The Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver is normally a welcoming place, a bustling hive in the heart of historic Chinatown. Now, however, it is eerily quiet. Signs on the doors, in bold Chinese characters, tell recent visitors to Hong Kong, China or Southeast Asia to stay away for 10 days to ensure they don’t spread the SARS virus. “I don’t want to take any risks,” says Samuel Yat Yuen Chan, executive director of the centre. Chan, whose university studies happened to include courses in biology and bacteriology, posted the signs almost a week earlier, on March 26, knowing thousands of British Columbians would be returning from spring-break holidays in the Far East. “If everybody had that kind of idea, I think it wouldn’t be like it is in Toronto,” he says. “You have to be very alert before anything happens. After, it’s too late, it’s out of control.”
Such prescience has so far served B.C. well. The province is the gateway to China, where the SARS virus originated, but last week it had just three of Canada’s 74 probable cases of the dangerous respiratory disease, and no fatalities. Two men, aged 55 and 44, and an elderly woman were infected in Hong Kong. All were isolated in Lower Mainland hospitals shortly after their arrivals in B.C., with no signs that they had spread the virus. Public health officials credit a dose of luck-their heightened surveillance was the result of early warnings by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control of
another Asian virus entirely, a strain of flu.
Still, the SARS scare has had a huge impact on the Vancouver area, and especially its large Asian population. The cultural centre, for instance, cancelled most courses. All 4,000 students of the centre’s Chinese language classes throughout the Lower Mainland had their March break extended by two weeks. Public schools are monitoring the health of students who recently visited SARS hotspots. Several private schools asked such students to stay home during the disease’s incubation period. At Vancouver’s private Bodwell High School, which has a large enrolment of live-in students from Asia, many won’t see their families at Easter-the school asked them not to travel home during the 10-day break.
Such concerns are devastating the travel business, with departures for Asia falling sharply. “Most of the cancellations are for Hong Kong and mainland China,” says David Ho, part owner of Bali & Orient Holidays, a Vancouver travel service. “It’s just the fear in everybody’s mind-it’s hard to control.” As for incoming travellers, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and Health Canada rushed to train more quarantine officers to screen passengers flying in from the affected areas.
In Vancouver’s Chinatown, barbecue duck and split carcasses of young pigs hang, as usual, in shop windows. Sidewalk displays of fresh produce and pungent baskets of dried meats and
fish compete for the attention of shoppers. But the crowds are smaller than usual, a complaint of several businesses. An elderly woman in a snaking bank line-up wears a surgical mask, her fingers fluttering over the fabric barrier. People stare as a foul-mannered lout hacks and spits his way down Main Street.
At Sunglow Herbal Products on East Pender,
manager Tommy Wong leads a visitor to the back of the store to see one of his most popular items since the SARS scare began. The tiny blue box contains a herbal medicine, ban Ian gen, or isatidis root, credited with relieving inflammation and purging toxins. Other cus-
tomers favour dried chrysanthemum, used as a tea, or elaborate prescriptions concocted from the store’s bins and jars of roots and herbs. Some are shipping the medicine to family overseas. “Hong Kong right now is out of stock of all this,” says Wong. Like many, he feels lit-
tle threat in Vancouver, but he worries about his family in Hong Kong. “I’m warning my parents to wear the mask and goggles,” he says, “and to be careful to always wash their hands.” On that point, modern and traditional health experts agree: hand-wringing over the SARS epidemic is a useful exercise-if accompanied by soap and water.
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