Little cheer for Year of the Tiger in Hong Kong as COVID bites

Lunar New Year is usually welcomed with feasts and big gatherings but the government’s zero-COVID drive has left people with little opportunity to celebrate.

A woman in a blue coat looks through red and gold decorations for the Lunar New Year at a Hong Kong market
Customers shop for decorations ahead of the Lunar New Year, as the government tightens restrictions in pursuit of zero COVID [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Hong Kong, China – On January 21, when the number of coronavirus cases hit 20 in the densely-populated high-rise public housing estate of Kwai Fong, residents were given two hours to prepare for a five-day lockdown.

Santiago Fung’s family focused on the essentials.

His mother and sister bought lettuce and vegetables. Fung picked up frozen seafood, herbs for his two pet tortoises, along with two packs of cigarettes and 24 cans of beer.

“I think for five days, that’s enough,” he said as the lockdown began.

Challenges mounted by the day. As hundreds of the building’s 2,800 residents crammed the lifts and lobby to get tested, positive cases zipped into the triple digits. Government-supplied meals were tasteless and arrived late.

Mostly, he endured the challenge of being a 33-year-old locked down in a 300-square-foot apartment (27.9 square metres) with a younger sister and a mother who insisted they share Chinese herbs with the neighbours.

“It’s only like 20 something hours,” Fung said on the first day. “And we have already had two to three fights.”

Hong Kong people are passionate about Lunar New Year, a lively season of family dinners and gift-giving, when cash-filled red envelopes are handed out to children, workers and the young and unmarried. But with the territory entering its third year of the virus, and a fifth wave of restrictions thanks to the government’s drive for zero COVID, the Year of the Tiger which starts on February 1 growls in another year of gloom.

To vanquish the virus in the congested city, the government has turned to locking down buildings and ordering mandatory testing, for fear that one infected person could quickly ignite a district outbreak. The order on Fung’s building was unusual for the length and the number of cases found.

A row of health workers in hazmat suits sit on a bench, their backs to the camera - as residents of Kwai Chung queue up in the dark for COVID tests
Health workers wearing protective suits distribute sample collection tubes to residents at a makeshift site for coronavirus testing at the locked down Kwai Chung residential area, a public housing estate [Lam Yik/Reuters]

Officials insist that Omicron’s high transmission rate justifies the need to again impose rules that kept much of the city shut down a year ago. Once again, restaurants and banquet halls have been told they can no longer serve in-house diners after 6pm leading to the cancellation of countless New Year’s plans.

Leisure venues such as cinemas, dance centres and gyms have also been shut with the order extending to outdoor fun, especially government-run facilities. In Hong Kong no swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses, barbecue pits, or even chess tables are open to the public.

Many residents are stranded overseas, either because they were in a country deemed to be a virus hotspot, or unable to book 21 straight days in designated hotels to satisfy the onerous quarantine regime for returning travellers.

Yet, the city’s strict rules have not been applied equally.

Residents fumed when Chief Executive Carrie Lam seemed to excuse several public servants who flouted guidance against large group gatherings after dozens of officials were photographed together at a politician’s birthday bash.

On Monday, the secretary for home affairs resigned, saying he had been wrong to attend the January 3 banquet. The police chief remains in office after he insisted he had not been socialising, but “strengthening communications” at the party.

‘Nothing is going on’

For ordinary citizens, Beijing’s demands of zero COVID have turned what was one of the world’s most dazzling, cosmopolitan, and eclectic cities into an isolated, anxious island of pique.

“There is no Chinese New Year this year,” said Karen, a young employee at an art gallery, one Friday evening.  With bars closed, she had joined four friends for beers on the steps of Shin Hing Street in Central where a few dozen people lingered. Bats swooped through the air. Police soon arrived and demanded IDs, as they berated the unmasked.

“My mother can’t even get flowers,” Karen moaned. The annual plant market in Victoria Park has also been a victim of government cancellations. “Nothing. Nothing is going on.”

With dancing, drinking and live music banned, the fiercest frustrations seethe in the city’s entertainment hubs.

Lan Kwai Fong, a warren of noisy cocktail bars and fast food outlets in the heart of Hong Kong, is hollowed out, like a bowling alley on Monday morning, with empty lanes hugged by closed aluminium gates.

“We’re struggling,” said Aldrin Ang, general manager of GRAM, the Gourmet, on a late Friday afternoon. On the nearly deserted D’Aguilar Street, Ang ticked off the victims that did not survive this shutdown: Rula Bula. Fire N Ice. The site of another bar, he heard, was sold to a coffee chain. Word was that the Japanese restaurant might close.

GRAM usually bustles with holiday parties and product launches. Those were nixed. The owner, he says, promised the staff six months of employment. “I don’t know about seven months,” Ang said with a hollow chuckle.  He prepared to clean up and leave for the day, having overseen lunches for just four tables.  “At six o’clock,” he said, “it’s a ghost town.”

Hong Kong is a sombre city now, but rebellious at heart. With the city’s democracy movement smothered, many people enjoy the quiet thrill of defying rules.

A female resident carries three plastic bags of groceries into a government housing complex beneath a police tape and watching officer
A resident carries groceries past a police officer standing guard at the entrance of a public housing building sealed off for five days following a COVID-19 outbreak [Jerome Favre/EPA]

Friends meet in hotel rooms to enjoy dinners. People pack hiking trails. Ocean swimmers slice through chilly waters at unguarded beaches. On a recent Sunday, one bather ducked under a tape cordon to clean himself in the public showers.

Even children test boundaries. After residents in Repulse Bay, a luxury seaside community on Hong Kong Island, cut the tape strung around the local playground, city workers returned to wrap swings and ladders with plastic netting. “It looks like some kind of contemporary art installation,” said neighbour Ying Chen. The children duck under the obstacle and resume play.

Chen and her husband have begun to mull leaving the city for good. “If the kids were at school, parents would feel free to do certain things. Whereas learning from home, the feeling is like suffocating,” she said.

Days into the Kwai Chung Estate lockdown, Fung roamed the building’s corridors and stairwells to photograph the growing piles of rubbish. He did not fear getting sick, even though no one in his family had been vaccinated, not even his mother, as they feared reactions.

The virus drew closer. Two neighbours on his floor tested positive. One day, the daughter in one family knocked to ask if he could spare a carrot. She was being moved to the government barracks and needed food for her hamster.

The hamster resistance

Not that there was much fresh food to spare. Tired of waiting hours for the government to deliver meals of meat and cabbage, Fung had been cooking. By the second day, the family had no more lettuce and broccoli. The prawns were used up by the fourth day. Fung held tight to the frozen chicken wings, pork and three eggs.

Each day, he wiped down the apartment with bleach until that, too, ran out.  His mother insisted they use Chinese tea to disinfect their clothes and clean the floor. “I don’t know where she gets these ideas,” he said.

By the fifth day, government workers swaddled in blue PPE had found hundreds of cases lurking inside the noses and throats of residents who queued daily on the basketball court. Twelve of the estate’s 16 buildings were COVID hotspots by then, with more than 200 cases alone in Fung’s Yat Kwai House. The government extended the lockdown by two days, to a total of seven.

Fung went to the stairwell for a smoke. In normal times he might indulge in a puff four times a week. By day five of lockdown he had had the last of the two packs, all without coffee, because there was none.

He downed the final beer that night.

As cases have climbed even animals have come under scrutiny.

After health officials linked a virus strain in a pet shop worker and customer to the outlet’s hamsters, the government announced 2,000 of the creatures would have to be culled. Hamsters purchased after December 22, it declared, would need to be turned in.

Some people began to comply, but there was also a wave of revulsion.

Animal lovers found support on social media groups such as Life on Palm and Cute Hamster Group, which depicted whiskered protesters in hard hats and gas masks. The China-imposed security law might have stifled free speech, but hamster lovers were willing to take chances to save pets from certain death.

A call went out. Volunteers were needed to shelter the abandoned. Jackie, who prefers not to share her name, took two hamsters.

An office worker who once blocked streets at lunchtime during the 2019 protests brought her new charges to a meeting outside a train station. She was disgusted with policies that justified using fear and violence to restore public health. “We are more likely to bring the virus to them,” she said, looking at Miracle and Steven Chow, both burrowed into their cotton bedding.

It was a good sign, she said, that so many people were keen to ignore orders and safeguard the weak. “We are not here to fully obey what the government says,” she said.

On Friday, the government finally released Fung and the remaining COVID-free denizens of Yat Kwai House. They had made their displeasure known days before when Lam toured the area before the TV cameras. Fung and others shouted insults at the chief executive from their open windows.

A couple walk beneath illuminated red Chinese lanterns in Hong Kong
A couple walks on a pedestrian bridge decorated with red lanterns for the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong’s Central district. Restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues have been forced to close again because of COVID-19 [Jerome Favre/EPA]

Free to leave home, he realised the limits to life outside. He could not attend dinners or meet large groups of friends. Everyone seemed tense about Omicron, including his boss.

Fung lost five days of work, or 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($641), during his absence from his construction job. He sensed a frostiness from the boss, who was perhaps worried about welcoming back someone from Kwai Fong.

He says he will probably just stay home for the holiday. “I don’t think the Chinese New Year is going to be joyful this year.”

Source: Al Jazeera