A Fever Pitch of Fear

Times Staff Writers

There was no SARS at the dim sum parlor that had been the subject of so many rumors, no SARS among the 139 passengers detained on a plane last month in San Jose. Almost no SARS in the Bay Area, in fact, save for a handful of patients who had all gotten better.

Still, when Betty Louie, a Chinatown merchant, got a hay fever attack in a booth at a gem show in San Mateo, the crowd instantly parted.

“You should have seen people’s reactions,” said the Chinese American shopkeeper, who was born here and almost never travels to Asia. “The guy standing next to me literally ran away.”

Did she imagine it? She doesn’t think so. Neither does Stan Kwan, a limousine driver who keeps getting not-so-delicate questions from customers about his health and the health of previous passengers. Nor does Terry Lam, a travel agent who, the other day, had to send a packet of travel materials by mail because the client was afraid to set foot in Chinatown.


The SARS epidemic does not exist in the United States. There have been just 56 probable cases in the entire country -- and no deaths -- since the world outbreak began late last year in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. But for America’s Chinese communities, the stigma associated with the world’s latest fear factor appears to be hanging on.

Tourists are staying away from Chinatowns around the country. Parents are warning their children to avoid teenage hangouts popular with Chinese kids. Chinese Americans are cringing at the bad jokes and suspicious questions.

Tony Lee, a Chinese American college student who works for the city of Arcadia organizing recreational events for children and the elderly, says a handful of non-Asians approached him recently on the job, asking whether he had had the ailment.

“I tell them you’ve got to read the newspaper,” he said, noting the paucity of cases in Los Angeles County -- only five “probable” cases out of 9.6 million people.

There have been about 6,000 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome in the world, with about 400 deaths -- the vast majority in China or Hong Kong. Outside of Asia, only Toronto has experienced a significant number of SARS cases.

The disease seems to be primarily transmitted through droplets sneezed or coughed out by an infected person, not casual contact. Many of the cases have involved health-care workers who caught the virus while treating patients.

The brunt of the fears in this country, of course, are not borne by Chinese Americans, or even by Asian Americans in general, but by anyone who has recently returned from Asia, regardless of their ethnicity. The fear of SARS has proven to be an equal-opportunity affliction.

But the large Chinese communities in America have become easy targets of suspicion, in part because of their closer ties to Asia, but also because of the not-always-correct assumption that Asian Americans are constantly jetting back and forth there, and thus are more exposed to the disease. Further fueling the fears has been a planet-wide outbreak of oversized SARS headlines and endless photographs of Asian people wearing protective masks.


It’s a wearisome burden, especially given that, for example, the entire city of San Francisco has logged just one probable SARS case out of a population of 770,000.

“It’s starting to get irritating,” said Louie, whose family’s stores have anchored Chinatown’s Grant Avenue tourist strip for generations. “It’s like saying to a Middle Eastern person, ‘Well, you’re Middle Eastern, so you must know Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.’ It’s, ‘Oh, you look Asian, so you must have SARS.’ ”

Better safe than sorry, counter the cautious.

Kowsigan Majuran, 15, an Alhambra High School sophomore, said his parents ordered him not to go see “Better Luck Tomorrow,” the buzz film about Asian American honor students enmeshed in a crime ring. His mother, a Sri Lankan immigrant, said too many Chinese American children might be in the audience, and who knew what he might catch cooped up in a theater with them.


“It’s better to be prepared,” said Pathmini Majuran, the family matriarch, speaking through an interpreter.

She has told her son not to hang out with Chinese American kids in the area’s popular “PC bang” computer game rooms. Or to eat food from Chinese restaurants, or fish from Asian markets, or any food whatsoever, now, without a thorough handwashing. Or to drink tap water. Or skip showers. Or wear anything but freshly laundered clothes.

Except for the movie, which he attended over his mother’s objections, the teenager says he has indulged her, although it’s tough to avoid Chinese Americans in a place in which they make up one-third of the city’s population.

“I’m really not worried about this,” he said. “I don’t see the disease anywhere around me. My parents are just being protective.”


The biggest effect of this new stigma has been on the economies of many Chinatowns. The ongoing reports of flight and fear have been echoed in Boston, Seattle and other locales, where mom-and-pop businesses have been hard-hit by the public urge to stay away. Tourism-related businesses have been devastated.

“People are canceling trips, not only to China and Southeast Asia, but even to Europe,” said Charles Chan, a travel agent in San Francisco’s heavily Asian Sunset District. “People are afraid they’ll get the virus just sitting on a plane.”

Throughout the suburban Chinatowns of the San Gabriel Valley, restaurants, markets -- even a ballroom offering dance lessons -- are still fielding queries from callers wondering whether their employees have been exposed to the disease.

Efforts have been made to counter the negative SARS buzz, but complete success has proved elusive.


In New York City, which has had only two probable SARS cases, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently journeyed to Chinatown for lunch. The mayor enjoyed his baked scallops with sweet corn at the Sweet-N-Tart-Restaurant, but the main item on his menu was reassurance.

Despite the mayor’s effort, Spencer Chan, the restaurant’s owner, said a feeling of vulnerability is still present in the neighborhood.

The scenery reflects it: Almost-empty food markets with piles of vegetables or fresh fish stand open. Clerks wait for customers in souvenir stores. “Big sale. 20-50% off,” proclaimed a sign in the window of Golden Gate Buddhist Supplies on Mulberry Street. Chan estimated that his own restaurant’s revenue has diminished 25% due to public anxiety about SARS.

A survey of more than 200 businesses in Chinatown by the Asian American Business Development Center reported that 84% of owners had a decline in revenue because of SARS fears.


At the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in Chinatown, officials said five schools had canceled visits and a class from a public school on Staten Island arrived with only half the students who had registered for the field trip. Stephanie Hsu, an education associate at the museum, fears that the reluctance of visitors will rekindle the historic isolation of Chinatown.

“Chinatown has always been held at arm’s length,” she said, noting that only in recent history has it evolved into a place in which visitors could “step into the foreign” without leaving the city. The notion that such districts might find themselves set apart again, after so many generations, is worse than hurtful, she said: “It is dangerous.”

More subtly, the situation has affected the psyche of Asian America. Although many have given no more thought to the disease than anyone else in the country, others feel that an unwanted cloud has settled over their lives.

At the least-expected moment, SARS will pop up in a conversation, some say. Am I being singled out? Should I worry? Or will this all pass with the headlines?


“The other day, I saw a bus driver wearing a face mask -- a public employee!” said Rose Pak, chief consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco. “I was so mad, I wanted to chase after that bus, yelling, ‘Hey, you wear that thing through your whole route? Or just only in Chinatown?’ ”

Complicating the question is the fact that the shunning isn’t being done solely by non-Asians. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, taped-up notices at family association clubhouses ask members to keep out for 10 days if they or their relatives have visited a country affected by SARS. The signs, in hand-lettered Chinese, flutter from doorway after doorway, reassuring some locals and offending others.

“A lot of people come here, and if someone’s not healthy, it’s no good,” said retiree Ping Yu Lui, standing in the narrow glass doorway of his family association as several elderly men nodded. In the back room, their wives chatted, mah-jongg tiles clattering and swishing. SARS has been especially lethal for older patients, and the Chinatown associations tend to draw an older demographic.

But Pak, the consultant to the local Chinese chamber, believes that the signs stem from overreaction and crass liability worries.


“They’re just chicken,” she said. “They’re not even effective. How do they know who’s been to China and who hasn’t? If they’re so concerned about the community interest, why aren’t they talking about spitting and illegal garbage dumping? Why don’t they take up a broom?”

Whether the suspicions are internal or external, baseless or well-founded, many say the situation is starting to get old.

Some Asian American interest groups are sufficiently worried that they’ve taken proactive measures against stigma. The Asian American Journalists Assn. recently sent guidelines for SARS coverage to members of the media, urging journalists not to refer to it as a “mystery illness” or an “Asian disease.”

“People are extra-sensitive,” said Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles, adding that, so far, his organization has received no complaints involving SARS stigma, which he perceives as merely sporadic, at least for now.


“But paranoia and racial targeting are certainly off-base, even as sporadic, occasional reactions,” Kwoh said. “If people are concerned, and they should be, we just need the public health people to keep repeating what they know.”

Others are less understanding. In Monterey Park, travel agent Gi Diep says empathy has become harder to muster with every lost customer.

Gesturing toward Atlantic Boulevard, jammed with cars whose drivers weren’t stopping to pick up plane tickets, she grimaced. “There’s so many cars out there, you can get hurt by one of them before you get SARS.”