The early birds were lucky, the rest missed out.
Hongkongers quickly snapped up the few live chickens remaining on market stalls yesterday after the government halted supplies from wholesalers and ordered a cull following the discovery of deadly H5N1 bird flu in a dead chicken on Tuesday.
The discovery at the Cheung Sha Wan Temporary Wholesale Poultry Market prompted health workers to slaughter 17,000 birds yesterday and suspend the supply of live chickens from mainland farms for three weeks.
The deadly bird flu strain was also found in two wild birds.
All chickens at the wholesale poultry market were slaughtered and extra inspections were ordered at chicken farms and hospitals.
At the Bowrington Road market in Wan Chai, shoppers nervously inquired about the supply of live chickens at the only live-poultry store, but they did not seem worried about contracting the disease. However, they could only buy chickens that cost HK$160 to HK$180 each.
Store keeper Yau said she had asked for about 200 chickens from wholesalers ahead of the winter-solstice festival today, but because of the culling all she could sell yesterday were 30 chickens left over from Tuesday and a few frozen chickens. She was not concerned about having handled chickens from the infected batch, saying: 'All the chickens we bought were very healthy.'
People will now have to switch to frozen or chilled chicken, but will pay at least 20 per cent more than for the fresh product. Even with these higher prices, sales of frozen chickens rose by 20 per cent yesterday at the Kowloon City market.
'It is a tradition for Chinese people to eat chicken on festivals. While some prefer fresh, live chicken, which tastes better, they will have to switch to chilled chicken if they have no choice. They will still eat chicken. None of my customers seem to be frightened of bird flu,' said one chicken vendor.
Many housewives were not worried about the lack of fresh chicken for their winter solstice meals. Wu Po-ching, 63, said: 'Frozen chickens don't taste as good. But it's all right. There's no other way out.' Another customer said she bought her chilled bird for HK$155 per catty yesterday - 50 per cent more than for fresh birds.
The government agreed to compensate the live-chicken wholesalers at a rate of HK$30 per catty, but Poultry Wholesalers' Association chairman Tsui Ming-tuen demanded more, without naming what he thought was a 'reasonable price'.
But Food and Health Secretary Dr York Chow Yat-ngok said HK$30 per catty was reasonable.
Chow appealed to the frozen-bird sellers not to put their prices up too much, so poorer families could also enjoy chicken during the festival.
Commenting on the cull, Dr Ho Pak-Leung, director of the University of Hong Kong's microbiology department, said the government's prompt actions were appropriate to containing a potential outbreak. He said over the coming week it would be crucial to observe whether poultry market workers developed bird-flu symptoms, and advised anyone with serious respiratory symptoms to be tested for H5N1 infection.
'Eating cooked chicken is unlikely to cause bird flu,' he said.
The number of deaths caused by bird flu worldwide, according to data from the World Health Organisation