sip fantastic teas and enjoy snacks from an extensive menu.
For a completely different teahouse experience, head to Flat Bush and the Fo Guang Shan North Island Temple and Tea House. The temple is a working Buddhist monastery, huge in scale, and one of the most potent and spectacular symbols of the growth of Chinese culture in New Zealand.
With its dark wood furnishings and traditional Chinese decor, the teahouse is unique. It serves vegetarian food, coffee and tea and makes a perfect spot for experiencing a taste of another culture.
While food is one of the most accessible ways to experience Chinese culture, there are other ways to learn more. With branches in Mt Eden and Mangere, the Auckland Chinese Community Centre, for example, offers language lessons to children and adults in both Cantonese and Mandarin.
The Confucius Institutes are non-profit public institutions spread throughout the world to promote Chinese language and culture. Though similar to organisations such as France's Alliance Francaise and Germany's Goethe-Institut, Confucius Institutes are aligned to the Chinese Government and operate through universities and schools.
Auckland University is the base for a Confucius Institute, where Chinese language and culture classes are taught. Two courses offer a brush with Chinese culture - literally - as they're focused on teaching calligraphy and traditional Chinese brush painting. You can find out more at www.ci.ac.nz.
Cultural melting pot
Other organisations throughout NZ now acknowledge the importance of Chinese New Year; NZ Post even issues special stamps.
On Sunday January 29, the Chinese Associations of Auckland have organised the Cultures of China, Festival of Spring concerts performed by the Soldier Acrobatic Troupe of PLA in Guangzhou at 2 and 7pm at the Bruce Mason Centre.
Other ways of marking the Year of the Dragon could include attending the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Chinese New Year concert which features pianist John Chen, soprano Jenny Wollerman and Hong Kong Philharmonic Associate Conductor Perry So.
The concert opens with Wollerman performing The Floating Bride, The Crimson Village, a song cycle by Ross Harris and inspired by the art of Marc Chagall and the poetry of Vincent O'Sullivan. Red-hot young pianist Chen teams up with the NZSO to perform The Yellow River Piano Concerto which was composed as a cantata in 1939 and recomposed as a piano concerto during the country's Cultural Revolution.
Further down country, the Marlborough Wine Festival, on February 11, is embracing the Year of the Dragon spirit, too, with veteran band Dragon as its headline act.
The Chinese obviously like a good celebration because they keep their New Year activities going for two weeks and end with another party. In Auckland, New Year celebrations end with the Asia New Zealand Foundation's very popular Auckland Lantern Festival in Albert Park. Now in its 13th year, hundreds of brightly coloured lanterns light up the park from Friday to Sunday, February 3-5.
New lanterns are created each year for the New Zealand festival and made in Zigong, in the Chinese province of Sichuan. The 2012 display features a special pair commissioned by China's Ministry of Culture to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries.
Multimedia artist, DJ and music producer Darryl Thompson (also known as DLT) has designed a taniwha lantern while Shanghai-born Aucklander and graphic designer Dennis Juan Ma has made a companion dragon lantern.
Aside from wondering at the lanterns, entertainment includes Beijing-based Long Shen Dao (way of the dragon spirit), considered China's best reggae band.
Thanks to Alistair Kwun for help with research for this article.
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