Cissy Zhao, a 41-year-old legal specialist living in Shanghai, refuses to lower her standards just because she is in lockdown.
Before leaving her house for required coronavirus tests in her residential compound, she wakes up early for her beauty routine. First, she washes her face, then carefully applies foundation, eyeliner, eye shadow and mascara before doing her eyebrows and lips. Finally, she chooses her outfit, selecting between brands such as Louis Vuitton or Christopher Bu, a Chinese designer. She has worn a different designer dress for each of the three tests she has done in the past five days.
“It only takes 10 minutes to do a PCR test, but every morning, I spend one hour doing makeup and dressing myself up for those 10 minutes,” Zhao said. “It makes me feel happier.”
For the past week, Zhao – along with Shanghai’s 26 million residents – have been restricted to their homes as authorities continue a strict “zero COVID” policy to combat the more transmissible omicron variant. The variant has spread across 30 regions, prompting China to enact some of the most extreme virus measures since the start of the pandemic – paralyzing manufacturing centers and agricultural regions, as well as financial hubs and port cities such as Shanghai, which reported more than 100,000 local cases since early March.
Cosmopolitan Shanghai was once known for successfully managing the pandemic with minimal disruption to the economy and people’s lives. Now, it is the site of chaotic scenes of patients in quarantine fighting over supplies or trying to escape, while drones and helicopters ordering residents back inside patrol overhead. On the microblog Weibo, residents pleaded for help for their sick family members unable to access an overloaded medical system, while others complained of food and water shortages.
In a subtle show of resistance, Shanghai residents such as Zhao have chosen to face the lockdown measures with as much positivity as possible: by looking their best. Photos on Weibo, under the hashtag “Shanghai people do PCR tests with ceremony,” show women in heels, evening gowns and fur coats and men in fitted suits and designer belts lining up for tests. Other photos show children and adults in cosplay, or dressed up as dinosaurs, ducks and super heroes.
On the Instagram-like platform, Xiaohongshu, or Little Red Book, Internet users posted photos of themselves under hashtags like “PCR fashion show” and “2022SS Shanghai fashion week,” referring to “spring and summer” collections. One user on the platform said her residential compound asked them to “dress neatly and nicely” because health workers from other provinces would be conducting their tests.
On Weibo, another user advised fellow Shanghai residents not to show up to the tests in their pajamas. “If you can wear a suit, wear a suit. If you want to wear a wedding dress, wear a wedding dress. Tie your ties, and spray a little more cologne.”
“We’ve already lost face so we should keep up our spirit,” the user wrote.
When asked to place completed at-home antigen tests outside their doors for health workers to collect, some residents used designer shopping bags. On Wednesday, Zhao placed hers in a Chanel paper bag, with a kiss on the front and a message thanking the employees for their hard work.
“People who know how to enjoy their lives will not give up their quality of life so easily, even in a lockdown,” she said, adding that many of her neighbors in Puxi were also dressing up.
Tang Wen, a 35-year-old founder of an accessory line, said she treats every test as if she were attending Shanghai Fashion Week. Dressing up each time helps relieve the stress of having to put her business on hold during the lockdown, she said, and is also just the natural state of the city’s fashion-conscious sophisticates.
“For us, this is just our lives,” Tang said.
Some have derided Shanghai residents for dressing up, criticizing their behavior as pretentious and frivolous among the dire hardship across the city.
“On one side, there are elderly people who can’t get basic necessities, convenience store managers who haven’t left their shops for 23 days. On the other side, there are people in rich areas showing off their wealth as if they just walked out of the movie ‘Tiny Times,’ ” wrote Liu Zhanxiong, a columnist for Beijing News, referring to a popular 2013 movie about young urbanites working in high fashion in Shanghai.
Defenders of Shanghai’s COVID fashionistas say this is also a way of coping with deeper anxiety over the lockdown measures, extended this week as the city undergoes mass testing.
“This is not so much a matter of stubbornness or vanity of the Shanghai people, but a matter of the desire to express themselves,” read a column in Singapore-based Initium Media. “The core of the issue when it comes to the Shanghai outbreak is what is more important? The daily lives and dignity of ordinary people or absolute control at a time of emergency?”
Authorities’ extreme response to the outbreak of a less deadly strain of the coronavirus is testing the public’s faith in the official “dynamic clearing” policy, which aims to eradicate the virus. A petition calling for the government to stop separating children from their parents for quarantine received more than 6,000 signatures before it was deleted. On Wednesday, video posted online showed what appeared to be a health worker in a Shanghai residential compound bludgeoning a corgi to death, prompting outrage online.
Residents have also expressed anger and shock at reports of patients dying over health worker’s unwillingness to treat them over COVID protocols.
“Look at the atmosphere of terror you’ve all created,” one elderly man yelled at health workers in a video widely circulated on WeChat before it was blocked. The audio recording was posted online. “All of China is going through this. People are going crazy. They want to throw themselves from the top of buildings. Depression, personality disorder, heart attacks, stroke, aneurysms – how many people are dying like this?”
For Zhao, dressing up – however small of an act – is a way to combat that fear. By putting her best foot forward, she hopes to maintain her city’s image in front of the more than 38,000 health workers and doctors dispatched from other provinces to help with the outbreak.
“By dressing ourselves up, we can show our respect to them,” she said.
In a video posted on Weibo this week, a worker speaks through a megaphone, telling residents to come down for their coronavirus tests.
“The doctor is from Shanghai. There’s no need to do your makeup,” he said.
The Washington Post’s Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.