Postcard From the Pandemic: Doing Time in Hong Kong

Kaitlin Chan

How much longer? With every push notification and breaking headline, we are reminded that the coronavirus knows no schedule. My experience of time has been stretched and condensed in ways I never could have predicted at the start of this.

At 8:00 PM on January 3, a text from my reporter friend L:

Kaitlin! I’m so sorry...I was fully looking forward to our catch up tmr but I got sent to Wuhan to cover the viral pneumonia outbreak.

I remember being at my desk in Hong Kong, a chill running down my spine as I reread the message. A viral outbreak? Like SARS, which had devastated and shut down the city for half a year in 2003? I texted her back calmly, a “no worries! Let’s raincheck” kind of dispatch. I told myself to stop overreacting, that the virus would probably be safely contained. A regional issue, to be solved by the outstanding medical workers in Wuhan.

The next two months feel like a hundred years. I hear from friends in China that things are getting more serious, to refrain from traveling around Lunar New Year. I table at a book fair, where the conversation focuses more on the anti-extradition bill protests than the coronavirus. My then-partner turns thirty-two years old. We celebrate with cupcakes and Greek food. My friend B from New York visits me, a new temporary member of my small family of two. At the end of January, I move back to Taipei for a two-month artist residency. I had a plan, and I wanted to follow it.

This is when things totally fall apart. My sister messages me about running out of toilet paper in Hong Kong. The now ubiquitous “bare-shelves-images” abound. Everyone in Taipei is wearing surgical masks, the streets a sea of black down jackets dotted with pale blue and white. B and I hurriedly buy a box before any price-gouging or long queues begin. The clerk asks us twice if we want to buy more. “Just fifty? You’re going to run out,” he warns us in Mandarin. But how long? I wonder to myself. How long will life be like this? When touching is banned and staying in is paramount?

I couldn’t have known then that the threads of my life (and everybody else’s) would eventually unravel. I end my residency early and move back in with my mother in Hong Kong. I continue working on the book project that is my current “job” but everything feels a little helpless. 

My friend J in California tells me over the phone how they erased entire weeks from their schedule. We had both bought paper planners in January, excited about the promise of clarity and renewed selves held between the blank pages. But now trying to plan more than a week ahead seems naïve. We are lucky to even have today. With so many people around the world succumbing to death, it feels necessary that we treasure things as mundane as making breakfast in the morning, a FaceTime with a friend after a long day of zero social interaction.

Today, like every other day, is a chance to begin again. I make two slices of toast, check-in with friends online, and sit down at my desk. I look at performance artist Tehching Hsieh on the poster next to me. In his earliest performance, Cage Piece (1978–79), he lived in a cage for an entire calendar year. What most scholars focus on is his resilience, his solitude, and his boredom. But today I am thinking about his unnamed friend. Hsieh’s friend, who brought him food and clothes, and changed his waste bucket. How none of us were meant to survive alone. I eagerly await the day I can hold my friends in my arms again.


Kaitlin Chan is an artist and curator from Hong Kong. She is currently working on a graphic novel on queerness in East Asia with the support of the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship. Her Instagram is @chen_jiaxian.