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19 May 2003

the party must go on for HK gays!

Despite the initial fear, gays in Hong Kong are learning to cope with the deadly SARS virus and are back in the scene with a vengeance. The virus has infected more than 1,700 people, killing over 240 since its outbreak began in March.

If my social circle is the parameter to go by, I am convinced that gay men are all drama queens. When news broke in mid-March that the Hong Kong Metropole Hotel was believed to be a possible source of the atypical pneumonia outbreak, one of my friends called me in a panic because he lived in the same district. Mind you, though, we're still talking about 50 blocks away. Another gay friend of mine, with whom I have a working relationship, began to plan contingencies, scenarios and alternative plans in preparation of contracting SARS, reminding me of the kind of intensity I see when watching the TV series, The West Wing. (Note: He is not the president of any country.)

So it was hardly surprising that patronage to saunas plummeted with the velocity of a shooting star. Ah Po, owner of We Club, a popular male sauna, admits that business was slashed to half at one point. A gym queen I know also reported that there was no longer a line for the shower at his gym, one where clientele seems to be 80-percent gay. (Note: He didn't mean for it to be a happy report, he likes the line at the shower.)

I got extremely worried when the editorial of HK Magazine, read by a very large gay audience, joked around with a conspiracy theory about the name SARS. It's like opening a "Pandora's Box" of more dramatic and ridiculous rumors. What's worse, it almost made me paranoid. For days I couldn't get those scary thoughts out of my head: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome? Doesn't "acute" kind of suggest "severe" anyway? Who came up with that clumsy little name? Are they out to get us? Should I move to Macau? No! Macau is also a SAR (Special Administrative Region)!

Most of the boys logged onto BBS and discussed about the hairstyle of Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, the health chief of Hong Kong who jumped right to the front stage to be the prima donna of the grand drama of denial and declared World Health Organisation a villain. He also used to be one of the most admired government officials in the gay community for his always-impeccable appearance.

When SARS finally broke loose from hospitals and began to run rampant in communities, however, even a firmly set hairdo couldn't save Yeoh from being expelled from the most-loved list and thrown right into the perpetual inferno of the most-hated. "Damn that Yeoh!" the gay BBSers began to cry. On gay BBS, there is no such thing as middle ground.

On 31 March, the government had to quarantine Block E of the now-famous Amoy Garden because about half of the daily new cases of SARS came right from that one very building. However, the real rock bottom for many in the gay community had already been hit three days before, when all public swimming pools shut down until further notice. They lost the very places where they could show off their hard-earned physiques. Cruising activities came to a major halt. "Depression sets in, morale is low, life ends," one of my friends in the legal field pronounced.
What's worse, travel plans were all off. Even Thailand wanted to quarantine us. What would the streets of Bangkok be like without our boys? Then Taiwan wanted to stop issuing visas to us, not that it has stopped it from having its own outbreak. All of a sudden, the two most popular travel destinations for the boys became out of the question, and more and more countries were joining the rank.

Having the boys stuck in the city didn't at all mean local bars and clubs would see any of them. Karaoke bars were understandably empty - under these circumstances, who in their right mind would want to sing with a microphone that's been spat on by a thousand people? And naturally, when people weren't even comfortable riding on a train, they would be reluctant to pack into a crowded bar. Even Hong Kong's premier gay club wasn't immune.

"At the worst time, around the end of March and the beginning of April, business was down by 60-70 percent," Steve Khouw, managing partner of Propaganda, recalls. "The most obvious impact was the lack of business travelers and touriststhere was zero."

For a while, things were as dead as they could be. Well, for just a short one.

As it turns out, the ever-restless gay community of Hong Kong proves to be harder to contain than any epidemic. As soon as the public pools were deemed safe to reopen on April 9, many couldn't wait to take a dip. In fact, many of the swimmer boys thought it was a better-than-ever time to go to the pool. "It's much more enjoyable to go for a swim now, 'cause you don't have to worry about crashing into people coming your way," says Gavin Yu, a gay painter and good friend of mine. "It's also easier to get tickets for a movie." He also sees humor in the whole mania. "There seems to be more good looking guys on the streets, because you only see 30% of their faces."

In early May, when the daily increase of infected cases fell to single digits, bars began to pack up again. Propaganda has seen at least one third of its previously in-hiding customers coming out of the hole, and the outlook is definitely brighter.

"I believe that the worst is over," Khouw says. Theme parties and charity events are on his drawing board, in preparation for the much-needed recovery of the economy. Regular parties resume normalcy. Decadence, a monthly gay party at Queen's Disco on the first Sunday of every month, was back in business for May after a cancellation in April.

At some places, the rebound is even remarkable. According to the folks at Rice, the first weekend of May saw an eager crowd dying to get boozy. The bartenders on the Friday and Saturday nights couldn't leave until 3am.

All that signals one thing: We are all beginning to get a hang of how to face this whole madness and get on with our lives. Hong Kong is, after all, a vigorous place, and its gay community is certainly a force to reckon with.

Hong Kong

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