Onward Mask!

Even with the vaccine roll-out, it would still be a while before we could go mask-free. Yet, many people out and about are starting to go mask-less or half-masked. Is it really so awful and unbearable, one year on, to wear a mask? Even when new clusters of infection have emerged?

By Ray Zhang

It’s now more than a year since the Circuit Breaker was announced two Aprils ago. The mask has since become a must. But concealing more than half of one’s face can’t seem to be as habit-forming as burying oneself in whatever that’s coming out of one’s smartphone. Protection against a pandemic is not good enough a reason to put on a mask, but “inconvenience” alone is convenient an excuse to let the face go naked. In an unscientific poll I conducted to have a sense of why—even when I have already guessed—people are so resistant to masking up, “inconvenient” ranks at the top, followed by “heat” and “sweat”. Interestingly, three people even cited “ugly” as valid reason not to wear a mask. Which is kind of confusing when it appears to me that ugly fashion is still the rage. A neat little mask is ugly, but tattered-to-bits denim cut-offs not?

This morning, on my way to the supermarket, out of the first eight people I met on the void deck and footpath, two were totally mask-less, three had their mask pulled down to below their chin as they talked on the phone, one wore his below his upper lip, and one with the mask dangling from the ear, as naturally as a drop earring. Only one lady was kind of masked—she was wearing what in the middle east would be known as a burka. Until I finally saw a properly masked pedestrian, I wondered, was this a lull day for masks? Did I miss a public announcement? Was I the odd one out? Did I look ugly?

Despite the many ‘fashion’ masks now available, the mandated face covering can’t seem to catch on. It isn’t as though we have been forced to wear a balaclava. Or, a bra repurposed as a mask! Yet, the mask requirement is dreaded and frowned upon, as if it is a parental order. People find every excuse, every opportunity, every time to be bare-faced. “I’m eating,” they’ll say, and not an eatery or vendor in sight. “I’m drinking,” they’ll say, and the nearest bubble tea shop is at least two kilometres away. “I’m smoking,” they’ll say, and the puffing is conducted right in the middle of a bus stop. “I’m cycling,” they’ll say, and none appears to be training for the Tour de France. “I’m catching Pokémon,” they’ll say, and you’ll want to throw a Poké Ball at them. “I’m coughing,” they’ll say, and you’ll want to run far, far away.

Fashion will remember this past year for not only loungewear but also face wear. We aren’t referring to the pre-pandemic issuers such as Marine Serre (Financial Times calls her “the designer who saw it all coming”) and Off-White, but also other designer brands, from Burberry to Missoni, to the couture ones for auction and those given free at the Louis Vuitton show here last March. Masks ascended from the lowly surgical ones to those that deserve a spot on the red carpet, from those that are made at home to those custom-made in an atelier to go with a hat or a dress. In fact, I often see many who prefer masks that wouldn’t give the impression that the wearer works in a hospital or had just picked one from a box bought at 7-Eleven. There are now special occasion masks as seen by the many ang-pow red ones (and printed with Oriental motifs and zhuheyu [祝贺语 or auspicious sayings]), sold in Chinatown during the Lunar New Year three months ago.

Magazine editorials have been sharing stories with headlines such as “Where to buy fashionable face masks”. We didn’t really have to look far. As soon as the Circuit Breaker ended on the 1st of last June and we could resume shopping beyond essentials, masks of the fancy variety started appearing, from stalls in the wet market to those in malls. The first fancy mask I bought was from a friend’s cousin, who first made them at home towards the end of the Circuit Breaker to sell, in anticipation that people would want those not in that ubiquitous green/blue. She even allowed me to choose different fabrics for each side of the mask. And to add a pocket in the interior to allow a filter to sit in, as well as decide on the length of the ear loops. The transactions were done through WhatsApp! A fabric mask, I soon found, could be comfortable and breathable. The best part: they could be selected (assuming there are enough to choose from) as one chooses socks. That, for me, was the first step to incorporating masks for my OOTD.

Despite the mask’s fashion potential, it was not destined to be part of our outdoor life or sartorial choices. Many would find excuses to reject it. Or just appear to be wearing it—achieving various degrees of coverage, but never total or adequate to be considered safe. It is puzzling to me that after a year, and despite constant reminders, there are those who would not wear a mask properly, to minimise infection. You must have seen masks worn like some frivolous, any-how face apron, with nose exposed, or the spaces between the nose unsealed. Or, with those pleated masks, not stretched out vertically, but just plonked on, like a piece of Koolfever for the mouth. Those are on individuals at least situating the mask where it is meant to be. Others wear it anywhere but on the face. I have seen masks hug biceps, cup elbows, serve as bracelet on wrists, worn as an anklet, employed as hairband, chin brace, and neck wear. And just as I thought I was exposed to every possible not-intended use of a mask, I saw, on the upper deck of a bus last week, a snoozing man wearing one as eye mask!

When I spoke to people around me, I sensed that no one saw a deep divide in this country over the requirements to wear masks, unlike, say, in the US (and many other places too). There are those who just wouldn’t mask up, but are not against the mandate or opposed to it forcefully enough to need to prove it at the polls last year. And I don’t think scientific evidence for the usefulness of mask wearing is seen through partisan lens—they are just totally ignored. I sometimes wonder if, despite the MOH’s best efforts in educating the public, people just have no understanding of how the virus is spread, even now when dangerous and more infectious variants are evident. I continually see those who remove their mask to cough, to sneeze, to spit; to talk at the top of their voices and to laugh as if to let out something that can’t be contained inside. Audible and exuberant conversations rule! Just this afternoon, at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a group of five garrulous women were cackling and howling behind me, unaware of the respiratory droplets they were jointly projecting. All of them were without masks even when it was clear to see that they had finished their beverages. They were having a rollicking good time. When I turned to look at them, they laughed even louder and harder, in blatant, eff-you defiance.

The pandemic has shown how in-your-face selfish people can be and how unwilling (or unable) they are to see how their actions and unthinking may affect others. Once, I asked a woman shopping at a supermarket to wear her half-mast mask properly. She replied, “why, you scared to die, ah?” How do I even begin to understand those like her, let alone react to such impudence? I wonder if the inability to wear a mask properly stemmed from the first reusable masks issued free to us by the government in April last year. They were uncomfortable and fitted poorly, but people still think that’s how masks are supposed to fit and sit. Those who wear their mask below their noses will claim that their snoot is “too flat” to hold the mask up. Those with a prominent proboscis will say it’s “too high” to be contained. Even when masks come with a firm flexible bridge that can be pinched to secure the top to the nose and to reduce the gap around it, when cloth masks and similar are designed for a more secure fit, when there are even 3-D versions, errant noses still must willfully stay outside the confines of a mask, like a sprout top.

Unusual as this might seem, I rather like wearing a mask. I am agreeable to the practice, I also discovered, because of the joy I derive from anonymity—to be unknown and be left unidentified, as if an apple in a crate of other apples. This, to be sure, isn’t the same as being incognito, which suggests deliberately having one’s identity concealed or being mysterious. Enigma is not my thing. Batman is not an inspiration. Rather, I have always liked to be lost in a crowd, even an individualist such as I. But as people flout mask wearing and social distancing, contrary to what our upbeat authorities would have us believe, I find that obscuring my face means I have more courage to gently remind the recalcitrant to play their part and, if the need arises—which, regrettably, is often, cast gentleness aside. There are those, I have witnessed, who would only act when scolded. Or, when they see seething anger.

But there are also those who are impervious to outrage. Or even the admonition of a public prosecutor. As I write this, news broke that the woman known as “Ms Sovereign” was defiant when charged in court for not wearing a mask and for being a public nuisance. CNA reported that she “had her mask below her nose throughout her time in court”. In fact, other reports noted that she arrived similarly half-masked. Unsurprisingly, as with many who must have no mask on (or can only wear them improperly), there is a reason: hers apparently medical, but it did not convince the court. She claimed to be suffering from asthma, but according to CNA, at the Shunfu Road wet market during the Circuit Breaker, when she was confronted for going mask-free, she “retorted that she did not need to wear a mask as she was not sick.” She was, more importantly, a “Sovereign”.

I suspect she was, and probably still is, the only Sovereign on our soil. But, she is, of course, not the only person who would expressly not wear a mask, Sovereign or just regular citizen. In my estate, I repeatedly see a man and a woman (unrelated) who are always bare-faced when out, since day one of the Circuit Breaker. Despite my disapproving eyes, they never seem to get the message. I wonder what excuse they might have if I were to confront them. Could it also be medical? Or simply mental? Once, out on an errand, I saw a middle-aged man going without a mask as he was jogging—shuffling, really—but, at the same time, carrying two bulging Fairprice plastic bags, one on each hand, and on the left, a long umbrella! Two school girls walking past, giggled at the sight. I think I was the one going bonkers not seeing the joke.

Update (9 May 2021, 6pm): It really happens! I have not exaggerated.

Illustrations: Ci Ke

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