Dispatches

A Viral New Year6 min read

Panic over the coronavirus empties the streets of Chengdu – Lauren Teixeira


Not long after lunch on the first day of the year of the rat, my fifth-floor neighbor Auntie Cheng bangs on my door. I had promised the previous evening to take her to my gym. We don our N95 respirator masks and set out for the northern end of our neighborhood, where the gym is located.

“It’s important to exercise so that your body can stay strong,” Auntie Cheng reflects as we walk by familiar shops, all closed. The Wuhan coronavirus has put a dent in her family’s new year celebrations. The whole extended family had gathered for a feast the previous night, but the first days of the new year will be spent apart.

There is a feeling in the air that it’s best – maybe even patriotic – not to go out. I am in a group chat with the former security guards from my compound. Earlier that morning Mr. Liao had forwarded a meme in the form of a short didactic poem:

The country is in a muddle, so let’s not cause trouble
Make your contribution by staying at home.
Relatives aren’t going anywhere
next year they’ll still be here…

Auntie Cheng has a 16-year-old niece who lives in Singapore with her father. The niece came to visit her mother in Chengdu for the new year, but her father demanded she fly back to Singapore that morning in light of the virus. Auntie Cheng returns to this fact several times over the course of our walk. I wonder if she’s a little offended.

Half a dozen police in black uniforms and surgical masks march by – the largest group of people we’ve seen out walking all day. Auntie Cheng explains they are looking for sick people. If someone has a temperature, the police will send them to the hospital for a free check-up. In America, she claims, you would not be given a free check-up. “And so,” she concludes half-jokingly, half-defensively, “communism is actually better than capitalism.”

It’s a sunny afternoon, rare for winter in Chengdu. Dozens of retirees, some not wearing masks, are sitting on bamboo chairs outside the senior center when we walk by. This is the prerogative of Chengdu locals when the weather is nice – to wile away the day drinking tea, gnawing sunflower seeds, and playing checkers. I find the sight of the leisurely seniors comforting. Auntie Cheng is less impressed. “They must really have a lot of courage,” she mutters.

Half a dozen police in black uniforms and surgical masks march by, looking for sick people

The next day, my gym requires guests to wear a mask inside. The day after that, it is closed. Restaurants, grocery stores, mahjong parlors – they all suddenly display the same notice from the Chengdu city government. The first clause of the notice forbids all “mass-style feasting activities,” going on to suggest that households cancel family gatherings and “peacefully pass the new year.”

Residents stock up on veggies at a street-cart in Chengdu (Lauren Teixeira)

What qualifies a gathering as excessive? Is there a hard cut-off? One of the neighborhood hotpot restaurants is still open, and I notice a table of six as I pass by. I eat lunch alone at the rice noodle spot across from my apartment. The boss, a leathery man with a comb-over, does not wear a mask and coughs as he boils my noodles. I ask if he’s afraid of virus. He beams at me while shaking his head.

The boss sits down with me while I eat my noodles. He worked construction for most of his life before he took over the noodle restaurant two years ago. That might explain his lack of fear, and also his drinking habits. He grabs two small bottles of baijiu from the restaurant next door and we toast to the new year. Before long the bottles are done, and he brings out an ornate celadon vase full of a pink homemade liquor his friend gave him. We have a cup each before I object that I have work to do.

Thoroughly drunk, I wander around the neighborhood. The patio where the seniors played checkers two days ago is empty, their bamboo chairs stacked in precarious towers. The familiar notice is affixed to a welcome sign. I walk to the neighborhood wet market. A young guy in hanfu – traditional Chinese clothing, a new subculture – toting bags of vegetables has paired his flowing robes with a face-mask.

“Still wearing hanfu?” I ask, perhaps rudely. “Not afraid of the virus?”

“Not afraid at all,” the man replies serenely. “I wear this hanfu everyday, and I buy vegetables everyday. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

I walk through the wet market. A new sign requires shoppers to wear a mask before entering. The vendors are mostly all back in their hometowns; shoppers in padded pajamas carefully pick over the few open stalls. A little beyond the market, the 24-hour rabbit meat restaurant is still selling rabbit meat, still 24 hours a day. A masked woman chops rabbit legs and cheerily informs me business is good.

I take the empty subway to Tianfu Square, where a 30-foot statue of Chairman Mao looks over the empty scene, and amble across to People’s Park. The famous teahouses are all deserted, save for a few stragglers at the tables next to the pond. A notice says the teahouse will be closed from the following day until February 1, but that re-opening time may change depending on the virus. The bamboo chairs are already stacked. I order chrysanthemum tea and watch the gray pondwater for a while.

Restaurants display the same notice from the Chengdu city government, forbidding all “mass-style feasting activities”

On Wednesday morning, the fifth day of the new year, I take a cab to Shihao Plaza for my dance class. At the entrance to the mall, guards take my temperature. I wait for my dance teacher at Starbucks, which is open and has a sign taped to the door notifying customers that the premises have been disinfected.

“This whole thing is a bit much, don’t you think?” my teacher grumbles when she sees me. My two classmates cancelled last minute; their families wouldn’t let them leave the house. For our one-on-one class, I learn a dance to Justin Bieber’s hit song ‘Love Yourself.’

During a water break, my teacher complains about the virus again. It’s another sunny day, she points out – people should be going outside to enjoy the sunshine. “It’s not healthy to stay inside all day,” she says. “But everyone has been hiding in their holes like mice. Behaving like mice for the year of the mouse!”

I go home and fall asleep. When I wake up it’s still light outside, and I wander the streets again. A grandmother plays table tennis with her grandson. A table of eight is eating at a duck restaurant. At the wet market, more vendors have returned from their hometowns. There is a line outside the 24 hour rabbit meat restaurant.

I walk down the narrow arterial lane of a migrant worker enclave, past the closed dentists and mahjong parlours. In front of a shuttered hardware store men smoke and listen to the radio. Halfway down one of the side-lanes I notice a cluster of women warming themselves around an open flame. I count eleven people: the biggest gathering I’ve seen in days.

I listen closely. Inside a building, I hear the click-clack of mahjong tiles. ∎


Header: Chengdu’s empty streets. (Lauren Teixeira)