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Jeff Gung: The biggest fan of Carols By Candlelight

jeff gung carols by candlelight

"I cannot feel the Christmas spirit anywhere else in the world. I have to be at Carols by Candlelight."

Jeff Gung almost didn’t make it to Melbourne in 1946.

He was a nine-month-old baby travelling with his family on board a steamer from China when he contracted whooping cough. Thus began a fierce tussle between his mother and the captain who wanted to throw him overboard.

After his mother won and they docked in Sydney, the entire ship was put under quarantine. As soon as the quarantine was lifted, the family made their way to Melbourne.

On Christmas Eve in 1949, a three-year-old Jeff found himself in Alexandra Gardens, holding on to his father’s finger and believing in the magic of Christmas as candlelight glowed and voices soared around him.

From that day on, Jeff Gung, now a Mormon, became the biggest fan of Vision Australia’s Carols by Candlelight.

This year marks the 79th anniversary of Carols by Candlelight, an Australian tradition founded by 3KZ radio veteran, the late Norman Banks in 1937.

Banks had just finished his night shift and was walking along St Kilda Road when he noticed an elderly woman sitting up in bed by her window. She was singing to the Christmas carol, Away In A Manger, playing on the radio and her face was lit only by candlelight.

This became Banks' inspiration to bring people together to sing carols by candlelight.

What are your childhood memories of Christmas?

My aunt used to take us to Myer to see Santa Claus who always gave us a present. Then we would go to the basement of Coles where we would have fish and chips at the cafeteria.

My family would come into the city from our home in Flemington every year to see the street decorations. It was very traditional then but it has become more commercial now. One of the few things that has remained the same is Carols by Candlelight.

And you have gone every single year?

Every year when I have been in Melbourne for Christmas. About 40 times now. It really is the highlight of my year. People have stopped asking me to parties on Christmas Eve. They know I’m not available. My five siblings keep telling me I have to come to their Chinese banquet but I say nope, you know where I’m going.

What do you remember about the Carols as a child?

There weren’t many people, for one thing! And my mother would make cucumber sandwiches for the evening. Other than that, nothing has changed except that it gets better and better every year.

In 1938, 10,000 people gathered at midnight in the Alexandra Gardens to sing carols with a 30 strong choir, two soloists and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band. A new Christmas tradition was born.

Encouraged by the success, Banks organised the 1939 Carols on a more elaborate scale with the involvement of the Sandringham Choral Society, Highfield Methodist Choir, and a Hammond Organ, in addition to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band.

Over the years, the Carols have featured live performances by local and international artists.

Who do you usually go with to the Carols?

My son. I started taking him when he came to Australia 10 years ago and he really enjoyed it. But he’s not coming with me this year. He’s in China with his girlfriend. He has discovered girls so this isn’t important anymore!

So this year I’m going with a friend who just got divorced and is feeling a little flat. I thought I would give him a bit of a boost and get him to come along with me. He’s so excited!

Do you have a favourite seat?

I do my best to buy reserved seating at the front. One year I missed out and I had to line up at lunchtime to get a good spot on the grass!

Ticket sales begin at 9am and are sold out by 9.05am. I’m not joking! I like securing my seats by phone so I keep pressing redial from 9am onwards until I get through. I do that every year. Of course, you can buy the tickets online but I have more success on the phone.

When do you start counting down the days?

The excitement begins six months beforehand and reaches a climax in December. But once I know I’ve secured reserved seating, I can relax a bit!

The seats are expensive but the money goes to a really good cause – Vision Australia. Several of my cousins were born blind and Vision Australia was able to help them. I support the organisation totally.

Originally, all profits went to the Austin Hospital but since 1965, all funds raised from from donations, ticket, and candle sales are given to Vision Australia.

Following World War II, the Carols became so well patronised that the decision was made to move it to the neighbouring park in King's Domain. In 1959, it was moved to its permanent venue, the Sidney Myer Bowl.

Describe the night for those who have never been.

It starts with entertainment for the children at 6pm. By the time I arrive, which is usually closer to 9pm, the excitement has built up and then the hosts come out. This year it’s David Campbell and Lisa Wilkinson.

Then they start televising and the cameras always focus on the babies. It’s wonderful. They’re always sound asleep with their Santa hats on.

The older children are anxious to light the candles but the sun’s still shining at that hour! Once it gets dark it’s quite a sight with thousands of candles all lit up. And the kids have their Santa hats and reindeer horns on.

The climax of the evening is always the Hallelujah chorus when everyone stands up to sing and raises their candles. It’s the same thing every year and you never get tired of it!

But this year will be a little more exciting for you, won’t it?

Yes, this year I have been invited to party with the entertainers and celebrities. That will be lots of fun!

What do you love most about Christmas in Melbourne?

Melbourne is my city, my home. I cannot feel the Christmas spirit anywhere else. When I’m in Hong Kong, the island is lit up on both sides and in the middle of the harbour, but I still can’t feel the Christmas spirit. I have to be at the Carols.

In A Snap

Favourite Aussie phrase: Although I’m Australian, one thing I have never ever liked and will never use is Australian slang! They should teach proper grammar at school. Kids text me using words like “wanna” “gunna”. What is all that?

Best restaurant in Chinatown: Flower Drum

Must do in Melbourne: Catch a ferry to the bay of Williamstown. Get on top of a tour bus. Ride on the wheel at the Docklands. Walk through our fantastic arcades. Walk down Chinatown. Walk up Collins Street and see some of the gothic buildings.

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