BEIJING – People across Asia prepared Monday 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 and falls on Tuesday, Feb. 1. Each year is named after one of twelve 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% of Chinese are now fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, and more Chinese have been traveling domestically this year, despite government warnings. Many people prepare to celebrate 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 as he shopped at a Beijing flower market 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.
“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 and wine,” the 62-year-old said. “I will make my house clean and beautiful. Right now the virus is spreading and we need to be careful.”
Some 260 million people traveled in China in the first 10 days of the holiday rush starting Jan. 17 — fewer than before the pandemic but up 46% over last year. Overall, the government forecasts 1.2 billion trips during the holiday season, up 36% from a 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 organizers 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 6 p.m., 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 Chen Lianshan, a Beijing university expert on Chinese folklore.
“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.
Vietnam's daily case count remains at about 15,000 new infections but its low hospitalization and death rate has allowed the country to reopen for business and cautiously resume social activities.
More than 70% of Vietnamese are fully vaccinated, and 80% have had at least one shot, according to Our World in Data.
Still, the country has cancelled Tet fireworks and other large events to minimize risks this year.
In Thailand, where 69% 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 was going ahead with lighting seasonal lanterns on the district's main street.
In Singapore, Lunar New Year celebrations are 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 the Taiwanese capital of Taipei on Monday as people made last minute purchases. Some 73% of Taiwanese are fully vaccinated.
“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 face a bigger dilemma, as the new year coincides with the one-year anniversary of the military's seizure of power from the democratically-elected government.
Supporters of the growing anti-military movement have called for people to close their shops and businesses in a nationwide “silent strike” protest. Military leaders have warned that anyone who participates 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.”
___ Rising reported from Bangkok. AP journalists Wayne Zhang in Beijing, Taijing Wu in Taipei, Hau Dinh in Hanoi, Zen Soo in Singapore, and Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul in Bangkok contributed to this story.