A Lucky Chinese New Year in Hong Kong
Ida Anita Q. Del Mundo (The Philippine Star) - February 2, 2020 - 12:00am

Boarding the plane from Manila to Hong Kong on Jan. 23, it was almost like any other day at the airport. About half of those boarding the surprisingly full flight were wearing masks amid the Taal Volcano eruption and ashfall and the beginnings of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), but there was still an air of excitement as families got ready to enjoy the Chinese New Year weekend.

Alighting from the plane, however, completely changed the scene. The duration of the short plane ride was a harbinger to how quickly the scare of virus would spread throughout our stay.

The mood at the airport was somber, with almost all tourists, airport employees and immigration officers in masks. The usually bustling airport had a sense of quiet caution, with our eyes darting around to see who it was every time someone coughed or sneezed.

Despite the virus scare, the flower market in Kowloon was full of locals, mostly clad in face masks, jostling each other to get the most beautiful flowers flown in from all over the world.

The New Year lucky colors of red, orange and yellow dominated the floral selection. There were also oranges, gold figurines and charms ready for the coming new year.

On the other hand, on Cat Street, known for its rows of souvenir shops, it seemed like we were the only tourists there as we served as buena mano (first sale of the day) for a lady selling fish ornaments.

In Chinese, fish or yu is a homophone for excess or abundance and having the ornaments wished us abundance throughout the year. The sales lady was particularly pleased when we bought eight pieces of the souvenir – a lucky number.

The nearby alleys painted with street art were also empty. Visiting Hong Kong several times in the past, I could imagine tourists filling the streets, stopping to take photos in front of the colorful murals. We got to take our photos without having to fight other Instagram-happy tourists for our turn.

All our selfies prominently featured the hottest accessory of the season – a face mask, of course. Amid mounting health concerns, we were changing masks at least twice a day and even changing clothes mid-day if we could.

Halfway through our stay, we received word that the event we had traveled to Hong Kong for, the Cathay Pacific International Chinese New Year Carnival, had been cancelled.

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the event, it was slated to be the grandest edition yet, with an extended four-day carnival with booths, food stalls, whole-day performances by both local and international acts and large installations great for photos. The event would have been a festive and timely reminder that Hong Kong was ready to welcome tourists once more.

With news on the novel coronavirus infection spreading by the day, the Hong Kong Tourism Board made the responsible decision to cancel the event. Earlier, there was news that the annual fireworks display on Victoria Harbor had been cancelled for safety concerns, just like the Jan. 1 New Year celebration.

Instead, on New Year’s Day, we ventured off to the New Territories to take part in a more homely festival at Lam Tsuen in Tai Po, where locals wrote wishes on rat-shaped pieces of paper attached to plastic oranges. Many wishes surely included good health.

We then took turns throwing them onto the branches of a heavily-laden wishing tree. If your orange catches onto the branches, your wish will come true, the belief goes.

The main wishing tree that is used for the ritual is actually an artificial tree put up after the original one had to be retired when its branches couldn’t bear the weight of years of the residents’ and visitors’ wishes.

Throwing up the wishes is more difficult than it seems – especially when you’re trying to avoid human contact at the same time. By then, the numbers of those affected by the virus were changing by the hour and one just couldn’t be too careful.

The day after Chinese New Year, Hong Kong Disneyland announced its temporary closure out of consideration for the health and safety of both the guests and cast members. The decision reflected how serious the situation had become, especially since the day fell on a Sunday, surely a very busy day for the amusement park.

Ocean Park was on shut down as well. We settled for the Ngong Ping Cable Car ride, which had a few visitors that made for a fast-moving queue. The cable cars announced a shut down until further notice the following day.

It would have been a perfect way to celebrate the opening of the Year of the Rat with a visit to Mickey Mouse, or at a fun-filled carnival, but maybe the health and security threats, both in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world – whether protests or volcanic eruptions or a deadly virus – forced us to return to the most basic but also the most important thing about the New Year: to celebrate it at home, in the company of those that we love. As long as we are still able to do that, we can consider ourselves lucky indeed.

The author underwent a 14-day self quarantine upon her return. She has shown no symptoms of 2019-nCoV infection. – Ed.

 

NGONG PING CABLE CAR OCEAN PARK
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