I really see this as an opportunity. I think pandemics have the ability to orientate us, even if we have to learn the hard way. We are not an island, everyone and everything is interconnected.
– IVY CHOW
Interview and Illustration by Tara Tang
In early September 2020, Hong Kong had just gotten out of the third coronavirus wave that basically took up the summer months. As I walked to Ivy’s restaurant to meet up with her, the streets were still filled with office workers looking for a quick lunch, hands holding their wallets and a tiny bottle of hand sanitiser – the essential items for our new normal. Her restaurant Fresca is on the ever-so popular Hollywood Road, home to many other classic Soho eateries. I’m sure even if you haven’t eaten at Fresca, you’ve definitely walked past the store. I wanted to catch up with Ivy, and get to know about how she’s been handling her personal life as well as her business during the pandemic. And since Fresca is one of my favourite spots to eat in the city, this interview was extremely important to me. I’m certain that even for those who are reading this article, there are restaurants that you loved that had to close shop because of the pandemic. So I hope that when you read this interview, maybe you will also get to reflect on those restaurants or even restaurants you love in this city and are still able to support their business.
T: Reflecting on the past, what was your memory of 2003?
I: I vividly remember SARS, even if it was seventeen years ago. It was the first epidemic I had ever experienced in my life. The unknown fears that we faced were horrifying – young nurses and doctors getting infected and extremely high mortality rates. So every day we just waited for the report count to tell us how many people got infected and how many people passed away. At that time, I was the HR Director of a Fortune 500 company. We had to implement increased hygiene measures for the company, but it was also more about how we could motivate our employees at the time to still have hope while facing so much uncertainty. My boss was a very inspiring person, so we ended up doing more business. There are a lot of things to learn, but also some very positive stories coming out of Hong Kong.
T: Do you have any personal anecdotes that stick out to you?
I: At the time, I met up with a senior HR authority in hospital authorities who flew in from Australia. SARS broke out in Hong Kong three days after he had arrived at his job. I just thought, “Oh, he’s definitely going to leave.”. Even if its just for personal safety reasons, no one can predict how an epidemic will play out. So I assumed that he would fly back to Australia. After a few years, I met up with him. Not only was he still with hospital authorities, but he also chose to buy an apartment in the city.
It shocked me a lot, I was thinking to myself like, “How could you buy property at a time like this?”. What he told me was very inspiring. He told me, there was not even one employee at hospital authorities that tried to take leave or no absentees. He said, “With qualities like that, the city is going to flourish.”. So he even decided to buy a nice apartment in Midlevels!
T: How has it changed in 2020? You mentioned a bit about the medical staff strike.
I: The political situation in the city has changed a lot. So, it can really change the reaction of people. People have a lot more questions, whether the government is making the right decision. This time it is affecting so many other countries. Whereas in 2003, everybody thought it was just China. Now, obviously there is no boundary. And how every government reacted to this pandemic is shocking to me. I cannot understand why there are arguments about not wearing masks. It’s a respiratory pandemic, the first thing you can do is to put on a mask and distance yourself! You go to a hospital, you put on a mask. Doctors and nurses put on a mask when they see a patient. Why has it become a defense for liberty? Even now, people are asking these questions. The whole notion of what is liberty and freedom, we need to take a deeper understanding. What is the most important – personal freedom or community protection?
T: I agree, that is what I prefer to use too. I would also like to ask about your restaurant Fresca here in Soho. As industries have become increasingly digitized to match the changing pace of the pandemic, how has this changed your business tactics or work culture?
I: For us at Fresca, we’re still involved with the most basic areas – food. Except now, we receive more businesses through online orders and deliveries. But other than that not much has changed.
T: I remember when I came back, and I asked how you were. I was especially concerned for Fresca, since there were a couple of coronavirus cases on Hollywood Road. What was it like during the earlier months of 2020?
I: Yes, there was a couple of cases just next door to us. The good thing was that it’s not like we share any equipment or spaces with them, so it’s more like you walk past the store. So I was not too worried. But also I had family members who had caught COVID.
T: How have you been personally coping with COVID-19 at this point?
I: I think particularly for people who have elderly parents staying home. They are very, very cautious. They don’t even want to meet up. I think for me, I spent a lot more time reading and trying to understand the development of the situation. It’s not just happening in Hong Kong, even with all the stories coming out of China. And afterwards, checking on the pandemic situation in the US and Europe. People spend a lot of time reading up about all this.
T: How Hong Kong as a community dealt and changed with the pandemic?
I:I really see this as an opportunity. I think pandemics have the ability to orientate us, even if we have to learn the hard way. We are not an island, everyone and everything is interconnected.The question is, how does a community get prepared? It’s easy for an individual to only worry about themselves, their own freedom and needs. When people were worried about having no toilet paper, some people chose to buy it all.
In Hong Kong, during flu season, the usual influenza season was not as intense because everyone was wearing masks. Because there was no school, the usual cases of children suffering from hand foot mouth disease did not come this year. 2020 has taught us more about viral diseases and how easily they get transmitted. With this in mind, then we have to think about how and if we are able to handle the pandemic. In peak flu seasons, it would be a common sight to see hospitals and clinics packed with patients. But this year, with most people wearing masks, there were definitely less cases. So this is a huge lesson that we can learn. For the government, they have to understand how to manage their emergency supply, and not rely on a foreign resource.
T: I would like to ask you the last question, which you had slightly touched on in your previous responses. I wanted to talk about the political nature of the surgical face mask, what is your opinion of Hong Kong’s culture of wearing face masks?
I: I think people do believe that face masks protect them. For masks on an application level, wearing a face mask is absolutely no problem. It’s not like we’re still arguing about the effectiveness of face masks against viruses. The argument now is whether the masks are from China. Certain people do not trust the quality of masks produced in China, so this also becomes politicized. So now people’s concern is focused on where the masks come from.
When the government provided CU masks, a reusable mask made of brass materials. And since this was a government effort, there were politicians that were strongly against it. People are also scared of getting attacked when they wear it out. But I think the reusable mask is much more suited to winter seasons, so not many people really want to wear it. There are even people who will get into conspiracy theories, believing that the masks have embedded tracking devices and other ideas. It’s just like how some people believe that 5G towers are the ones causing coronavirus. People would rather burn down telecom towers.
You can really see how we’ve entered an era with too much information. It’s easy to fall into ignorance and bias.
T: I think there’s also a point to be made about how easily people can believe all sorts of information. Not saying I personally believe any conspiracy theory, but these news articles and conspiracies all have a certain appeal to people.
I: You will read an article, and then the cookies will just track and feed you information of the same angle. Very much like how all these Brexit articles spoke and swayed the people that read them, right? There were two major points- firstly, without Brexit, you will just invite more immigrants into the country. Secondly, the UK has invested way too much money into the EU for not much in return. With two simple points, so many people believed in this. Information now can be extremely manipulative; we did not have the same amount of access to all these various sources before. It is very difficult to trust any media source nowadays. I try to get a balanced view by reading many different news outlets. From local news, to US sources like NBC and CNN, UK, Russian and Japanese news apps on my phone. The more I read, the more I realized how easy it was to manipulate someone’s point of view.
T: Even with news outlets that I would feel most politically aligned to. I can recognize in some articles how politically charged their language is, to make you feel an extreme way about a situation. Sometimes when I read an article, I’m on your side but the way you write about it seems like you’re convincing me because I don’t agree with you.
I: The type of words journalists use to describe things. I think most people like to present themselves as if they have a balanced view. But whether they want to or not unconsciously, certain words have the ability to shape one’s perception. When coronavirus happened in China, it was easy for western news sources to call the country “The Sick Man of Asia” and start offering all sorts of critiques. But when coronavirus started travelling into other countries, the angle immediately shifted.
T: Is there anything you would like to add on about the questions or the interview?
I: I would like to also say, a lot of my friends are getting very depressed because they do not see hope in this situation. But I think for any experience, good or bad, it’s a learning opportunity for all of us. I think this pandemic really allows us to find out how we react in emergency situations. And despite all this happening, how do you keep yourself in high spirits? You cannot stop completely, maybe stopping certain social activities or hobbies but you cannot stop your life. It is a good opportunity to connect digitally, or read more or spend more time with your family. Before COVID-19, my husband and I travelled a lot. But now, it’s almost unimaginable that we’ve been stuck in Hong Kong for so long. We used to travel over ten long trips throughout the year. Not being able to travel now, is a huge adjustment for him. So even if he cannot travel the world now, his life does not stop. One still has to explore, but with new ways. For me, now it’s all about discovering the new normal and making it exciting.
Hong Kong did really lose a lot of lives, and even for those who were able to survive, they would also have to deal with the terrible aftermaths of the disease.
– STANLEY WONG
Interview and Illustration by Tara Tang
Right in the middle of the third coronavirus wave, most of us were either mindlessly commuting to and from work or stuck at home. For artist Stanley Wong, also known as Anothermountainman/又一山人 it was the last few weeks of his retrospective exhibition TIME WILL TELL at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Retrospectives always seem so bittersweet, as the viewer and the artist both realize the journey they have been on all these years. And Stanley had a lot to look back on, from his iconic Red White Blue series to works with close collaborators such as Yohji Yamamoto.
I had the chance to host my first online interview with Stanley through the internet, as we chatted about the process leading up to his retrospective, as well as the complications that arose during the exhibition. The COVID-19 19 interview series aims to collate the perspectives of professionals in Hong Kong from all walks of life, to memorialise the experiences of people during these trying times. Everyone in Hong Kong has their own memories of SARS and now COVID-19, and this is Stanley Wong’s.
T: What was your experience and understanding of SARS in 2003?
S: Thinking back, 2003 was scary because it felt like it was a Hong Kong problem. The fear was incomparable because it just seemed like Hong Kong was the only place experiencing the worst of SARS. It was also terrifying because we did not know what to really do. If you were infected, you had a high chance of losing your life. The infection to death ratio was extremely high. Whereas this time the uncertainty is shared across the world. Perhaps the word shared seems insensitive but this time round, it is not the same kind of helplessness that was felt in Hong Kong during SARS.
T: Do you have any specific memories during SARS?
S: I still went to work. No one really stopped working. Of course we would all wear masks and people were all a bit scared but the city never really stopped. I still went outside and went to work. The duration of the epidemic did not seem that long – maybe a few months. To me, the collective memory of SARS did not even last for a whole year for the general public. For the patients and medical staff, they will definitely have a different memory especially with the long recovery periods and hours spent in the hospitals. But for those who did not contract SARS, it passed by super quickly. But even for those who were never directly diagnosed with the disease, the epidemic still greatly affected them. Hong Kong did really lose a lot of lives, and even for those who were able to survive, they would also have to deal with the terrible aftermaths of the disease. One thing I remember was Hong Kong’s flexibility. Everyone had to wear a mask, so hawkers started selling masks with all sorts of cute cartoon prints on them, like Hello Kitty and Ultraman. They weren’t designers, just merely people who knew what other people wanted to buy at the time. This was something that I spotted back in the day. It wasn’t something that big corporations cared to make the time, so you could really see the adaptable nature of the average Hong Konger who was selling these masks.
T: How has it changed this time round in 2020? Do you remember what it was like in the earlier months of the year?
S: From last year’s November to this July, my life has been pretty much devoted to preparing my ‘retrospective’ show at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. For the whole year, I was taking care of one project – to make sure that the exhibition was going smoothly. My work and private life became secondary, because this show was so important to me. Nothing else could make me sidetracked because my exhibition would either stay open or shut down. So I feel like my response to this question, is not a very common answer. When my exhibition shut down, people from abroad could not visit. And when the museum reopened the ‘retrospective’, they was concerned over an increase of infected cases. There was a lot that happened in the past year, but everything revolved around this exhibition. During my guided tours, we also discussed with visitors about the implications and response to COVID-19.
In my exhibition, near the entrance is one of my artworks A Week A Poster (2018 – 2019). That poster series in itself was a reflection of my work in the past 40 years. So each week whenever I worked on the poster series, I would recall all the collaboration efforts I encountered in the past or even just something small that I noticed on the street. When I completed the series, it was extremely freeing. You know how people say when one is about to die, you get flashbacks of your entire life? When I was creating this poster, that’s exactly how I felt. It almost felt like after I made this piece, I could start again entirely new. From execution to up to the exhibition opening, this 40 years of work in my exhibition has taken over three years. I had this feeling that after this show, everything is recapped and done. I can finally move on. It was a feeling of rebirth. It feels as if everyone is also going through something similar. For the past year, the whole world has slowed down. Perhaps some people are reconsidering the way they have been living, thinking “Is city life right for me?” “Have I been working too much?”. There is a quote I have been thinking about, “The world needs to be reset”. Now is the time for us to re-evaluate the way we have been living. Now that I think about it, reset and rebirth are basically the same. And honestly you can reset your life at any point in time. But I just think it is a beautiful coincidence that my rebirth was also at the same time as the world’s.
T: Now that we have reached the third wave of coronavirus cases, what are your thoughts on the pandemic right now?
S: It is extremely heartbreaking. We thought that we were good at managing the situation in Hong Kong. But now it seems like we are not under control. Of course there are many factors to why the third wave happened – border customs procedures, the lifestyle of Hong Kongers and others. The majority have been quite diligent with precautions but there is a minority who underestimate the severity of the situation or believe that the current policies set in place are ineffective. I believe that there is a sense of frustration from the general public. And even if we pass the third infection wave, that just means that there will be a fourth or even fifth wave.
T: What do you think is the main difference between SARS and coronavirus this year?
S: SARS felt like an exclusively Hong Kong situation, whereas COVID-19 is at a much larger scale. It is especially terrifying this time round, because there are a lot of countries that are unable to get it under control. I think not a lot of countries were prepared for it, nor were they able to predict the repercussions of the pandemic afterwards. Since this pandemic has not officially ended, there is no proper way to really compare it with SARS. I don’t think there is anyone in the world that was able to fully imagine and prepare for the intensity of COVID-19.
T: After your retrospective, you stated that you are now rethinking new projects that you would like to pursuit. How has it inspired new directions or goals for your work?
S: For the next stage of my work, I want to focus on technology. Specifically, the ways in which it has damaged human relationships. The way social media and the internet advances at such a quick pace, it will really test the need for real life interactions. For the past ten years, many of my works looked at the relationship between technology and time. And now I think is the right time for me to start exploring the negative sides of technology through my work. As for my current state of mind, a lot of people excitedly ask me, “So what’s the next big thing you’re creating?”. And I guess also because of my name 山人 (Mountain Man), it almost seems like I have to conquer one mountain after another. With all these mountain analogies, we often forget that in order to climb on another mountaintop, you need to be able to get down from the top of the mountain. So I think right this moment, is a good time for me to be taking a nice hike down that hill. It is nice to take things slowly and to be able to connect with reality. Out of the many negative situations to come out of this pandemic, I think if there is at least one positive some people were able to take a step back and reset their lives.
T: How has your personal circle been coping with the pandemic?
S: For Hong Kong, we have been dealing with coronavirus relatively well. And for many other countries, they have chosen just to live with it. As a result, many people are suffering – from the restaurant industries to your ordinary office worker. Of course there is no way to assess each individual’s material and mental burden because of the pandemic. But I can see that each Hong Konger is managing with this in their own way. We have all come together in one way or another to combat the spread. Unlike other countries who are still arguing over the effectiveness of masks. At least most Hong Konger’s have the same mindset, everyone has been very cordial and cooperative. So my friends and family have been all okay. The worldwide damage that we have seen already, there is no way of predicting what will happen if this continues. And if people can survive a pandemic for that long.
T: Do you think there are generational differences to how people react to the pandemic?
S: Definitely! During the second wave, many young students flew back to Hong Kong from other foreign countries. This influx of students returning caused an increase of coronavirus cases, even if they weren’t all young people. So when all these students from abroad came back, the precautions of the local population were heightened. And for the elderly in Hong Kong, their daily routine was disrupted as well. Because of the pandemic, many of the restaurants that they would frequent would have gathering limits and new health precautions set in place. I think it is more difficult for them to adapt to this situation, than my generation’s daily routine.
T: How can Hong Kong people as a community learn from this situation?
S: Hong Kong is a city with a lot of experience, we were one of the few cities that had to deal with the SARS epidemic. So for these few months, other than disagreements on government pandemic policies, people have been pretty cordial about it. All I really have to say about how the community can learn is just through seeing how the people are reacting to the government. This way of learning may not be easy to say the least.
T: The nature of the face mask has become increasingly politicised, what is your opinion on Hong Kong’s culture of wearing masks?
S: All this practice of mask wearing is because of what Hong Kong experienced in 2003. The masks we used during SARS was even more heavy duty, because the fatality rate of the virus was so high. So with that experience in mind, we all started wearing masks – it was a common understanding amongst the city. Another hiccup we experienced during the start of pandemic was the lack of masks. Most Hong Kongers are fine with wearing face masks on a daily basis, unlike the United States or United Kingdom. But I also think it’s important to talk about cultural differences. It is hard to say whether other people not wanting to wear masks is right or wrong. The nature of their daily lives is vastly different, so they are not used to everyone wearing masks. But in an urgent situation like this, it is the government’s responsibility to inform and protect its citizens. For me to put in context of the societal differences in Hong Kong, back in the day dog meat consumption was still legal. Nowadays, dog meat consumption is illegal and most Hong Kong people would not be able to even think about wanting to eat dog meat. But if I were to compare this practice with a rural village in China, they might eat cat meat and not think much about it. You cannot flat out say what they are doing is wrong and immoral. This debate is all about readjusting our perception. The conversation we are having about wearing face masks is pretty much the same argument.
T: Do you think the stakes change when this pandemic is about life or death?
S: I think that many people in the West were quick to give their opinion on face masks. Rather than the pre-conceived perception of face masks from the public, I think what is the most important is that medical experts and the governments come out with a unified set of precautions and policies. So that this indicates and suggests to the public that this is something to take seriously. Another lesson that has come out from COVID-19, is that we all need to find a consensus. This pandemic has been about survival, as simple as that.
To find out more about Stanley Wong and his artwork throughout the years please click here.
His exhibition ” 40 Years of Work” can be visited digitally through a 3D tour here.
I did not remember every detail from SARS, but I remembered how stressful and tiring it was.
– SARAH MUI
Interview and Illustration by Tara Tang
On a blisteringly hot Wednesday afternoon, I was lucky enough to sit down and have a chat with Sarah Mui at One Bite Design Studio in Sheung Wan. The studio’s impossibly cool interior design and office cats just lounging around the sofas won me over instantly. Sarah founded One Bite six years ago, inspired to create an architecture practice in Hong Kong that would focus on open spaces and community engagement. One Bite has expanded since then, growing to eighteen staff members as well as taking on visual communications and public engagement projects. It was extremely interesting to hear how Sarah and her business practice was adapting with new ways of existing and working during this pandemic. The COVID-19 19 interview series aims to collate the perspectives of professionals in Hong Kong from all walks of life, to memorialise the experiences of people during these trying times. Everyone in Hong Kong has their own memories of SARS and now COVID-19, and this is Sarah Mui’s:
T: The first question I would like to ask, reflecting on the past what was your understanding and experience of SARS in 2003?
S: I was still quite young when SARS happened, it must have been seventeen years ago! I remember taking my A Levels or CE exam, it was very difficult because we were all wearing masks and we all felt tired. Whenever you went home, you ran into the toilet to wash your hands and face before you touched anything. Especially since we had a dog at home so we would try to be super hygienic. I still remember everyone was a bit sad because we were all concerned over the wellbeing of our own children and the medical staff who passed away from SARS. I did not remember every detail from SARS, but I remembered how stressful and tiring it was.
T: Was there any specific memory that you can recall from 2003?
S: I remember going to the exam halls for my public examinations. We were all in this big exam hall with our masks on, while still focusing on our exam papers. That’s why I feel so bad for the students this year who have to take the public examinations because I remember how tiring it was. When you have your mask on, you feel like you do not have enough oxygen. But you also feel additional stress trying to answer the exam questions. Oh, it was a disaster!
T: How has it changed this time in 2020? Please recall your memories starting from the earlier months of COVID-19?
S: I think everyone in Hong Kong has been more alert and wants to be prepared for COVID-19. I still remember last December, some of my colleagues were more up to date with the news. They had already started purchasing masks, telling us where we could still get masks and educating us on the different types of face masks. I feel that a lot of people have learnt from SARS. Or more like we do not want to repeat SARS again, so we try to be very careful. There is this idea that COVID-19 is not as dangerous for young people, but it still is because if it is passed onto an older person it could be lethal. I think everyone has been very self disciplined. Even in the earlier months, when people were fighting for masks, we still had this sharing mentality. For example, if you were not wearing a mask in public someone would offer you a mask. I try to remind older people that they should wear a mask, and try to persuade them by saying “it is affecting you not me!”. It was quite remarkable, the way this pandemic has shown the self-discipline of Hong Kongers.
T: Do you feel like younger generation feels more responsible in terms of hygienic practices?
S: I think for the younger generation and those in their 50s and 60s. Even for my parents, they were very alert this time. My father has been staying home for over a few months and he did not want to go out. And you will see how careful everyone is. This habit has allowed Hong Kong to be safer than some of the other cities in the world.
T: There is this stereotype of the typical Hong Kong mother who are obsessed with Dettol and they will use Dettol on everything. I do not know if this is an after effect of SARS or something I see other people doing. Are there people like that in your life?
S: I did not notice my mother doing that. But I do try to clean things more regularly, like washing clothes every day. At the office, we put a spray outside so people coming in could sanitise their shoes before stepping in. We have to do this because we have cats in our office. People with pets and children have to become extra cautious. For the first three months, we were so strict about everything. If you wanted to touch the cats you would have to wash your hands before doing anything. We had to keep things strict in order to keep everyone in the office safe.
T: Industries have become increasingly digitised in these uncertain times. How has this changed your business tactics or work culture as well as the projects that you are receiving?
S: It is not easy for us, not for business but for our office specifically. We have been using a lot of online platforms for a while, because we understand that we should work digitally since it is more flexible. But the problem is our office does not have extremely fast WiFi. Even if we are working at home, it is very difficult to access the office servers to access files or even to just work online. So we had some struggle with arranging manpower. This is why we only had a work from home arrangement for the first few weeks. But then we gradually changed into a half/half scheme – half of the team would come in on Monday Wednesday and Friday and the other team would come on Monday Tuesday and Thursday for two months. We actually spent the first week trying to upgrade our internet and internet speed. But since this is an old building, they do not have optic fibre so we do have this physical constraint in the office that we need to cope with. In terms of the software and programmes that we use, we have already been online for a while. So it was alright for most people, but it was the WiFi that was causing the most trouble.
T: For the projects that you are receiving, has it turned more community focused? Or have you been receiving more design-based projects?
S: There were a few projects that were affected and ultimately stopped. In general, there were projects that were delayed because you couldn’t even meet your clients. The clients themselves could not attend board meetings, they couldn’t meet for making any decisions. But at the same time, people are having all sorts of reflections and thinking, “What is the next thing?”. We understand that COVID-19 is changing our habits, our perceptions of space and even just daily encounters. So we start to ask ourselves, “What do we need next? What do we need after COVID-19? Do we still need the same thing or something different?”. It was very challenging because no one really knows what will happen after COVID-19. But you even start to hear very traditional people asking you what we should do next! Everyone was pushed to change. I think this is a good sign, because a lot of people do not like change. But now because everything is changing externally, you have to change. In a way, I felt encouraged. Could I say that? Obviously, COVID-19 is not a good thing. But it offers a gap for us to think about what we should do and how we should prepare in terms of public health or building design or even in terms of social interactions. Can you carry out a workshop without seeing other people? What are the new technologies that is helping us achieve digital alternatives? There are a lot of questions rather than answers. But I think it is a good time to start questioning things now!
T: How have you and your personal circle such as family and friends been coping with COVID-19?
S: By trying to stay home more. Even my younger sister, she had to take two days off every week. Since she works in event management, all events basically stopped so it is actually affecting their income. She still needed to work three days a week, now additionally thinking about what she has to do in her free time. She can now spend more time with her children or choose to take some online classes. I think this is how a lot of people are trying to cope with COVID-19. For myself, I have been taking classes too. In the weekends, you cannot go out anyways. So I took some time to take online classes so that at least I am doing something different. I finally have the time to stay indoors in a private space so I can do whatever I want. So I guess that is how we are trying to live with COVID-19, because I cannot cope with COVID-19 but I can try to live with it. You do treasure the times you have physical interactions, whenever you can meet a friend. Even if it is a client, I just feel like “Oh my gosh! I can finally meet you even if you have your mask on!”. But Zoom is still virtual, and it just is not the same as a face-to-face conversation.
T: How can the people as a community learn from this situation?
S: I think it reminded us about how we can change better for the community and the space around us. In a way, it taught us that we are more flexible than we think. We thought that our business could not work out, but it turned out okay. It teaches us that more importantly how mutual support in a community has the best impact during a time of panic. Because COVID-19 is just the first thing, we could have another big issue or virus come up. But I feel that a community needs to build resilience, through new experiments, habits and practices. I guess this is something I have learnt, people will be fine if we have built resilience and we have this community support. I’m sure if we learn from this pandemic, we could prepare for the next one. I think people are more alert in realising this is not the only pandemic, not everyone is outside. However, there are still a lot of people taking down their masks but most people are so aware of what may happen next. I think that is a very positive outcome, but no one will really know what will happen because the pandemic is not over yet. But you could see how flexibility can help us. My younger sister lives in London, and she was telling me about all the online workshops that she has joint. She recently joined a cheese tasting workshop, and they send the cheese to her doorstep. So you’re watching someone on Zoom, and they’re teaching you how to taste the cheese with the wine pairing. I think some people are adapting to this situation quicker than you think. But after the pandemic, when we throw away all or our masks what will happen? COVID-19 gives us a good opportunity to challenge how we have been living or what we know about ourselves and the world.
T: What is your opinion on Hong Kong’s political nature and culture of wearing surgical masks?
S: I don’t think Hong Kong people were very considerate at first. When I think about masks, I think about Japan or even some South East Asian countries. But in Hong Kong, it was not that popular until now or until the social movement last year. So I’m not too sure about my answer to this question because I start to feel that it is not about the country but the individual. You start to see when the awareness of the individual is improved. You are willing to wear a mask not to protect just yourself – but your parents, grandparents or even just random old people nearby. You know when you are wearing a mask you are helping someone, it is an extremely considerate act. But I think it depends on the individual, because when you walk around Hong Kong some people do not wear masks. Especially with old people, you try to understand why they do not want to wear masks. Sometimes they cannot breathe easily on a hot and sunny day. But we also have to think how we can keep them safe, there are a lot of struggles when wearing masks. It is about whether a particular person is being considerate and does not mind wearing a mask because they know they are protecting people from getting the virus. I don’t exactly see how the political nature appears in mask wearing.
T: I think with the choice of word “politically”, I’m framing it under how the West prides itself on terms like liberty and the freedom to wear or not wear a mask. Not necessarily in a legislative sense.
S: I see. Because the way they think about liberty is if I do not want to wear a mask then I will choose not to. But I do enjoy observing other people who are not wearing masks, I think it is an interesting contrast that lets you understand people. I think this is a really nice topic to dig into, from a philosophical and political stand point. It has led me to think about how people can see COVID-19 differently because of culture.
My approach towards COVID-19 is just to make yourself business as usual, since it is a way for me to stay calm.
– HOWARD LING
Interview and Illustration by Tara Tang
On a bright and balmy Monday afternoon, I had an enlightening conversation with Howard Ling about coronavirus and its effect on the restaurant industry in Hong Kong. After leaving his role at LVMH in 2004, Howard returned to Hong Kong with new aspirations in mind. Howard’s expertise as a food scientist and entrepreneurial spirit led him to take on a more diverse social enterprise projects aimed at community building. Under the many projects that he has incubated, Bijas is surely a restaurant that most people who frequent the Hong Kong University campus would be familiar with. As one of the co-founders of the restaurant, Howard shared his perspectives on Bijas’ journey from the start up to its current state tackling coronavirus. Everyone in Hong Kong has their own memories of SARS and now COVID-19, and this is Howard Lings’s:
T: As someone who has visited Hong Kong University numerous times, I always find that Bijas is a breath of fresh air amongst the uninspiring eateries around the campus. How did you get inspired to co-found Bijas?
H: Bijas was inspired by the lack of vegetarian options in any of the universities. I was surprised to find out that there are no pure vegetarian options! Of course in every restaurant there are vegetarian options on the menu, but there was no pure vegetarian restaurant for the customers. So I said, “why not one?”. This was 6 years ago, then HKU, actually not just HKU but every university 6 years ago, changed their bachelors system from 3 years to 4 years. If you can recall back then, Form 5, 6 and 7 students all were trying to get into the same universities. All of the major universities in Hong Kong did not have enough space, so all the universities had to expand their campuses. And in HKU, their new extension was called Centennial campus. And they had 4 retail outlets, and one of the outlets in the tendering document was ‘Healthy Food’. But their original idea of healthy food was like sushi or not fried or not oily. So their idea was more about cooking style and I was thinking more about choices of food. I submitted my tender and presented a 100% vegetarian restaurant to the committee. And the catering committee was somehow shocked by this proposal – since they were expecting a cooking style. The judging process was like 50/50, since there was so many competitors. There were big Michelin chefs like Alvin Leung to companies like Café de Coral. But at the end, we won the bid. We won the bid for three reasons: Firstly, we bundled our bid with a rooftop garden. There used to be one in HKU, but failed because of a water leakage. The second reason was because of our zero waste recycling, we could decompose the vegetarian residue to reduce waste. The third reason was because of our focus towards employment for the disabled. We successfully got the tender and I guess the rest is history!
T: I also wanted to add that I have friends that went to school at HKU. It’s comforting to hear mentions of Bijas from them, since a lot of students attending school there don’t want to go all the way down to Sai Ying Pun to get food.
H: We like Bijas a lot because the customers also love us! Thomas, my partner and Bijas’ manager is there all the time, so he has developed a very strong relationship with the other customers. This is also why I keep him at Bijas, instead of the other newer restaurants we started in HKUST. From a business point of view, when we expand we usually relocate the senior staff to newer branches to maintain the business. For this particular business, I wanted him to stay. I asked someone else to help out with the new locations, firstly training him in Bijas for a few months and then to the newer location. I see the business as a relationship, not as a way to make profit. If you were trying to profit from this business, you would try to clone and replicate the original store as many times as possible. I hope this is one of the reasons why people like to come to Bijas, not just for the food but also Thomas and all the other colleagues that work at Bijas!
T: How do you choose who is on your team? Is there particular attributes in a person you look out for?
H: I think there is two factors. I stand by my social enterprise values, so I believe in a fair salary for each and every one of my employees. I won’t reduce the salary of certain employees or give managers a higher raise. No matter if you are an assistant manager or cashier, you will enjoy the same salary. No matter what your abilities or disabilities are. This is the first thing that I think about since some managers are not used to this system. They will come up to me and say, “I speak more! I do more! But I still earn the same amount as any other staff!”. So my second requirement is patience. It is a learning process for you and me, I cannot precisely predict if new staff will get along. If you suffer, I suffer. If you enjoy, I enjoy. It’s all about better understanding. If you fulfil these two requirements, we will be on the same page. But for professionals, they sometimes cannot wrap their heads around it. But I think it’s fine, because time will tell. After a year, they will get fed up and ask to leave the company. And I say, “You are free to leave.”. For exit interviews, I always say the same thing, “You should feel grateful and blessed because you had a choice to departure from this company. Look at all of your co-workers, would they be able to do something like this? No. They will think twice because it is hard to find an equal opportunities employer in other restaurants. So all I can really do is wish them good luck for their journey onwards. Usually when I say these kinds of things to them, maybe after a year, they come back to Bijas. Staff always end up returning, because they realise that the restaurant culture outside is greatly different. I can never blame staff for wanting to leave, I give them all my blessings, or even offer up produce suppliers to help their endeavours! This is how Bijas creates a nurturing work culture.
T: Now that we have gotten to know your story and how Bijas came along, I would like to know about your experiences in the past. I want to bring it back to 2003, what was your memory of SARS?
H: My memory at that time was not very strong because when the outbreak first started I was in Switzerland. And when I was in Switzerland, my parents kept sending me emails. And back then, there was no WhatsApp – phones were just phones! I’m getting all these emails, and of course also watching CNN news broadcasts. So my memory is just that the whole city came to a halt. I came back a year later after the SARS outbreak, and I remember the economy was down. And I decided that I no longer wanted to work at LVMH and started my own business. It seemed so fast…just one year. I remember talking to my parents and they talked about staying indoors. They did not talk about masks all the time – just mentioning that SARS was contagious and about how dangerous it was to go outside. Especially when we have no idea about how well everything was sanitised, like keypads and elevator doors. My mother asked me if this was happening in Switzerland, and I said that there was nothing happening at all. At the time it was not global, SARS was more of an asian thing. That was my memory, not too long not too short.
T: How has it changed this time round in 2020 now that you have come back in Hong Kong? Especially since you have helped develop so many social enterprises in the city.
H: I could not have imagined all the things that happened this year. I even started a mask production line! To me, I would say I have saved a lot of time travelling, because I usually have four to five meetings a day. So now those meetings, I can do at home using Zoom. I consider it a highly efficient tool for me because I do not have to travel back and forth. Secondly, the ideas and projects I have incubated with partners, I do not feel like a lot has changed. It is still business as usual, but with more caution. When we have a real life meeting, we wear a mask. That’s the only big difference that I can see. My approach towards COVID-19 is just to make yourself business as usual, since it is the way for me to stay calm. Business as usual does not mean that you do not wear protective gear. Of course you will wear protective gear – if you protect yourself, you protect others. I remember I saw an informational video on how to wear a mask, and it basically was about protecting others rather than yourself. When you see mask wearing as a personal responsibility rather than personal protection. This is the very first idea that I got when we started wearing masks, and how I taught my whole family. At the beginning, they thought that wearing masks was about protecting yourself but I had to tell them that wearing masks was about protecting others. If you are protecting yourself, you can choose when to take off the mask. If you are feeling hot under your mask, you can choose to not wear it. But if you are protecting others you have no choice but to keep it on.
T: Personally, have you been doing anything differently?
H: Since I saved time travelling to and from meetings, I have more time to exercise. My children are at home, so I usually will just invite them to the basketball court a few blocks away from our flat. We played basketball at the court until it closed four weeks ago. They took the basketball rim out of the board, but we still found a way to play. If you look at the backboard with the small square, I told my son, “If you aim at the small square, I will still consider that as a goal!”. So there is always a way. I think it is an interesting way to cope with COVID-19 with sports to keep your body running. During these times, I have been eating more at home and exercising more – to me I have had the opportunity for some quality family time. My wife and children have enjoyed it. Since my wife likes cooking at home, because she does not want to go out. She did not find cooking as a burden but rather a safer way to eat. And of course, we as a family praise her for her hard work and delicious meals. That way everyone feels happy.
T: As a part of the changes COVID-19 has brought, industries have become increasingly digitised. Has this changed your business tactics, and how has it affected Bijas?
H: I think for the restaurant business, we view the income and expenses more vigorously just to ensure the cash in and out are accounted for. Part-time staff may not come as often as before. I think a major change was the rescheduling of working staff. Other than that everything has remained mostly the same. My other businesses like my mask production business has managed the same way as it did before.
T: Do you think the restaurant industry will change after this, since there are so many new policies and precautions put in place?
H: I think it is a change that will last another ten to twelve months for hygiene measures. No matter how many people they will allow on a table, this will still go on for a while. From an operational point of view, every restaurant has its own way of handling this. Once the ban is lifted, everything will go back to normal because there is no way restaurants cannot keep afloat with half of the potential seatings. I guess the plastic shield will still be there, and people will still wear masks when they are not eating.
T: Personally, I would not mind if they had the plastic shields in restaurants forever. But do you think that if restaurants kept these shields it would remind people of coronavirus times or it would be normalised?
H: I think the restaurant industry is one that changes with the customer’s preferences very quickly. So if the plastic separators invites more customers to eat with confidence at the restaurant, they will keep it. But if they find the separators as an annoyance they will remove it. Because they do not want to irritate the customer base. If your customers come in and do not complain about the separator, then you should be fine. I think restaurants react based on customer’s reactions. But I think this is a good measure, I cannot imagine people complaining about separators. Maybe if the separators were dirty but not about its usefulness.
T: Perhaps it is more cultural, since plastic separators are less common in banquet hall-type restaurants. But the way the rounded tables are set up, everyone sits so far apart from each other anyways. And also the clientele of those types of restaurants are from an older generation, so they may have their own dining preferences as well.
H: Yes, I agree. It depends on the set up of the table, not every restaurant can do it easily. Western and Asian style restaurants are more popular, whereas the banquet style tables are more difficult.
T: How has you and your personal circle been coping with COVID-19? You mentioned that you have children, it must be difficult for them since they cannot go to school and see their friends. How has it affected your kids?
H: I have seen more and more self discipline. Even at work, some colleagues are less disciplined. You can usually tell if people are focused on work or not. If you ask them to submit something, and it takes them longer to do something. Children are the same – whether they catch up with their homework or focus on a Zoom lecture. I’m glad that my children are doing relatively okay. My daughter is still in primary school completing Y3, she is still getting used to all of this. Right after her zoom lectures, she will start to play around with her toys and not do her homework until the very last moment. Usually, she has to wake up very early to do her homework before she has to hand it in. My son is a bit better, because he is doing his first year at secondary school. I can see that primary and secondary school have two different teaching methods. Secondary schools are more rigid about their learning schedules whereas primary schools are more about keeping you busy with less intervention.
I find it funny as a parent when you stay home, you have the time to assess the quality of the teaching. For many teachers, I think they will feel quite stressed. Usually, you will never see how they teach. But now the way they teach and yell, I’m sure they have gotten some complaints from the teachers. I have attended some lectures, just by accident because I was at home and I overheard what my children’s teachers said. I sometimes find it not very professional, for example in primary school, there was a teacher who’s microphone feedback was echoing throughout the lecture. The students kept covering their ears, and the teacher kept scolding the students with, “Why are you doing this?”. And the children are too scared to respond back. I think sometimes there is a better way to teach topics like history. That is something the teachers never expected. Comparing the two sets of teachers, I find primary school teachers can be more rude and direct. Some teachers feel more inclined to treat their students like animals, telling them to do this and that. I think this reflects the certain flaws of the Hong Kong education system.
T: How can the people of Hong Kong learn from this as a community?
H: Hong Kong went from a very difficult time of social unrest to COVID-19. I still remember helping out with the online Sam Hui concert. During the planning, we were wondering whether we should go on with the concert or to postpone it for later. We had hundreds of reasons to not do it – if you think about the pandemic on top of the political situation. But at the end of the day you only have one reason – it feels right to do. People have stayed home for too long, so lets host a Sam Hui concert to cheer people up! It was quite special because Harbour City did not even ask for any rent charge, TVB did not ask broadcasting rights, Sam Hui did not ask for a performance fee. Everyone came to share the same values in order to make the concert a reality. No party was demanding for the rights or all the money. Everyone was already suffering, so it sounds ridiculous Sam Hui were to demand 20 thousand for one song. That created a ripple effect to do the concert on Mother’s day. This incident reminded me of one thing – when you want to do something outside of your own personal agenda but for the common good, just do it!
T: The last question I would like to ask is on the political nature of the face mask. I guess maybe in Asia it is more common, if you are sick, you wear a face mask so you do not infect friends or coworkers. What is your perspective on face masks?
H: I think it is a cultural thing. If you look at Chinese culture when you greet each other, sometimes you can choose to put your hands together like a prayer as a greeting. But in the West, it is common to kiss on the cheek. This is part of their culture. This form of greeting shows respect and friendship. So when you tell them no kissing or no handshaking – they do not have an alternative. You cannot change their cultural habits overnight. I feel like it is hard for them, not because they want to violate any rules or not even discriminate you for wearing a mask. When you wear a mask, it is a gesture to show that you do not want to kiss or engage in a handshake – which is why they feel offended. Even without the mask if you meet a foreigner, if they have a culture of kissing, you personally find it okay. But if you wear the mask they can visually detect that there is something wrong whether its with you or themselves. They see this as something so obvious that you cannot hid, and because of the news reporting the usefulness of mask wearing. At the beginning, I just felt bad for them because this was not a part of their culture. To us, this is part of our culture. I approach this problem as a way of understanding. There is a famous quote, ” you seek first to understand then to be understood”. You have to seek first to understand why this is happening, then you will be understood. But if you do not do the seeking first and you expect them to understand you at the beginning, it will be very difficult. I see the whole community reaction should go out to understand them first, then you will not even feel offended if they do not like you wearing masks because it is more like saying no to your culture. But I hope you also understand my culture of mask wearing, it does not mean that I do not respect you. I am already outside to meet you, that is my gesture of showing that nothing is wrong but do not expect me to do the same because we are from two different cultures. If you are using fork and knife, I am using chopsticks. If you are offended when I bring you to a Chinese restaurant and you do not know how to use chopsticks, I will simply just ask the waiter for a fork and knife. It is the restaurants responsibility to give you options, and not your responsibility based on your abilities. So this is what I think, it is about coming to an understanding about different cultures.
We need to keep the international status of Hong Kong as well as nurturing its local culture. You cannot be international without having strong roots in your local culture.
– KITH TSANG
Interview and Illustration by Tara Tang
From Kith Tsang’s history of being a design professor at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University to being an organic farmer at SangWoodGoon, it would be quite fitting to call him a modern renaissance man. I was looking forward to finding out about what he thinks about the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 19 interview series focuses on the perspectives of professionals in Hong Kong from all walks of life. The aim of this series is to collate and memorialise the experiences of different Hong Kongers during 2020 so that we can reflect now and later on in life look back to remember these times to serve as a reminder for the future. We sat down and had a chat at the newly renovated OMAK near Prince Edward, a Buddhist centre that fuses spirituality and creativity. Kith enlightened me about the art of Hong Kong organic agriculture and the need for a local produce revival, especially in times like this. Everyone in Hong Kong has their own memories of SARS and now COVID-19, and this is Kith Tsang’s:
T: Reflecting on the past, what was your understanding and experience of SARS in 2003?
K: In 2003, I was still a professor teaching classes at university. Initially, I did not think that SARS would be such a big deal. Then university classes stopped and all the students had to stay at home. The internet and other means of digital communication back then were not as accessible as nowadays. We used email to communicate with friends and co-workers. We could not see each other in real life, but to be able to keep up with friends like this was already great. I remember emailing to my co-workers, “I need my students!!”. I wanted to see them again because I had no way of finding out what they were up to since we were all cooped up at home.
I wanted to find out how Hong Kong ended up like this. I always thought Hong Kong was in pretty good shape, whether it be with hygiene or in the medical field. But then the city found out that the reason why SARS spread so rapidly was through poorly made drainage systems. It made me reconsider what city life meant. On the surface, everything looks organised but all the things hidden underneath the city an ordinary person will never really know. So when we encounter a crisis like SARS, we think that we can contain the situation with ease and continue our normal lives. But it is the hidden details in city life that can worsen problems like this. I started to notice the small things in my life, and I got to know some very inspiring friends. There is a Hong Kong Inventors Association, and one of the inventors during SARS was working in Beijing and could not return to Hong Kong. So he started to research about the drainage systems in Hong Kong. Was there other drainage options or alternatives that would not use as much water waste? He developed a new eco-friendly drainage system that used sunlight and air to sort out waste and ever since his invention he has been in that business. He was able to use SARS to invent a fantastic new way of living.
So these are my thoughts on the experiences in 2003 and onwards. I feel like it helped build what it means to be a Hong Konger and what they wanted to see in the city. So I gradually learnt more and more about the city. As a part of the Anti-Hong Kong Express Rail link movement, people started to protest against this rail link because of the environmental and social implications. Choi Yuen Tsuen, a village of about 500 people in between Tuen Mun and Yuen Long was to be cleared to make way for the express rail. I then became aware about the importance of land. So some of my friends and I became extremely interested in becoming organic farming. So in 2009, about ten years ago I started to become an organic farmer. This is another hidden change in Hong Kong that perhaps most people do not notice, our consumption of local food produce in the 70s was about 80% and these days it is looking more like 2%. This is another crisis in itself! When you go down to the supermarket, it looks like you have a lot of choice. But if you look closely, most of these goods are imported from abroad. If Hong Kong were to go through political or environmental complications, the city would become a lone island. So I believe it is important for me to continue my local farming. At the start, my friends and family were confused to why I ended up in this path. They would say, “You live such a comfortable life as a university professor!”. Even my mom was like, “Are you crazy? You have a great job, you could just do this until you retire and travel to whatever country you wanted afterwards or even just move to another country!”. I guess its hard to explain to my parents, since I was the first generation in their family to be born and raised in Hong Kong. My identity compared to my parents is so different, its something we call “refugee mentality”. My parents had to go through a civil war, so whenever they sense a sort of threat they will flee. To them, as long as they have a home they can adapt to any sort of external extremities. But to me, I have a strong cultural root in Hong Kong.The British only came here to build up their economy, so the older generations of Hong Kong are more inclined to think pragmatically. They would rather prioritise money over other attributes in life. So for my generation as well as the younger generations, we have to consider what Hong Kong was born out of. Nowadays, we see Hong Kong as such an international city but all of a sudden there is also an international level pandemic…we need to think about a new way to live. The whole world to an extent sought for internationalism, so even with that we need to consider its pros and cons. With that in mind, we need to keep the international status of Hong Kong as well as nurturing its local culture. You cannot be international without having strong roots in your local culture.
With COVID-19 this time round, there was not much of an impact this time round because I have been consistently readjusting my lifestyle since 2003. A lot of people were desperately fighting for food in the supermarkets, even my relatives called me up to ask if we had any spare rice! And I had to explain to them that it was not the season for rice. I knew some suppliers that still had a lot of stock, which also led my relatives to realise that there were also small stores supplying organic goods. Hong Kong has the capacity for our own local products, but we as consumers also need to go out of our way to find and support these stores. After the Choi Yuen Tsuen movement and my time spent as an organic farmer, this was the first year where i saw a lot more orders. It seems that people are now very interested in organic local produce, whether it be because of COVID-19 or not. If you are buying a batch of vegetables for like ten dollars at the supermarket, it is basically poison. Even if the vegetable looks fine on the outside, non-organic vegetables are not good for you. I feel like this pandemic has inspired many people to reconsider and adjust their lifestyles.
T: What are your other perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic this year? Please elaborate on your experiences in the earlier months.
K: Before the pandemic, we were still embroiled in the Anti-Extradition movement. I have attended these sorts of protests before, so I understand the merit in protesting. But we also have to strike a balance between protesting and our daily lives. I have seen friends fully invest their lives into the movement, but not realise the breadth of politics. To me, protesting is an acknowledgement of power, whether it be from the government or the people like a game of tug of war. So even I need to realise in this movement, the people we are supposedly questioning; who are they and what sort of power do they possess? Who am I and what sort of power do I possess? Only then can you assess a strategy to carry out. It would perhaps be more damaging to suddenly rush out into the streets, without any regard for your life. You do not exist just for yourself, but also for your family and friends. It is important to also maintain a stable daily life. It is painful to see trauma lived out on the streets every day, so this slowly makes people lie to themselves as a way to numb their feelings. There is a concept called ‘Fail Better’, where it is about continuing despite whatever circumstances. If you fail you need to acknowledge where you went wrong, you need to fix it and then continue with a new strategy. But if you continue doing the same thing, it is just a slow process of numbing yourself to what is actually happening in real life. There will be a point in which you will realise the deterioration of your mental state and physical body. Even if we win, we still need to maintain the stability in our lives. So when the pandemic started, I had to centre myself. Even though there were people snatching up surgical masks and rice, as long as I was mentally stable I knew I would be fine.
T: Now you are working on OMAK and also your organic farm, so how has the pandemic affected your work and industry?
K: Extremely positive! As I stated previously, city life cannot avoid technology. Even when I was growing up we had the television and radio, which is still a form of media broadcast through technology. But now the spread of coverage is super different with the internet, you can post what you want to let the world know. For us creatives, this is a super important channel. When I first used Facebook, I started playing around with it and realising the power of social media. So now with this opportunity and the new centre, I want to create better learning relationships with younger artists. I do not want to be like, “I’m older so therefore whatever I say is correct” but rather hear and learn from what other designers have to say! Fortunately, it has been a generally positive experience in terms of my work life.
T: How has you and your personal circle been coping with COVID-19?
K: With different people, comes different emotions towards the pandemic. I feel like my daughter and her generation is a lot more concerned with things like hand washing and sanitising everything. People like me, who remember SARS also carry out measures but not to the level of people like my daughter. I am not saying one generation is better than the other, but I am very interested in the contrast between the two. For some reason, I assumed that the youth don’t care about hand washing or sticking to rules but you guys can do it perfectly. There is also more cooperation and care among friends. Friends asking their friends whether they need masks. Friends who make masks, even if they did not know what materials to make, when they start making the masks it becomes a great passion of theirs. I think it reflects the Hong Kong spirit of unity and love. I can also see that because we are now in a digital age, people can instantly get information from the news. Because of the internet’s accessibility, it also affects the speed at which people carry out things. People will see the news, immediately purchase fabric, then sew fabric masks to sell or gift to people through Facebook. I really do feel like the best part of Hong Kong is that it is extremely small if you do something it is quite likely that a lot of people will end up also knowing. Hopefully, if someone does something good, I hope that it is broadcasted to the city so that it can be an influence for good.
I have been noticing Hong Kong’s food habits and supply chain since SARS. This time around, my relatives asked me for store recommendations that still had all the pantry essentials stocked. I gave them all the store suggestions I knew that still had rice and all the other essentials, but it turns out they already knew those stores existed. For some reason, I guess they start to panic when they see shelves being cleared out in the supermarket. When I mentioned these stores to them, it reminded them that they could still shop at these places to get all their groceries. So hopefully when the pandemic ends, maybe we can reconsider ways to broaden people’s usual grocery shopping habits. I will also mention in front of my students, like me during SARS, you have to realise what is not working in your life to change it and be more prepared for the next crisis down the road. I do not think it is beneficial for us to think that after the pandemic we should just go back to our usual lives. I think it is better to reconsider what was not working in our lifestyle then and actively carry out ways to change. For example, encouraging buying from organic and local farmers to ensure that in the future if another pandemic happens we have a lot of options for our local food supply chain. So this is what I think about in terms of myself and my inner circle during the pandemic.
T: How can Hong Kong as a community learn from this situation?
K: If we compare Hong Kong during the pandemic with countries like the US and the UK, you can clearly see that the latter countries have dealt with it horribly. We need to look at how those countries function in their daily lives, and what ends up happening when they face a crisis. For Hong Kong, the pandemic was proof of our city coming together as an act of solidarity. And in future crises, we need to use this strength to our advantage. I have a lot of hope for Hong Kong.
It also makes me think about how Hong Kong should rethink the image of organic farming. Because now, I feel like organic farmers just go, “HEY! HERE! FRESH VEGETABLES!”. Maybe the reputation and aesthetic is not enticing or visually pleasing for the current Hong Konger’s taste. When I am at a farmer’s market in Australia, the atmosphere is completely different. I guess this is something I will have to also work on, the rebranding of my organic farm so that more people feel compelled to buy from local sources.
T: Speaking of foreign countries like Australia, what do you think about the cultural differences between Western countries and Hong Kong in terms of how people personally reacted to the pandemic? More specifically, what do you think about the political nature of the mask that has got people in the West so divided?
K: These are some interesting questions! It also somewhat links with my MA project, where I used post-colonial theory to describe the identity of Hong Kong people. I did this project before the 1997 Handover. I studied how Hong Kong people had changed over the years. This identity could also be applied towards the pandemic. Why do westerners not feel like COVID-19 has nothing to do with them? It is a colonial mentality, so when it spread all across the west, their immediate reaction is to single out and discriminate asian people. When it first happened in Asia, all they thought was, “Oh, well you guys are not as developed as us so its your fault.”. Maybe they are not familiar with their own history, but in the 19th century when they tried to colonise Asia they also brought a lot of diseases. From a historical dimension, even this current state of internationalism could be interpreted as a continuation of colonialism. There is nothing in the world happening right now that is not happening because of them. In Buddhism, when we talk about cause and effect, this is precisely the cycle they are talking about. Throughout all these years, the west cannot pick and choose like they only want to do business with us and take all the profit. So culturally, mask wearing in asian countries like Japan is super common. There is a more empathetic culture, where the mask wearer wants to protect others from having the virus. But for cultures in the west, if you are wearing the mask you are the sick one. It could be seen as a form of discrimination, so they are less willing to wear a mask.
Hi, how are you? This is Tara. I wrote this essay back in the winter of 2018, for Race, Empire and Nation module led by Akanksha Mehta a part of my BA Media and Communications degree at Goldsmiths, UOL. I guess it seems strange for me to be suddenly posting an almost two-year old essay now. I’ve been sitting on this essay for a while, and I’ve been quite apprehensive about showing it to others because it scares me how very real this essay has become, especially with all that has been happening in Hong Kong for the past year. It’s not that I feel like I’m some all-knowing fortune teller being able to tell the future, but its that everyone knew it was going to happen at some point in time. A sense of an impending deadline supposedly in the near future now cutting closer than ever. This essay was meant to be a response to “Critically assess Paul Gilroy’s (1987) argument that conceptions of national belonging ‘blur the distinction’ between race and nation”. But I guess unless you are a Paul Gilroy stan this essay could also be interpreted as an exploration of how and why Hong Kong never wanted to be defined by its governing bodies. Hong Kong’s longstanding resistance against colonialism as well as its community’s intense camaraderie and protection for each other at a time like this feels so bittersweet. This essay meant a lot to me during the writing process, it allowed me to free my insecurities surrounding whatever the hell a ‘real Hong Konger’ even means. Whether you consider yourself a Hong Konger or not, I hope this essay provides some different perspectives and experiences you may not know or remember.
Hong Kong is no longer a British colony, nor is it willing to return into the hands of the Chinese government. It is a bizarre case of national belonging that has allowed ‘new racism’ to flow freely in and out of institutions and people. This new racism works in more subtle manners than its predecessors but remains just as poisonous and potent. First, I will be comparing the construction of attitudes towards the Indian and Filipino diasporas in Hong Kong. I will be assessing cases of media attention, notably the Manila bus hostage crisis of 2010 against Gilroy’s argument. As a born and bred Hong Konger, my own subjectivities become a standard that others will chose to criticise. In reflecting on my heritage and past memories of Hong Kong, I hope to expand on the complexities of belonging in a country that has chosen not be defined by its governments.
Ethnic minorities (EM) in Hong Kong make up 8.0% of Hong Kong’s population (Census and Statistics Department Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, 2016, p.7), yet they are rarely explicitly considered in the becoming of Hong Kong-ness. Firstly, I personally disagree on the use of the seemingly clinical term “ethnic minorities” as it seems to group all others that don’t fit the ethnic standard. This is quite similar to the ways western discourses use ‘people of colour’ as a way to conveniently group everyone that does not adhere to a racialized norm. The very use of the term ethnic minorities exposes how the Hong Kong government participates in “new racism” (Barker, 1981) and simultaneously Others these populations. By focusing on the Indian and Filipino diasporas in Hong Kong, I want to address how these communities have been constructed, and why these communities are left out of Hong Kong’s discussions of national identities.
Contemporary Sino-Indian relations in Hong Kong can be understood through its colonial ties to the British empire. The British government heavily relied on the recruitment of Indians into their police force (Emi & Leung, 2014, p.25). The multicultural labour was a result of the “distrust of the Chinese constables…because of the language barrier and who were notorious for being corrupt” (Crisswell and Watson, 1990, p.47 in Emi & Leung, 2014. P.19). To the colonial government, these racial hierarchies are crucial to how order and security in Hong Kong was justified. Since the Indian taskforce received British training and spent its time under colonial rule for longer, they were perceived as more competent than the legal systems already set in Hong Kong. The “production of the crisis” (Ahmed, 2004, p.132) caused a fraction between the two communities; the Chinese felt mistrusted and the Indians became the empire’s scapegoat. Slang terms emerged out of these occupations, such as 差人 (Chai Yan) and啊三 (Ah Sam). Ah Sam is more malicious, and translated to English would have the same effect as “A Third”. The phrase mimics a calling out, like a drill sergeant to a member of a troop. Language immortalises the perspective of the Chinese, who saw the Indian police as docile members of the colonial empire. The colonial knowledge that was reproduced would come to have lasting effects on the Indian diaspora in Hong Kong.
More and more Indian families moved to Hong Kong for commerce and trade, yet they were accused of not interacting with the Chinese outside of their businesses (Emi & Leung, 2014, p.25). The notion of the unwilling and ungrateful Indian migrant only works to distance these communities from any possible sense of national belonging. Amongst these prejudices, Hari Harilela emerged as a ‘model immigrant’ which would further reinforce expectations for those who did not attain his level of success. Harilela built a formidable legacy of hotels across the world (Sautman & Kneehans, 2002, p.25) and was dubbed “the richest Indian in the city” (Chan, 2014). Racialized bodies are racialized in relation to other socio-economical standings, and in the case of the Harilela family, class and wealth. I am not writing to discredit Harilela’s rags-to-riches story but rather to reveal Hong Kong’s fetish for it. It is as if acknowledging Harilela’s legacy eradicates any other forms of racism that exists towards the Indian community. This is what Robin J. DiAngelo describes as “aversive racism” (2018, p.43). It allows the racist to “maintain a positive self-image” (DiAngelo, 2018, p.43) under a disguise of neutrality. A great example DiAngelo uses is the saying “I have lots of friends of color” (2018, p.43). People use this saying often, to absolve the ’guilt’ of whiteness. Although it is typically used to describe white attitudes, it is still applicable to Hong Kongers. The Harilela family are highly honoured, much like DiAngelo’s “friends of colour” (2018, p.43) but what happens to the stories of working class Indian families that are marginalised and eventually forgotten? Indian domestic workers who spend their days working for affluent families like the Harilela do not experience the same level of awe or even acceptance. Over half of these workers are paid less than the legal minimum wage, and continue work over public holidays and supposed rest days (Sautman & Kneehans, 2002, p.26). If Hong Kong were to truly accept the Indian community, extending the definition of acceptability beyond the diaspora’s richest 1% would be a great first step.
Do bodies belong to Hong Kong if they are just ‘temporary migrants’? Specifically, I would like to examine the construction and treatment of Filipino domestic workers and how this reveals a gendered and racialized form of labour. Also colloquially known as the helper, they are responsible for the invisible “feminized” (Constable, 2014 p.59) labour of a household. From preparing dinner each night to dedicating their Saturdays to bringing their employer’s children around the city for extra-curricular classes, these domestic workers are an integral part of Hong Kong families. As Xyza Cruz Bacani describes, “we are like air…invisible but essential” (Caralvaho, 2018). However, this invisibility has enabled countless cases of domestic abuse. 58% of foreign domestic workers that experienced verbal abuse (criticisms of work, threats and accusations), 18% experienced physical abuse (hair pulling, slapping, kicking) and 6% experienced sexual abuse (ranging from sexual innuendos to rape) (Mission For Migrant Workers Limited, 2014, p.1). Many of these cases go unreported in fears of the unpredictability of a pending court case, unemployment and an inability to provide for their families back in the Philippines.
Hong Kong’s predisposed bias towards the Chinese阿嬤 (Amah) meant that Filipino domestic workers were already disadvantaged from the start. Nicole Constable sees the bond between the Amah as “professional but as pseudofamilial” (2007, p.58). Whereas the Filipino domestic worker pursues this job based on a contract without any expectations of “a lasting obligation or commitment” (2007, p.59). These contracts were seen as stepping stones for Filipino workers to climb up the financial ladder, with the final goal of returning to their hometown to get married and settled down with their newfound financial stabilities (2007, p.58). Therefore, the Hong Konger rationalises the unjust treatment of these domestic workers under a disguise of temporality.
Furthermore, the wellbeing of the Filipino domestic workers was threatened by the moral panics set in motion by the Manila hostage crisis in 23 August 2010. I recall being on summer break, sitting in the living room with my eyes glued to the live broadcast. The image of a large Hong Thai Travel coach in an ominously empty carpark is forever burned into my mind. At first, I did not understand why TVB Jade (Hong Kong’s free-to-air Cantonese-spoken television channel) was live broadcasting a hostage incident in the Philippines. I soon learnt that out of the 25 hostages in the travel coach; more than 20 of them were Hong Kong tourists. By revisiting the live broadcasts and news reports via Youtube, I notice that many of the comments mock the inefficiency of the local SWAT team, most notably the sounding refrain, “SWAT = Sorry We Aren’t Trained” (Rauhala, 2010). The messy aftermath of this media frenzy unleashed a wave of discrimination towards Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong. Laarni, a 32 year-old helper revealed an altercation she had with her employer (Ladengaard, 2017, p.123):
Laarni: just like also my employer, after the incident happened she got angry with me because she saw a cloth inside the toilet and she asked me ‘what is the cloth for?.’ And I told her, ‘ma’am I don’t know also, I just only saw the cloth here the other day and I washed it’ […] and she said, ‘you’re so stupid, no wonder your police man did like that’ [general laughter] ‘because it’s your culture,’ like that right.
Migrants also have to assume the collective identities of their motherland’s government and subsequent taskforce. Sara Ahmed calls out the construction of these divides, “the individual subject comes into being through its very alignment with the collective” (2004, p.128). There are two sets of individual subjects in practice; there is a collective mentality towards the ethnic Filipino domestic workers, and another one maintained about Hong Kongers. The perceived uselessness of the local SWAT team during the hostage crisis transforms into the perceived uselessness of the country as a whole and the people who live in it. These unwarranted burdens on the diaspora as shown in the Ladengaard quote becomes an extremely discouraging reality for Filipino domestic workers. For the Hong Kongers, this is a narrative of reparation over the traumas felt and experienced on that day. Who is allowed to say whether they belong to Hong Kong; is it from the will of the Other or the approval of the locals? Later in this paper, I would like to address just how narrow the definition of a Hong Konger really is, even if it is discernibly ‘not about’ ethnicity or race.
I have used Hong Konger and Chinese quite interchangeably so far, but there are a few key distinctions that differentiates these levels of national belonging. Even in self-proclaimed “open-minded” (Goldsmiths University of London, 2018) environments, I find myself having to explain the subtleties in these two terms to peers and staff time and time again. As an example, I once was asked where I was from. I responded with Hong Kong. The other person in the conversation then blurted “Oh, so China.”. At this point, I have conditioned myself to just change the conversation topic to something else. But even in these supposedly strong affiliations I have to being a Hong Konger, I still tick ‘Chinese’ in the ethnicity box for government related documents and institutionalised surveys. So, for myself, the supposed pride I have to being a Hong Konger over being Chinese is a selective process mediated by what this information means to the other.
Hong Kong’s national identity works in relation to its colonial past, but also its reintroduction to the Chinese government with the 1997 Handover. Not to say that it is solely determined by these counterparts but these developments definitely helped evolve the definition and value of being a Hong Konger. Tracing the mainland ethnic Chinese’s tumultuous relationship with Hong Kong, I hope to extend Paul Gilroy’s argument. Race and nation are not the only distinctions blurred to reproduce ideas of national belonging, we also have to consider the effects of empire. Gilroy’s critiques of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983), who claims “anyone can in theory learn the language of the nation they seek to join and through the process of naturalisation become a citizen enjoying formal equality under its laws” (2013, p.44). He does not see this idealism in the British, citing phrases like ‘the Island race’ as both biological and cultural views to exclude immigrants (2013, p.44). As a former colony, the involvement of the British empire in Hong Kong’s own naturalisation must be investigated. The tensions of WWII brought an influx of mainlanders to Hong Kong who took refuge under British rule, the population doubling in five years by 1950 (Census and Statistics Department, 1969, cited in Mathews, Ma & Tai, 2008, p.25). Even though Hong Kong was ethnically a Chinese dominated city, the mainland immigrants struggled a “cultural” and “social dislocation” (Mathews, Ma & Tai, 2008, p.27) under colonial rule. As these post-war mainlanders settled down with spouses and children of their own, a new construct of the Hong Konger started to emerge. The children of these settlers would become naturalised by the rituals of commodification and consumption.
To gauge how recent this situation really is, this my parent’s generation. My mother was a middle child to two mainland Han Chinese immigrants from Guangzhou. Academics like Allen Chun believed that there was a “strict separation between official culture, which was carried out in the medium of English, and indigenous culture, which was rooted in Chinese tradition (1996, p.120)”. But the term indigenous becomes redundant when one considers the multitudes of Chinese ethnic groups that had to coexist in this colonised space. And whatever filled the space of this indigenous culture was not Chinese but Japanese. Popular department stores like Jusco and Sogo became the preferred places to shop for premium lifestyle goods (Chan, 2000, p.45). Despite Hong Kong’s painful history with the Japanese Army’s occupation in World War II, the youth seem pretty nonchalant about the traumas that were so recently experienced in favour of new gadgets and fancy clothes (Chan, 2000, p.44). Even as a kid I would visit the huge Sogo store in Causeway Bay with my mother and we would browse every imaginable section: we would oogle the pretty Shu Uemura makeup, I would fawn over a Hello Kitty pencil case in the Sanrio store, and then we would eat some freshly prepared udon. These commodities weren’t just simply objects but opportunities for family kinships to exist. Hong Kong’s acceptance and openness to Japanese commerce reveals a nuance to a rightful national belonging. It isn’t strictly about Chinese cultures but rather adaptations of cultures between the tired binary of the mainland and the British governments. Annie Hau-nung Chan interestingly explains the sustained popularity of Japanese conglomerates in Hong Kong as a rejection of its ““biological” (mainland China) and “adoptive” (Britain) parents” (2000, p.53). In her assumption, these two nations are fixed in its relationship to Hong Kong. However, now that the mainland has ‘readopted’ us from the British government, it shows that these relationships are not going to remain the same forever.
My father was born to a Hakka family. Funnily enough, the Hakka Chinese are known as the nomads (Jaya Gopan, Li & Zhuang, 2012, p.6). Yet this particular lineage, chose to settle down in a part of Hong Kong nowadays known as Sha Tau Kok long before British colonisation. My father’s family has spent a much longer time cultivating its traditions and generations, even before the influence of British colonialism. These were empires in their own right, with legislative committees and social hierarchies that dictated the lives of the villagers. And these structures exist to this day, my father’s family still choose to adopt patriarchal rules, such as “only men are allowed to own village land”. These shamelessly offensive rules are normalised as a tradition. We have to recognise non-Western structures of empire, to understand how colonial rule is another manifestation of the empire. I cannot help but problematise these traditions in terms of my own subjectivity as a female. If it means becoming a feminist killjoy (Ahmed, 2010, p.65), I will wholeheartedly take that name in solidarity to those who have suffered in the past, present and future.
Even in these self-reflections, I find myself guilty of idealising the homeland (Ang,2001, p. 25). Although Ien Ang describes this as a desire and pressure to discover his own diasporic identity, those who are born and bred to the ‘motherland’ are equally capable to experiencing this. Therefore, to once again expand on Paul Gilroy’s ideas of national belongings, we need include the subtleties of psychoanalysis and emotional experiences.
The very act of me being able to idealise Hong Kong and be from the city is a privilege because of the tangible spaces and histories I have lived through and can remember. But this is a double-edged sword, my idealisation also comes from “a place of injury’ (Cheng, 2000, p.52). This injury could be explained as a melancholia for experiences that are understood to be in the past but still contain very real effects to this point in time. Built on Sigmund Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia (2001), melancholia is best understood as “a profoundly painful dejection…that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-reviling, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment” (2001, p.244). The cyclical process of melancholia is the reason why it is so hard to ‘get over’, its persistence and intensities reinforce the “remembrance of loss that that remembrance becomes part of the self” (Cheng, 2000, p.50). Appropriated by post-colonial scholars like Ahmed and Gilroy, the melancholia becomes racialized and politicised. “”To let go” becomes a healthy relation, and “to hold on” becomes a pathology”, Ahmed’s interpretation critiques the construction and implications of melancholia. This reminds me of Chan’s frustration over Hong Kong’s youth and their disregard for the atrocities of the Japanese military (2000, p.44). Gilroy cites the loss of the British empire and its “additional loss of certainty about the limits of national and racial identity” (2004, p.116) as the rise of post-imperial melancholia. I never experienced colonial Hong Kong in a legislative sense, but I argue that the empire has not been lost but merely transformed and institutionalised.
Despite being born in Hong Kong by two ethnically Chinese parents, it is still not enough for me to fully assume the identity of a Hong Konger. Despite being a part of the dominant ethnic group, to the locals, I am just a mimicry of the colonial present. My referral to the locals, or ‘lokes’ as casually used amongst international students, describes those who have been educated via the local school system. The divide between local and international systems, and subsequently their students reveals the intricacies of how a post-colonial Hong Kong has absorbed the values the British empire in the guise of a ‘better education’.
Homi Bhabha’s ideas of the colonial mimicry challenged my understanding of how the construction of ‘international’ education systems affected my own subjectivities. In turn, my education path would be the colonial weights placed on me as an indicator of my differences and betrayals. Bhabha proclaims that the “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.” (1984, p.122), He also flips the quote ever so slightly to “almost the same but not white” (1984, p.128). Bhabha’s article described exactly what I had been trying to articulate during my school years in Hong Kong. I was subjected to a British educational system.
Students and staff wore poppies for Remembrance Day, without remembering the perverse origins of British influence in the Opium War (Hans Derks, 2012, p.607). Most of the staff were either British or from Commonwealth countries like Canada and New Zealand. The education I received was comparable to a typical private sixth form college in the United Kingdom. However, there was one discernible difference: I am not white. Just by looking at the name of my secondary school, King George V (KGV), its imperialist reverence still freaks me out. I remember making a history project based on the history of the school and looking through old yearbooks. I noticed that everyone in the class photos were white people. I dismissed it as an assumption, but reflecting on it now, I realised that these educational spaces were exclusively for the children of British expatriates that could afford a private education. Bhabha’s the sinister ambivalence of the colonial mimicry is reproduced in their promotional content. The histories of segregation are now replaced with “diversity” (ESF 2018) and their whiteness becomes “international” (ESF, 2018). Bhabha calls this an inter dicta, “a discourse at the crossroads of what is known and permissible and what which though known must be kept concealed” (1984, p.128). Not to say that institutions are not allowed to change, if anything that is what I want to encourage. But this silencing of the institution’s colonial history does nothing but expose the ties it wants to pretend to sever.
Analysing the positionality of the local student and international school student in Hong Kong reveals a lot about the younger generation’s attitudes and conceptions towards national belonging in Hong Kong. Most local and international students don’t have the opportunity to mingle in an academic setting until they reach university level education. This lack of interaction, in return produces myths about the other groups understood to be cultural truths. To local students, a key distinction between their authenticity as a Hong Konger stems from class differences. Elaine, a local school student declared that international students “haven’t suffered like us” (Chun, 2009, p. 32) and have been “pampered all their lives” (Chun, 2009, p.28). What are the reproductive powers of Elaine’s words? Lauren Berlant also questions these types of rhetoric, “If one determines that an event or a relation is shameful, must it produce shame in the subject it impacts?” (2010, p.229). Should international students experience shame in their supposed class privileges like Elaine and Berlant may have suggested? Not necessarily, it would have to depend on their individual upbringings and circumstances for them to be able to position themselves into Elaine’s desired shame. Personally, I find it quite damaging to equate a culture of suffering as a worthiness to exist as a Hong Konger. Elaine’s words seem to alienate class as the sole factor that liberates international school kids from ever suffering. That clearly is not the case, as we have to consider the “stickiness” (Ahmed, 2004, p.14) of emotions. Ultimately, it can be disheartening to see how distant and hostile the youth of Hong Kong can potentially be to each other. Anne Anlin Cheng provides a more positive model of hope in this bitterness, “If we are willing to listen, the histories of disarticulated grief is still speaking through the living, and the future of social transformation depends on how open we are to facing the intricacies and paradoxes of that grief and the passions that it bequeaths” (2000 p.29).
The ways in which Hong Kong’s ideas of national belonging are conceived and reproduced, go beyond Gilroy’s original considerations. The blurred distinctions between race and nation is further complicated by the impact of British colonialism and the empire. These three factors serve as a basis to understanding how contemporary discourse, disguise themselves in seemingly neutral language to reveal the perverse past that will constantly be relived. Bhabha’s Of Mimicry Men allowed me to come to terms with my subjectivity as a post-colonial individual, understanding that the ideologies and traditions in my education serve as a normalised present of the colonial empire. Once again, my subjectivity was put into perspective by Chun’s (2009) anthropological study of local and international students. The questions of authenticity from students like Elaine let me consider my own agency. If I believe that I am a Hong Konger, then why should I care if other people think otherwise? I understand that I may not be the local’s idea of a Hong Konger but there are countless multitudes to national belonging. Beyond my own subjectivities as a ethnic Han Chinese, acknowledging and honouring the Indian and Filipino communities in Hong Kong is a definite priority. This paper, was in no way an extensive list of subjectivities nor diasporas to be discussed and I want to encourage a greater intersectionality in academia by consistently honouring those who are silenced.
Ahmed, S. (2004). Affective Economies. Social Text, 22(2), pp.117-139.
Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge.
Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ang, I. (2001). On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West. London: Routledge.
Barker, M. (1981). The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe. London: Junction Books.
Berlant, L. (2010). Thinking about Feeling Historical. In: J. Staiger, A. Cvetkovich and A. Reynolds, ed., Political Emotions. London: Routledge.
Census and Statistics Department Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (2016). Population By-census Thematic Report: Ethnic Minorities. Hong Kong: Census and Statistics Department Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Chan, A. (2000). Consumption, Popular Culture, and Cultural Identity: Japan in Post-colonial Hong Kong. Studies in Popular Culture, [online] 23(1). Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23414566 [Accessed 15 Dec. 2018].
So why would we know, how come we can predict that we need to wear masks? It was before the first confirmed case in Hong Kong. So there was this collective memory of this type of illness, and the knee-jerk reaction of us needing to do this.
– LAURA COZIJNSEN
Interview and Illustration by Tara Tang
To start off the COVID-19 19 interview series, I invited Laura Cozijnsen for a discussion at her office in Tsim Sha Tsui on a Thursday morning. Laura is the founder of Lighthouse Consultancy, a communications consultancy delivering diverse public relation campaigns and events with high profile clients such as Tai Kwun, HKUST and HKIA. Alongside Laura’s entrepreneurial success at Lighthouse, she is an award-winning MC and public speaker hosting events such as the 2010 Expo in Shanghai. With Laura’s longstanding involvement and commitment for Hong Kong’s communications industry, this interview hopefully reveals a glimpse into the potential changes and innovations Lighthouse Consultancy and the larger creative industries will have to go through in order to adapt with COVID-19. And as much as it is important to consider the new corporate strategies set in motion, I also wanted to know how Laura was personally coping with the pandemic whether it be with how she greets her dog when she comes back from work or on the political nature of the face mask. Everyone in Hong Kong has their own memories of SARS and now COVID-19, and this is Laura Cozijnsen’s:
T: Reflecting on the past, what was your understanding and experience of SARS in 2003?
L: 2003, I was working for a media company starting in Hong Kong. I remember vividly that it was very scary. The times were scary. Scary in a sense, there is almost like this fog of fear around hong kong. I think it was scarier then now. I remember vividly because my role back then was a regional role. I had to travel to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. We had a few trips planned before SARS. There was this Singaporean company who called us and said “please don’t come to Singapore, you are from the SARS zone”. And I felt so bad, we always felt so welcomed to have meetings and then we could dine out. And then all of a sudden all we got was “you’re from the SARS zone”. It was also a time when I felt…we felt collectively sad. And the loss of medical professionals – the doctors, the nurses and the caregivers all live in our memories. And of course Amoy Gardens and the area around it, no one wanted to be near the buildings. That was how scary it was.
T: I wrote an essay before this all happened – an essay focusing on illness narratives. I wrote about how prevention was also part of an illness really, because it was a social reaction. So I wrote about the prevention methods in the United Kingdom versus Hong Kong. It reminded me that one time, I told my mom that I was going to a birthday party buffet in the Metropole Hotel in Mong Kok. I didn’t know at the time, because they changed their names and everything. So my mom was like “What’s wrong with you?”.
L: I think it was different from now. SARS was more a Hong Kong/China thing. At the beginning of coronavirus, it felt very much the same. There was China and there was Hong Kong. No one knew that it would blow up in the rest of the world. And now it felt like it was the whole world going through this. And from a financial perspective, it’s worse now. Because SARS was just here, and now the rest of the world. I think, is this nature’s way of telling us like “wake up”. No one can escape.
I had a friend in the UK that caught coronavirus. She is from Hong Kong, she works in London. Her mom visited her in January and her mom came back early March, after staying with her for two months. And the tests at the airports, she was confirmed as a case. And then my friend started feeling coughs and heavy breathing, and it was only then that she realised that she might have coronavirus. She was not tested, because they said we do not have enough test. So the numbers…what does a number mean?
T: You touched on it briefly, but how has it changed in 2020? And especially in the earlier months, when it felt so much more like an “asian problem”. What was your perspective in Hong Kong?
L: I thought it would be like SARS. Okay, as long as we continue doing the precautions we will be okay. But then there was also this scare of the lack of masks. Everybody was trying to get a mask. You know the internet meme of “two boxes please”? When someone says, I have a source and then you respond with “two boxes please”. That has become a joke amongst friends but that was the most scary. Because we had no idea we would need so many masks. And it was Chinese New Year. The Wuhan lockdown was 25th of January. And that really sent a message. I should send you my Facebook Live, I did a facebook live on the survey results. It was amazing, the day Hong Kong people started wearing masks was before the Wuhan lockdown. So why would we know, how come we can predict that we need to wear masks? It was before the first confirmed case in Hong Kong. So there was this collective memory of this type of illness, and the knee-jerk reaction of us needing to do this.
This was so funny, one day like many others I was trying to get a box of mask for myself and my mother who does not live with me. I went all over the neighbourhood trying to get masks. We ended up at a grocery store, and the saleslady said “We ran out of masks, why don’t you get some gloves?”. I think the irrationality got the better of me, I bought two boxes of gloves. So it’s still sitting in my kitchen, unused. That was the moment where I realised “Laura you are being irrational you wanted masks but you got disposable gloves!”. I think it was also realising that the death rate in Hong Kong was much less than SARS in Hong Kong was reassuring. But yes, that was the early days.
T: Especially the HKU Prevention of Diseases department, they continued to speak out even after Carrie Lam was asking citizens to not wear a mask. And the team at HKU, they were like “please wear a mask!”.
L: There are so many mixed messages! I think a lot of them come out and say “don’t wear a mask because there is a shortage”. If you don’t have enough stock, you should be clear about it. We have stock for how many days, what’s the best alternatives. You cannot say you do not have to wear one, it is irresponsible. When you look at the statistics, how the growth was being contained in certain cities you realise mask wearing helps. When you look at the President of the United States, he does not even wear a mask, he does not wear a mask in the hospital.
Which brings to the question – how do we select our leaders, how are our leaders being selected and why are they our leaders?
When I was writing my thesis, inevitably people would start talking about the Anti-Mask Law, last year in Hong Kong for the protests. But I think as researchers in that role, we report what is being brought up. And its totally okay, with people there has to be politics.
I think we should provide all medical and sanitation staffs a bonus and a longer holiday after this. Because they work their asses off. I’ve got close friends working in public hospitals that were so stressed, understandably stressed. You also see the beauty of someone going into the Dirty Team with SARS experience, bringing in new nurses and doctors who do not have SARS experience. Hopefully that would educate them and help them understand what it is like. There is a good thing going on as well, those who have experienced it say, “I need to do this because I want the second and third generation of caretakers to know what it’s like.”.
T: Going on more of a business perspective, since industries have been pushed into a digital realm during COVID-19, how has that changed working in event management?
L: I think there are a few layers, when you see something that is such a change that is so abrupt. I would think the first thing to do is internal stabilising within the company. In early Feb, we talked about how COVID-19 would affect us as an industry and what we have to brace ourselves for. Every month we have a “situation room meeting”. We basically talk about how business is, what it is going to be like. So internal is phase one. The second is facing external but not in terms of switching gears but understanding what our clients are facing. Because we are all human. They might be afraid of losing their job or bottom line. So really understanding their concerns is what is important. And the thought then would be to switch gears or to think about new things. It would hopefully in the next year that hybrid events could be an option. Once we have this, we can go back and have internal education and the talk yesterday for clients we can reassure them and tell them that we have done this before.
Everything begins with the team, then to understand what the market and client wants and then do it instead of jumping right in. Because without an internal support or understanding you can never do it well. Of course during this time period, all companies are under a lot of stress. It is a time to tell people’s virtues and real characters.
T: Do you think it will change the future of physical events, do you think people will be less willing to participate since you do specific location based events?
L: I think there is going to be a push and pull. There will be a switch in terms of the proportions for a while. And if digital picks up and serves the purpose then we will see events in a different light. Digital events will become less of a ‘nice to have’ and more of a main thing. The benefits have not been capitalised before. I do think that physical events are important because we are human beings, we crave social interactions and seeing each other. But it will be very different.
T: Thinking about your colleagues at work, since they are younger do you think their understanding of SARS is vastly different to yours?
L: I don’t think a lot of them remember, I think at least you have to be 30 years old to have good memory of SARS because it was 17 years ago. To pick up a new thing it does not necessarily have to be for young people, you might see older generations willing to pick up new things. It does not mean that young people will be more accepting to change. So I think the future of education is about growing a generation of agility, flexibility and change. Instead of having to tell students to take ten subjects and pass all of them.
T: How have you and your personal circle (family and friends) been coping with COVID-19?
L: It’s interesting, I get to see more friends now than before. We will call each other more. Before, I had a busier schedule. I do not think that without COVID-19, I would have met so many friends if that can be considered a plus. Family – my mother has been through SARS, she is okay. She has more supplies than she needs, but her only thing is that she is a big church person. So I was teaching her how to use Facebook to watch mass.
T: My grandma does that too! She tells me, “Yes we can go to mass together online!”.
L: I think that has changed, my mom is 78 and she can still learn which is pretty amazing. I also think the world has slowed down. And for us to realise when there is less work, what is important. It is the friends and family that we have. I have friends who paid horrendous amounts of money just to get their kids to get back on the soonest flight. I asked them, “Can you wait for a week? It would be maybe 1/10th of the price.”. And they responded with, “No it must be today.”.
T: In terms of understanding the political nature of the mask, what is your opinion on Hong Kong’s culture of donning masks?
L: I think mask wearing in Hong Kong is a constructed social defence, because that is something we can do. It is almost like psychologically I can do something about it. SARS has redefined for us what a mask is. Because it used to be if you were sick or for a medical staff. But now after SARS, if it is the flu season, you see a lot more people wearing masks. Especially now, according to my research, it is 96% of Hong Kong people wear a mask. Maybe every now and then before the pandemic, someone wearing a mask would be not judged that much. So in fact, the social judgement can change. And not to mention last year, the anti-mask law, and now people see differently. It is something that we feel i can control – both on a hygiene level and on a choice level. So I will do it.
T: How do you feel about the anti-mask law? How did others go about it? Because when I first heard of that law I wondered what people who were sick would go about their day. Even if you were stopped by authorities how can you really prove that you are sick?
L: Personally I was quite resistant to the anti-mask law because I think it is a personal choice. Of course there is a discussion with those who would be held responsible in the eyes of the law with those participating in unauthorised rallies but I still think this is a human right. I think we should want to choose whether we want to wear a mask or not. Of course if a police officer needs to check my HKID for whatever reason, they can request me to temporarily take off my mask. But you cannot say you cannot wear a mask. It’s like if its for religious purposes, oh you cannot wear a veil. It just does not make sense. Or by telling people that you cannot wear a mask it makes people want to wear a mask, it’s a kind of reverse psychology.
T: I would like to talk about the situation in Mainland China. There are videos on the Internet of people coughing on lift buttons. Now, I do not know if these videos are one hundred percent real or staged. But even the very act of filming it or recording it from a security camera, what does that mean for the health and safety for people living their day to day lives?
L: I feel the most sorry for the people in Wuhan. I think they would require a lot of support after this because it is like where the nuclear bomb hit, right? You didn’t know it was happening, it happened, you didn’t know how to react, you didn’t know who to trust, and you’re just trying to fight for your life. And it is so sad to see videos of people living there and reporters trying to cover footage, it’s such a quiet city. It is a city that needs a lot of love. And politics is one thing but we always need to remember we are all people, whatever political affiliations we have we are human beings. And imagine that feeling in Wuhan, is like the feeling of being in SARS in Hong Kong. Like, “Fuck, what’s going on? What’s going to happen next?”. I still remember during SARS when I got home, I’d take off all my clothes and then run straight to the bathroom and take a shower before I’d play with my dog. And my dog would be looking at me like. Even now, it’s not as serious. I would go home, wash my hands and then take off my mask and change into home clothes and then I’ll play with my dog. But she still looks at me confused. And I’m sure people with kids as well. Just imagine doctors and nurses with kids, they (kids) don’t understand. If this is happening to us, we aren’t even in the epicentre. Imagine those in the epicentre.
T: I remember when they did the lockdown in Wuhan, initially they said it was two weeks. But when I saw the lorries barricading the city. I thought to myself, “This is not for two weeks. This is something very serious.”
L: I think for us in communication there is a lot to learn. How should we communicate? What should we communicate? And I think the Taiwan government this time has done a good job. There is so much to learn from them, how they communicated, what to say and what not to say. It is not a parental way of ruling, it is more like how can we work together. I think it is a lot to learn in terms of communications and media.