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A Fever Pitch of Fear

Misconceptions about SARS are driving away business at Chinatowns across the country. 'It's starting to get irritating,' one merchant says.

May 04, 2003|Shawn Hubler, David Pierson and John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — 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."

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