Once upon a time, the Lunar (or “Chinese”) New Year was just a thing that Asians did. Whitey went to Chinatown to watch the firecrackers and eat yum cha, but that was about it.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st Century.
Asia got richer, and China boomed. As the Chinese (and Indian) middle class grew, it reawakened the cobwebbed hobby of stamp collecting. It’s a very middle-class hobby, which appeals to people who are really, really into their country. And Chinese people are really, really into their country. Because if they’re not, they get sent to prison camp.
Then someone invented the Internet, and people stopped sending mail. Meanwhile, old people insisted on dying, game consoles turned children into zombies, and the supply of new stamp collectors to Western postal authorities stopped dead… just when their cash-strapped governments started demanding impossible profit margins.
Then Chinese stamps started to attract ridiculous figures at auction.
And that’s when the West decided it should issue Lunar New Year stamps.
Australia Post disguised its cash grab by suddenly remembering that there are lots of ethnically Chinese people on the Australian territory of Christmas Island (no, not in the immigration detention centre). Naturally, they deserved a stamp, and in 1994, they got one. Or two, actually. (And a mini-sheet if you want to go looking for it.)
In 1996, AP began a 12-year cycle in which all the Lunar New Year stamps complemented each other, often with colours of red and gold. I wasn’t too interested in these at first, but over the course of the zodiac, I must admit, they won me over with their riotous vibrancy and playful cocks.
AP recognized the lucrative potential of Lunar New Year. Its issuing policy went as mental as me when I saw my first Chinese dragon, with each year’s issue soon accompanied by a slew of “collectible”, postally uncalled-for, often-overpriced and totally made-up accoutrements.
2002 included the first ‘Zodiac sheet’, which not only featured that year’s Horse stamps, but 12 other stamps of many denominations with every zodiac creature depicted on them.
Nerd note: These sub-base-rate stamps cannot have been used much for postage. If you come across any on a commercially used cover, do NOT soak them off on pain of death! Cover collectors will probably pay handsomely for it.
In 2007 they reprinted all 12 Lunar New Year stamps in one circular minisheet. It’s quite gorgeous to behold in the flesh, with gold foil and all. They must have sold well, because AP decided to release one every three years from then on.
The Rat kicked off a new 12-year cycle in 2008. More stark and modern than the first cycle, I give AP points for doing something quite different, but I’ve struggled to buy into these designs emotionally. Then again, judging by my visceral reaction to the décor in my favourite local Thai takeaway, perhaps Asian tastes and I were never meant to get along.
And so it is that we come to the Year of the… what exactly? The related Chinese character 羊 (“yang”) is ambiguous, so there is some conjecture as to whether it’s the Year of the Sheep, the Year of the Goat, or the Year of the Ram.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that it’s always the Year of Cashing In On The Fastest Developing Philatelic Market In The World. Thus we enjoy Lunar New Year releases from such traditionally Asian corners of the world as Lithuania, Gibraltar, Estonia and the Isle of Man. Here are a few horse stamps from the Baltic in 2014…
… and some of this year’s efforts. Notice how no one can agree what animal we’re celebrating. (Diplomatically, the US doesn’t take a position in English – it’s gone for a Chinese character and an indistinct horned animal).
For New Zealand it was like Valentine’s Day all over again.
Yeah! I went there bro! Again!
Amid this international orgy of thinly-disguised postal desperation, China seems to think it has a right to celebrate its own culture. The very nerve! Actually, as you’d expect, China’s New Year stamps are generally quite beautiful.
Meanwhile, Australia Post has again brought its profiteering A-game. You can buy the stamps, the mini-sheet, the blank cover, the prepaid envelope, the postcard, the international prepaid envelope, the stamp pack, the zodiac sheetlet (use those sub-rate stamps on your mail and make me a happy Punk), a pack of five minisheets, a prestige booklet, two different stamp-and-coin covers, and something called a ‘silk minisheet pack’ which includes three minisheets, one of which is printed on silk, all of which are embossed with a turquoise foil. There are also two gutter strips – each year the gutter strip for the 70c stamps features a parade of zodiac animals marching up and down a hill, with that year’s mascot usually embossed. I have to admit, it’s pretty cute. Head to the Aussie Post website to spent YOUR $138.35 on dubious collectibles today! DID YOU HEAR ME, CHINA COLLECTORS? IF YOU’RE NOT BUYING OUR IRON ORE ANYMORE, THE LEAST YOU CAN DO IS BUY ENOUGH STAMPS TO SAVE OUR ECONOMY!
The best of luck, big kisses and Kung Hei Fat Choy to any readers celebrating Lunar New Year today. x