Chapter 60: Love in the time of SARS

Hong Kong people wearing masks during SARS
Just as SARS began, and panic slowly began to mask the public, it felt odd to be so in love, in China. (Image from

I’d been working for barely a month in Shanghai, when news of SARS began to spread like the virus itself.

Masks quietly spread around the bus I rode into downtown Shanghai.

The women’s bathroom became our morning decontamination station, as everyone washed their hands more obsessively than Lady MacBeth — over conversations about whether or not to buy face masks.

E-mails about Hong Kong infected my inbox, with seemingly fictional photographs of people muzzled with face masks, and health workers dressed in outfits straight out of the Andromeda Strain.

Even the office showed symptoms of the SARS scare.

“As a precautionary measure, we plan to fumigate the entire office over the weekend,” read part of an e-mail from management.

“The company is sending me to Guangdong Province for a business trip,” confessed Stanley, a bespectacled, twentysomething reporter for one of our magazines who now wore a concerned grimace. “But I’m not sure it’s so safe to go.”

“I spent the last weekend in, watching movies just to avoid the crowds,” announced one of my coworkers in a conversation I overheard one morning.

SARS elicited fear, discouraged people from close physical contact, and demanded a more sterilized approach to life — conditions that seemed contrary to being in love in China, just as I was with John, my Chinese boyfriend.

It didn’t seem right to be so in love, at a time when China. faced a deadly illness spreading surreptitiously throughout the country. It was even stranger for me, a girl with a history of short, punctuated relationships — never finding someone who would stay with me beyond that brief honeymoon. But, sometimes, love is what you need to get through, when you’re forced to stay indoors and avoid the crowds.

It was one sunny afternoon in our apartment in Changning District, Shanghai, while listening to music from one of John’s classmates at his Shanghai university, that a song with an infectious melody roused me from my reading over to John’s side — it was See you everyday, by A-Do. Standing in the light, I offered my hand to him. “May I have this dance?” He arose from his work at the computer, and together, we glided across the scuffed parquet flooring, in and out of the sunshine — our natural spotlight. If not for SARS, we could have been just another young couple snuggling on our own private dance floor, celebrating the two of us.

We needed moments like this, and we needed each other — like some imaginary antidote to the spread of SARS. And while we didn’t know if Shanghai was one hundred percent safe from SARS, we knew one thing: it was still safe to be in love.

Did SARS ever make you think twice about your normal life, or things like love?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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7 Replies to “Chapter 60: Love in the time of SARS”

  1. During SARS I was working in a hospital in the middle of Toronto’s Chinatown, and I lived across the street. Even though the disease made landfall in a north Toronto hospital, through a non-Chinese man, people avoided Chinatown like the plague. The formerly bustling streets and restaurants were empty. After a while, TO’s mayor came out to eat in one of the famous restaurants there with a camera crew to convince people it was okay to visit the area. By this time, SARS had spread to many of the downtown hospitals, including ours. I never treated an active SARS patient, but a year later I did treat a nurse who got the infection from a patient and was still suffering side effects.

    We had to take precautions, of course, so for a month my 12 hour working days were spent wearing a N-95 mask (those surgical masks everyone was wearing around were totally ineffective.) It’s hard to work under those conditions. Everyone was so uncertain. We just didn’t know how everything was going to conclude. I would come home from work and look at my scrubs – what potentially deadly diseases were they harboring? Was I putting my husband and friends at risk by working in this environment? I started asking myself this question more seriously after SARS.

    I felt a certain solidarity with health workers across Asia at that time. Toronto is so far away, but along with China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore, we were the most affected. I never want to go through that again! The experience helped me though. It pushed me towards starting the degree I always wanted to do – Masters of Library Science with specialization in medical/health science information. I was fascinated by how quickly information was spread among health care workers and the public – such a contrast to a slow moving epidemic like HIV/AIDS. In fact, that was the topic of my final paper. While it must have been a difficult time for you, it is also a bit romantic! Love in the time of SARS…
    .-= globalgal´s last blog ..Big Changes Are Coming Soon! =-.

    1. @George, thanks for the post. Wow, I bet you had a truly unique perspective into the SARS epidemic — though, certainly, it must have been so frightening. I would love to pick your brain sometime, as I’m sure you have some amazing stories to tell.

      @Juliet, thanks for commenting! Indeed, when crisis strikes, you do appreciate the precious aspects of life…especially, the ones you love. 😉

      @Global Gal, wow, I didn’t realize you were a nurse on the front lines of SARS! It takes a lot of courage to continue working during such a crisis. I salute you! (BTW, cool that you have a library science degree…my mom got one and was a librarian for a time, and my sister is working on hers)

  2. I am enjoying reading your blog!
    Speaking of love in the time of SARS, as a photographer I specifically remember an (in)famous photo of a wedding couple dressed in their gown and tux with SARS masks on.
    Turned out the photo had been “staged” (meaning they were having professional wedding photos done), but the photo nonetheless remains a classic symbol of love during that period in modern Chinese history.

    1. Hi Tom, thanks for the comment! I think I might have seen that image before, perhaps forwarded around the office when I was there. But in any event, I’m glad you shared it — and you’re right, it definitely would be a classic symbol of love at that time.

      BTW, I’m really intrigued by your book. It sounds like an interesting work that I’d like to pick up and take a look at. I’m glad you linked to your Amazon page.

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