A Tale of Two Chopsticks: Lingering Traces of Hong Kong’s SARS Epidemic

The SARS epidemic still remains fresh in many people’s memories

Kai Clark

Society and culture, Development | Asia, East Asia

28 November 2017

SARS ravaged Hong Kong more a decade ago, infecting over 1,700 people and killing more than 300. Because of it, when I eat Dim Sum with my family in Hong Kong, I am presented with a cultural oddity. There are two pairs of chopsticks to eat with.

One pair is ivory-white, which you use to collect the food from the shared dish. The other pair is jet-black, which you use to eat the food from the plate. At least, that’s how I think it works. Watching my friends eat, they usually just take one pair and eat with it. Each tells me different answers for which one to use and admit that they don’t bother with the serving chopsticks at all.

This confusion is expected of a practice that finds its roots only 14 years ago. In Chinese culture, outside of extremely formal dinners or when eating with strangers, most people use the same pair of chopsticks to both collect and eat their meals. The same holds true in Beijing, Taipei, Singapore, and even in most of Hong Kong. Only upmarket restaurants provide two pairs of chopsticks.

So why have these restaurants abandoned centuries of traditional culture? The answer lies in the intensity of SARS’s attack on Hong Kong.

When the coronavirus spread throughout Hong Kong, hospitals were unsure how to respond — allowing SARS to infect almost 400 medical workers and kill eight others. Nurses at the time found the panic was, “greater than the HIV/AIDS epidemic because of the swiftness of the outbreak.” Instructions for treating the patients kept changing, exacerbating the confusion.

Seeing that even doctors did not understand the disease, the public panicked and rumours on how SARS spread went viral. Over 100,000 people fled Hong Kong during the outbreak. Families of nurses refused to dine on the same table, fearing the disease would spread through chopsticks. Many people resorted to eating traditional Chinese foods believing it would protect them. Others wore facemasks, obsessively washed their hands, and avoided other people.

The restaurant industry lost over three billion dollars during the outbreak. Many restaurants shut down after losing over 90% of their business. Others survived by delivering takeaway orders as people were afraid to go outside. Reduced revenues forced many restaurants to lay off workers. Others willingly took no-pay leave, realising the extent of the crisis in the industry.

Desperate to attract patrons, restaurants promoted greater hygiene standards by requiring staff to wear surgical masks, check temperatures of customers at the door, disinfect tables, sterilise utensils, and provide two pairs of chopsticks to prevent the spread of saliva.

Once the medical community contained SARS, restaurants rolled back most of the adopted hygiene practices. However, many upscale restaurants chose to maintain some of these practices, including providing two pairs of chopsticks. This was despite research suggesting there is little health risk of SARS or other colds spreading through chopstick use.

The pandemonium of the SARS epidemic still remains fresh in many people’s memories. When I was in Hong Kong over a decade after SARS, I had lunch with a group of classmates in a dingy little food stall by the coast. We’d been hiking for 3 days, reeking of sweat and teen spirit. Settling in to eat I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dug right in. My friend, whose family fled Hong Kong during SARS, had yelled at me to, “Use another pair of chopsticks!”

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