We took a short Diwali break to Hong Kong this year, our first overseas trip after our son entered primary school, and with extended family. We had barely landed when it became apparent that the city authorities and the general public as well were on red alert. The fear was not of terrorism, but of a much more “invisible enemy” than that, a virus.

As we entered the arrivals area, an airport health worker pointed a sensor at both the children in our group, presumably to screen for fever. Many airport personnel were wearing surgical masks, a sight that we would gradually get used to on the streets, on public transport and in public spaces.

While we waited in line to get our passports checked (I was surprised to find they don’t stamp your passport but give you a tiny slip of paper which you are supposed to guard with your life, but nobody asked for when we flew out), an impersonal voice advised us to report to a doctor if we had “respiratory symptoms” or “contact with camels or birds”.

Hong Kong was living in dread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), caused by MERS-coronavirus (MERS-CoV), and against which there is currently no effective vaccine, or specific treatment. The city has a 23-page preparedness plan on MERS. A visit to the Hong Department of Health’s ‘Centre for Health Protection’ website revealed comprehensive information on prevention, personal and environmental hygiene, and travel health advice.

The paranoia was palpable everywhere. If someone sneezed or coughed in a public place, one would see looks of undisguised fear as people turned away from the source, and those who were already wearing masks adjusted them a little more firmly in a desperate bid to protect themselves.

This is a region that has dealt with health crises like this one before. The bubonic plague killed thousands in Hong Kong in 1894. The 1968-69 Hong Kong flu pandemic killed one million people worldwide, and infected 500,000 Hong Kong residents, an estimated 15% of the population there. In 1997 six fatalities were confirmed from the H5N1 influenza (avian or bird flu) virus. In much more recent memory, the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak of 2002-2003 had the majority of cases in Hong Kong, with 9.6% fatality rate. Its causative organism, like MERS, was also a coronavirus. In fact, MERS has been dubbed as “Saudi Arabia’s SARS-like virus”. So one can understand the cause for alarm. With nine deaths due to MERS already reported in South Korea in June, Hong Kong was taking no chances.

In public lavatories, there were disposable plastic covers on toilet seats, with signs assuring you that they were being changed hourly or even more frequently. Hand-sanitising solution dispensers were provided free at ticket counters, and staff members were often seen using gloves as well as masks. The masks actually impeded communication, and in more than one instance, the person on the other side of the counter had to drop their mask for a few seconds so they could be better understood.

Although our trip was planned with the children in mind (and therefore whole days out to places of interest to them, such as Ocean Park and Disneyland), I fortunately managed to squeeze in one symphony concert. The Hong Kong Philharmonic was embarking on a Beethoven symphony cycle, and our visit overlapped with just the first of the series, in which they would be playing first his Eighth symphony, and then his game-changing Third (‘Eroica’).

But at every turn, one was faced with the measures being taken to ward off MERS, even in the hallowed interior of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, residence of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. When I exchanged my printed record of my online booking for my ticket at reservations counter, the lady behind the desk was not wearing a mask, but there was a bottle of hand sanitising solution on either side of the window, and she cleansed her hands after completing the transaction.

Door handles had signs next to them, informing the public that they were being disinfected hourly, and I actually watched the staff do this, on the hour.

I wondered if the fear of ‘unnecessary visits to crowded public places with poor ventilation’ might extend to concert-goers and affect box office sales. It did not seem to be the case, but at both the pre-concert talk and the concert itself, there were quite a few people in masks scattered in the audience.

Mercifully, the orchestra musicians and conductor Jaap van Zweden appeared on stage unmasked, and gave us a robust performance of both symphonies. I was about a year too late to hear Ricardo de Mello (son of the legendary violinist Adrian de Mello) in the violins of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He was recognised by his peers as the longest serving member of the orchestra when he retired in order to devote his time to teaching. Although we couldn’t meet in person due to his busy teaching schedule and our kiddie-driven schedules, we had a long conversation on the phone.

I was hugely impressed by the acoustic and the grandeur of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre’s concert hall. On returning home, a friend bequeathed to me back-issues of a reputed magazine “Violins and Violinists” spanning several decades. An entry dated 25 June 1956 covering the visit of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Hong Kong reads: “It is a great regret that there is no concert hall in Hong Kong, so that what was played could not be heard to best advantage. The concerts were given in a playground which is good enough for a match or a circus –never for a concert performance!” Yet Hong Kong addressed this lacuna in 1989, with a concert hall (2019 seats) and an additional Grand Theatre (1734 seats) for large-scale opera, ballet and musicals. In contrast in India, apart from the NCPA in Mumbai, there isn’t to my knowledge any other purpose-built acoustically sensitive concert venue to be found. This is a major stumbling block preventing the world’s big orchestras from including India more often in their Asian tours. Also, concert halls are tied to resident orchestras; one begets the other. If we want more home-grown high-quality orchestras, apart from high-level teaching, there also have to be ‘homes’ for them to play in.

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 January 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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