One of Hong Kong’s largest Taoist temples has for the first time in its 99-year history scrapped the Lunar New Year ritual of burning the inaugural incense stick of the festival, citing the Covid-19 crisis.
Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple said on Monday there would be revised arrangements for the Spring Festival worship on February 12, with the city’s fourth wave of coronavirus infections showing no sign of abating.
“Many citizens who come every year cannot come this year,” said Dr Lee Yiu-fai, the Taoism abbot for Sik Sik Yuen. “This pandemic may drag on for a long time and we need to be safe for the public and our 380 members who will serve as volunteers at the temple during Lunar New Year.”
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Worshippers typically flock to the temple at the turn of Lunar New Year to give their first offerings to the Taoist deity, the Great Immortal Wong, in the hope of improving their fortunes for the coming 12 months.
But that ritual – including the scramble to be the first to burn incense on the stroke of midnight – has been cancelled. The tradition has attracted an average of 50,000 to 70,000 people in previous years.
Under the revised opening hours, the public can only enter the temple from 7.30am to 4.30pm on the eve of Lunar New Year’s first day. That extends to 6pm over the first fourteen days of the new year, and to 9pm on the 15th day.
The temple will also implement various measures for the pandemic, including crowd controls over the new year period.
Visitors must register using the government’s contact-tracing “Leave Home Safe App”, contactless Octopus cards or manually with the temple volunteers.
The temple will operate at half capacity and keep track of the number of people flowing in and out of the venue, with updates provided on screens and online every hour. If a red notice is displayed, visitors will not be allowed into the temple, with an alarm sounding when there are more than 1,000 people inside.
Workers and volunteers must also produce a negative Covid-19 test result 48 hours before the Lunar New Year’s Eve, and the temple will be regularly disinfected.
Many worshippers were supportive of the cancellation, mostly citing safety issues.
“There’s too many people even in previous year. Just seeing it on TV, it looks like everyone is crowding together. Of course it’s best to cancel this year,” said a 60-year-old retired woman surnamed Leung.
A 62-year-old casual worker surnamed Sze, who takes part in the ritual every year, said the cancellation “can’t be helped”.
“This pandemic has made the situation quite helpless. It’s better to close it off for the safety of everyone,” he said. “Hopefully we can participate again at a later time.”
But 22-year-old writer Ng Lai-ying, who usually visits the temple on Lunar New Year Eve to buy decorations, expressed frustration about the early closure.
“The cancellation is quite meaningless as many people can still light incense sticks after New Year Eve,” she said. “It’s not that useful to contain Covid-19.”
Separately, an annual ritual at the Che Kung Temple in Sha Tin for drawing divination sticks on the second day of Lunar New Year on February 13 will be closed to the public due to the pandemic, according to the Chinese Temples Committee.
To minimise contagion risks, the traditional dance by Qilin, a mythical hoofed creature, will be cancelled, and only a limited number of staff and media will be allowed to attend.
Che Kung Temple will be open from 8am to 6pm on Lunar New Year’s Eve, 7am to 6pm on the first day of the new year and 8am to 6pm on the second day, reopening at 11pm. From February 15 to the end of the new year, the temple will be open from 7am to 5.30pm.
The number of worshippers will be limited to no more than half of maximum capacity, while they must have their temperature taken at the entrance. All visitors must scan the “Leave Home Safe” QR code before coming inside.
Other pandemic prevention measures include hand sanitiser offered at the entrance and regular disinfection of items commonly touched by worshippers.
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