The mood is somber rather than festive in Honolulu’s Chinatown these days as merchants gear up for Lunar New Year next week.
All usual festivities that would have taken place this weekend ahead of Feb. 12, which signifies the start of the Year of the Ox on the lunar calendar, were either nixed or canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There will be no “Night in Chinatown Festival” and parade, an event usually organized by the Chinatown Merchants Association, which draws thousands.
Gifford Chang said the group did not actually plan for any events this year due to COVID-19. The decision was made as early as last March, when the pandemic hit, resulting in the first lockdown.
“With respect to following the leadership of our Governor and our Mayor as well as neighboring County Mayors, the Chinatown Merchants Association had decided to do their part by not planning for any events celebrating Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year,” wrote Chang in an email. “It is our belief that social distancing, wearing masks and not having large gatherings in Chinatown will minimize the spread of COVID illnesses so that all businesses can open up and our economy can begin to recover.”
Likewise, all cultural festivities planned by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, have been canceled due to the pandemic, and in accordance with city and state orders.
Usually, the chamber holds a Choy Cheng, or Chinatown Open House event and celebration at the Cultural Plaza, as was the case last year. The 2021 Narcissus Queen Pageant, Coronation Ball and other Narcissus events are also being canceled.
“Due to the unfortunate circumstances, we are very sorry for the cancellations of the events that many have enjoyed for so many years,” wrote president Elvira Lo in a statement. “We sincerely appreciate your understanding and support. We hope that our life will be back to normal in the near future so that we can resume the Narcissus Festival cultural programs and share the enjoyment for traditional Choy Cheng and Lunar New Year celebration in next year of 2022.”
Also, merchants are still offering items like red envelopes, traditionally handed out to children and others with money inside during the new year, along with representations of the ox, gau (sticky rice cake), candies, and other foods for households that are expected to celebrate at home this year.
The Guan Hua shop at the corner of Maunakea and S. King streets offers smiling, stuffed ox toys, along with calendars and charms.
There may still be some firecrackers and lion dancers hired by individual stores and restaurants separately to usher in blessings for the new year — but on a much smaller scale in order to follow distancing guidelines. For instance, monetary donations will be collected in a basket, separately, rather than handed to the lions’ mouths.
“People are not in a celebration mood because it’s so depressing,” said Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, president of the Chinatown Business and Community Association. “A lot of people lost their jobs. It’s going to be a lean year.”
She said merchants also refrained from stocking up as much as in previous years due to uncertainty in the market, as well as the cancellation of the usual events.
What would usually be a loud and colorful, festive scene in the neighborhood is now a dismal one – with an influx of homeless, she said.
“I think a lot of people are worrying about getting vaccines and whether these variants are going to take off,” said Shubert-Kwock. “But we have to move on and hope they manufacture enough vaccines so that everyone who wants to be vaccinated can get vaccinated.”
The Year of the Rat makes an exit on Feb. 12, which becomes the Year of the Ox, according to the lunar calendar, which cycles through 12 different zodiac animals. The ox is characterized as hard-working, intelligent and reliable without demanding praise — and is a valued animal for its role in agriculture.