Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003

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Letter From Hong Kong: The Life of Mask-Wearers

By Wendy Gan

Weve finally been reduced to this sitting amongst friends comparing masks. P wears a green surgical mask that right now sits like a hammock beneath his chin. He has rather unwillingly exposed his mouth to a sandwich he is careful to hold only by its greaseproof paper wrapper. L has a grey one with the texture of flannel. She has to remember not to put her lipstick on for fear of smudging the insides of her mask. Besides, who notices lipstick these days as almost everyone goes about with mouth and nose covered? Years of habit though are a little hard to break. Z has a 3M mask, not quite the top of the range, but nearly there. Its a white papiermache dome that makes him looks as if he has sprouted a mouthless snout overnight. F has a white paper-thin one, a token of a mask, primly kept in a ziplock bag when not in use.

Amongst friends, the masks are down and it is a relief to see whole faces again. On the streets amongst the mask-wearers, you feel as if you have joined a society of bank robbers and criminals, fearful of exposure. At times with surgical masks predominating, you feel transported to some surreal operating room where everyone is a surgeon or nurse half-prepped for surgery. Or else, this is what it must partly feel like to have been in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where women went about covered, unknown, anonymous was it for their protection or containment? You walk the masked streets and cant decide who are the contaminated you or them? Faces half-obliterated by these masks, strangers are made more threateningly strange. Suddenly, to be at a table with faces uncovered, eating and laughing, is an oasis of welcome normality.

We all have our mask stories now. How impossible it is to walk and talk on your mobile phone at the same time. How suddenly you cant walk up the hill at your usual pace. How you feel transformed into an old lady, short of breath, in need of constant breathers. How masks become a sodden mess after speaking for too long. How you sometimes need to peel a corner of mask aside to take in some much-needed air. How long we think it will be before non-mask wearers are lynched for not wearing masks.

Were a noisy party in an otherwise sombre caf, talking loud and fast, laughing hard. This atypical pneumonia will turn us all into obsessive compulsives, some of us joke, rushing to wash our hands every 10 minutes. P complains that all that hand-washing is drying his skin but rejects Ls offer of hand cream. Its not quite manly enough and besides, hed be washing it off in 10 minutes time. He pushes his plate aside and looks at his hands, before wordlessly rising and heading to the toilet. Dont touch the tap and toilet door with your just-washed hands, urges L, use a paper towel instead. She says this in complete earnestness and we look at her anew. The alternative, she says, is alcohol disinfectant rubs that do not require water and as F produces a large bottle from her bag, we gasp in awe. Theyd all been sold out in pharmacies along with masks and gloves. She proceeds to pull out masks, gloves, wetwipes from her bag as well, a veritable atypical pneumonia prevention kit. We all predict F will be the first to be lynched for her precious stores...

Growing wild and inventive, we think of hygiene-related business propositions. All toilets should have automatic sliding doors that swish open to usher you in and out of toilets without dirtying a finger: a business idea for the automatic door industry in the post-atypical pneumonia age if ever there was one. In the absence of soap and water and alcohol handrubs, we should sell hip flasks of alcohol for hygiene purposes, as well as for the occasional tipple on the side to help keep up ones courage. We should sell veils instead to the fashion-conscious and alcohol-soaked gloves to the fastidious. We should build and live in our own little protective bubbles, rolling to and from work, foregoing the dangers of public transport. We should arrange for acid rain to fall and help disinfect the city but we forget, the factories in Shenzhen and the weather can do that on our behalf. We pause hopefully to contemplate the skies grey and overcast but with no sign of rain. The heavens have not been very cooperative.

It looks later than it is. The ideas petering out, the party begins to break up. We have been sitting here masks off for an hour at least and a few shift uneasily. The ritual begins a run on the toilets for one final wash and then the masks. Familiar faces veiled, armour donned, each one leaves feeling vaguely protected enough to enter the unknown streets. Were going home to mingle safely unmasked with no one but our own germs.


QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003

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  Other Essay in this Issue

In praise of multilingualism, bad French and the canoe instructor
By Daniel de Roulet.

Related Links

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
External link to the World Health Organisation.

World Health Organisation
External link.

Minister of Health statement on coping with SARS
External link to the Singapore Government.

Singapore Medical Association
External link.

SARS emergency electronic laboratory, Hong Kong
External link.

 

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