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“What is the most important – personal freedom or community protection?” – An Interview with Ivy Chow on her experience with COVID-19

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.


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!  

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?

Ivy on the question of masking up

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. 

You can really see how we’ve entered an era with too much information. It’s easy to fall into ignorance and bias. 

ivy on the excess of news in a digital age

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. 

One still has to explore, but with new ways. For me, now it’s all about discovering the new normal and making it exciting. 


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. 


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