Hong Kong Covid-19 wave traced to socialites’ love of the cha-cha

Hong Kong is battling a new coronavirus cluster originating from one of the city’s lesser-known elite pastimes — wealthy older women visiting dance clubs for lessons, often with handsome younger instructors.

The cluster has fuelled a so-called fourth wave in the Asian financial hub, its worst outbreak in months with 92 cases reported on Friday. The sharp rise in infections has been linked to ballroom dancing venues, including the Starlight Dance Club and Heavenly, the government said.

The dancers have earned a rebuke from Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, for pursuing “close contact activities without masks” in the middle of a pandemic.

The outbreak has forced the suspension of an air travel bubble with Singapore and the temporary closure of high-end business, sports and socialite clubs across the city. Hong Kong has also had to introduce stricter social distancing measures.

“This time nature has taken a twist, with the outbreak spreading through the city’s rich apartments and villas. It’s easy to imagine how scared they are,” said Chip Tso, a well-known Hong Kong columnist.

Hong Kong has earned praise for keeping the pandemic under control through a mixture of mask-wearing and tight social-distancing measures without imposing a complete lockdown.

But the city, which is a major transport and cargo hub, has had to suppress successive new waves of the pandemic, with outbreaks stemming from loopholes in quarantine procedures and other sources.

The latest outbreak, however, is the first to target the Hong Kong’s well-heeled classes, particularly high-income businesswomen and tai tais, the city’s wealthy unemployed spouses.

“The tai tais are a very special community in Hong Kong. They’ve got too much money and too much time on their hands,” he added.

Mr Tso said they often formed hobby groups, around activities such as yoga, Chinese painting or dancing, with the latter attracting many “dancers to come to Hong Kong to provide partners”. 

Online discussion and gossip columns have focused on the age gap between the women and their instructors. Some commenters have speculated that a few of the young men are yazi or “ducks”, a Chinese euphemism for gigolo.

But George Yip, chairperson of the Hong Kong DanceSport Association, said despite some unethical practices, it was normal for instructors to be younger men as the job requires good physical fitness.

“It is best to get the husbands’ of those tai tais to be their partners but the husbands usually prefer playing golf or ball games. It is just like getting a partner for your tennis game,” he said.

Health authorities have linked more than 300 cases to the dancing and singing cluster in 14 venues across the city. 

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Dance classes are big business in Hong Kong. Monica Wong, the former head of HSBC’s private banking in Asia, agreed to pay HK$120m ($15.4m) for eight years of unlimited Latin dance lessons in 2004. The agreement eventually ended in a lawsuit.

The dance club outbreak led the government to require mandatory testing for the first time for anyone visiting the venues this month.

It also ordered the closure of bars and saunas. The government stopped live performances and dancing in functions rooms, and limited hotel guest numbers to four in a room and eight in a suite.

Hong Kong has 6,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 108 deaths.

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