[Part I in this series, including photos of SARS-era airport health screenings, can be found here.]
News reports to the effect that Mexico is largely being shut down for the long May Day Holiday have, once again, put me in mind of SARS and 2003. May 1, 2003, marked my first Chinese May Day, and my friends and neighbors encouraged me to join the festivities by taking a stroll down Nanjing Road where, they assured me, Shanghai’s families would throw-off months of SARS-related seclusion and go shopping – just like they’re supposed to do on May Day. Not that my friends and neigbors encouraging me to go to Nanjing Road were going to join me – no, they were still holing up in their apartments, boiling vinegar (the smell that – forever more – I’ll associate with the word SARS).
So I took an empty subway to People’s Square, crossed the street and – after walking for a few blocks – took the photo below (almost at noon, according to the time stamp). People who know Shanghai, and China, will immediately recognize two things in that image. First, it is astonishingly barren of people. And second, the sky is unusually blue.
For those readers unfamiliar with Shanghai, then, a couple of points. On weekends and holidays – especially holidays – Nanjing East Road might very well be the most crowded shopping street in China, if not Asia. Think of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, combined with the human currents of Bourbon Street (minus alcohol – admittedly, difficult to subtract) during Mardi Gras, and you’ve sort of got it. That’s normal. Then, the blue sky: we’ve had a nice spell of weather here lately, and the sky has been relatively blue. But during SARS, it wasn’t unlike the blue skies of my Minnesota youth – largely because of the near cessation of economic activity in China.
One other SARS-era May Day memory: the SARS ‘speakeasies.’ The authories had rightfully cracked down on public gatherings, and those included the expatriate bars. But Shanghai being Shanghai, and China being China, the bars pulled their curtains, ‘pretended’ to be closed, and then let customers in through the proverbial back doors and kitchen entrances. By May Day, the restrictions had lightened up. And yet, quite clearly, I remember going for a late-night May Day/night meal and drink and having to enter through an alley. Good times.
[Leonard Cohen’s take on “The Future” felt right back then, and even more so now. First four lines/:30, especially.]