Chapter 62: The Quietest May Day Ever

Rapid transit in Beijing during SARS
The SARS epidemic turned China's May holiday into the quietest one I had ever seen, with abandoned streets, shopping centers, and even public transit. (image by zh-wp, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Never had a country of over 1.2 billion people seen such a quiet holiday.

Historically, May 1 began one of China’s “golden weeks” — seven days of unadulterated travel, shopping or even just relaxing with family and friends. Of course, with everyone on break at the same time, travel was either too expensive, too crowded, or too hard to get tickets — and shopping meant you had to elbow your way in with the masses to get a good deal. The holiday, arguably, was a perfect example of the Chinese concept of 热闹 [rènÉ‘o] — the lively, bustling, crowded, fire-breathing nature that is China, home to the descendants of the dragon.

There was no renao on this May 1, in 2003, since the Chinese government had canceled the holiday because of SARS. That cut the usual seven days down to five for most of us — except for John.

“The school only gave me May 1 off,” he announced after I returned home the afternoon of April 30. “They want us to attend classes during the break.” The government decided China couldn’t afford to let students do what they usually do — go back to their family homes to spend the holiday, potentially spreading SARS.

SARS had already begun to infiltrate the interior from the exodus of panicked students and migrant workers from a Beijing that seemed to announce one hundred new cases every day. SARS is just as fierce as a dragon — even though the government had hidden it before, they could not hide its own fire. And this is not the kind of fire that Chinese could ever be proud of.

On May 1, John and I donned our cotton masks to do shopping at the local mall. Panic had turned the gleaming floors into abandoned corridors with rack after rack of untouched, unnoticed clothing. The shopkeepers all wore masks, which were, ironically, far more comforting and welcoming than any words to shoppers that day. And when they spoke to us, their voices trembled with desperation, perhaps afraid that we might be the one and only possible sale that day.

It’s not surprising, because on the Chinese government’s list of guidelines for SARS, this was number five:

5. Avoid visiting crowded public areas.

While some crowded areas still existed — such as downtown — SARS had emptied out the rest of Shanghai, along with cities all over China, as people huddled away in their apartments, afraid their city might become the next Beijing. Many foreigners, including English teachers and foreign service personnel, began leaving the country, while I stayed. Shanghai had a handful of confirmed cases, but no one really knew just how confirmed those numbers really were.

There was nothing golden about this week, or even this time in China. But, even so, there are golden moments that filter into our lives, and lull us away from the impending panic. The afternoon of May 1, I rode on the back of John’s bicycle through the streets of Shanghai, my arms around him, embraced by the sunshine and fresh air. Unless my company ordered me home, there was no place I would rather be, than with the man I love.

Have you ever experienced an unusual quiet on a holiday, because of a crisis?


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 browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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