The coronavirus has forced Hong Kong residents to rethink dating
Fang Zijing, a 23-year-old mainland Chinese student in Hong Kong, was scheduled to go back to Hubei province to meet her girlfriend Wen Jiaxin, also 23, during this year’s Spring Festival. The two had planned to visit a hot spring an hour’s drive away from Wuhan City with Fang’s cousins.
But the Hong Kong government’s order to close entry and exit points in a bid to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus in January forced them to cancel their trip indefinitely.
“We had already paid the hotels and the tickets, so my heart fell,” Fang said.
The coronavirus pandemic is causing a shift in people’s behaviors towards dating and relationships, forcing individuals to be creative in their methods of compensating for the lack of physical intimacy.
Fang and Wen have been in a long-distance relationship ever since the former’s academic year in Hong Kong began in 2019. The out-of-town trip would have been their opportunity to meet.
Since then, she has resorted to video calls with Wen on WeChat during the afternoons and evenings. The two workout regimens, gossips, and even kiss on camera to compensate for the lack of physical intimacy.
Asked what she thought of the prolonged long-distance set-up, Wen said, “I think it’s fine. I just want her to take care of herself.”
Hunnan-born Vivian Xu*, a 23-year-old headhunter, has been seeing another guy her age since October in Hong Kong. Following the first announced case of coronavirus infection in the city on Jan. 23, the pair had been more cautious during their dates, wearing masks and avoiding crowded spaces.
“Usually we will pick an interesting restaurant to have lunch or dinner,” Xu said. “Before the coronavirus (outbreak) got serious, we usually would watch movies but, in this period, we don’t.”
Hong Kong also tightened social distancing measures to curb the spread of disease through the closure of leisure venues such as cinemas, gaming centers, and amusement venues — areas where couples might frequent.
Xu and her partner went on a hike in Yung Shue Wan in Lamma Island. And when they could not meet up personally, they spent time with each other on an online Chinese poker game.
Manila-based life coach Eric Cruz said sharing physical spaces is a natural part of human behavior. But Cruz said that with the pandemic, the digitized world should provide new social spaces — although he believes it is easier for young people to stay connected and more difficult for older generations who may be unfamiliar with the technology.
“Isolation and confinement is definitely not a natural thing,” Cruz said. “So we’ll try to explore or navigate this new terrain of reality.”
Face-to-phone, not face-to-face
App analytics firm App Annie reported that the first quarter of 2020 — when the World Health Organization announced the coronavirus pandemic — saw the world spending over 39 billion hours a week, a 20% increase year-on-year.
The analytics company also revealed that as of March 31, videoconferencing app ZOOM is the top-ranked business app by iPhone daily downloads in 141 markets globally.
Mobile game downloads have also increased and use of social apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
In the case of dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble, and Grindr, their download rankings have either declined or plateaued. But users can still match and message with other users, sans the prospect of meeting up in real life.
“The gamification of ‘swiping’ in dating apps slots into this behavior to find avenues to pass time and entertain, so we could expect to see a level of resiliency there,” it reported.
Digital media professor Lik Sam Chan from the Chinese University of Hong Kong concurred with the report — believing the increase of app download and use is less attributable to dating and more to a source of entertainment.
“Anything that can be seen as something as fun, the downloads increase,” he explained.
But with the increase in the number of active users, some dating apps have also implemented measures in their interface to remind users to continue practicing social distancing. In a statement, Tinder CEO Elie Seidman said they are placing in-app measures to keep their community safe.
“We have updated our guidance to strongly encourage that new connections stay digital for now,” her statement read.
The app also made its Passport Feature free in early April to allow users to connect to other users from around the world to help reduce user’s feeling of isolation.
Coffee Meets Bagel and Bumble have also launched social media campaigns to give users ideas on how to stay connected while practicing social distancing, such as having virtual dates.
But not everyone is deterred from having in-person meet-ups. Vidette Ardiololo, a 25-year-old professional in the banking industry, said she has gone on two dates with men she met on Bumble.
“The first guy that I went on a date had said to me that he’d been suffering from like the flu before the date,” he said. “I was like, ‘Okay, why don’t we just wait until your flu subsides?’”
Ardiololo pushed through with her date when the man felt better. She said she had felt Hong Kong’s numbers of coronavirus infections at the time were stable, and the spikes were happening in countries across Europe.
On her second date, however, Ardiololo got more worried because she had been physically intimate with her partner.
“I was like, ‘Okay, this is not great. Because if he had the virus, then my actions are going to get the virus,” she said.
Aaron*, a 20-year-old student from Hong Kong, met up with two men he met through dating apps during students’ Spring Festival break. He said he only realized that the situation was serious when pub crawls among his peers stopped happening.
“I thought I was going to be quarantined like crazy from the 24th of January until my semester of February,” he said.
But before Aaron met up with his date, he screened him by asking questions if he had been to high-risk countries.
“I was lucky that the person that I met was equally, if not more conscious about it,” he said.
Relationships expert and dating coach Valentina Tudose said that Hong Kong’s character as an international port makes it a place where people can behave badly and believe nothing wrong will happen to them.
“Hong Kong being the transient place that it was, many people are coming and going here, people here for short-term assignments and all that,” she said. “And it’s also called the Disneyland for adults because everyone comes here to play and there are no real consequences.”
Tudose, who has had women and members of the LGBT community as clients, said she understood that since the Hong Kong dating scene has already been seen as challenging, people were ready to take what she dubs as “acceptable risks” for the sake of instant pleasure.
“As human beings, we always want what’s available to us now versus the fear that we will die in the future and it’s kind of a 50–50,” Tudose said.
But for Tudose, the social distancing measures helped users understand the importance of developing deeper connections.
“Coronavirus is kind of shifting a little bit of [our behaviors] because people are not going to jump in each other’s arms or beds as easily as before,” she said. “I believe it’s an opportunity for us to maybe rewrite the rules of dating.”
Tudose said that if anything, it gives daters time to explore existing connections or create meaningful ones.
This is why Fang and Wen said they would be willing to wait it out until the pandemic can be addressed.
Asked when they will see each other soon, Wen remained unsure.
“I don’t know the time,” Wen said. “I want to see her in September. But I don’t know if I could come.”
*The name was changed to protect the privacy of the individual.