On a freezing New York afternoon, three barges docked off Midtown Manhattan were loaded with 4,000 fireworks.

Two days later, on February 17, New Yorkers fattened up by layers of thick clothing braved the bitter wind to witness a historic moment: the first Lunar New Year pyrotechnics display on the Hudson River.

The show began at 7.30pm and for a dazzling 20 minutes, fireworks fizzed into elaborate flower displays and red showers to usher in the Year of the Goat.

Jacob Grunfeld, a 58-year-old wedding photographer, watches from the riverbank, wearing a long coat to stave off the chill.

"For something like that, [braving the cold] was worth it," he gushed. "It was comparable to July 4 [Independence Day]."

Organised by China's Central Academy of Fine Arts, the display was part of a drive by the Chinese Ministry of Culture to promote the Lunar New Year overseas.

As well as the huge fireworks show there were Chinese art installations in the Lincoln Center and sheep displayed in the windows of the Empire State Building while the New York Philharmonic gave a concert to mark the occasion.

"I've been living in New York for eight years and I had never had a Chinese New Year with so many interesting celebrations in town," says Deqing Chen, a former businessman who moved to the Big Apple from mainland China after he retired.

Until recently, public celebrations for the Lunar New Year were virtually non-existent in New York, other than in Chinatown, where red lanterns and envelopes flood gift shops. But things have started to change. In December, New York State passed legislation stipulating that the city's education department must consider making Lunar New Year a public holiday at certain schools or in districts where a considerable proportion of children will be absent during that period. It's a move the city's Asian residents have wanted for years.

Not only are there more than 735,000 ethnic Chinese living in New York, last year saw 740,000 mainland Chinese tourists visit the city. And with an average spend of US$3,300 per person, they have attractively deep pockets.

Last month's fireworks, however, were not solely aimed at those with a Chinese connection. Released in front of and controlled from within the riverside consulate of China - an imposing glass and concrete building housing hard-power officials - the soft-power display illuminated a Chinese tradition for the whole city on a giant new canvas.