I’m a bit late with this greeting, but Gung Hei Fat Choy! This is a Golden Rat year, and although it has started out with bad politics and a public health crisis, I’m holding out hope. Rats are often considered sly and dangerous, but in the Chinese zodiac, the rat is number one because he is clever, tough, and adaptable. These are qualities we will all need in the weeks and months ahead.
In the past month, Hong Kong has moved from public spaces clogged with protesters to streets and malls emptied by fears of the coronavirus. People that enter Hong Kong from the mainland are blocked or screened, and flights in and out are canceled. Rumors are contagious. Panicked shoppers are emptying grocery stores of rice and toilet paper, schools and many banks are closed, and the mail arrives irregularly. Handshakes have reverted to the “five ancestor fist” greeting familiar from Kung Fu films.
In a densely populated city, bodies of strangers are regularly compressed together. In trains and busses, sometimes we stand so close we are gouged by backpacks and able to read each other’s phones. Now it’s surreal to encounter empty pockets in previously crowded places. It’s as if air-bags, made of only air, suddenly deployed amongst us.
About those masks: Yesterday, an estimated 10,000 people lined up for many hours to buy masks. As anyone who has traveled in Japan, Hong Kong, or Korea knows, wearing face masks in public isn’t new in Asia. Many people wear masks on planes. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing occasional masks in public places and appreciative of how people who are sick voluntarily put up a barrier from others. I have never seen more than the eyes and foreheads of my doctors and dentist. What is new is that everyone is masked. Everywhere. Whatever scientists say about the efficacy of masks, this is a city that lived through the SARS epidemic that killed 300 people in 2003. No one is taking chances.
So here we are. Tourism is down. Local businesses are suffering. People are worried and angry, and they want someone to blame. At the same time that many of us would like to muzzle politicians in both Hong Kong and the USA, we are suiting up in ways that make us look like Hello Kitty, the famous Japanese cat without a mouth. When we take off our masks, in private, we complain and speculate and entreat the rat to turn this year from inauspicious to gold. Hong Kong could use a break. I wish that for all of us. Here’s to happy families, shared prosperity, good health, good leaders, good friends, and global goodwill.