David Brennan

Diary & Photography // Virus Diaries

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VIRUS 2020 – Part I

 I left my apartment in Suzhou on Chinese New Year’s Eve Jan 24th and did not return there until April 8th. Here is an account of my two and a half month Covid-19 travels. During this time I lived out of a small back-pack which in which I had four t-shirts, a shorts, a shirt, three underwear, three pairs of socks and the clothes I wore. For the most part I washed my clothes in my sink wherever I happened to be staying. 

 

I have been very lucky, so far, during this global pandemic and have had a job that I could continue to work online and continue to get paid. Against the advice of many, I took flights, I moved about, and I took the opportunities that present themselves and used them to focus on writing and to travel. Sometimes you just have to do what you feel is right despite the risks and the voices of opposition.

 

I had spent the week before Christmas in Ho Chi Min, where on Christmas Eve I took a midnight flight to Tokyo. It was one of the most unusually way’s I had ever spent that particular holiday of which I have very happy memories from my childhood, and indeed adult live, growing up in Ireland. I spent ten days in Tokyo, my old home, my always home, my spiritual home and returned to China on Jan 6th to work. However, work would only last two weeks until Jan 17th when the university would be closed for the upcoming Chinese festival. Numerous colleges had advised me to get out of China, or at least Suzhou for the Chinese New Year, because the place would be deserted, and everything would be closed. In the coming weeks and months how prophetic those words would ring true. The previous year I had visited Shenzhen in the south of China.  Like 415 million other Chinese my girlfriend who lives in Shanghai would return to her hometown. Each year the Chinese spring festival is the biggest mass migration of people on the planet. I really didn’t like the idea of staying in Suzhou. With no gyms open and no coffee shops open I wouldn’t be able to be productive. I like to write in coffee shops - and exercise makes me more productive and focused. So, all week I was playing with options, checking airline tickets. Travel options were limited as plane ticket prices surged. Still, if you picked the right dates, there was the possibility of escaping, not just the crowds, but also the super high prices. I was thinking of heading to Taiwan for a week where I could book into a cheap hotel and try to finish off the novel I had been working on over the last year.

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The first I heard of any virus was a message from my office mate Jim on Jan 17th asking if I’d heard about the Wuhan virus called SARS 2. He mentioned that it could “spread like wildfire” at CNY because of the mass movements. I didn’t pay it much mind. I think it was the same day I booked a ticket for Taiwan for January 25th which was Chinese New Year’s Day. I picked this day because there would be few people out and about and the ticket price was low.

Over the weekend more news of the virus, but I wasn’t paying it much mind. By Monday January 20th, my girlfriend was warning me to go the pharmacy and to pick up masks and advising me that traveling might be dangerous. Again, I didn’t let it bother me but by Wednesday 22nd I joined a long queue at the local pharmacy to try and get some masks. I had been told N-55 masks and surgical masks were the only ones of use. The masks people wore to avoid inhaling pollution were not really effective. Although huge numbers of people had already left Suzhou for their hometowns the queue at the pharmacy was so long that I went to three other local stores to check if they had masks, but they were already sold out. I returned to a longer line and cursed myself for leaving in the first place.

 

As we waited for the delivery lorry to come with the masks, there in that long line at the pharmacy, I got the first feelings that something wasn’t right - the first inklings of fear. People played with their phones, shuffled their feet, three old women up the front yapped on loudly, and most of us kept looking behind us at the ever-lengthening queue, feeling lucky we were where we were and not at the back.

Forty minutes later they arrived. Up front the three old women brought way more than they could possibly need. I suspected they might have been buying them for financial gains. I watched my anger rising but decided it wasn’t worth upsetting myself and besides what could I do about it? If life is all about where you put your focus then those women didn’t deserve my focus, and besides, I really had no idea why they were buying so many. I bought two N-55 masks and a pack of ten surgical masks.

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Wechat groups buzzed. Many dismissed it as mass panic. However, over the next two days my initial fears were aggravated by what I heard from social media and from my girlfriend. This virus was something novel. It had never before been in a human being. That was dangerous. Details emerged about a market in Wuhan where you could order all kinds of exotic animals, have them slaughtered and cooked right there in front of you. Bats, camels, snakes, baby wolves, pangolins, cats, rats, dogs. The virus was said to have originated here. As I walked the streets of Suzhou the number of people wearing masks had risen by 80%. News was coming in of cases increasing daily and spreading all over China. It soon became the topic of every conversation. There was even news of two cases in Suzhou. Two guys who’d returned from Wuhan.

 

On January 23rd the central government imposed a lockdown on Wuhan and other cities in Hubei. WHO, although stating that it beyond their own guidelines, commended the move, calling it “unprecedented in public history”. 

 

11 million quarantined in Wuhan city alone. 57 million in other cites Hubei.

 

The problem was 5 million people had already left.

 

These drastic measures seemed to suggest that this was far more serious than even the worst-case scenarios some doomsayers were throwing around social media platforms. By this stage news of the virus had hit overseas. A friend of mine works for a local Tipperary radio station contacted me on twitter and asked if I’d be interested in doing an interview. I assumed it would be the Tipperary one but it turned out to be RTE Radio 1 the national station and they wanted to do an interview that night. I protested, I really didn’t know much about the virus and that all I could do was to relate to them my experience of the situation here in Suzhou. That was enough.

 

I stayed up till midnight and awaited the call. The interview lasted about 10 minutes. I expressed the opinion that the Chinese government were taking this very seriously which suggested to me that it was no joke. That night I confess I became scared. What if I got it? What if I were to die alone in a Chinese hospital? I didn’t mind the dying so much - it was the way of dying. What of my body? My Family?  These thoughts plagued me for a while, but that night, after some meditation, I made my peace with COVID – 19. If I were to get it and die then so be it. I’d had a good life, a good run of thing. I did not want to die of course - but these sentiments were just my way to deal with the total unpredictability of existence. I handed things over to god, to the universe, to fate, to whatever you would like to call it. After I had accepted that worst case scenario my fear of it disappeared. I would be cautious. I would wear a mask in enclosed areas - though I had read conflicting reports about their effectiveness (though now at this present time the wearing of masks may account for the massive differences of infections and deaths in Asia and elsewhere) here in China it was as much about seeming to comply with the social norm, than any effectiveness which was paramount - and I would keep my hands clean and wash them regularly. With the acceptance of my imminent doom I slept well.

 

Next morning I took a didi to Suzhou rail station. All didi and taxi drivers were at this stage required to wear a mask. The station was largely empty, the train too because it was Chinese New Year’s Eve coupled with fears about the virus. I was the only person in my carriage which in China is something I may never experience again. Once I got to Shanghai station I took the subway to my girlfriends empty apartment.

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Again, the subway was eerily quiet, and anybody who was out was masked. My girlfriend’s apartment is conveniently located about 30mins subway ride from Pudong international airport. Over the next two and half months this would be the hub of my travels.

Next day I was greeted with scenes that would become all too familiar; empty subways and almost empty airports, people in hazmat suits checking my temperature with handheld devices which shot a laser beam unto your head and gave an immediate reading.

Movement through the airport was smooth. The plane to Taipei was quarter empty. I wore my mask the whole flight while I tucked into a book by Peter Hessler called Cities of Sand and Stone, a book of short travel stories, mostly about his experience in China. That helped me keep my mind off the passenger behind me who was coughing and sneezing the whole way there. Taiwan had already banned all Chinese from the mainland who were not Taiwanese residents. Foreigners were exempt. However, I was still expecting serious checks when I arrived in Taipei but there was nothing except the handing in of the form I had to fill out on the plane, asking if I had been to Wuhan or Hubei prefecture in the last two weeks, and if I had any symptoms. I got a ninety-day visa without question or payment. That struck me immediately as one of the biggest differences between Taiwan and the mainland, as getting a visa for the mainland can be a long rigorous process. At the airport I bought a sim card with unlimited data and a train ticket to Taipei central station where my hotel was close to.

 

Taipei was much hotter than Shanghai and I had overdressed bringing with me a long winter coat which I wouldn't need. Luckily, I had stuffed a small lighter jacket into the remaining space of my backpack. As it was Chinese New Year the streets of Taipei were almost empty and most shops and restaurants closed. I arrived at my hotel about 4pm, checked in and went out to grab some food. I knew next to nothing about Taipei or Taiwan nor did I read up on them. I booked a hotel near the centre and would take it from there.

My main purpose in going to Taipei was more to write than to do any sightseeing. I noticed there were a lot of Japanese restaurants around and I decided on a tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets on rice with grated raw cabbage and miso soup) one which was relatively cheap and very good. After eating my next task was to locate a coffee shop where I could get some writing done. I found a place, called the Owl that opened until 10 each night.

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For the first two days Taipei was enshrouded in a dark heavy cloud. Rain fell continuously on deserted new year holiday streets. I didn’t venture far from my hotel and routine. I drank coffee, wrote, exercised, and made good progress on the novel. There is little glamour in being a writer, or in the process of writing. It’s hard work. Moments of inspiration followed by days of laboured plodding. My first novel has so far sold about five-hundred copies. So, I guess, if were doing it for the money I would be dead of starvation. To which you would logically argue – if you can’t make a living why don’t you give it up? My reply - although I love the logic of math and physics - I am a believer that logic alone is not enough to base life decisions on. A more concise answer would be, I write because I love it. I love the process. I’ve even come to love the thing I hated most about it i.e. editing. It is now in the process of editing and re-editing my work that I find the greatest pleasure. The sharpening of a text till it hums with a lick of perfection; as perfect as nothing can ever be perfect, but as close to as perfect as something might be - if you get what I’m saying. Like all work, art and otherwise, there is a balanced required, a sense of when to stop and let what needs to be - be. A little wabi sabi. A little salt and pepper. A little bread and butter.
 

For the next ten days I followed the same routine. Up early in the morning. A cold shower. Breakfast. Coffee and writing for a maximum of two hours.  Then exercise. Another cold shower. Followed by lunch. After Lunch, more coffee and two more hours writing and then I’d walk. Then dinner about 6 or 7, then back out to write for two more hours with some herbal tea. At night, another cold shower, followed by meditation and then I’d relax for an hour by watching something on Netflix. I predominately watch either some crime dramas or Japanese drama.

 

On February 12th I was to do a reading from my novel Upperdown at Brighton University but after discussing this with Sean from époque press we decided it best if the event was cancelled due to growing concerns about the virus. A few days after we had decided on this Virgin Atlantic cancelled all their flights to and from China. So, with this and the situation in China deteriorating, I decided to extend my stay in Taipei for another five days.

 

Each morning on awakening I would check the app on my phone which gave me details of the increasing spread of the virus throughout China, the numbers of newly infected and the numbers of dead. Each day I followed its spread. In Taiwan they were taking it very seriously as they’d been hard hit by SARS. Yet, life continued as normal. The weather turned. The shops and restaurants started to reopen.

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The footpaths grew thick with people again. Outside shops and businesses, people were releasing firecrackers in buckets, which made an unmerciful racket and went off without warning as one walked down the street unsuspectingly, buckets exploded randomly along narrow streets. My ears hurt. They said it was to welcome good fortune for the New Year.

Just as important as routine, is the breaking of it - long periods of repetition without variety can be good for productivity but can blunt the blade of creativity. I started to walk further in the afternoons. The process of walking is, in terms of creative stimulation, akin to dropping some serious hallucinogenic. My best thoughts come to me when I walk and more importantly my worst thoughts come to when I walk.  When I walk thinking takes a secondary seat to moving - and it is in the moving that the gods are found.

 

I walked for hours. I met rivers, the Keelung and Tamsui river. I introduced myself to them, walked along with them, talked to them, sang out to them, asked them questions to which they always had answers. They helped me wash my soul. Every river is a glorious mirror into which I can peer. I met all the people who had ever walked their banks and they said they had known me a thousand years ago when my ancestors sailed from Sweden to raid monasteries in Ireland.

 

Taipei is brimming with soul spots. Ubiquitous temples provide accommodation for all the gods. Taiwan temples combine elements of the three main religions Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions. I found people and coffee shops. Charming people and charming coffee shops. Even rivers cannot compete with other people when you want to gather some glimpses of yourself.

What is a writer if not a lover of people, a lover of characters?
My father was a great storyteller and a great lover of local characters. He could even do their accents. I have heard his father was too, though I never met him. My medium is not the air but the page. I can make that work better.

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I met mountains and lakes, ladies with secrets I can’t be telling. Princes, princesses, paupers and pimps. I met three different homeless foreigners; all young, all white, all begging on the streets. I heard their story. On was playing at being a musician. He banged a djembe with little skill. He blamed the government. Another was trying to pedal pictures. He said he was a photographer and had had his camera robbed. The last one said he was just a drunk and that that’s why he was on the streets. He was the only one I gave some money too.

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I told him I was going to an AA meeting later than evening if he’d like to go. I told him not to drink the money. He laughed. Said he’d see me at the meeting. I almost never saw homeless people on the mainland, just once or twice in Shanghai, but the idea of a foreigner begging on the mainland was impossible.

In the afternoons I’d hop on the subway and ride out to the end of the line, get off at random stations and walk aimlessly around, find a coffee shop, write, then make my way back to prepare for the final writing before bed. Taipei is surrounded by mountain and although has a large population of 8 million is a relatively small city. A week of walking and you’d see a lot.

 

I’m not one for museums or tourist attractions. I prefer the aimless ramble. But it had been strongly recommended to me by a man who was a carver of Jade and somewhat of a China expert, that I go see the National Palace Museum. So, I hopped on the red line and headed north towards Tamsui. I got off at Shilin, a station that was a forty-minute walk from the museum. Clear blue sky. Temp close to 20 C. Green steep forest covered hills in the distance.

The Museum is too big to be ever enjoyed in one day. I lacked the detailed knowledge and history to truly appreciate its deepness and vastness and struggled to find words to describe it. So here it is as I saw it, in fragmented moments of sheer beauty and awe:

 

700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks.

encompasses 8,000 years of

the history of Chinese art from the Neolithic age to the modern

mostly high-quality pieces collected by Chinese emperors

shipped during the Chinese civil war by Chiang Kai-shek (that's the guy Mao hated, and he hated Mao)

Museum built by the Kuomintang – during the 60’s and 70’s. They claim they took them from the mainland because the communists were going to destroy them.

The Republic of China

As opposed to

The PRC (Peoples Republic of China) claimed the items were stolen -

You know how it goes

One nasty Dynasty followed by a not so nasty one

Tang Dynasty

Song Dynasty

Ming Dynasty

Bronzes.

Jades

Ching Dynasty

Quing Dynasty

Han Dynasty

And the Three Kingdoms

Lacquerwares

Enamel wares

Carvings

Coins

Paintings

Calligraphic works

Rare books

Documents in Machu, Mongolian and Tibetan.

With a collection of this size only 1% is exhibited at any time

The rest is stored in temperature-controlled vaults

The Jadeite Cabbage ~ being from Ireland I have a particular affection for cabbage, one of my favourite dishes being bacon and cabbage.

Zong Zhou Zhong  - the bell of Zhou  commissioned by King Li of the Zhou is the musical instrument cast under his royal decree.

I spend a few hours inside and then hunger drove me out. On the way back to the station I entered the Japanese ramen shop, which on my way to the museum had a large queue of people outside it. The ramen was the real deal. The staff there even spoke fluent Japanese. I did not want to leave the peaceful town of Shilin but I had to. I hopped on the red line again and decided to head out Tamsui, the last stop on the line. I have always been a last stop kind of guy - whatever that even means. Tamsui sits on the confluence of the Taiwan Strait and the Tamsui river.

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I walked along busy narrow old streets lined with shops, restaurants and street vendors selling local specialties. More temples. Ornate Longshan temple the centuries old Fuyou temple. Here, sedate, full of history, ramen and artifacts I watched the sun set across the wide mouth of the river, then hoped on the train again.

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Despite my girlfriend’s objections on Feb 10th, I took another empty train to an almost empty Pudong airport and boarded a plane to Bangkok where I would transfer and fly to Chiang Mai a city I loved and had good memories of. I had first been there in 2003 and last been there in 2008.  

I had left my mask in the Ramen shop. An old woman on the train approached me and offered me a new mask. I took it and thanked her, felt a little embarrassed. There was been a lot of speculation about the effectiveness of masks over the last few months but it seems obvious that they do make a difference. Just look at the Asian figures compared to western. I lived in Tokyo from 2002 until 2014 and it was common to see people on trains and in offices wearing masks all year round. You might be surprised to know that this propensity to use masks originated during the Spanish flu epidemic which ravaged Japan in three successive waves from 2018 onwards. The government’s response was to promote mask wearing for all officials and to encourage mass gargling. Today, upon arriving home, after shouting out the traditional I’m home greeting (tadaima) many Japanese, wash their hands gargle and rinses out their mouths with isogin - a foul-tasting iodine based wash. Old habits and all that. The connection to other Asian countries? Both Taiwan and Korea were colonies of Japan during the Spanish flu. And on top of this, Asians in general, are infinitely more socially compliant than westerners. Just my observations!

 

Taiwan has controlled the spread of Covid-19 really well. Here are some of the things I observed which may have made a contribution.

 

During the first few days I was there, you could walk into any convenience store of pharmacy and buy unlimited numbers of masks. This quickly changed, to two masks per person. Within days everybody was wearing masks compared to when I first arrived. Soon, there were long queues outside stores, at specific times during the day, signalling that they had the masks for sale. As mentioned, mainlander Chinese people were not allowed entry. Body temperature checks were not common but there were hand sanitizers everywhere you went. International flights were restricted too. There was still a lot of people moving about on the streets and working as normal. Perhaps these rapid early steps, and good sanitation habits helped prevent any major outbreaks. 

 

Though I had intended to stay only five nights in Taipei I ended up staying ten nights. I cancelled my flight and rebooked another. Also, there were serious concerns about returning to China. My family suggested I stay in Taipei. My girlfriend was returning to Shanghai on Feb 4th.

 

I looked into booking rooms in Taipei for a month, but they were difficult to find. Paying hotels and Air B&B’s for over a month would prove costly, so I decided to go back to Shanghai.

I left Taiwan with a resolve to return there again and spend a longer time getting to know the country and its wonderful people. Taipei was a perfect mix of the best elements of China and Japan, and the people too could also be described along those lines too. I hope that does not cause offence to any of those countries mentioned.

 

I was going back to a China, which was facing an ever-worsening crisis as news of the virus spreading to cities around the mainland grew each day. The Shanghai I returned to was a ghost town. Where were the 26 million inhabitants? Streets, subway, airport - empty of all except skeleton staff. No coffee shops No gyms. No restaurants. I had to register at my girlfriend apartment complex. I was given a proof of residence card which I had to show each time I entered and left the building along with the compulsory body temperature checks. Could all this become the new normal? The supermarket downstairs was open, but again with body checks and ID screening before entering. My university reached a decision that the first six weeks of the course would be online. They encouraged us to leave china if we had the opportunity.

 

The situation in Wuhan and around china continued to decline and there was evident a general fear. Harrowing scenes of overcrowded hospitals and people collapsed on streets were leaked on social media. The death tolls continued to rise. There were cases overseas. One or two here and there. Feb 2nd saw the first official death outside China. And Feb 7th: Dr. Li Wenliang, who was 34, and the doctor who sounded the alarm dies of the virus leaving behind his young pregnant wife. Across China public outrage was vented on social media outlets such as weibo and wechat across China.

David currently resides between Ireland and Asia. He was nominated for the Hennessy New Irish Writer Award 2019 and was one of the winners of the Irish Novel Fair 2018. In 2016 he won the Frank O'Connor Mentorship Bursary Award and has been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story award (2017), the Fish Memoire award (2018) and the Doolin Short Story award (2016). He was longlisted for the Colm Tobin Award (2017).

 

Upperdown, David’s debut novel, was published by époque press in June 2019.