Photos by Yuri Hasegawa. Text by Malaka Gharib
How have women from Wuhan, China, the former epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, been faring over the past few months?
In some ways, they were the first guinea pigs of the pandemic. As the world watched in shock as the city locked itself down to stop the spread of disease, not knowing that this extreme measure would soon be their own fate, these women faced unprecedented mental, physical and emotional hurdles.
We spoke to three women from the capital of central China's Hubei province to see how they've been coping during the pandemic: A rap mogul who sprang into action as a medical volunteer, a grandmother who's happy to step outside again (and tease her granddaughter in the U.S.) and a writer now living in Las Vegas who uses her poetry to fight stereotypes against Chinese people — and finds joy by dancing hopelessly.
Read their stories, check out our special report on 19 women facing the coronavirus crisis — then find out how to nominate a woman to be profiled at the bottom of the story.
Deng Ge, head of the rap label Bad Commune.
Rap Mogul With An Activist Side Hustle
On a mid-September Saturday night in Wuhan, China, Deng Ge, founder of the hip-hop record label Bad Commune, walked into 404 Club. Her label was co-hosting a hip-hop party at the bustling venue, and hundreds of fans gathered to see the show.
The sounds of music mixed with people cheering on the dance floor was deafening. Only a few people in the audience were wearing a mask. It's hard to imagine that this was the same city that had been at the center of the pandemic just a few months ago.
"It feels like we just woke up from a nightmare," she said.
Deng, 42, a single mom to a 6-year-old daughter, has been a part of Wuhan's music scene for decades. In college, she formed a band when punk rock reigned supreme in the city. Then she discovered rap music. Three years ago, she quit her job as an art school professor to found the all-female rap group Bad Girls. "None of us leans on men," Deng said. "We support each other."
Since COVID-19 cases in Wuhan have slowed down and the city reopened in April, Deng has been able to focus on her music again. But things weren't always like this — especially at the beginning of the pandemic.
Deng first realized the coronavirus outbreak was worse than expected around the beginning of the Lunar New Year in January. She saw a post on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform, of someone selling 10,000 masks — specifically for use in Wuhan.
"I felt something was really going wrong with Wuhan at that moment," Deng recalled. Shortly thereafter, the city announced its lockdown.
None of us leans on men. We support each other. - Deng Ge
Her instinctive reaction was to become a community volunteer, she said. At that time, the outbreak was spreading rapidly. All hospitals were extremely short of medical supplies. Medical workers were desperately calling for help on social media.
Deng said that broke her heart.
She bought the 10,000 masks for 18,000 yuan ($2,650) with her own money and donated them to a medical center. Soon, she organized her own volunteer group with three women to coordinate donations and deliver more supplies to hospitals. Deng called her team the "Angel Squad."
Deng and the Angel Squad "didn't take even one day off" during the nearly 80 days of lockdown. And because she didn't want to worry them, she didn't give her family too many details about what she was doing. She was in and out of medical equipment factories and local hospitals, potentially exposing herself to the coronavirus. Despite the strict lockdown, the government did not interfere. Deng said that's because they recognized how flexible and responsive the volunteers were.
These days, however, life almost feels back to normal, she said.
Members of the Bad Girls rap group, which was started by Deng Ge, pose with audience members at a pre-pandemic hip-hop party. Now that the coronavirus is under control in Wuhan, audiences are once again gathering for concerts.
Deng is about to release Purgatory Pink, Bad Girls' second album. She's hoping to line up more live concert gigs, which are now allowed in Wuhan.
During our conversation, Deng was sitting in her studio, in a tile-roofed house in a part of Wuhan called Hankou. It's close to her daughter's kindergarten. And it has a tiny garden where Deng's cats like to play around.
She reflected on the months she spent living through Wuhan's lockdown, which she described as an "unbelievable and strange time." She even tried not to read any news at the time. "I must stay emotionally stable," she said. "That is the way I protect myself."
All over China, her city is famous for its cherry blossoms. As a local, Deng always thought she'd seen enough of the flowers.
But on the first day after Wuhan reopened, even though the blooming period was almost over and the flowers were about to wither away, she took another look.
"It was the first time in my life that I realized how beautiful they are," she said.
Screen grab of a video chat between Laura Gao, right, and her grandmother Zhou Nai.
Laura Gao for NPR
Back To (Almost) Normal Life — And Even Teasing Her Granddaughter
A blurry golden mass engulfed the screen during a video call as my Nainai's voice chirped up from behind: "It's a meat mooncake! I don't think you have them in the U.S. I'll freeze some for the next time you visit."
My grandma, Zhou Nai, is more optimistic about our eventual reunion than I am — but for good reason. In Wuhan, everything has mostly returned to pre-pandemic life. For the Mid-Autumn Festival, she's going to watch a dazzling light show over the Yangtze River with my uncles' families and millions of other mask-clad Wuhanese locals. The countless mooncakes decorating her kitchen counter, a dessert eaten during this festival, were bought fresh from the neighborhood mart or gifted from various relatives. From this conversation, you'd never have guessed this city was in total lockdown just months ago.
Nai holds a mooncake — a Chinese treat — up to the camera for her granddaughter.
Laura Gao for NPR
Nainai proudly rotated the mooncake around the camera before setting it down and showing her face again. Not that it's much easier to see her. She doesn't understand how cameras work, so each of our calls captures only a third of her face.
Technical barriers like these are the main challenges nowadays for my 80-year-old grandparents. Right before the height of quarantine in Wuhan, when they were isolated from the outside world for months, my 12-year-old cousin, Bean, just managed to teach them how to join WeChat video calls for weekly family check-ins. But they felt left behind as activities they had always done in person, like grocery runs and health checks, migrated online.
"Thankfully, a community helper came each week to ask if we needed anything. Your uncle also dropped off food to us," she explained.
When the quarantine lifted, they cautiously began venturing outside again — initially just to the apartment courtyard to stretch their legs, then on to bus rides to the grocery store and the clinic. At each stage they'd have their temperature checked before stepping inside.
"Have you gone to East Lake?" I asked, recalling Wuhan's largest park and one of their favorites.
She sighed. "No, they [now] require reservations through WeChat to limit crowds. We haven't bothered to figure out how to do that."
Her son and grandson, Bean, visit often after work and school. Both of Bean's parents work at a hospital, so they're extremely careful each time they visit. They change their clothes before entering and spray so much disinfectant that Nainai has to crack open a window. My grandparents used to accompany Bean to school every morning and send him home-cooked meals. Now, they choose their battles wisely every time they go outside.
"Bean's clothes permanently smell of chlorine now," Nainai joked. "We've adopted many new hygiene habits, like washing our hands when we come home, steaming our bowls before eating and leaving chopsticks in the rice cooker to kill germs."
Sounds of chopping and oil sizzling punctuate the background of our calls. My grandpa brings heaping dishes fresh from the wok — pan-fried noodles, fish and bok choy glazed in soy sauce, and a side of fermented tofu as a palate cleanser — as I watch enviously from the other side of the screen. He likes to chase down his meal with a shot of baijiu, a potent white rice liquor, while Nainai scolds him playfully. At night, they play a few rounds of the popular Chinese card game Dou Dizhu ("Fight the Landlord") before going to bed by 10 p.m.
When you're my age, people die left and right! You find out when you realize they haven't called in a while, and then you move on. - Zhou Nai
Nainai doesn't like to talk much about her fears. I asked if she knew of any friends who got COVID-19, but she quickly brushed me off.
"When you're my age, people die left and right! You find out when you realize they haven't called in a while, and then you move on with your day."
She waved her hand and looked away before smiling back at me. "I just hope I'll live to see my grandkids get married. Anyways, are you seeing anyone?"
"During a pandemic, Nainai?" I scoffed.
We shared a sweet moment of laughter from opposite sides of the world. Despite this unfortunate year, I'm glad she still doesn't hesitate to tease her granddaughter. Her bright spirit pushes the family forward.
Photos and text by Laura Gao
Writer Sally Wen Mao poses for a portrait on the roof of her apartment building in Las Vegas.
Yuri Hasegawa for NPR
A Writer Strikes Back With Poetry — And Hopeless Dancing
Here's how the writer Sally Wen Mao has been spending the pandemic.
She's teaching a virtual poetry workshop. Working on her new book. Twice a week she goes to the swimming pool at her Las Vegas apartment building. And she likes to "dance hopelessly," she said — most recently to Spanish versions of songs from the '90s anime TV show Sailor Moon.
"It's embarrassing," she said. "But I'm obsessed."
Mao, 33, author of the critically acclaimed poetry collections Oculus: Poems and Mad Honey Symposium, was born in Wuhan, China, and moved to the U.S. when she was 5. She said she's been "plugged into" the pandemic since January, watching for news out of Wuhan where family members still live.
"I've had this year to think about the pandemic and see the ways in which it revitalizes this narrative of Chinese people being agents of disease," she said in a Zoom call from Vegas (where she moved in March in advance of a literary fellowship at Black Mountain Institute). A lime-green aurora swirled above her head in her virtual background.
Mao is working on a book centered on the nine-tailed fox, a female spirit in Chinese folklore.
Yuri Hasegawa for NPR
Writing, she said, has been a way for her to make sense of COVID-19 and "transmute all those feelings into something that other people can connect to."
In March, she wrote the poem "Wet Market," published in Literary Hub. In the early days of the pandemic, these markets were blamed as the source of COVID-19. "It got me thinking about the ways we frame certain places when they are racialized. People wouldn't be blaming farmers markets in Berkeley," she said.
She recalls visiting a wet market in Wuhan at age 12 on her first trip back to China since she and her family left. "A lot of them were selling fruits and vegetables," said Mao. In her poem she wrote:
"Wet markets are diverse — they're like any other market," she says. "Some markets sell certain types of meat, but not all of them."
She's also found great comfort in reading — mostly women authors: Bluebeard's First Wife by Ha Seong-nan, Luster by Raven Leilani and a lot of Toni Morrison. "Other people's art is a source of strength," said Mao.
While Mao said she's been lucky during the pandemic — she has a place to live, a book to write — she's been struck by "how difficult it is to find intimacy."
"I might see myself as accomplished in some ways, but if I'm not in a romantic relationship, then that's seen as a failure [by society]," she said.
In many cultures, women are more defined by their roles as wives, mothers and caregivers than themselves, she explained. It's a theme she's been pushing back against in the book she's now writing, a collection of fictional stories about the nine-tailed fox, a ubiquitous female spirit in Chinese folklore.
Mao, who was born in Wuhan, China, has been angry about how Chinese people are being portrayed in the pandemic. She's been coping by writing poems, including one titled "Wet Market."
Yuri Hasegawa for NPR
"Young female ghosts are the most tragic figures in Chinese culture," she said. "They don't have children to pray for them or give them offerings. So they are cut off from the world."
"But the only thing that's tragic about them is that they're unmarried," she added.
Mao admits that she's been struggling with loneliness and isolation. But lately she's been more perturbed by current events. They've filled her with a sense of hopelessness — an absence of "a sense of future."
So she's been turning over this line of poetry in her head, from "won't you celebrate with me" by Lucille Clifton:
come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.
Photos by Yuri Hasegawa. Text by Malaka Gharib
Nominate A Woman
We'd like to tell more stories about women's lives in the pandemic.
Is there a woman in your community who has overcome great challenges in their personal lives? Or is helping others with their challenges? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org your nomination, with "Women's Stories" in the subject line. We may feature them in a future story on NPR.org.