I knew Wuhan before it was a virus

Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan, China

There seems to be a bit of debate going on about where the virus came from. Donald Trump (and a few scientists) point to China. The Chinese think that American soldiers may have brought it with them. And of course, there are the conspiracy theories.

Lifeinlifts.com doesn’t want to expand on that particular thread. Just check out social media for a barrage of Sino-US finger-pointing.

I’d like instead to write about Wuhan and Hubei, two names that weren’t particularly well known six months ago. They’re incredibly well known now, aren’t they? New acquaintances used to ask “So, have you been in Guangzhou all this time?

I’d reply that yes, I had been in Guangzhou for the most part.

Oh, where were you before Guangzhou?


Confused silence. “Where’s that?”

“Y’know, Wuhan…”


And the question would be asked repeatedly throughout the years. This, despite Wuhan acting as a major transportation hub – a kind of China Chicago. The population was bigger than Guangzhou back then. Now it’s China’s ninth-largest city at 11 million. Guangzhou ranks fifth. Wuhan is also the provincial capital of Hubei.

Western China Experts know of Hubei. Some travelled (note the use of the past tense) to Wuhan regularly on business. All Chinese know of Hubei. It has some pretty significant ancient history and is also home to the Three Gorges Dam.

In late 2000, a Wuhan local taught me how to count in Chinese. We were on a 14-hour train ride to his hometown. No-one on the train spoke English. The station, while it was large by New Zealand standards, was nothing like the large, ultra-modern Wuhan station seen on the news in recent months.

Wuhan station in 2019

October, 2000

My “minders” had met me at the platform with a welcoming placard designed for a female teacher. They quickly hid it from view when they saw my hairy face. We drove through the large industrial city towards the western outskirts. They told me that Wuhan was actually a combination of three cities: Hankou (where I’d arrived), Wuchang (Chairman Mao wrote a famous poem about a Wuchang fish), and Hanyang. There was a massive bridge that spanned the Yangtze River, a tall tower, and a beautiful, large pagoda. The city was enormous, polluted and, for a boy from New Zealand, all very overwhelming.


I was off to live in Jingmen – a small city four hours inland.

We found a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The food was good but the experience weird. Mr Yang, a minor leader at my new school, toasted me for every sip of beer I took. I sipped, he sculled. Miss Liu, my contact for the year, didn’t drink. The driver sat outside.

The restaurant toilets were another culture shock. The urinal was a long white-tiled trough. It reminded me of the old ANZ Bank headquarters in Wellington. Another white-tiled trough acted as a zone principale – the place for number twos. A partitioned area, that was merely a metre in height between cubicles, was designed for squatting. Below lay a slightly angled (for better flow) communal drain than ran under all the cubicles. You could see the fruit of your neighbours’ efforts if you picked the right cubicle. There would be no keeping of secrets here.

There would be no peeing either. Even the most mentally resilient man would succumb to stagefright with the staring that accompanied this foreigner’s (bathroom) entrance. Oh, the culture shock! We wouldn’t pass another bathroom for two hours.

And we didn’t return to Wuhan for three months.

January 2001

East Lake. Photo by V Menkov.

Wuhan was prettier in the spring. Mr Yang took me on a guided tour of some of the well-known sites of Wuhan. There was a nice restaurant lunch, paid for by the school, and a drive around the Wuhan University campus – a well-respected institute and scene of pitched battles in the mid-Sixties between Red Guard factions. We visited the East Lake and saw, from a distance, Chairman Mao’s villa that he took refuge in during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. We ate in another fancy restaurant that evening, again courtesy of the school.

A really good photo of the Wuhan University Admin Building by someone calling themselves Howchou (this name actually translates into Very Ugly or Very Stinky, depending on the tone – but this photo is anything but ugly). The university was recently ranked 9th in China.

The food in Wuhan was really good. Spicy good. Lots of tofu and eggplant.

I missed my flight to Hong Kong the next day and let out a few expletives in Mr Yang’s company over some miscommunication about the departure time. He delighted in his recognition of the F-bomb and let out a genuine laugh. The airport was practically empty. Few could afford to fly back then. They managed another plane ticket – this time to Shenzhen. I think there were only ten people on the plane. I can only imagine just how large the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport is nowadays.

April 2001

A pal and I made a quick visit here to catch a flight to watch rugby in Shanghai. Wuhan was bustling at that time but seemed light years behind its coastal cousin. I mean Shanghai had Subway sandwiches and Irish pubs. Wuhan only had McDonald’s.

May 2001

The Hubei Provincial High School English Speech Finals were held in Wuhan. Memories are now vague except for the very talented students in attendance. My student Kathy was a hardworking soul but no match for the talent on show that day. She may have lost but McDonald’s was a good consolation prize – like a beacon of Michelin-level dining (due to the absence of almost any Western food in Jingmen).

mcdonalds signages
Like a naughty dream…

Hubei students were very diligent – they needed to be – their parents were on the bones of their backsides back then. The economy wasn’t particularly strong in 2001. How times have changed.

May 2020

It would be great to return to Hubei one day. Those earnest young students will now be harried parents working in a variety of careers. Many of my former colleagues will have retired. You wonder how they were affected by COVID-19 and if they’re okay. They were practical people and many pearls of wisdom were gathered from a year in Hubei.

I wish them well.