As Covid-19 spreads across the planet, Hong Kong has so far managed to avoid the kind of total lockdown suffered by cities in nearly every other country. But for a place whose streets are normally heaving with people, where going out to dinner is a nightly ritual, these are unsettling times nonetheless. People are working at home, basketball courts are closed, banquet halls are empty and dark. Photojournalist May James began documenting the scenes in her latest series of photographs, which were mostly taken in the last week of March, just as a second wave of infections hit Hong Kong.
After a difficult year of protests and civil unrest, and the first wave of Covid-19 infections that hit Hong Kong in late January, there is something soul-deadening about once again seeing empty streets and MTR carriages.
When the first wave hit, staying home felt like an act of solidarity. “Hongkongers definitely took it seriously,” says Joseph Chan, a management consultant who lives in Sham Shui Po. (His name has been changed to protect his privacy.) “The messages from the government were confusing and so I think people saw the need to take it into their own hands to protect themselves. There were very few people out and about in Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui, restaurants were quite empty. You could always get a seat on the MTR.”
Then people relaxed. After more than a month of hunkering down, it seemed like Hong Kong had dodged a bullet. The city once again returned to life. “I remember going out the weekend before the massive spike in global action and it was crazy,” says Chan. “The whole weekend there were people milling about on the streets, malls, MTR – it almost felt as if we were collectively rewarding ourselves for taking good care during the previous month, or letting loose a little bit after being cooped up for quite awhile.”
Although the situation in Europe was deteriorating quickly, it felt far enough away not to be a threat. “When we saw the spike in global cases and seeing the rest of the world react to this for the first time, it definitely felt like we were living in a parallel universe,” says Chan. But Hong Kong is a city that sails on the winds of global exchange and it wasn’t long before infected people began arriving from abroad, bringing with them a second wave of Covid-19 cases. By the time Hong Kong closed its borders, nearly four months after the virus had first emerged in Wuhan, it was too late to contain the spread.
Filmmaker Jenny Suen was in Los Angeles when the city began shutting down in order to contain the virus. “[It was] apocalyptic,” she says. “It had been raining for a week, which it almost never does in LA. The sky was always dark. They ordered all non-essential businesses to close down. So I thought, isn’t that the entire town? All of us filmmakers, actors, agents, musicians, aren’t all of us non-essential?”
Suen decided to return to Hong Kong. After her flight landed, she headed straight home to Repulse Bay and put herself into self-isolation. She now has the same routine every day. “I wake up and write till about 2pm. Then I make and eat lunch,” she says. “The afternoon is for busywork – writing emails, calls, et cetera. Then I exercise for about an hour, which leads to a bath, and then dinner. At night I just let my mind go on a spree – usually a book or a movie or both.”
Central and Causeway Bay have been much quieter than usual. But in Sham Shui Po, Chan has watched from his window as the streets continue to bustle in spite of the pandemic. “Social distancing is not really a concept here,” he says. “A lot of people don’t have the luxury of working from home and so life goes on in the markets and stores and the not-so-legal street markets – albeit with masks and hand sanitiser everywhere. A lot of people have been coming here recently to buy cloth masks from the fabric shops, so there may have been an increase in the number of people around.”
In Hong Kong and around the world, the coronavirus has laid bare the lopsided foundations of contemporary life. The virus is blind, but it does not hit everyone equally. Research has shown that people in marginalised situations suffer from a higher than average mortality rate. The rich can afford to stay home, but what about those who share a 150-square-foot cubicle with their entire family?
This isn’t the first time a pandemic has exposed Hong Kong’s inequality. In 1894, the bubonic plague swept through the city, killing 2,500 people—more than 10 percent of the population—and forcing up to a third of the city’s 225,000 people to flee. SARS sent Hong Kong reeling after it killed 299 people between November 2002 and August 2003. Both outbreaks spread to Hong Kong from elsewhere, but they were aggravated by failings in public policy. In 1894, severe overcrowding and squalid living conditions sent the plague roaring through Sheung Wan. Just over a century later, faulty plumbing in the poorly-designed blocks of Amoy Gardens led to the single biggest outbreak of SARS.
So far, even with the second wave of Covid-19 cases, Hong Kong has managed to avoid the dire situation seen in cities like Milan and New York. But the repercussions of the pandemic will extend well beyond the virus itself. From the very beginning, this city has been built on the open flow of people and capital; now that the world’s borders are shut, flights are cancelled and trade restrictions imposed, what does that mean for Hong Kong? And is Hong Kong ready to shelter its citizens from the effects of a nasty economic recession—or even depression—caused by the pandemic?
When the pandemic began sweeping across Europe, Hong Kong writer and lawyer Antony Daprian was in the UK. He managed to safely return home, but in a recent newsletter, he recounted how his journey was fraught with anxiety. “The number of times I was required to present my papers and credentials, each time with the possibility that I would be denied access to the next stage of my journey, engendered an unfamiliar and disquieting sense of vulnerability,” he wrote.
In a way, Hong Kong has become a microcosm of the world itself: a patchwork of people and places with vastly different and unequal experiences. Anyone who experienced last year’s political upheaval will be familiar with the vulnerability that Dapiran describes – only in that case, it was the fear of encountering police checkpoints in Tin Shui Wai and Tuen Mun, or the risk of finding yourself trapped in a street filled with tear gas. When they were confronted by a threat to their fundamental freedoms, Hongkongers responded by taking to the streets. Now there is a new threat: a highly contagious and remarkably unpredictable virus. And paradoxically, coming together to fight it requires isolating ourselves from each other, at least for now.
It’s a response that feels strange and unnatural, even if it is necessary. Perhaps the pandemic can serve as a reminder of just how valuable our human connections are – and how important it is to build a society based on mutual support rather than destruction. “After this long period of confinement, we will not take our freedom for granted,” says Jenny Suen. “Not just freedom of movement, but all the other freedoms that give us the space to be who we are.”