As a new wave of lockdowns takes hold across China, the lives of millions more in cities have ground to a halt.
In late April, as containment measures in Shanghai and its surrounding areas entered their fifth week, Late Post spoke to residents living in locked-down cities for extended periods of time about their experiences and what they hoped for once containment measures were finally lifted.
These are their stories.
Day 26 of the lockdown: Zhang, who asked to be identified only by her surname, and lives on her own in Shanghai, still had 187 eggs left from the 300 she had stockpiled.
Late in March, when she heard that someone in her small residential community had tested positive, Zhang, who recently quit her job, rushed to the supermarket downstairs.
But the shelves had been picked clean; all that remained at the vegetable stalls were a few wilted leaves. A kind-hearted supermarket employee told her that a crate of eggs was still left in storage.
Though Zhang rarely cooks and has no kitchen to speak of, she decided to take the crate and all the 300 eggs it contained. She had little choice.
The next day, she tried to buy instant noodles, biscuits, some self-heating hotpots, and takeout food — all to no avail — before her community announced four more positive cases.
Since then, Zhang hasn’t left her apartment even once. In the more than 20 days that followed, Zhang mostly survived on eating eggs boiled in a kettle.
The first day was tough. It was impossible to cook them all the way through — the kettle automatically switched off the moment the water started boiling. So she was forced to repeatedly switch the kettle back on several times until the eggs were at least somewhat done. Her attempts at making poached eggs were similarly disastrous.
In the beginning, she ate five eggs per day, which then went down to three, then two — and by the 19th day, she says, “I never wanted to eat another egg in my life.”
Rarely in all that time did she eat something else. On day six of the lockdown, Zhang found and ate a pot of instant noodles that was six months past the expiry date. On day 11, her neighbor left a bag of chips at her door.
And on the 14th and 23rd days, respectively, she received packages from her neighborhood committee and took part in a group purchase.
Only then, in addition to all those eggs, did her pantry also include rice noodles, a few cucumbers, eggplants, and carrots. However, since she has no kitchen appliances, Zhang only eats reserves that don’t need to be cooked.
But after exhausting her supply of fruits and vegetables, she was forced to go back to the dreaded eggs.
Of late, Zhang says she has often had nightmares about the pandemic lasting a century. When jolted awake, she sits by the windowsill, unable to get sleep, and waits for the sun to rise.
She’s currently reading “The Plague” by Albert Camus. One line from the book stuck with her: “The habit of despair is worse than despair itself.”
On the day the containment measures are finally lifted, Zhang dreams of eating a big meal, but without any eggs. Then she hopes to relax in the park.
She also wants to spend a whole day at a café, doing nothing — just watching the clouds in the sky, the cars in the street, and the pedestrians on the sidewalk, as well as listening to the sounds of the city all around her. That’s all it will take for her to feel happy.
She misses her mother’s wonton soup, her father’s braised pork belly, and the various delicacies at the city’s little roadside stalls and holes in the wall.
Since March, she’s repeatedly told her parents: “Everything’s fine. I have enough to eat and drink — it’s just a little boring having to stay at home.”
This too shall pass
Asked where he would like to go once Shanghai’s lockdown is lifted, an elderly resident surnamed Chen didn’t reply. Asked again, he simply said, “Nowhere.”
And what would he like to do? “Just drift along.”
Chen turns 84 this year. A decade ago, he and his wife moved from an old lane house in Puxi to the 24th story of a resettlement home in Pudong as part of a resettlement project.
During the interview, Chen’s residential complex had already been locked down for more than 40 days. And the care packages he’s received from his neighborhood committee leave much to be desired: “Chinese lettuce stems a foot long,” a few packets of tissues, about one kilogram of flour, and a few soda crackers.
Both he and his wife have poor teeth, so before he cooks a meal, he needs to narrow the ingredients down — first, to whatever they can chew, and then, to whatever hasn’t yet gone bad.
Moreover, Chen has fallen at home twice over the last month. “My hip problem is not going away,” he rues. According to his son, Chen has several geriatric diseases and was due to visit the hospital early in April for a follow-up, which never happened.
Chen now feels a little of what young Chinese people refer to now as sang: dejection.
He spent his life being content with whatever he had. Whenever he’s frustrated about the lockdown rations, he thinks of how the Red Army on the Long March in 1935 only ate grass.
On April 23, his building entrance was fenced shut. The day before, his grandson got a friend to send him 60 eggs, four cartons of milk, as well as some cereal and stuffed buns.
Chen shared some of these rations with another elderly neighbor downstairs. All considered, he’s mostly calm. He’d learned something decades ago, during the great famine from 1959 to 1961. Then, he was in his early 20s: “Even natural disasters pass,” he says.
Drawing on memories
On April 2, a Shanghai cartoonist under the pseudonym Woshibai, which literally translates as “I am Bai,” wrote in his journal: “With no cars on the road, the skies are so blue.”
The day after, he added: “The sky is still blue.” Since the lockdown began in mid-March, he says he’s lost all notion of time. “Yesterday afternoon was only a heartbeat ago, while tomorrow will be here in the blink of an eye,” he says.
A self-described homebody, he spent most of his last six years drawing illustrations at home. But lately, he’s begun to feel stifled, and spends more time on the balcony looking longingly out the window. In the building across, he’s also spotted more people looking out than usual.
When the measures are lifted, he wants to see a doctor about a few minor ailments. Of late, he’s noticed some swelling on the back of his knees, but from the confines of his apartment, all he has been able to do is search online. “If nothing else, I have learned that this part of the body is called the popliteal fossa,” he says.
He’s also looking forward to a few games with a ping-pong buddy he only recently met. He recalls riding home after one time they’d played together: the sun was just setting as office workers clocked out and flooded onto the street.
As he sped down the road, he saw scenes of the city sweep by in his peripheral vision. Though he let his mind wander blissfully, he kept a safe distance from the truck ahead and avoided all potential dangers, however minor. During the lockdown, he has enjoyed reliving every detail of such memories.
He hopes to spend an afternoon sitting idly in the café next to his apartment building, as well as mingling with crowds in the street to redirect his attention away from himself and back toward the outside world.
He also wants to go to this one particular public restroom. “I prefer squat toilets — so it makes my walks outside not completely without purpose,” he says, smiling.
Pyramid of needs
For the past month and a half in Shanghai, Zhao Chen has learned to measure time in intervals of “four to five days.” As the group-purchase leader of his small residential community, he organizes new bulk orders based on these intervals.
Zhao, 36, works for a foreign automobile company. Until recently, in the 23 years that he’s lived in this community, he hardly ever interacted with neighbors. But now, to organize the bulk purchases, his WeChat contacts have grown by 52 groups and 325 friends.
With each extension of the containment measures, he says, “The things I have helped purchase have gradually moved higher and higher up Maslow’s hierarchy.”
One neighbor wanted a birthday cake, an item few crave for, so he went to great efforts to organize a group purchase of Basque cheesecakes. In just one day, he managed to get 45 people on board.
He’s also succeeded in buying something he never thought he’d get his hands on during a lockdown: a few vinyl records. The owner of the vinyl store he frequents always looks out for the regulars.
“If you order just one record, he’ll still offer delivery — and if you buy several at once, he’ll even subsidize the delivery fee. He just wants everyone to have an easier time,” says Zhao.
Zhao’s daughter was born after the first COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in 2020. At two, she is restless and can only crawl back and forth on the balcony while she watches birds and cats.
His daughter actually loves getting the regular COVID test, says Zhao, simply because it’s her only opportunity to go outside. Once the measures are lifted, Zhao hopes to take her to the aquarium, the Jing’an Sculpture Park, the flower market, the art gallery, and to get ice cream.
He also wants to ride his bike all around Shanghai. “I want to feel the rhythm of the city, without a care in the world,” he says.
Like a rolling stone
Originally hailing from the southwestern city of Chongqing, Huang Linhua has been a taxi driver in Shanghai for three years.
He rents a 10-square-meter room in an urban village in Huangpu District, where he rarely met his neighbors before the pandemic. Until April 1, that is, when his urban village was locked down.
The cost of goods in Shanghai has since soared. For more than three weeks, Huang did not eat a proper meal — he could not afford to. In all that time, he ate just one bowl of plain noodles each day. If he was still hungry, he tried to sleep it off. Sometimes, he slept until midday, or even until the afternoon.
“You don’t feel the hunger when you’re asleep,” he says.
On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, Huang noticed many people receiving supplies of cooking oil, rice, and meat, and yet, he had nothing.
It made him feel like Shanghai was indifferent to him. About two weeks into the lockdown, he got his first package of rations: 10 eggs, two tomatoes, two cucumbers, and two baby cabbages.
He still spends his days listlessly in bed. “It’s like a cat is clawing at my heart,” he says. His rent sets him back 1,200 yuan ($181) a month. He told his landlord that things were difficult at the moment and asked for a month’s extension. His request was denied.
“I’m in utter despair. For someone like me, being deprived of my income for a month has made my life completely unsustainable. Locked up at home, I feel like I’m waiting around for death,” he says.
He’s looking forward to three things when the measures are lifted: pay back his relatives the money he borrowed when his mother recently had to go to hospital, eat a meal of rice and braised pork belly (made at home, as eating out is far too expensive), and save up about 10,000 yuan or so before heading back to his hometown.
Once back home, he vowed never to return to Shanghai.
On April 24, his company finally got him a lockdown pass. Once he completes disease prevention training, he can start earning again. He was so excited that, when he called us, he had to choke back tears.
Between Shanghai and a hard place
As night fell on March 16, Su, a truck driver from the central Henan province, bid goodbye to his family and drove his 17.5-meter-long heavy-duty vehicle to Shanghai.
To save on toll fees, he stayed off the expressway en route to the city. As he drew closer to Shanghai, the roads became increasingly deserted. “More and more cars were driving in the opposite direction,” he says.
Before leaving, he knew the pandemic had flared up again in the city, and just the day before, officials had announced more than 20 new cases. But based on past experiences, he believed that as long as he had proof of a negative result from the past 48 hours, he would face no trouble getting in and out.
But this time, the customer who received the goods told him Shanghai could potentially be locked down. “Unload and leave immediately,” Su was told.
But Su wasn’t quick enough. He had only made it to Kunshan, about 50 kilometers away in the neighboring Jiangsu province, before his xingchengma — the nationwide travel history code — was updated to include his visit to Shanghai.
He was left with two choices: go straight back home and into quarantine, or turn around and stay in Shanghai. Quarantining in Henan would cost 260 yuan a day, whereas this job would earn him 2,000 yuan once the cost of gas was deducted.
Quarantine also meant he would not earn more money, and, in fact, would lose him around 1,000 yuan. Su chose to pull over at a pit stop along an unfinished expressway in Kunshan, which is popular among stranded truck drivers because nobody bothers them with parking, and there’s a supermarket nearby.
After two weeks, the record of his visit to Shanghai had finally disappeared, but then Kunshan was locked down and truck drivers weren’t allowed to leave.
Nowadays, he wakes up every morning on the small divider behind the driver’s seat, chats with the other drivers, scrolls on Douyin, and sometimes tries his luck at fishing in a nearby stream.
He uses a butane stove he keeps in his truck to stir-fry meals, but to save on fuel, he usually only eats raw ingredients dressed in sauce, as well as steamed buns.
At first, he took a COVID test every day; now, it’s once every two days. Though the testing facility is over three kilometers away, he always walks since every kilometer he drives costs him 3.5 yuan.
Once the measures are lifted, he’s looking forward to eating hot rice and noodles in the comfort of his home in Henan.
When he discovered that he had nothing clean to change into in his truck, he suddenly realized that he hadn’t bought new clothes in several years. Stuck in Kunshan, he’s thought a lot about how, in the past, he was always too preoccupied with making money.
He’d drive all around, and money was the only thing that his family saw home on time. He says, “I’ve never lived life for myself. I suddenly feel so exhausted. All these years don’t feel like they were worth much.”
Reporters Yao Yinmi, Zhu Kailin, Gong Fangyi, Shen Fangwei.
This is an excerpt from an article originally published by Late Post. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Icons: VectorMoon, AlisaRut, infadel, Marta Shershen, meyrass and Andrew Rybalko/VCG)
(Header image: VCG)