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Year of the Tiger: Celebrations are muted, but bring hope

BEIJING (AP) — People across Asia prepared for muted Lunar New Year celebrations amid concerns over the coronavirus and virulent Omicron variant, even as increasing vaccination rates raised hopes that the Year of the Tiger might bring life back closer to normal.

The Lunar New Year is the most important annual holiday in China which was celebrated yesterday.

Each year is named after one of 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac in a repeating cycle. The Year of the Tiger follows the Year of the Ox.

This will be the third new year in a row celebrated in the shadow of the pandemic. It was two days before the holiday in 2020 that China locked down Wuhan – a city of 11 million people – following the detection of the coronavirus there.

Some 85 per cent of Chinese are now fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, and more Chinese have been travelling domestically this year, despite government warnings.

Many people celebrated by buying red lanterns and other decorations for their homes, and food to mark the beginning of a new year.

Still, 63-year-old retiree Huang Ping lamented that the new year’s “atmosphere has faded” with the closure of temples and seasonal fairs to prevent large crowds. He said he hoped for better times soon.

Photos show festivities of Chinese around the world welcoming the Year of the Tiger amid the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTOS: AP

“I wish for the epidemic to pass as early as possible and for the economy to recover as well,” he said.

Another retiree, Han Guiha, said he was planning on making the best of the situation. “I’ll stay at home enjoying good food,” the 62-year-old said, on the eve of the celebration. “I will make my house clean and beautiful. Right now the virus is spreading and we need to be careful.”

Some 260 million people travelled in China in the first 10 days of the holiday rush starting January 17 – fewer than before the pandemic but up 46 per cent over last year.

Overall, the government forecasts 1.2 billion trips during the holiday season, up 36 per cent from year ago.

This year the celebrations coincide with the Beijing Winter Olympics, which open near the end of the weeklong holiday.

The Chinese capital has been tightening controls to contain coronavirus outbreaks ahead of the sporting event.

The Games are being held inside sealed-off “bubbles,” and organisers have announced that no tickets will be sold to the general public and only selected spectators will be allowed. “I’ll watch the games with my kid, but of course on TV,” said Wang Zhuo, a retail manager from Beijing.

In Hong Kong, which saw a surge in cases in January, people wore surgical masks as they shopped for red and tiger-themed holiday items.

The city has closed schools because of the outbreaks and required restaurants to close at 6pm, forcing many to dine at home for traditional New Year’s Eve family dinners.

With the Year of the Tiger, many are hoping the traditional powers attributed to the animal will help put the country on a path out of the pandemic, said a Beijing university expert on Chinese folklore, Chen Lianshan.

“The tiger is a protection against evil spirits and it can defeat demons and ghosts of all kinds, and the Chinese believe that the plague is one kind of an evil spirit,” he said.

Elsewhere in Asia, there were signs that celebrations might not be as subdued as they were last year. Despite ongoing pandemic restrictions, most people are now vaccinated with at least two shots in many of the region’s countries.

In the old quarter of Hanoi, people flocked on the weekend to the traditional market to get decorations and flowers for the festival, known as Tet in Vietnam. The daily case count remains at about 15,000 new infections but its low hospitalisation and death rate has allowed the country to re-open for business and cautiously resume social activities.

More than 70 per cent of Vietnamese are fully vaccinated, and 80 per cent have had at least one shot, according to Our World in Data.

Still, the country cancelled Tet fireworks and other large events to minimise risks this year.

In Thailand, where 69 per cent of people are fully vaccinated, Bangkok decided this year not to hold traditional Lunar New Year celebrations in Chinatown for the second year in a row, but lit seasonal lanterns on the district’s main street.

In Singapore, Lunar New Year celebrations were more subdued due to coronavirus restrictions that allow residents to receive only five unique visitors a day, and preferably only one visit daily.

The rules are likely to get in the way of the tradition of visiting relatives during the holiday.

“This year it will be rather quiet, as people are spacing out visiting over the next two weeks instead of on the first or second day of the new year,” said Sebastian Lim, a Singapore resident.

Business was brisk at a flower market in Taipei on the eve of the celebration as people made last minute purchases. “The pandemic is surely affecting it a bit, but people still like flowers, so they come out and buy flowers,” said one shopkeeper, who only gave his name as Lee.

“But prices are lower because we have overproduction and we can’t export some items – this is our biggest problem.”

Ethnic Chinese shopkeepers in Myanmar faced a bigger dilemma, as the new year coincided with the one-year anniversary of the military’s seizure of power from the democratically-elected government.

Supporters of the growing anti-military movement had called for people to close their shops and businesses in a nationwide “silent strike” protest.

Military leaders warned that anyone participating could face legal action, including charges of violating the country’s counter-terrorism law.

But that has left shopkeepers who had planned to close anyway for the Lunar New Year to spend time with their families wondering what to do.

“Normally we are closed during Chinese new year, but don’t know what to do this year,” said Hu, a noodle vendor in Yangon who wouldn’t give his full name out of fear of reprisal.

“We want to close, but we have to be afraid of the authorities.”