On May 5 the Hong Kong government announced that it would provide every citizen with a free face mask. Lots of people, I suppose, duly applied. They then received a mask, as I did. But so far I have not seen anyone else wearing one. What is going on?

There is nothing seriously wrong with the mask itself, a reusable fabric job with a filter layer between two slices of cloth. As masks go it is quite comfortable, especially when you have washed it a couple of times. Also it has a three-dimensional shape. It is not just a flat thing like the disposable jobs most of us use.

Copper face mask reusable government
Copper-lined reusable face masks from the government. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

This means there is a bit of breathing space inside it and you don’t feel in danger of inhaling the mask if you take a deep breath.

Drawbacks? Nothing serious. Mine is a bit small for me. This is not a fault in the mask; I happen to be a large person. The rubber bands which go round your ears are the flat ones rather than the round cross-section ones I prefer, but if you are careful they are quite comfortable.

If you follow the instructions, hand wash it in warm water and lay it out flat to dry you will not be able to wear it every day. In my experience the Hong Kong humidity makes drying it this way a slow process which doesn’t take place overnight.

Some people do not like the fabric used for the outer layer. Indeed when I unpacked mine I said I thought it looked like half a bra. That shows you how much I know about ladies’ underwear. It does not look like a bra, according to my wife, it looks like knickers.

Coronavirus COVID-19 face mask street Hong Kong
Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

In fact, I suppose it looks like a particular part of the knickers. We will not get too anatomical here but once this thought has occurred to you it’s a bit discouraging. Still there is nothing to stop you taking a felt-tip pen to the thing and decorating it with a smile or a slogan if the appearance bothers you.

So why is nobody wearing the damn thing? Once this thought came into my head I started looking out for one. No dice. Nobody seemed to be wearing the things except me… on alternate days. This is a puzzle. The mask is free. If you can solve the drying problem it means you will never have to pay for a mask again. Yet most people are not using it.

Then I came across a picture of a government press conference. There was our glorious leader, surrounded by her subordinates and small horses. And every one of them was wearing the free mask.

national security carrie lam press
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

And this leads me to a rather disturbing possible explanation. It appears that our leaders have now become such a toxic brand that nobody wants to wear an item which has become identified with them, even if it is a purely functional item given away for free.

The first duty of a leader is to see things as they are. But it appears that our supposed leaders have difficulty in getting their heads round how much disliked they have become.

We are still getting letters from Lam about the joys of a future with national security legislation drafted in Beijing and a local office of the Chinese Gestapo. We are still seeing TV ads urging us to be non-violent and rational, smile under the masks, save Hong Kong…

And I’m afraid the only communication many people want from this crew would be a mass resignation. Messages from people you don’t respect are generally ignored. It might do more for mask wearing if senior officials went back to performing without them.

There’s nothing wrong with the government mask. It’s the faces behind it that give it a bad name.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.