Virus anxieties cast shadow over Year of the Rat festivities

Chinese communities around the world greeted the Year of the Rat on Saturday with dances and parades, although celebrations were marred by worries about the coronavirus outbreak that has upended Lunar New Year festivities in China.

In Sydney, which welcomed in the year with golden rat statues set up at the entrance to its downtown Chinatown precinct, authorities said crowds might be smaller than usual.

"We don't know if quite as many people will come this year because of the coronavirus and I'd like to especially acknowledge Wuhan city government," said Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, referring to the central Chinese city at the epicenter of the virus.

Some 100 community events were planned across Sydney until Feb. 11, including dragon boat races and the annual lunar lantern display. Last year, the festivities in the city, home to a large and growing Chinese population, attracted 1.5 million people.

In Manila, and in London's brightly decorated Chinatown, some revelers wore protective face masks.


For China's 1.4 billion people, the holiday is the most important of the year and millions of people travel thousands of miles back to their hometowns to gather with family and friends.

But China, seeking to control the spread of the illness, canceled many large-scale celebrations of the holiday, closed part of the Great Wall and suspended public transport in many cities, stranding millions.

Chinese state television's traditional Lunar New Year extravaganza on Friday paid tribute to the people of Wuhan and to medical staff fighting the coronavirus crisis.

Many events, such as making offerings at temples, wandering around at outdoor festival fairs, and even family reunion dinners at restaurants, have been canceled as public gatherings were discouraged.

Young people posted on social media appeals to reduce family gatherings or to at least wear masks when greeting one another with New Year's wishes, which is typically seen as disrespectful in the Chinese culture.

In Wuhan, the most affected city, the mood was nervous.

"There's so much news, so much data, every 10 minutes there's an update, it's frightening, especially for people like us in a severely hit area," Lily Jin, 30, a resident of the city, told Reuters.

In Thailand, Zhao Xiaoli, a tour guide from Eastern China's Anhui province, said that precautions have been taken.

"(We have advised tourists to) avoid crowded places, take care of personal hygiene, and go to see a doctor immediately if they show symptoms of flu, fever and coughs," he said.

On the other side of the globe, people in Mexico City's Chinatown celebrated on Friday evening. One reveler, acupuncture student Froylan de Hilario, struck an optimistic note.

"Ten years ago in Mexico we had the H1N1 flu and we weren't as advanced in medical matters," he said. "In China there is a lot of technology in medical matters."