It’s finally happening. After three years of 21-day quarantine policies, dine-in restrictions, and mask mandates, we citizens of Hong Kong are seeing clearer skies. For the first time, trail runners taking part in races such as the recent Hysan Island Hike & Run have been allowed to eat bananas during the competition.
This must be done in silence. And in solitude. And only in certain areas of the racetrack. You will run up to the checkpoint, you will have someone hand you the banana, you will accept the banana with gratitude, and—this is important—you will shuffle several tens of metres back to discreetly enjoy your prize.
Still, praise be. Three years of zero-Covid policies and fifty-six (non-consecutive) days of compulsory hotel quarantine later, just about any loosening of restrictions will leave me in joyous tears. Besides, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Hong Konger in possession of a good sense of social awareness must be in want of an opportunity to eat on the streets in broad daylight.
Even eating at a restaurant is a bureaucratic chore. First, you download LeaveHomeSafe, the government app that to this day still grins at me in my nightmares. You go to the nearest clinic and get triple vaccinated, after which you are assigned a QR code, a sickly greyish-blue one, which you may access through the app. After getting through whatever your immune system throws at you after the vaccine, you head off to your restaurant of choice, where you display your sickly blue QR code to the staff. By this point the fruit of Tantalus seems more attainable than your ham sandwich, but don’t worry; the end is in sight. You then use LeaveHomeSafe to scan another QR code which the restaurant has on display, which then enters your whereabouts into the government database. Now you can order your ham sandwich. And if you’re not triple vaccinated? You still have a QR code, but it will flash a menacing yellow, at which point you can sadly trudge home and make yourself a ham sandwich.
The only way to forget about all this red tape is to get blackout drunk. The tragedy is that you can’t enter a bar without presenting a negative lateral flow test result.
People have found ways around this, though. Picture this. Three men walk into a bar. The first two, responsible as they are, completed their Covid tests six hours before, and have a photograph of their negative result ready. And then there’s you, the imbecile who’s completely forgotten about the test. As the waiter approaches, you’re all bracing yourselves for the inevitable walk of shame back home. Your face burns as the waiter turns towards you.
Why don’t you all sit in our restaurant section next door? he asks. They serve alcohol there, too. No test is required for restaurants.
You glance at him. His eyes glisten with compassion. There is comradeship in his stance, that easy slouch. It’s in the way he extends his gangly arm towards the interior of the restaurant, no longer forbidden territory to you. Your overpriced beer tastes like the gods’ nectar, and the secret ingredient is transgression. But is it transgression, if no law—technically—forbids it? No one knows. The line is blurred, like a watercolour, into an infinite gradient of grey.
This stuff has left its mark on me. To this day LeaveHomeSafe and StayHomeSafe—the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of Hong Kong Covid government apps—continue to haunt my phone database. Ten months later there are still few things more baffling than the government’s personal vendetta against hamsters. But now, as I partake of my morning peanut butter and banana toast, I raise my breakfast in a toast to our city’s athletes, whom I imagine in all their masked radiance, silently (but triumphantly) holding the long-awaited fruit in its shining yellow and brown-spotted exterior. Far behind, the staff at the checkpoint raises his hand in a sort of benediction. The path ahead is long and dark and rugged. But today? Today, oh blessed day, we feast on bananas.