Cell, or rather Room, 173-02, has no bars on the windows and in theory – but only in theory – you can open the door and exit, except that the option of exit is strictly forbidden without permission.

To enforce compliance an all-seeing CCTV surveillance camera keeps a careful eye on the doors. Next to it are loudspeakers poised to bark orders at inmates making an unauthorised exit or even timorously stepping outside the door. Hazmat-suited operatives emerge at remarkable speed to chastise offenders who peek out.

Stephen Vines and his room in the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre. Photo: Stephen Vines.

Welcome to the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre built at breakneck speed to accommodate 3,500 modular units and even more inmates in maximum discomfort. I know about the discomfort because until earlier this week I had the misfortune to be there. 

In the spirit of what passes for irony, which few suspected lurked in the minds of the fine folk who designed these rooms, there is a running palm tree motif both inside the rooms and on the external walls. The hint of an exotic desert island is festooned on the aggressively dull buildings which are the hallmark of many government institutions.

It may be that this tantalising image is there to take inmates’ minds off their situation because there is much that requires taking the mind off. Most pressing is the reality of 24-hour confinement in a tiny space. Then there are the lukewarm meals sloshing around in polystyrene boxes containing beige, or sometimes brown-coloured vile-tasting ingredients in a watery sauce topped by a greasy sheen of oil. Inside the rooms harsh fluorescent lighting beams down remorselessly, while the equally harsh spot lighting outside combines to create a gulag-like ambience with Hong Kong characteristics.

Irony aficionados will note that the Penny’s Bay gulag is located next door to the world’s only nationalised Disneyland, a miserable failure on many levels, reflected by the fact that its expected expansion never materialised – hence the space available for this centre. There were dark rumours that recalcitrant inmates would be sent across to Disney for re-education but in this matter, as in so many others, verification was hard to come by.

Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre. Photo: Stephen Vines.

Indeed it can be said that lack of information is very much a hallmark of how things are done over at Penny’s Bay. Most compellingly it gives an insight into a world where Hong Kong bureaucrats have total control, making up the rules as they go along because out there, behind the fence, there are few constraints on the exercise of authority. Sometimes it was more than challenging to bear in mind that the inmates had done nothing wrong but were caught up in a health emergency.

The people who run the camp appear to be doing their best. But they work within a regime based on the unflinching assumption that bureaucrats always know best – and that citizens, generally speaking, are inherently untrustworthy and have to be controlled through a Byzantine web of rules and regulations, made as excruciatingly complex as possible.

Just to give a small example, the centre has very strict rules over what inmates can receive from outside. Delivery of food to supplement the daily sludge is very much discouraged. Anyone bringing in food must submit a photo of each item, personal details of the deliverer and delivery vehicle and time of arrival. The request is then submitted for approval and, eventually, a response is made. When the food arrives it is photographed again and kept for at least an hour before delivery to ensure that it can be consumed at the same tepid temperature as the gulag-provided sludge.

RTHK. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In the depths of all this bureaucratic nonsense and inconvenience it is easy to lose sight of the camp’s purpose which is, ostensibly, to curb the spread of Covid-19. Anyone who has had contact with a person testing positive for the virus is issued with a court order to go to the gulag. Unlike others in quarantine, they cannot opt for a hotel stay of their choice. 

I found myself being classed as a “close contact” after spending literally two minutes getting my hair put in order prior to the recording of the TV programme, The Pulse, which I host for RTHK. The hairstylist had tested positive for the virus. 

When I attempted to question the need for my incarceration the severe lady down the other end of the telephone line shrugged aside my explanation of a two-minute encounter (from behind masks on both sides) with the chilling words, “Everyone says that.” Then I made the fatal mistake of stating that he had merely combed my short hair and added hair spray. “Hair spray,” she shrieked triumphantly, “hair spray is very contagious.” You live and learn.

Pack your belongings, I was instructed, a paddy wagon will come and pick you up. And so it began, a totally unnecessary three-hour journey to the camp, a lot of waiting around, the dragging of bags into an aggressively unwelcoming room equipped with narrow beds only long enough to comfortably accommodate the most size-challenged of people.

Photo: GovHK.

Luxury was not expected and triumphantly not delivered but it begs the question of why this whole business needs to be quite so excruciating. There is scope, for example, for inmates, like prisoners, to be allowed out under tight control, just to get some fresh air and relieve the boredom. As it happens, Penny’s Bay occupies a piece of land adjacent to both the sea and green hills – how nice it would be to see them and how hard would it be to organise a socially distanced system to allow inmates to get some air? At least in jail, prisoners get to walk around the courtyard and may even go so far as to get some exercise.

The relentless logic of a bureaucracy is that, on the one hand, life must not be made difficult for the bureaucrats while on the other, it is always safer to do nothing than to do something which may turn out to have a comeback. Therefore, in this instance, if, for example, you call the gulag hotline the standard response is always to say that other colleagues are dealing with this, they will provide you with the information – sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

What matters is preserving the integrity of the bureaucratic system. The laws giving rise to quarantine orders provide for considerable flexibility in implementation, so in place of a rigid legal framework the Centre for Health Protection has devised a dauntingly inflexible set of internal guidelines to save anyone involved from the agony of flexibility. 

There must be a better way of doing things but while held in the gulag you are strongly advised not to ask one of the bureaucrats to be reasonable. That would be like asking a lion to adopt a vegetarian diet.

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Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent. Vines is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously - Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium and Market Panic and most recently, Food Gurus. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse. Vines’ latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published in 2021 by Hurst Publishers, London