Representational image of crowd playing Holi covered in coloured powder.

Hong Kong’s Holi in the Time of Covid-19

Ask most people what comes to mind when you say the word ‘Holi’, and they are likely to say ‘colours’. The Indian festival is arguably most known for water fights with pichkaris (water guns) and smearing gulaal (coloured powder) on each other. Having its roots in Hindu folklore, the “festival of colours” has grown beyond religious and geographical boundaries and is now celebrated by some non-Hindus beyond south Asia — and Hong Kong is no exception.

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Representational image. Credit: Herri Bizia on Flickr

However, the spread of Covid-19 has cast a shadow on festivities this year. Government warnings against large gatherings (especially indoors), as well as the public’s general concerns of travelling around and outside Hong Kong, have brought celebrations to a halt.

Holi parties are preceded by a ceremony called Holi Dahan, which occurs the night before Holi. This event usually involve gatherings of people praying and chanting together around a holika (fire) — from which Holi gets its name. In Hong Kong, the Hindu Mandir, a temple in Tsim Sha Tsui, is one of the places that carries out this ritual.

Hindu worshippers gathered around a holika during prayers from 2019. Credit: Maharaj Hitesh, Hindu Mandir in Hong Kong

However, this year’s Holi Dahan was cancelled. While the temple remains open, visitors are requested to arrive in small groups, and have their temperature checked at the entrance. The temple has also been having occasional free mask distribution campaigns, especially for those over 65 years old.

“But we don’t even have to remind people of precautions these days,” says Maharaj Hitesh, the pandit (priest) of the temple. “If they see more than 4-6 people here, they usually wrap up their prayers and leave. That’s the level of anxiety and cautiousness we’re dealing with.”

Such small crowds are a stark contrast to their previous Holi Dahan days, during which they could expect 1,000-1,500 people to come in and out of the temple over the course of the day, with around 300 people in the temple at any given point of time.

However, he remains hopeful of a good Holi season despite the public health crisis. He has implored temple-goers to have their own ‘mini-holikas’ in their balconies, backyards and communities.

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A WhatsApp message that the temple sent to its visitors after the cancellation of Holi Dahan plans. Credit: Maharaj Hitesh, Hindu Mandir in Hong Kong

For others, Covid-19’s impact on Holi has also hit their wallets. Over the past few years, the South Asian Society of the University of Hong Kong has celebrated Holi with beach parties at Discovery Bay which has now become their most anticipated annual event. In 2019, the event saw a turnout of at least 250 people. However, the society called off plans for this year’s event in February, after the university shifted to online teaching.

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HKU’s Holi beach party from 2019. Credit: @southasiansocietyhku on Instagram

Soumya Khere, co-president of the society, says they were about to invest at least $3,000 into the event (excluding financial support from HKU, the Indian Consulate in Hong Kong, and other sponsors).

“From my conversations with friends, I can tell you that everybody is pretty upset about it. There are people reposting pictures from last year’s events on social media. Freshmen told me they were looking forward to the event,” Khere describes.

Luckily, she says, the society had not spent on the event so far.

“Because things were so uncertain even in the beginning of the year, we had asked our sponsors to wait on finances. We had also spoken to the DJ and transporters about holding off on advanced payments.”

However, an uncertainty looms over the society’s future plans. The group was hoping to use the profits from this year’s Holi festivity for bigger and better activities next year, such as organizing ‘freshman kits’ that included comfort goodies that reminded new South Asian students of home.

Meanwhile, families are demotivated by the cancellation of many large-scale commercial Holi parties and celebrations.

“We’re disappointed, especially since Holi celebrations in Hong Kong are anyway a bit muted to begin with since we’re not in India,” says Ruchi Bhandari, an Indian expat banker in Hong Kong. “We like the festival a lot, especially the kids – they love the water and colours,” describes the mother of three.

Bhandari hopes to keep the festive spirit going by meeting up with friends and family. However, she will be exercising precautions like meeting in small groups, being wary of food being shared by everyone, avoiding enclosed spaces, and being extra cautious for the sake of her young children.

On the other hand, Parth Panchal, an undergraduate student who was brought up in Hong Kong, doesn’t seem too dismayed. “To be fair, my family doesn’t really go for Holi parties and stuff. We just have the prayers,” the Indian-Hong Konger says, referring to the Holi Dahan events.

“We’re all just glad that we can meet our friends at least,” he says. “We might be having a smaller, less crowded Holi Dahan within our community. But I won’t really trust the food there,” he jokes.

His plans echo those of Anisha Das, a 21-year-old employee of The Aces Hong Kong. While she and her family are mostly annoyed at the cancelled events, she still plans to have a small get-together with her friends near her home.

Regardless of people’s reactions and changed plans this year, they all agree on one thing  — they hope next year’s Holi can be celebrated in much better circumstances.

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