This undated photo shows construction worker Zhao Xi carrying one of the materials needed for the Central Government-Aided Emergency Hospital being built in Lok Ma Chau. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Rows of iron panels and steel plates criss-cross a swathe of the construction site at Lok Ma Chau Loop, towered by cranes panning and swaying as they are operated. On the ground, nearly 2,000 workers have been busying themselves, day and night, constructing a temporary hospital from scratch, for Hong Kong COVID-19 patients. 

Among them is Zhao Xi, a soft-spoken and unassuming man from Hubei province, whose mission is not remotely humble. He hopes his contribution will bring hope to Hong Kong people in dire need of treatment and isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Zhao Xi hopes his contribution will bring hope to Hong Kong people in dire need of treatment and isolation during the coronavirus pandemic 

After his arrival on the morning of Mar 7, Zhao and his team plunged into the construction work in the afternoon. Time doesn’t wait, he said. He’s mainly responsible for the kitchen section for the whole hospital facility. 

Construction has been anything but smooth sailing. It’s fraught with “difficulties and setbacks that were unexpected to me,” Zhao said.

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Zhao was the first in his village to volunteer to “get his hands dirty” in the Leishenshan (or Thunder God Mountain) Hospital in Wuhan in 2020 as a contingency measure to cope with the explosive spread of infections there. He assumed that this past experience would provide a rich seam for him to mine for the project in Hong Kong. But the reality has not been that simple. 

“The materials used in Leishenshan Hospital, which comprised board rooms, were primarily light-weight plastic, easy to disassemble and reassemble. But here in Hong Kong, they are largely cast iron, stainless steel and concrete, bulky to move and carry around, requiring a lot welding and soldering. The craft is way more complex, time- and physically-consuming than that in the Leishenshan project,” Zhao said.

This undated photo shows some of the nearly 2,000 workers from the Chinese mainland who toil round the clock to construct the Central Government-Aided Emergency Hospital in Lok Ma Chau. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Pressed for time, different teams have had to work in sync. “Once the other team finished paving the reinforcing bars, our team had to get the welding done all at once.” 

The Central Government-Aided Emergency Hospital in Lok Ma Chau is one of the nine temporary hospitals and isolation facilities, ready to provide some 1,000 hospital beds and with space to house 10,000 quarantined individuals. The facility is expected to become fully operational in April. Phase 1 became operational on April 5.

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Outside, the clock continues to tick mercilessly. During the peak of the outbreak in Hong Kong, demand for medical intervention and immediate isolation ballooned. 

Inside, there’s an intense cacophony of hammers, drills, chisels and wrenches. Rendering the sound even more jarring is the unnerving record numbers of confirmed cases. Construction was in full swing, with workers bending over backwards, literally, to meet the tight deadline. 

Not only is the task itself Herculean, but also the elements — rain, wind, humidity and fickle temperatures— have sapped workers’ energy, Zhao added. “The floor was totally muddy. Even some of our beds were soggy or drenched. It’s hard to get a solid sleep in those circumstances,” said Zhao. 

All these intricacies could have unraveled everything close to the deadline. Conventionally, a hospital of that scale may take at least half a year to build, but this one was expected to take shape within a mere month. “Our workers have gone against the grain, and the odds,” said Zhao, proudly. 

Working for long stretches every day — 12 hours for two days and two nights — Zhao sometimes felt his legs weaken. “It felt like I was gliding in mid-air because my legs and feet just lost their strength.” 

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When working on the Leishenshan Hospital, Zhao was once so wiped out after eight days of ceaseless work that he fainted. He regained consciousness half an hour later. 

The hurtful part of that episode was to follow, as Zhao recalled: “After I returned to my village, I was not celebrated for what I’d been doing, but discriminated against and segregated, as villagers thought I’d passed out because I was infected … Even my kids ran away from me. It really stung.” 

Volunteering to construct hospitals in the thick of the pandemic comes with hefty risks. When Zhao told his elderly mother of his decision, he was greeted with objection. “I’m a single father of two. My father passed away last year. I only have my elderly mother taking care of my young kids. I know I’m the backbone of my family. If I collapse, my family will suffer,” said Zhao, with a tinge of guilt. 

But when it came to the crunch, with Hong Kong in dire straits, he was determined: “Nothing can stop me heading to the frontline. I talked my mother through. I’m thankful that she’s now very supportive. I talk to her on the phone every day, reassuring her that I’m very safe.” 

While his energy sometimes withers after toiling for long hours or working late, his motivation never diminishes. “Hong Kong is an integral part of China. So we should go through whatever Hong Kong’s going through,” Zhao remarked. 

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Before the pandemic, Zhao had dreamt of traveling in Hong Kong for a long time. “This is my first time in 40 years to visit Hong Kong, and I’m here not for traveling but for helping. I’m very proud of that,” he said emotionally. 

Zhao has a dream — an affectionate down-to-earth dream. “I’ll revisit Hong Kong after the pandemic, with my two kids. I’ll share with them their father’s most precious memories in the city.”