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COVID-19 19: Sarah Mui

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! 

Even in the earlier months, when people were fighting for masks, we still had this sharing mentality.

Sarah mui

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. 

What do we need next? What do we need after COVID-19? Do we still need the same thing or something different?

SARAH MUI

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. 

I feel that a community needs to build resilience, through new experiments, habits and practices.

SARAH MUI

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.

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