WESTBROOK — The Westbrook Performing Arts Center was draped in red and bedecked with lanterns Saturday as hundreds of people flocked there to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year.

The festivities were tempered by concerns about the coronavirus outbreak that has killed 304 people in China, sickened thousands and prompted travel bans from several countries. An official from the Chinese Consulate in New York who was present at Saturday’s event sought to reassure attendees that the country’s government had the situation well in hand.

Organized by the Chinese & American Friendship Association and the University of Southern Maine’s Confucius Institute, the gathering ushered in the “Year of the Rat,” symbolizing in the Chinese Zodiac a time of wealth and abundance.

Parents and children milled about the gymnasium at Westbrook Middle School, which hosts the arts center, trying their hand at traditional instruments – pan pipes, cymbals, drums – and ink-brush calligraphy. Scholars and community members throughout the day conducted workshops on tai chi, Chinese written characters and international relations.

Manning the Friendship Association’s table was Chichun Tsou, a retired businessman, originally from Taiwan, who has served the association for many years. Beyond Saturday’s festival, the group hosts potlucks, lectures and other events meant to promote intercultural understanding.

“We bring people together,” Tsou said, standing next to one of the group’s founders, Craig Dietrich, a friend of more than a decade.

Before the day’s main event – a dance performance by the Chinese Folk Art Workshop of Boston – organizers sent their best wishes to the people of Wuhan, China, the center of the epidemic, which has infected at least 11,791 people in China and spread around the world.

The Chinese consular official, Aming Liu, also addressed the outbreak.

Switching between Chinese and English, he wished the crowd a happy new year and said that the Chinese government was doing its best to contain the disease. He pushed back on the U.S. government’s recent warning against travel to China, noting that the World Health Organization has not made that recommendation.

“This is a time for facts, not fear. This is a time for science, not rumor,” he said.

The lights came up on six boys behind a row of kettle drums. Keeping perfect time, they pounded their mallets, punctuating the tattoo with shouts and choreographed movements of the drums, which they rolled around on wheels.

A dizzying array of routines followed – girls dancing in tight formation with fans, flips and acrobatics, prancing lions, bo staffs and swords. Festivalgoers took to their feet and met the finale with thunderous applause.

After a chance to meet the Folk Art performers, who are mostly high school and middle school students from the Boston area, attendees headed to the school cafeteria for lunch. Seminars on acupuncture, folk tales and the U.S.-China relationship followed, with official events concluding by 3 p.m.

The Chinese & American Friendship Association was established in 1988 and held its first lunar new year celebration, a small banquet, soon thereafter, according to the group’s website. In 1991, the association held its first public fair and has done so each year since.


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