By Bruce Einhorn The flowers by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel were piled so high, there was no room to walk on the sidewalk. It was here in early April that one of Hong Kong's biggest stars, pop singer and actor Leslie Cheung, committed suicide by jumping from the health-club balcony. Cheung's distraught fans turned the sidewalk into a shrine. They taped photos and handwritten messages to the wall of the Mandarin, a swank hotel where Cheung, best known in the West for his roles in Chen Kaige's Farewell, My Concubine and Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together, often visited.
When Cheung made those films, Hong Kong was the booming capital of a booming region, and the Mandarin was the place to stay. Today, Hong Kong is a place to avoid, and the city's five-star hotels have occupancy rates of less than 10%. It's understandable why the Mandarin quickly became a place of mourning following Cheung's death. Hundreds of people brought white flowers, white being the traditional Chinese color for funerals. White lilies. White carnations. White roses.
SCARIER THAN ISRAEL? All of Hong Kong is a city in mourning these days. Not just for Cheung, but for more than 30 people killed by the mystery pneumonia virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), that has gripped the city since early March. Unfortunately, it will have more deaths to mourn in the coming days and weeks.
More than 1,000 other Hong Kong people have been hospitalized, and the numbers are sure to get worse. The government is making plans for as many as 3,000 SARS patients by the end of April. Thousands of foreigners have fled, expatriates sent home by their multinational companies, diplomats recalled by their governments, and tourists just gone. Hong Kong is too dangerous even for New Yorkers, too perilous even for Israelis. Worries about terrorism seem to fade when compared to SARS, as people flee to other places that used to seem far more hazardous.
Like New Yorkers after September 11 and life in Jerusalem after numerous suicide bombings, people in Hong Kong are suddenly living in a much smaller city. As with terrorism, a health crisis such as SARS can have a severe impact on everyday life. People are staying home, shunning restaurants, movie theaters, any crowded indoor place where somebody might sneeze or cough on them. The Rolling Stones canceled their concerts in late March, and other big-name events are off, too. For some, staying home can be nerve-wracking. An expat friend of mine -- one of the few still in town -- says he has even stopped reading The South China Morning Post. "It's like reading Plague Daily," he says.
At the same time, anger is building. People are angry at bureaucrats, whom they compare, perhaps unfairly, with more decisive officials in Singapore. Anger is rising at Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who in the months leading up to the outbreak seemed have set his government's focus on passing Beijing's agenda -- especially the controversial new antisedition legislation. Effort was put into protecting Hong Kong from an imagined threat to national security, but apparently little attention was paid to an all-too-real menace festering quietly across the border.
MASKING THEIR FEAR. Most of all there is anger at China. It was supposed to be Hong Kong's salvation, rescuing the economy by helping to integrate the city with the booming Pearl River Delta in Guangdong. Instead, the Chinese have crippled Hong Kong by covering up SARS and allowing the virus to spread here. A Citigroup (C) analyst issued a report on the impact of SARS. The title captured the sense of victimization felt by many in this beleaguered city: What Have We Done to Deserve This?
Although some experts overseas say masks are pointless, almost everyone wears one outside anyway. We wear them in elevators, too. But oddly, very few of us at the offices of The McGraw-Hill Companies (parent of BusinessWeek and BusinessWeek Online) wear them at work. Somehow we feel safe once we're in the confines of our own company. No doubt that will change if somebody from the company finally comes down with SARS. But for now, we take off our masks and line up in the office's kitchen to wash our hands.
Masks do help people feel a little more secure. The other day, I went to visit a doctor at the University of Hong Kong, where he is busy researching the virus. In late March, he spoke at a press conference, proudly announcing that he and his fellow researchers had identified the SARS bug as a coronavirus, the same sort that causes the common cold. Then, he didn't wear a mask. But now he does.
With so many doctors and nurses hospitalized, it's easy to understand why. I kept my mask on, too. If, as many people have said, SARS is Hong Kong's equivalent of September 11, then health-care workers are Hong Kong's equivalent of New York's heroic firefighters and police officers.
JUST WAVE HELLO. The government is doing its best to keep up people's spirits. It's airing public-service ads on Cantonese- and English-language TV that cheerfully explain the new facts of life. For instance, how to disinfect the plumbing in your house (1 part bleach, 99 parts water), how to greet people (don't shake hands, just wave), how to protect yourself if you've done something dangerous like press an elevator button or touch an escalator railing (don't touch your face, wash your hands with liquid soap when you get inside). A woman from the health department apologizes for any delays at immigration points, as officials now have to process health-declaration forms that the government is requiring people to file on their way into Hong Kong.
Of course, this isn't to say that Hong Kong is dead -- as famously predicted by another American magazine before the British sailed away and the Chinese took control. Like the cat with nine lives, Hong Kong has a way of coming back. After the funeral for Leslie Cheung, the Mandarin's informal shrine became history -- the flowers disappeared, the sidewalk returned to normal.
Some day -- soon, we hope -- we'll be able to say the same about the rest of the city. But for now, Hong Kong people are in mourning, for Leslie Cheung, for the SARS victims, and for the city we've lost. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online