Rumours unnerve Chinatown folk

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 27 Apr 2003

By Johan Fernandez

RUMOUR-mongering can be costly, as it proved in two instances in the Big Apple recently.  

The first incident was a few weeks ago when word went around that the owner of a popular New York Chinatown restaurant had died from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). 

It caused widespread panic and fear, and almost paralysed Chinatown, normally packed with people morning or night. Asians began to stay away and the eateries were badly affected. 

Even after the owner of the restaurant appeared in public almost immediately to allay fears and to show he was all right, business did not improve. 

Caucasians did not seem too bothered about the rumour. Somehow, Asians tend to believe anything, the more outrageous the better. 

In Malaysia, the Government had to warn rumour-mongers that action would be taken against them. Even those investing in the stock market in Malaysia tend to react to rumours rather than judge companies on their fundamentals. 

What's surprising in the Chinatown case is that in a country where there is so much free flow of information about almost everything, people still believe the rumour mill. 

Perhaps they think loads of Chinatown folk travel frequently to China and Hong Kong where the SARS outbreak is at its worst. Many people have since cancelled trips to the region until the situation improves or until the World Health Organization (WHO) declares it safe. 

A doctor at the Metropolitan Hospital in 97th Street East said that so far, New York City had only two people down with SARS and 16 suspected cases – no deaths. 

However, the health authorities are taking no chances. They have reintroduced plans that were drawn up to deal with bio-terrorism. 

According to the Daily News, the Health Department has come up with its own surveillance system, which flags abnormal clusters of symptoms using data from 911 calls, emergency room visits, drugstore purchases and even absentee roles from an undisclosed city agency. 

These measures were implemented when the number of New Yorkers thought to be suffering from SARS jumped to 18 from 13 on Thursday. 

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is concerned following WHO’s warning against travel to Toronto, Canada, the only area outside Asia with SARS deaths. 

He said a similar advisory warning against New York could cripple the already fragile economy that has been plagued with problems since the Sept 11 attack. 

In the second rumour incident, there was a run on the Abacus Federal Savings Bank branches in Chinatown early this week, the likes of which bank regulators had not seen since the Great Depression. It stemmed from rumours of the bank being in trouble and was about to close. 

Scores of Malaysians were among those who joined the mad scramble at the bank’s branches in Canal Street and Bowery Street, trying to withdraw their savings and empty their safety deposit boxes. 

The rumour began circulating on Tuesday that the manager of the Canal Street branch, Malaysian Carol Lim, had been fired for allegedly embezzling US$1mil (RM3.8mil). 

Lim, who has been with the bank for 15 years, is being sought by the FBI to assist in investigations. She has gone into hiding but is believed to be still in New York. 

It is not uncommon for bank officials to be investigated but many of the bank's customers were afraid the authorities might freeze their accounts in the 20-year-old bank that has six branches. 

Many of the bank’s clients are from China and Hong Kong who remit money to their families there. The customers were also attracted by the bank's high interest rates. 

“Some of these people, especially Chinese nationals, are very suspicious of banks and government institutions and if there is any hint of wrongdoing they will take their money out,” said a Malaysian housewife who has an account with the bank. 

She said she was waiting in line to get to her safe deposit box. “I no longer trust the bank to take care of my valuable documents.” 

According to The New York Times, the intensity and persistence of the run baffled regulators, and the episode perhaps reflects the contrast between American and Asian cultures. 

It said that with most American bank accounts now insured and banks mainly owned by wealthy corporations, a run on the bank was virtually unheard of in the US. 

The paper said it was a different story in China because the big, state-run banks were generally in poor shape and often confronted with rumour-driven mass withdrawals. 

For the record, regulators said Abacus Federal Savings Bank had enough cash to meet the needs of depositors. It has nearly US$300mil in assets and a recent annual review showed that the bank was in excellent financial standing. 

Despite all the assurances, people still believe in rumours.  

  • Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: )  

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