This essay is adapted from Field Notes from a Pandemic: A Journey Through a World Suspended. Copyright @ Ethan Lou, 2020. Published by Signal/McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada. Republished with permission from the author.
At Beijing subway stations, there were red banners that read, “For the health safety of you and your family, please comply with temperature checks proactively.” Strung across public places, such notices have been a part of government campaigns for decades in China, propagating official messaging and stances. With the coronavirus outbreak, those long banners have become more threatening and harsh, which I guess is the whole point. In translating some from other parts of China, I’ve painstakingly preserved the trademark rhyming scheme many of the slogans have:
“Mutual slaughter comes from going to a social gathering; seeking an untimely death is the resultant path of partying.”
“A meal of wildlife today; in hell, tomorrow, you’ll stay.”
“If today you go outside to run around, next year, on your grave, growing grass will be found.”
“Leaving the village is like committing suicide; the safest choice you can make is to stay inside.”
“Broken legs if to go out you insist; shattered teeth if, verbally, you resist.”
“To go outside without a mask providing facial coverage — that is not the behaviour of a human, but a creature of garbage.”
Reading them had been a good chuckle for me, perhaps necessary in those times. It was early February, 2020, and I had been caught in China’s COVID-19 lockdown while visiting family. The world outside still had no pandemic, but there I was, holed up in my uncle’s apartment, doing very little.
On my last day in China, I decided to take a walk outside, for I’d long felt there’s a reason that waterfront properties are prized, that we have balconies, and that even the densest, greyest metropolises have little green parks. We are animals still, like the orcas whose normally upright fins collapse in captivity. We need to feel the air on our faces and the stars above us. Moreover, I won’t be interacting with other people, for the streets were empty anyway.
That emptiness was certainly a sight to behold. I did not know it at the time, but the experience of downtown Beijing would be more than a gander at the problems of a faraway country. In terms of the eventual 60 million cases, 1.5 million deaths and economic meltdown to come for the rest of the world, seeing those Chinese streets, still and silent like a crypt, was like hearing distant thunder on a Sunday afternoon.
The Beijing subway stations blared announcements, saying the surroundings were disinfected five times a day and that the metal detectors — to which everyone in China had to submit if they wanted to ride the subway, even before the virus outbreak — were disinfected once per hour; all staff must wear masks, and all customers were encouraged to do the same.
In the subway cars, the television screens cycled through virus-related news clips, anchors teaching viewers how to properly use face masks and celebrities in vertically oriented smartphone-filmed videos expressing support for China through this difficult time. Chinese media outlets in general were unnaturally co-ordinated, often depicting selfless medical workers or healed patients flush with gratitude. But there was almost nobody on the subway to watch them, except the blue-vested people whose job it was to stand by the doors. They also wore little red caps and matching armbands. “Customer service management personnel,” they were called. In front of me, a cloth shopping bag, slightly soiled, was left on the seat.
After I got off the subway and started walking around the streets, what I encountered was a like movie set, not real. I was, of course, expecting emptiness, but knowing something intellectually is different from seeing it in person. It was hard to experience the joy of finally being outside the apartment because there really wasn’t any life to see. Some shops had cut their hours, but most had shut down completely. Some had printed signs, repeating the government line discouraging public gatherings. Some had only simple handwritten ones, saying, “Temporarily closed.” Even the stores that stayed open closed early. Beijing’s famous twenty-four-hour bookstore, Page One, had cut its hours to just seven.
Outside Tiananmen Square, in the prime tourist area of the pedestrian-only Qianmen Street, aside from security and the workers sweeping away snow, there was no more than a handful of people milling around. Many of them were photographers, taking the chance to capture a rare empty Beijing. In some parts of the city, there were more policemen than civilians. There was absolutely nothing to do, and hardly a soul in sight. The traffic was sparse. At times, the only thing moving was the falling snow.
There were tracks on the ground. People had clearly come and gone. But even the footprints were shallow, covered by the ice crystals soon after they were made; then nobody stepped over them again. No marks reached the dark ground itself. The parked cars and motorcycles also had thick layers of snow on them. What was normally one of the busiest places on Earth had become a desolate land. I felt a certain uneasiness at that. Even then, though I was not consciously aware of it, I think I already had some sort of inkling of the seismic shift that was to come for the world. Farther away from me, the Forbidden City and sections of the Great Wall were closed as well. So was Shanghai’s Disneyland — “The Happiest Place on Earth,” as its slogan says.
Somehow, about the only places open were the Western fast food restaurants, whose presence in China I’ve long found interesting. That food is not for everyone, for sure. Nothing about them is very Chinese, even if they did adjust the menu slightly for local palates. But somehow those franchises have also been wildly popular, among the West’s biggest cultural exports. They are both novelties and the sum and symbol of economic success. Those fast food restaurants, many open twenty-four hours a day, have also provided shelter to the homeless and the drunk, rural people seeking their fortunes in the big city, and anyone who cannot afford a hotel room for the night — the so-called McRefugees. I decided to get a cup of hot bubble tea from McDonald’s and then call it a night.
Outside, the moon glinted on the white frost, the lunar light shining through the overcast. The bubble tea was warm both in my hand and in my throat, steaming from the cup’s lid and marking my exhaled breath prominently. That trip to downtown Beijing was like a season in itself, dark and daylong. I walked back in a world suspended, frozen between one snowflake and the next.
Ethan Lou is the author of the COVID-19 nonfiction Field Notes from a Pandemic: A Journey Through a World Suspended. Lou is a former Reuters reporter and has served as a visiting journalist at the University of British Columbia. His next book is Once a Bitcoin Miner: Scandal and Turmoil in the Cryptocurrency Wild West.