New Year Going Viral

One of the odd things about living in Hong Kong is that I get the chance to wish you all a happy New Year not once but twice, second time being for the Chinese version which we are celebrating at the moment. So there you have it, New Year with a double dose of happiness!Well, what’s been going on since my last offering? I’m pleased to report that Christmas and New Year passed fairly peacefully. Although not over yet by a long shot (no pun intended), the civil unrest which has plagued our tiny territory since last summer seems to have significantly subsided. There could be a few reasons for this.

Firstly, many of the younger protestors being students have since resumed study while others could simply be fed up with the whole thing, also government introduced a calming relief package aimed at the needy (including me!), and then of course there’s a feel-good factor still emanating from our recent District Council elections which produced a landslide result in favour of the pan-democrat groups. Certainly not over yet and even though that underlying feeling of resentment endures, this period of calm suggests the movement has advanced smartly beyond the riot and violence stage – hopefully!

Meanwhile, politics and civil unrest aside, this is Hong Kong’s best season. Why, I hear you ask? Well the temperature and humidity drop to more bearable levels and the simple act of moving around can be accomplished without sweating like a pig, so to speak. Although we continue throughout the year, this is the season that many people choose to go hiking, one of the territory’s most popular pastimes and for which we are blessed with numerous country parks and challenging trails. This surprises most people who imagine Hong Kong to be little more than a crowded, high-rise conurbation; nothing could be further from the truth. Difficult to believe I know but there are places here so remote that you will unlikely meet another person or even spot a high-rise.

Talking of climate and despite it being winter, Christmas and New Year were unseasonably warm with temperatures often in the low to mid-20s, a few degrees above normal. Needless to say last year as a whole was the warmest noted since records began back in 1884. The observatory described it ominously as ‘an extremely warm year’. It doesn’t bode well, global warming considered, as we cast nervous eyes across to the recent heatwave and bush fires in Australia. Probably the start only and doubtless we shall see similar climate catastrophes across the world this summer. In Hong Kong, as with many other places, I’m not convinced we’re taking this issue seriously enough as profligate lifestyles flourish. If only we could change.

And on that cheerful note and with Christmas and New Year out of the way, we are now in the middle, as mentioned earlier, of Chinese New Year celebrations, possibly it will all be over by the time you read this. 2020 is the year of the rat and this is reflected in the many large decorations which cleverly morph from those already erected for Christmas.

By example, there’s a covered walkway I pass almost every day which, until recently, bore an attractive lantern-type construction of a cute rodent in an open-wheel, racing car towing a trailer upon which stood a Christmas tree; but not anymore. By adapting the original design the mouse became a rat, its Santa hat changed to a Chinese one, and the tree replaced by the traditional Chinese decoration of gold nuggets displaying the character for good fortune. Easy!

It always amuses me to see whose decoration, most being sponsored by local organisations, can be converted imaginatively from Christmas to Chinese New Year with minimum effort and hopefully minimum cost and wastage. For sadly there’s one sickening aspect both festivals have in common: a phenomenal mountain of waste destined directly for our ever diminishing land fill sites. And that’s something else that needs to change and quickly.

Chinese New Year is often a raucous two-week event with lots of activity and colour, think spectacular lion and dragon dances with a few firecrackers thrown in for good measure; all at maximum volume of course. This year has been a bit quieter than normal however due to the sudden arrival of a rather unwelcome visitor…

Yes indeed, our city is now gripped by the next headline-grabbing event: the coronavirus outbreak. You have to agree, there’s never a dull moment in Hong Kong nowadays. To be honest it hadn’t concerned us too much until people started queuing for whatever facemasks they could find and panic buying food and disinfectant in the shops. It was strange as only last November, during the violent protest siege at the Chinese University, we’d found ourselves cut off from any transport and food shops for a full three days; an uneasy feeling pervaded and survival drew heavily on our resourcefulness. It was a testing time and so the prospect of this virus, or the fear of it rather, escalating to a similar lockdown scenario is not one we particularly relish.

Having survived SARS in Hong Kong back in 2003 you could say we at least possess the experience and knowledge of what to expect and do. We have not yet resorted to wearing a mask, they’re anyway difficult to find and even then you might have to line up for half a day to purchase one! I recall the experts during SARS opining that most commercially available masks were in fact totally ineffective. Also, you now see countless used and discarded masks littering the wayside, even more germs presumably blowing in the wind, which is very reassuring when in the midst of a public health crisis; people can be so careless at times. Sorry, I thought we were supposed to be celebrating the rat, not providing it with a breeding ground!

Our approach therefore is to dodge crowded places, cutting back on non-essential journeys and paying more attention to basic hygiene such as frequent washing of hands when out and about. It’s all we can do. We are also avoiding use of the East Rail which connects with the China-Hong Kong border crossing at Lo Wu, many thousands cross here daily (both ways). Surprisingly, this busy crossing still remains open despite pleas from the medical profession to seal it off ASAP. This issue will now form the basis of an imminent strike by health workers as, sadly, the government of Carrie Lam remains oblivious to such commonsensical views and as we well know from the protests, their diplomatic listening skills seem akin to a well-mortared brick wall; not only that but one built with the dense engineering variety ideal for frosty conditions…

It does of course bring back shudderingly dark memories from the SARS period and, funnily enough, how we all expected it to re-visit in subsequent years; or at least at some point in the near future. In fact I wrote a chapter, A Deadly Visitor, about it in Chartered Territory – An Engineer Abroad and which I have recently looked up because I remembered something rather poignant about the last paragraph, and here it is reproduced:

But our 2003 emergence from the woods, experts proffered, casting gloomful eyes to subsequent winters, would be short-lived – a recrudescence of SARS is more than likely. For the moment at least, our everyday lives, minus face masks and temperature checks, resumed; nonetheless, with portentous forecast heeded and vinegar poised, we watched and, with near-bated breath, we waited

SARS or coronavirus, what’s in a name? It’s still a potent virus though I’d have to say that at the time the former seemed significantly more sinister and menacing. Incidentally, I mentioned vinegar there as some folk back then believed boiling it would sterilise the air locally and thereby keep them safe, though I haven’t yet heard of anybody doing it this time around. At least with the coronavirus, and without further mutations, the survival and recovery rates would appear to be fairly positive; assuming of course that we are being fed the truth about the spread and possible modes of transmission regarding the outbreak in Wuhan; which we are probably not.

Interestingly, SARS suddenly petered out in Hong Kong not with any great medical intervention (apart from patient isolation) but simply with the arrival of summer and warmer days, whether or not the coronavirus will follow suit is anybody’s guess. Watch this space!

For now then this concludes my little run down on what’s been happening in Hong Kong since last time. Once again then: happy Chinese New Year, or Gung Hei Fat Choi, as they mumble from behind their masks in these parts.

After graduating in 1982 Ben worked throughout the UK before an unlikely adventurous disposition led him to Nigeria, India, Japan and Hong Kong. Between each of those overseas assignments he had attempted repatriation with varying degrees of 'success'; the last of which occurred in 2004 when he and his partner returned from Hong Kong for what they considered to be a permanent move, only to return to Hong Kong years later. The exotic misdemeanours inherent in that first expatriate period (1984-2004) together with various Asian sojourns and activities, contributed to a series of travel journal scribbles which eventually morphed in to the book Chartered Territory – An Engineer Abroad.