In the spring of 2003, my family and I were living in Hong Kong, in a colonial-era flat near Victoria Peak, the mountain that dominates the city’s skyline. The previous year, just to the north, a coronavirus had emerged that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome, or sars. The virus, called sars-CoV, had jumped the species barrier in a market, travelling from bats to civets to people. Its mortality rate was around ten per cent.
Initially, the Chinese government covered up the epidemic, threatening and silencing the physicians who issued warnings. Then, as the infection spread, it imposed a drastic crackdown on all social interaction. The national May Day holiday, when hundreds of millions of people travel around the country on vacation, was cancelled, and the Rolling Stones called off their concerts. Hong Kongers enacted social isolation even before it was ordered, and many expats departed, including my wife and daughters. By March, the city felt deserted. Night clubs were closed, restaurants abandoned, shopping malls desolate. The drive down Kennedy Road to Gloucester Road and then east along Hong Kong Island to my offices in Quarry Bay, usually a half-hour struggle through some of the densest traffic in the world, was now a fleet five minutes.
Don’t want to read the whole article ? How did it finish ?
My family members came back from their exile. Restaurants reopened. The viral spell broke; Hong Kong seemed to wake from a fever dream. There were magical spring days when the sun flooded Victoria Harbor. We talked, in person. The virus had reduced everyone’s life to a binary—you either had it or you didn’t. Now, there seemed to be seven million different stories.
One day, I found myself sitting in a steamy chicken-and-rice place full of other customers. Oh, I thought. This is what life is.