Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Memories of the SARS summer

I feel a little guilty about saying this because, yes, it was a terrible trauma for the city of Beijing, and for a number of other places - for the whole world, really. Some people died, many got in a major panic. (My brother was reluctant to have me come home to visit his family in the UK that summer because he was worried I might have become a symptomless carrier of the disease. That's how crazy things got in some places!)

Yes, I say it guiltily, we all do, but I'm going to say it - the SARS summer was A BLAST. I'm sure most foreigners who were here at that time feel much the same: it was the best time we ever had in Beijing. This oppressive metropolis was never so cheap, never so uncrowded, never such FUN again.

Paradoxical as it may seem, I don't think it has ever again been so carefree. It was as if our anxieties about the Great Plague waiting to decimate Mankind drove all other more humdrum concerns from our minds.

I suspect it was the mass panic, rather than any of the haphazard public health initiatives of the Beijing government (I may do a fuller post over on Froogville in a couple of days about the more serious aspects of the SARS experience here), that choked the disease off, and perhaps saved Beijing. The news finally broke 'officially' that the outbreak in Beijing was much more serious than the authorities had initially admitted on the Sunday before the May Day holiday. [We all kind of knew before that. The rumour mill had been going crazy for a month or so. And, even in those days before serviceable Internet connection speeds and convenient VPNs, we had been getting dribs and drabs of news from the media overseas.]

Within a day or two, I would guess that almost everyone had gone home. Some of the students at the college where I was working (rightly fearing a possible quarantine on educational institutions, which eventually came at the end of the week) had already started running off a few days before that infamous Sunday press conference at which the Mayor of Beijing and the Minister of Health were summarily replaced. By the following Tuesday or Wednesday, nearly all of the students had gone. It was much the same in all of the offices where I had contacts: a couple of business teaching gigs I had going on were suddenly cancelled - indefinitely.

Everybody went home for the holiday a few days early. And many of them then stayed at home for the next two or three weeks, or more.

Traffic on the roads was light - although it didn't disappear altogether, because everyone became convinced that the crowds on public transport were sure to infect you. Passengers on the buses became fewer and fewer. Passengers on the subway were rare as hen's teeth: you could usually get a whole carriage, sometimes even a whole train, to yourself; and if there were anyone else sitting nearby, a quick tactical cough would send them scurrying into the next carriage for safety.

My college was, in effect, closed down for the last two months of the semester (although the staff didn't want to admit as much!); but an untypically xenophilic government edict had forbade employers to withold pay from foreign experts for working time lost due to the SARS crisis (maybe this applied to Chinese workers as well; though somehow I doubt it!).

The weather was exquisite: it had started getting sunny and warm in the second half of April (as it always seemed to, until 4 or 5 years ago when this accursed 'global warming' started deranging the former metronomic predictability of Beijing's seasons). The air quality was superb (many factories closed, far fewer cars on the roads). We had day after day of sumptuously blue skies. And even when it started getting really hot, it didn't seem uncomfortably so - because, uncannily, there was no humidity. [I didn't notice at the time, but I wonder if even the municipal maintenance crews who water all our bloody trees so extravagantly during the summer had also been given - or treated themselves to - a couple of weeks off. I'm sure that's where most of the damned humidity comes from; The Jing usually starts to become insufferable by late May or early June, but that year we continued to enjoy clear skies and dry air well into June, a run of perhaps 8 weeks or so of utterly idyllic weather with scarcely a single interruption.]

So, I suddenly found myself with a couple of months of completely free time, in a city I had just begun to know and love, and with the astonishing bonus of no crowds and no pollution and ecstatically beautiful weather.

The bar scene was a bit subdued, of course. The majority of expats had fled back to their own countries for a while, and some of those who stayed were as nervous as their Chinese brethren of venturing outside and risking encounters with people. I heard a handful of diehards at the old Goose & Duck (over by Chaoyang Park West Gate in those days) mounted a round-the-clock sit-in to encourage the owner to maintain his 24-hour opening policy. Most of the bars around Sanlitun and Gongti started offering extravagant special offers to try to entice in customers. This was one of the only times I've been talked into trying sleazy and teen-oriented North Gate nightclubs Vic's and Mix; my pal Big Frank assured me that the usual door charges had been waived, and that there was some kind of ridiculous drinks promotion - possibly even an all-you-can-drink - that would get us wasted for under 100 kuai. However, he soon discovered an even better deal at the nondescript Sanlitun Nanjie bar Tanewha, which was offering all-you-could-drink for 50 kuai. They had to reconsider that policy after Frank started taking some of his lady friends there on a regular basis. He was consorting with a gaggle of Russian 'working girls' at that time - and damn, could they drink! They'd demand a whole bottle of vodka each from the bewildered Tanewha barmen in return for their 50-note ... and then, three hours or so later, another one... each. They didn't have much 'work' at this time either, so it was just party, party, party.

Yes, there were a few WILD nights over Sanlitun way during that strange, demented May. But I've never been an eastside man. Back then, we all used to hang out around Houhai most of the time. Not in bars! There weren't any back then (No Name Bar and Buddha Bar, on either side of Yinding bridge, had been the pioneers; and one or two others had opened up nearby over the preceding winter, but failed to make any impact). Curiously enough, it was SARS that gave the area its big push. After three or four weeks of fearful seclusion, as the numbers of new cases began to tail off, people summoned up the courage to start setting foot outdoors again, but... there was a prevalent superstition that confined spaces were the kiss of death; Chinese punters would only consider eating or drinking outside during the closing weeks of the emergency. It was complete nonsense, of course: contamination of plates and glassware and the like was the real transmission risk, and that applied just as much or more in the slew of pavement café-style bars that suddenly started opening up around the Houhai lakes.

And that was what destroyed Houhai. The trend continued after the SARS terror had waned, gathered pace again the next summer and the next. Before long, Houhai was nothing but bars - and particularly nasty, garish, overpriced bars, at that: the kind of place that really appeals only to Chinese tourists (and not even to them, much of the time!).

But during the SARS summer, this was an irksome but still easily overlooked innovation. The great place to drink by Houhai - or, rather, Qianhai, the lower lake - in that year (and on into the next one, too) was the terrace out the back of the big department store at the top of Dianmenwai. It has long since been redeveloped into a cluster of hideous nightclubs, but back in the early Noughties, it was just a large, open - unclaimed? - space that was taken over for the summer months by an assortment of snack vendors. Big bottles of Yanjing usually cost an exorbitant 3 or 4 kuai, rather than the then more usual 2 kuai, but they were usually cold (we had to train up the two young girls who tended the fridge, educate them in the matter of the preferences and the capacity of laowai drinkers). When I first arrived in Beijing, it seemed that almost no-one - Chinese or foreigners - knew of the spot. Most of the custom came from workers from the department store taking their lunch or dinner breaks. I like to think that my teaching colleagues and I helped to introduce the place to a wider audience. Alas, those good times, those cheap good times would not last for long.

There was one even better spot, though, especially for an evening session. On the north-east corner of Houhai, there were three or four little Muslim restaurants, hole-in-the-wall chuanr joints, shoulder to shoulder (it was hard to tell where each one began and ended, but fortunately they were fairly easy-going about sharing their cramped space with each other). I spent most evenings in May and early June in that year of SARS sitting at a plastic table on the sidewalk in front of one of those restaurants, eating chuanr and pickled peanuts, sucking back cold beers... and smiling pityingly at the glitzy lights and raucous music that were just beginning to disfigure the far end of the lake. We were a safe distance away: it seemed like "a dull rumour of some other war."

The following summer this marvellous cluster of Muslim places was chai'd... to make way for the first of a succession of ostentatiously pointless 'art bars', none of which has lasted more than a year or two.

The Beijing experience in a nutshell: it was fantastic when I first came here (especially when 80% of the population was afraid to go outdoors), but it has got progressively worse with every passing year since.

I've been thinking for ages that I should write something about these very resonant early experiences of Beijing, against the fraught background of SARS in 2003; but the Olympics distracted me on the five-year anniversary, and it looks now as if I won't be here any longer for the ten-year one next year. These thoughts have been bubbling up again especially strongly because the weather has been just gorgeous for most of the past two weeks: blue skies and tolerable heat always recall the SARS summer for me, and probably always will, even after I've left this place behind.


Froog said...

Now I think back on it, there were a few smoggy, clammy, grey days in May that year - but not very many. And I think the last couple of weeks of April and the first couple of weeks of June were completely unsullied.

Froog said...

I think illness is another trigger for the memory.

Just about every year I've been here, I've gone down with a filthy cold for a week or so in April or at the beginning of May - it's just happened again. It happened to me for the first time early on in the SARS crisis, and it took a considerable effort to stop myself being overwhelmed by fears that I might have got the awful disease myself. In fact, I remember my symptoms overtaking me very rapidly during a cab ride: suddenly my eyes starting getting all rheumy and my nose all snuffly and my throat became painfully dry and scratchy. I spent twenty minutes or so swallowing saliva to try to soothe my throat and constantly making little sniffs to try to keep my nose clear, desperately trying to avoid coughing or sneezing - which I knew would throw my poor driver into a complete panic.