Published April 08, 2003
BOSTON – The Chung Wah Hong Market in Chinatown offers everything from vegetables to exotic fish to trinkets. These days, it also offers informational leaflets about a deadly illness.
The leaflets are meant to combat rumors about the flu-like disease known as SARS that are spreading through the nation's Chinatowns as fast as the global march of the disease.
Many tourists and diners are staying away, while residents have been stocking up on surgical masks and herbal remedies — even though SARS hasn't been detected in any Chinatown neighborhoods.
In Boston and New York, an Internet hoax erroneously claimed cases of SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome — had hit restaurants in Chinatowns in both cities.
"It spreads like wildfire," said David Chin, manager of Chung Wah Hong Market. "All these things generated a kind of hysteria, if you will, and now I think even if someone gets a common head cold they're going to be rushing to the emergency room."
On April Fools' Day, the China Pearl restaurant in Boston held a news conference to dismiss rumors fueled by an Internet entry that made a passing — and erroneous — reference to two SARS cases there.
The manager, David Moy, said his business had dropped about 70 percent since then — and others had lost customers as well. "All the restaurants in Chinatown and all the stores, too," he said, "Everybody's afraid to come down to Chinatown."
Worldwide, more than 2,300 people have been sickened by the disease, and the death toll hit 100 on Monday. There are now about 150 U.S. cases in 30 states but no deaths.
There is no treatment for SARS and about 95 percent of those who get the disease recover. Symptoms include high fever, aches, dry cough and shortness of breath.
In New York's Chinatown, fears of the disease have led to a buying spree of respiratory masks and herbs meant to ward off SARS.
Grace Ho, herbalist at Kam Tat Trading Inc. in New York, was selling a blend of herbs said to fortify the lungs and immune system. She also advised customers to wash their hands often and take vitamins.
"We try to tell people not to be scared," she said, displaying the coarse blend of dried herbs that can be boiled and made into tea.
At nearby Century Pharmacy, masks were sold out. The pharmacy also had good business with other protective supplies, such as Latex gloves and alcohol swabs.
"We had about 20 cases, and they're all gone," pharmacist Scott Kyi said of the face masks, which some of his customers planned to send to relatives or friends in Hong Kong.
Chivy Ngo, a native of Vietnam who owns a restaurant in New York's Chinatown, was the victim of false rumors that he died of SARS, and that his restaurant was contaminated by the disease.
For a few days, Ngo feared the rumor would devastate his business. But community leaders came to his aid and news reports that he had been targeted by a hoax seemed to boost the restaurant, Bo Ky, which was busy over the weekend.
In San Francisco's Chinatown, sales were brisk for surgical masks, alcohol swabs and Latex gloves. But, like Boston, the rest of the usually bustling neighborhood was much quieter than usual. Restaurants, grocery stores and tourist trinket shops have seen dramatic declines in business.
"Business was bad enough before," said David Tsui, a cashier at Pang Kee Bargain Market. "Now, no one's going out."
"People are afraid," said Astrella Kung, supervisor at the Ming Kee Game Bird store, which sells poultry products. "The residents are staying home and the tourists are staying away."
At Chin's market in Boston, local health inspectors left a stack of informational leaflets describing SARS in English and Chinese. Chin, who keeps the fliers by the cash register, shrugs off questions about any real risks of the disease.
"The way I see it, it's like the lottery," he said. "If you're up, you're up."