It’s Friday, early April, and I’m writing this from the comfort of my apartment in Beijing. Late afternoon sun spills into my study. I can hear waves of outside chatter, people coming home from work, a dog barking, a couple of angry car horns. Under normal circumstances, I would shut the windows to minimize these everyday distractions. But today I welcome them, as they are increasing evidence that Beijing (and hopefully China) is coming back to life. They are also a reminder of how fortunate me and my family have been, in our time of isolation—quarantine—for the last two months against the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in China.
As Managing Editor of Jing Daily Greater China, a good portion of my job requires me to meet and interview key players in China’s vast luxury market, as well as report on the retail scene—the many malls, stores, and boutiques—in Beijing, Shanghai, and throughout mainland China. In short, it requires me to be out of my apartment. A lot. So for the last couple months, following China’s strict home-quarantine guidelines, has been an adjustment for not only work, but also for my personal life.
To begin with, my 100 square meter apartment has become so much more than simply a place to sleep. It’s now become my office, cinema, and gym — and practically everything else. As I’ve tried to reduce my time outside, except for buying groceries or essential supplies, it seems like there is strangely more and less time each day to work and think and worry.
I first heard about the virus around the end of January, when a friend messaged me about it when I was traveling back to Beijing from a luxury business conference in Hong Kong. Although I wasn’t too concerned at first, I still purchased a couple masks at the airport. However, when the sales lady informed me that they were already sold out of the more protective N95 masks, and then when I boarded the plane only to discover that most of the passengers were already sporting masks, only then did I begin to realize that this could be serious.
But it just wasn’t me, the virus caught everyone off guard, including the businesses — big and small — I was reporting on. They were all scrambling to react, trying to ensure a healthy cash flow, trying not to declare bankruptcy. And speaking to a journalist became less and less important for them. As an alternative, I explored different WeChat groups — suppliers, marketing professionals, designers, and just about all walks of life in the fashion industry — to see what people were talking about. These conversations helped me tremendously to understand the context of my coverage. Reporting at home involved a lot of first-time adventures, such as watching a livestream hosted by a luxury brand, joining a cloud press conference hosted by a research agency, and being a part of a brand group on WeChat. What was also new was the speed at which news would become old news. It was like being on a high speed train and trying to write about the scenery as it flashed past.
After being overseas for years, however, it was astonishing to experience “China speed” first-hand. The lightning fast turnarounds by many brands, all pivoting to human-centered solutions. Whether it was the China team working to open up an online and offline omnichannel, or an independent designer, who spent days and nights rehearsing their livestreaming debut, or sales associates creating the space on WeChat for customers to chat freely and not simply try to cold sell. In times of isolation, people tend to crave connections, and I’ve witnessed many brands have reacted positively and have delivered on their promises, which should help them as China begins to reopen to a new normal.
Sometime later, though, I remember talking my first walk outside after a long bout of home-quarantine. There were now pop-up tents outside of each apartment building, with social workers and volunteers registering people coming in and out of the buildings and taking their temperatures. Outside the entrance to my apartment building, a metal, makeshift wall was erected to separate us from the temporary homes that non-Beijing residents were currently sheltering in. At a strange and somewhat symbolic event, residents cheered that the wall was put up and some whispered that this should have happened a long time ago. No one from the other side showed up, perhaps they simply accepted the arrangement, or perhaps they had their own concerns about safety and what’s next for them.
But it was a surreal moment to how fast the separation of people could happen right in front of me. Perhaps the virus had mutated out of the body and into the mind, where racism, hatred, and isolation can spread. Some people choose to associate the virus with Wuhan or China or Asia. Some in the fashion world cast suspicious glances at Asians attending the past season’s fashion shows. Some in Italy discriminated against Chinese factory workers.
Someday, when we’re fortunate enough to look back, it will be interesting to see what’s changed. How will this event have shaped China and the world? How will global brands fair, and how will they approach China and their consumers going forward? Would this be the watershed moment to invest in China? No matter where we’re headed, it’s easy to imagine that these complicated side effects could leave a more permanent mark than the virus itself.
When I looked outside my apartment window today, the metal wall separating the two neighborhoods was still there. I worry it will stay that way.