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Hacktreks 2

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Hacktreks in China

Hype and hysteria in the heart of SARS country
By Shaun Davies

"What if I'm just really, really unlucky?"

In a cheap hostel on the thirteenth floor of Mirador Mansions, a dilapidated office block on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, thirty-six-year-old Eileen Mullins was engaged in a coughing fit of spectacular proportions. The coughs emenated from the deepest recesses of her doughy body, and were powerful enough to rattle the flimsy balcony where we sat.
"Are you afraid of SARS?" I asked her as the fit subsided.
Eileen answered in thick Scottish brogue. "I've been selling jewellery in Southeast Asia for fifteen years and..." She began to cough again, even harder. I made an effort not to breathe any air coming from her direction, and glanced nervously toward the pile of empty cigarette packets at the end of her bed. "Yeah, sorry," she said, recovering. "Anyway, it's fucking shite. If you ask me, this whole town's fucking shite. I wouldn't piss on Hong Kong. They can catch SARS and die, for all I care."

Part of the reason I had come to Hong Kong toward the end of the SARS crisis was to find out what sort of person was stupid enough to travel to the region, despite the WHO's repeated, extraordinary warnings against doing so. Eileen was the first person I had encountered, and she was making me think the answer was crazy, disaffected and possibly infected people.

I had other reasons for being there. First, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I planned to travel through the three worst affected areas in China - Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Beijing - and find out if the reality of the situation truly matched the media hype. I also figured there would be less tourists and cheaper hotel prices on offer while the epidemic lasted - I had to strike while the iron was hot.

But that night as I lay in my dormitory bed, listening to Eileen's rasping coughs, I wondered if I had made a stupid mistake. Sure, it was unlikely that Eileen had SARS - out of Hong Kong's 6.8 million inhabitants, only 255 were suffering from the infection that day, leaving me with odds of around one in twenty-seven thousand. Still, I couldn't help thinking, "What if I'm just really, really unlucky?"

Realistically, by the time I arrived on May 15th Hong Kong was not a particularly dangerous place to be. Just one new SARS case had been reported the day before, children were being sent back to school after a long hiatus, and only one week later the WHO would remove its advisory against travel to the region.
However, the city was in a protracated state of caution. Of Asia's economic centres, Hong Kong was hit hardest by the SARS outbreak - retail sales fell by half between mid-March and May, hundreds of flights to the city were cancelled, and the entertainment and restaurant industries recorded an 80 per cent drop in business. (The government has since halved its 2003 GDP growth forecast to 1.5 per cent from 3.0 per cent.)

The impact of the disease was clearly visible on the streets, where around 40 per cent of people still wore surgical masks. Elevators - prime hot spots for transmission - were being cleaned hourly, even quarter-hourly, with the rate of cleaning prominently and reassuringly displayed on the door. Advertising companies had reacted quickly - billboards featured button-cute children in surgical masks and paternalistic doctors with reasssuring stares. There also were upbeat slogans, advisory notices, and strong warnings against spitting on the street, which were not having an obvious impact.

But it was in restaurants that the effect of SARS was most visible. Take the Ocean View Seafood Restaurant, a completely unexceptional Chinese place that seemed to be staffed entirely by nurses. The waiters and waitresses strode around in masks and gloves, taking orders behind protective layers of latex and cotton. It was exactly like a theme restaurant I once visited in Tokyo. My meal was served briskly, as there was virtually nobody else in the restaurant, and when I finished eating, my nurse presented me with a cold, wet towel. It was soaked in some kind of disinfectant, which made my hands smell like a freshly sterilized operating table.
The purpose of all this was obviously to let people know that in the face of a terrible outbreak, something was being done. While it is not exactly reassuring to be served food by somebody who looks as though they could take your appendix out, you at least realize that measures are in place. Somebody, you hope, is taking care of things.

One of the most unusual tourist attractions in Guangzhou, the largest city in the Chinese province of Guangdong, is the Qingping open-air market. In its pungent, crowded alleys, which teem with shoppers on busy days, you can find (among other things) starfish, monkeys, cats, dogs, frogs and turtles - for sale not as pets, but as food. Some are already dead, or in the process of dying, while others are crammed into disturbingly crowded cages and tanks, waiting to be fished out by butchers and freshly slaughtered in front of customers.
One animal sometimes sold in markets such as Qingping is the Civet cat. Many Southern Chinese believe eating its flesh will help guard against winter colds and flus. In May, scientists in Guangdong announed that they had discovered a coronavirus very similar to SARS in the faeces and respiratory fluids of the Civet. They concluded that this is how the virus could have first been transmitted to humans.

Although later research has put this claim in doubt, the Civet was hot news when I arrived in Guangzhou. Unfortunately, despite several hours of sticking my head into bloody butcher's shops, I could not find a specimen of the cat anywhere in Qingping, alive or slaughtered.

I also could not see anyone wearing a surgical mask. In fact, throughout all of Gunagzhou there was barely a surgical mask in sight. After Hong Kong, where you sometimes felt as though you'd stumbled across the world's largest medical convention, this was quite a shock, especially as Guangzhou was the epicentre of the SARS outbreak, with over 1500 cases and 57 deaths since November last year.

"I'm not sure why this is," said one resident, a 22-year-old named Lan Fang who preferred to be called Kitty. "Even when things were very bad, not so many people were wearing masks. But people in Hong Kong, they are rich, so maybe they are afraid to die. People here are poor, so we are not afraid of dying."

In keeping with Kitty's theory, Western tourists, rich and poor (but all rich by Chinese standards) were few and far between in Guangzhou. The local Youth Hostel was completely deserted and tourist sites were uniformly uninhabited.

Surprisingly, though, a large number of American couples could still be found wheeling very young children around gentrified Shamian Island. At first, this puzzled me immensely - what were these idiots doing in the middle of the SARS epidemic with five-month-old children? After asking around, I was informed that Guangzhou is the capital of China's thriving adoption industry. These people had come to claim their babies.
David and Julie Smith, a fortyish couple from Arkansas, said that SARS had not made them hesitate about coming to Guangzhou for a moment.
"It was a case of, 'Our daughter is in China,'" said Mrs Smith, "so even though we had to change our flight arrangements eight times, we never thought of not coming. We were afraid that the virus might mutate or something like that, but things seem to be getting better now."

The Smiths were lucky to make it into China. "We just got in under the wire," said Mrs Smith. "Actually, we were one of the last families to get the permit before the Chinese Government suspended adoptions. We were afraid that we might be stopped anyway."

Elsewhere in the city, life went on quite normally - couples strolled hand-in-hand; old people played cards in
the park; children sold flowers and picked pockets by the river. It really seemed as though nothing untoward was happening.

In fact, one of the only remaining signs of SARS impact on the city was at the train station. When I arrived to catch my train to Beijing, four one hundred metre lines stretched away from the entrance, each crawling towards a SARS checking station. The nurses at the front of the line did not seem particularly efficient and, to make matters worse, nearly every new arrival cut in line.

One hour later I still had 50 metres to cover, and my train was leaving in twenty minutes. As a family of seven elbowed in front of me, it became clear that the time for politeness had well and truly passed. I strode to the front of the queue and aggressively pushed my way into its chaotic mouth, waving my ticket in the air.Seeing my panicked white face, one of the nurses grabbed my arm and pulled me into the relative calm of the testing area. An infrared scanner took my temperature 31c degrees celcius. Technically, this meant I was dead, but the people in charge seemed satisfied that I was not consumed by a life-threatening fever.

I found my carriage with five minutes to spare, and was soon subjected to another test, this time a thermometer under the arm. The train was fairly empty - Beijing was not China's most popular destination at the time, and with good reason. On the 26th of May, it was still the most virulent city in the world.

By the time I arrived in Beijing, SARS-inspired panic had diminished disappointingly. People were out shopping, eating in cafes, drinking in bars, and although surgical masks were more common than in Guangzhou, there was none of the Hollywood-style panic you might have hoped for.

Still, according to residents, the city was quieter than normal. Precautionary measures were common - shoppers were subjected to temperature checks and disinfectant sprays at department stores, for instance. And the Chinese government was certainly making sustained and unusual efforts to keep the situation under control.
The latest innovation was the introduction of spit bags. The Chinese are notorious spitters, noted for gobbing anywhere they see fit - on the sidewalk, in buses and trains, on carpeted floors in restaurants. As there are 1.2 billion Chinese, collectively they may hack up more phlegm than the rest of the world put together.

As SARS is transmitted through bodily fluids, this created a problem for the Chinese government. Obviously, it was imperative to stop people from depositing little globules of potential disease all over the city. But at the same time, how could they possibly put an instant halt to such a common and ingrained habit?
The solution (which did not seem to be working) was to create little paper bags in huge numbers and hand them out to the populace, encouraging them exporate in a more publically conscious manner.

The controls placed on spitting were not the only hygeinic innovations taking place in the city. The SARS outbreak had resulted in a cleanup of Beijing's notoriously filthy public toilets, much to the relief of some local expatriate residents.
"Before SARS, you would never find soap or toilet paper in any toilet," said 26-year-old Italian Nazarena Fazzari, who works as a translator in a city near Beijing. "They were so filthy that sometimes, you could not use them. Now, they are a little better. Not good, but a little better."

As in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, tourist numbers in Beijing were well down on average - according to the Statistics Bureau in Beijing, 18 000 tourists arrived in the city in May, a year-on-year drop of 93 per cent. Hotels and hostels across the city were either temporarily closed or offering large discounts on rooms. The majority of the guests in the Youth Hostel I stayed in were not tourists at all, but English teachers who had lost their jobs in rural China (due to SARS) and come to the city to seek work or book a flight home.

This, of course, meant that China's two premiere tourist attractions, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, were almost deserted, giving the hardy few who dared to enter Beijing a unique opportunity to visit these great monuments undisturbed. As Laurant, a Frenchman staying at my hostel commented - "I felt as though it was my Forbidden City - there was not another tourist in sight."

However, my attempt to visit the Great Wall was cruelly thwarted. I awoke at 6:30 am and dragged myself to an obscure bus stop, where the cheapest possible bus to the Wall was supposed to leave from. After an hour of frustrated waiting and fruitless wandering, I eventually ascertained from a taxi driver that the bus was not running, due to SARS.

The taxi driver offered to take me to the wall for around fifty US dollars, which was far too expensive for me. Unperturbed, I jumped a subway and headed across town to Tiannemen Square, where a more expensive bus was scheduled to leave from at 9.30. This one wasn't running, either. The ticket lady told me villagers near the wall were actually blockading their towns to prevent Beijing residents entering - she alluded to frightened farmers wielding pitchforks and shovels. However, she said, a private driver could take me to the wall - for around fifty US dollars.

Three people who did travel to the Great Wall at the end of May were Mitchell O'Gornan, Kevin Brennan and Richie Butler, all from Ireland. They spent a whole day at Badaling, one of the most popular tourist sites, and saw only one other person, a local who ran a refreshment stall.
"It would've been way more shit (with tourists around), because we were pretending to fight on the wall, and we were alone so it seemed kind of real," said Mitchell. "We were putting ourselves in the place of the Chinese trying to stop the Mongolian invasion and it wouldn't have been as realistic if there was loads of tourists there. It was just me, Kev and Ritchie manning the turrets."
"We wouldn't have been able to piss on the wall, either," added Ritchie.
"It didn't really feel like you were visiting one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world," said Mitchell. "I think it made it 500 times better."

© Shaun Davies August 2003

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