13. Red Opera House

Since 2014 the Sydney Opera House has been coloured red as part of Sydney’s increasingly elaborate Chinese New Year Celebrations. Perhaps nothing illustrates Australia’s changing relations with China and Chinese-Australians than Sydney’s modern style Chinese New Year celebrations, often claimed to be the largest Chinese New Year celebrations outside of China itself.

Chinese-Australian’s have a long history of participating and contributing to local events and celebrations. The Easter Lion Dance in Bendigo has been taking place since the 1890s and the Chinese community of Launceston contributed a spectacular fireworks display to the Cataract Gorge celebration in 1895. The Australian Federation celebrations in 1901 in Sydney and Melbourne also had large Chinese contributions in traditional costumes. And of course Chinese Opera itself has a long history in Australia (see No. 16).

These historical examples are mostly of mainstream Australian cultural celebrations to which Chinese-Australians contributed, contributions often seen as exotic elements and not really as fully ‘Australian’. Sydney’s Chinese New Year celebrations and the red Opera House are very different. Here a mainstream Chinese celebration is being contributed to and participated in by all Australians. The exotic element is nearly absent in what seems to be a natural celebration of an annual festival well known to all Sydneysiders if not necessarily celebrated in a traditional manner.

While the cultural element is undoubtedly interesting it is the financial contribution by businessmen of Chinese origin that is also significant. Chinese merchants were of course major contributors to the celebrations of the past. But two differences now distinguish those by modern businessmen. The first is the sheer size of the donations, far exceeding the kind of donations made in the past. The other is that the money is generally not being donated by poor arrivals working and expanding their businesses in Australia, but rather by wealthy arrivals who have already made their wealth in China and brought some of it to Australia with them.