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Chinese orchestra’s Orange County concert canceled over coronavirus panic

Shanghai Chinese Orchestra performs in San Diego as part of a U.S. tour. The Philharmonic Society of Orange County canceled the group's last concert, citing coronavirus fears.
The Shanghai Chinese Orchestra performs in San Diego as part of a U.S. tour. The Philharmonic Society of Orange County has canceled the group’s last concert on the tour, citing coronavirus fears.
(Wang Donglin / SHCO)

The organizer of a Shanghai Chinese Orchestra concert in Costa Mesa has canceled the event, citing “an abundance of caution” over coronavirus despite no evidence that the musicians or potential audience members represent any threat to public health.

The Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which canceled the Wednesday night Chinese New Year celebration at Segerstom Center for the Arts, responded to inquiries from The Times with an emailed statement that blamed “conflicting public health statements” as a reason for the decision, even though orchestra members had been touring in the United States in good health since Jan. 20. The orchestra played all six of its other shows in its tour, including stops at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and, on Monday, at Copley Symphony Hall in San Diego.

“The success of these concerts relies heavily on the support, attendance and promotion by our local community,” wrote Jean Hsu, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Philharmonic Society. “As they are currently subject to many conflicting public health statements, many of our Chinese cultural and community partners have canceled their own events and have informed us that they will not encourage large gatherings of their members. Out of respect to their concerns, and out of an abundance of caution, we canceled this year’s public concert.”

The Philharmonic Society did not respond to repeated Times requests for more details, including which community groups had expressed concerns and whether the orchestra was still receiving compensation for the scheduled performance.

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A representative of the orchestra directed all questions about the cancellation to the Philharmonic Society, saying only that the group had been invited to play in Orange County and that it had been informed of the cancellation less than a week ago, when it was performing in Muscatine, Iowa.

“We just got a notice that the show was canceled. We can’t comment,” said a representative who declined to be identified and ended a call without elaboration.

As coronavirus appears likely to grow into a global pandemic, with 50 million people under quarantine in China, 24,000 people infected and nearly 500 dead, reports of xenophobia are on the rise. That is despite the fact that the national Centers for Disease Control have confirmed only 11 cases of novel coronavirus infection in the U.S., none fatal, and the risk of the disease is relatively low. The CDC estimates that, by comparion, 19 million to 26 million people in the U.S. have been sickened by influenza since Oct. 1 and that the flu has caused 10,000 to 25,000 deaths during that time.

Orange County, which is home to the third-largest Asian American population in the U.S., is among the sites of six California coronavirus cases. Nonetheless, many celebratory Year of the Rat events in the county have carried on, including a performance last weekend at South Coast Plaza by the Irvine Chinese School and South Coast Chinese Cultural Assn., among others.

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Yulan Chung, principal of the school and executive director of the association, said she had no knowledge of the Philharmonic Society cancellation and therefore would not comment on the reasoning behind it. But she didn’t think that members of the community were necessarily being urged to avoid large groups.

She acknowledged a misguided sense of panic among some people in the community, largely rooted in the social media app WeChat, which she blamed for spreading fear and misinformation. She said Chinese groups that canceled Chinese New Year celebrations mostly consisted of senior citizens at higher risk for all kinds of infections.

Chung said the cultural center has been calling for calm and trying to educate the public that the risk of contracting coronavirus in Orange County remains extremely low. She cited the transparency with which American public health officials are sharing information.

Despite the colossal efforts to contain the new coronavirus, scientists are quietly preparing for an increasingly likely outcome: A full-blown global pandemic.

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Although the Philharmonic Society canceled the Segerstrom concert, it did present the Shanghai orchestra in a student concert Tuesday at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo, Hsu said. It’s not clear why that concert moved forward but the Segerstrom show did not. It’s also unclear the extent to which poor ticket sales or the presumed ethnic makeup of the Segerstrom audience drove the decision. Hsu did not respond to repeated requests for more details.

The Segerstom concert was to be the orchestra’s last show before returning home Friday. A representative for the orchestra’s San Diego host, the San Diego Symphony, said that show went off without a hitch. Organizers had consulted with San Diego County health officials and knew that all members of the ensemble were in good health ahead of their arrival.

The show’s promoter, Jone Shillman, said about 800 people turned up to hear the San Diego concert. Only a couple people asked for refunds in advance because of coronavirus fears. She did not give out refunds, nor did she consider canceling the show.

“Last night, lots of Chinese people showed up,” Shillman said. “Don’t worry about it, this is America.”

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Viruses often spark panic. But the coronavirus has spread something else besides misinformation and false rumors: xenophobia and anti-China sentiment.


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