Paul Clinton Corrigan reflects on his recent experience of quarantine in Hong Kong.
Have you ever spent days and nights siloed in a compact living space high above the street? Did it produce a feeling of isolation from the people around you? Did you ever resort to technology to try to connect with those other siloed souls? If you have been living in Hong Kong for any period of time, then your probable answers to these three questions are: yes, yes, and yes. And if you have returned to Hong Kong in recent months after a trip abroad and gone into quarantine, then double those three yeses.
As I made plans to go to New York this summer, I knew that two weeks of quarantine would await me upon my return to Hong Kong. But what’s two weeks, I thought, in a modern hotel room, with meals delivered to the door, and the solitude to do reading and writing? What could possibly go wrong? Thus, I struck a bargain with myself, optimistically thinking it was a simple equation. On one side of the equation was the chance to see my family, whom I had not seen in more than a year; on the other side of the equation was a quarantine period of two weeks. The bargain was not exactly Faustian in its duration, but I did expect that confinement for two weeks would not be pleasant. Ironically, I was not disappointed: the two weeks were occasionally interspersed with impressions of depersonalization and brief interludes of loneliness.
As soon as my connecting flight from Los Angeles arrived in Hong Kong, the genius for organization that sets Hong Kong apart from so many other cities was evident. The processing system for arriving passengers was carried out at Hong Kong International Airport’s one-hundred-forty-acre Terminal One – roughly the size of a small industrial plant. Like the line in a Ford plant, the processing system at Terminal One was broken into minute, discrete functions executed at about a dozen stations by masked, gowned, and shielded officials. Rather than welding engine blocks to chassis and installing driver seats behind the windshield, however, these polite officials asked questions, checked passengers’ documents, and recorded data on their instruments before releasing us to the next station a short walk away. Instead of Model-Ts assembled from constituent parts and driven onto the vast American highway, we were disassembled into constituent data points before being driven to quarantine-specified hotel towers. The system was remarkably effective and efficient. It’s odd to think that in one sense, it can be described as Pre-Fordist rather than Post-Fordist: Henry Ford apparently had the idea for an automotive assembly line while observing gowned workers on a Chicago slaughterhouse line doing their own kind of disassembly.
When I arrived at my quarantine hotel, a masked-and-gowned receptionist in the hotel garage processed my reservation. She stood behind a plastic barrier. My printed reservation details – required by the Hong Kong government to even board the plane back in the U.S. – never physically crossed that barrier. After checking-in, signage pointed me through the maze I had to traverse to get from the garage to the lift and up to my room. I felt that I was the only person in the hotel. It was eerie. At the end of the maze, when I opened the door to my room, there was no actual lump of cheddar cheese as my reward. Instead, 28 water bottles, 16 small bottles of shampoo, and 16 bottles of body wash filled the shelves. Two towels and a bath mat were folded on a rack in the bathroom. Two twin beds with two pillows each were neatly made up. The windows were bolted shut. For most of the next two weeks, the only persons I saw were through those windows, down on the streets below. I took stock of the situation and thought to myself: I can manage this.
With all the disruption going on in the world, it seemed like the perfect time to reacquaint myself with the literature of The Lost Generation, that group of writers and artists who responded to the disruption of their own times by creating a new literary and artistic movement. I had gone book shopping at The Strand before I left New York and picked up a couple of Lost Generation classics. The first few days in quarantine I tore through The Sun Also Rises, which I hadn’t read in years. That novel has definitely withstood the test of time; This Side of Paradise not so much. (Author’s advice: if you do have to go to quarantine, try re-reading Fitzgerald before Hemingway. Hemingway’s first novel got better with time and is a tough act to follow, Fitzgerald’s not so much.) During the daytime, I took notes for this essay and wrote the first draft. My working title was “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Traveler,” alluding to the story and movie of a similar name. I kept a journal and sketched out ideas for other writing projects as well. The only good thing on the television came from the BBC, and soon even that became redundant. The worst was the Wi-Fi, which was more like Down-Fi, as it only worked sometimes. It was frustrating. Most of the time it was very weak, and it was especially uncooperative when trying to FaceTime with my wife in New York.
Ten days after arriving, I had lost about five pounds but the room refrigerator had gained five. My creeping ennui and lack of appetite were the cause of both. Every day it was the same old food. I don’t mean to complain, but the thrice-daily knock-on-the-door announcing the delivery of food was no longer welcome. The other knocks on the door – to have my throat and nostrils swabbed for the coronavirus by a masked, gloved, shielded, and gowned attendant with all the gentleness of a meteor impact – were not welcomed, either. But with each food-knock, the Styrofoam food containers went directly to the room fridge. As I opened the door, I really wanted to see someone else opening their door to get their own food. In that regard, I felt like Steve McQueen in the Papillion movie from the 1970s about the French penal colony of Devil’s Island. When McQueen – i.e., Papillion – was first placed in solitary confinement, all the prisoners are ordered to stick their heads through the hole in their cell doors to have their heads shaved; the head sticking out from the cell next to Papillion’s belongs to a prisoner who obviously had been there much longer than the newly-arrive Papillion. “How do I look?” the other prisoner asks Papillion. “You look good,” Papillion says, but the expression on his face says “You look awful and that’s my future, too.” Isolation can do wonders for one’s imagination and sense of melodrama.
Upon my release from quarantine, I did not feel like a ‘stout Cortez’ gazing at the Pacific for the first time, but the sensation of the ground under my feet and the sunshine on my face did have a decidedly new quality to it. A few days of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and hamburgers got me liking food again, but I was at a loss for how to write this essay. Something kept nagging at me. I kept up with the news about the pandemic, such as how new cases in Hong Kong were falling to almost zero and how some quarantine periods were becoming longer, but I couldn’t connect the dots for a long time, let alone know what the dots were. Eventually I speculated that there were two kinds of dots, equal to two types of quarantines. The two types figure into another kind of quarantine equation.
Let’s consider terms first in this other kind of quarantine equation. Let’s assume the term ‘quarantined to’ refers to the left-hand side of this equation. This is the kind of quarantine we had all read about in Wikipedia when the pandemic first broke out. ‘Quarantine’ comes from the Italian word for forty, quaranta. Reportedly, that’s how many days the first ‘quarantined’ travelers spent isolated off the coast of Dubrovnik in the 14th century. The city fathers of Dubrovnik quarantined those travelers to that barren island in order to prevent infection, presumably bubonic plague, from spreading among the residents of the city. Unlike the original quarantined travelers, I spent fourteen days isolated in a hotel on Hong Kong Island, rather than forty days isolated in far worse conditions which those poor souls quarantined to the island of Borara had to endure.
The second term for this kind of quarantine equation can be named ‘quarantined from.’ This is the kind of quarantine when a person or an entity quarantines themselves from others. For this type I think of pre-Meiji Japan, when the country effectively quarantined itself from non-Japanese. This type of quarantine from foreign influence by the Japanese was by design. Foreign influence was severely shrunk to a few Dutch and Chinese traders on a small island off Nagasaki and the occasional emissaries to Edo. This system of sakoku meant, in substance, that Japanese were not allowed to leave Japan, either, for fear that they might bring back unseemly foreign influence upon returning. The conventional wisdom is that this resulted in Japan languishing in its development in many areas just when much of the world was on an accelerated path of development in those areas. Two hundred years of sakoku in Japan may have contributed to the formation of a collective Japanese national identity, but ironically it relatively diminished Japan vis a vis the imperialist powers of the time. Once entrenched, sakoku became difficult to dislodge. But in the years just before the Meiji Restoration, the astute in Japan saw parts of Qing-Dynasty China being carved up by imperial powers and figured that Japan could be next unless it developed effective science, technology, education, government, and military.
This Japanese phenomenon of sakoku was intentional and explicit. Let’s call this the hard version of sakoku. It was conducted on a macro-scale and it was long-lasting. But my own quarantine experience suggests there is a soft version of sakoku as well. This soft version could be described as unintentional, implicit, and temporary and taking place on a micro-scale. Today, it factors into my decision whether or not to travel again any time soon. More generally, I wonder about its applicability in Hong Kong society.
It’s well-known that Hong Kong people – from business professionals to university students to office-cleaning staff – have been avid travelers for decades. However, these would-be travelers now face conditions that impose limitations on them. Yes, they are free to travel and nobody wants travelers to venture to Covid-19 hotspots, let alone spread Covid-19 in our community upon their return. But now Hong Kong people might feel a huge disincentive to travel beyond our shores. On one side of the equation, they might decide to quarantine from another place by not travelling there so that, on the other side of the equation, they can avoid being quarantined to a hotel, at their own additional expense, for three weeks upon their return. At a minimum, Hong Kong is the collective sum of its parts: people, values, commerce and industry, ways of doing things, and so on. Collectively quarantining from other places due to disincentives to experience what lies beyond our shores will diminish Hong Kong over time. People from beyond our shores quarantining themselves from Hong Kong will compound the problem. Eventually, we might need to consider how long before Hong Kong risks losing its status as ‘Asia’s World City.’ With what is at stake, that is an equation worth solving.
Paul Clinton Corrigan lives in Hong Kong. He has taught undergraduates and research students at the same university for more than 25 years, where he also provides faculty development. He has published in the areas of teaching, literature, and writing, and is an associate editor of Asian ESP Journal.