What is paranoia? What is fear? Joining my lunch at the local cha chaan teng (tea cafe) last Thursday would have given you the answer.
It is one of those local cafes where they serve egg and ham on instant noodles, where every wall is covered with pink or yellow handwritten menus and where the waiters know everything. It is also where uncles plan their horse betting while sipping tea with condensed milk.
It is a tiny neighbourhood where three public housing estates and two private buildings support two grocery shops, two supermarkets, two cafes and one laundry.
At noon, I was waiting for my favourite dish - minced pork on rice. Ping Jie, the chubby waitress who had just delivered some lunch boxes, stormed in. 'Wow, you are not going to believe this. All the stores out there have run out of salt,' she said. 'Even the pricey big supermarket round the corner has none.'
'How can it be?' the cashier asked.
'I have heard it on the radio that some believe the iodine in the salt can fight off radiation from Japan [where several nuclear reactors are failing],' another waitress replied.
'Salt was sold out on the mainland yesterday,' an auntie at the table next to me echoed.
Indeed, friends from Beijing and Inner Mongolia had e-mailed me that morning, saying iodine tablets were all gone and that I had better stock up with sea salt for the negligible trace of iodine in it.
'Ci sin [That's insane],' an uncle in a jacket exclaimed. 'You will have to swallow tonnes of salt to make it work.'
'It will be much cheaper to take a bath in the sea,' the cook joked, cutting some vegetables.
'But what if the radioactive thing goes down to the sea? Where are we going to find unpolluted salt?' Ping Jie wondered.
'That is nonsense. It will just be a drop in the ocean,' the uncle rebuked. (Yes, he is right. But, hand on my heart, I did think of the two packs of rock salt sitting in my cupboard.)
'You must be out of your mind,' the cashier said. 'Japanese salt is very expensive. Our salt comes from the mainland.'
As they debated the need to stock up, Wong the shopkeeper came in, murmuring 'Ci sin'. Long before I moved to the neighbourhood in 1997, her family had been running the grocery there. She is of the old school. She sold me milk when I had no cash. 'I have never seen this in decades.'
She took a big sip of steaming coffee and began her tale of how Granny Chan from upstairs had been waiting with her shopping trolley when she opened the grocery door at seven this morning. 'She asked for 50 bags of salt. That's 50 pounds!'
'I asked her, for what. She said she was stocking up for friends. I didn't have a clue and sold it at HK$1.50 a pack.' Then, one after another known and unknown faces came in asking for salt. By 10am, all her salt was gone. 'No shop will stock up that much. It's cheap and bulky,' Wong said as she gulped the coffee and steamed off.
'Fifty pounds! It will take our restaurant a month to finish that,' the cashier exclaimed in disbelief. 'The granny must be stocking up for speculation,' the uncle in jacket said. 'Speculation? She can't even write her name,' Ping Jie countered.
There came a thundering phone conversation behind me. 'HK$15 a pack! Are you serious? That's 15 times the normal price,' a woman who was a buyer for local eateries yelled at the phone. 'What iodine? What [anti-radioactive] are you talking about? It's only table salt, for God's sake. There is not a single trace of iodine in it.'
She made another call. 'HK$15? Can't it be cheaper? OK, OK, bloodsucker. So when can you deliver? Five [in the afternoon]? That is too late. What am I suppose to send my clients? They need it for the dinner peak hours,' the woman barked.
While she was still negotiating for an early delivery, I heard our no-nonsense uncle whisper on his cellphone: 'Son, are you coming home tonight? Go get a few packs of salt. We have run out of it.' He then forked his fried noodles silently into his mouth.
At 12.30pm, the radio began to detail the scramble for salt, soy sauce and cubes of chicken stock. 'I can scrape some salt off the salted fish,' the cheeky cook said. The cashier did not laugh. She was busy calling a supplier to order more salt and soy sauce.
'Haven't we seen all this during the Sars outbreak?' the auntie lamented. 'Yap. Back then, I fought my way into the supermarket and got four bags of rice and two bottles of vinegar. How brave was I?'
'By the way, when was the outbreak?' Ping Jie said.
The response? Silence. None of the chatty dozen could recall the year of the deadly virus that killed 299 people and kept 1,200 others in quarantine, closed schools for days, grounded flights and froze the economy in Hong Kong.
'Was it 2002?' 'No, it was 2004.' 'All I can remember is that my favourite singer Leslie Cheung [Kwok-wing] jumped to his death in the year of Sars. It broke my heart.' 'It should be 2003.' 'Are you sure?'
'Anyway, that was a terrible year,' the cashier said. 'Remember how the boss ordered all of us to wear masks?' 'No, he did not,' her colleague argued. 'Really?' another echoed while filling the salt bottle. 'Yes, he did. Do you remember Ah Man was making cheong fan (rice rolls) out there without wearing a mask and the customer complained.'
Fear is intense but short-lived. Now I know. Still taken aback by the hullabaloo, I left the cafe and walked past a mini-supermarket.
Here, a cashier was complaining to two customers about salt suppliers not picking up the phone. Among the racks was a granny searching through packs of sugar just in case a bag of salt had slipped over. She found nothing and brought two bottles of soy sauce instead.
As for Wong the shopkeeper, she was speaking at the top of her voice to a crowd of aunties and uncles when I dropped in for a pack of gum. 'Come back at 4pm. There will be salt. I can guarantee.' 'How much will that be?' 'I don't know. The supplier isn't telling,' Wong said.