Masked and all packed, 21-year-old Daniel Ou Yang waited anxiously at Wuhan Airport for his repatriation flight, hoping to escape living under an indefinite lockdown in the city at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
The South China Morning Post spoke to him last week, just minutes before boarding the Air New Zealand charter flight, about life under lockdown and how he serendipitously became a TikTok user, posting virus-related video clips that have since gone viral, garnering more than 152,000 likes in total.
Every Lunar New Year, Ou Yang visits Hubei province to see his father and grandparents, and this year was no exception. “I left Sydney on January 12, made a brief stopover in Guangzhou, and arrived in Wuhan on the 14th and have remained there since [before flying home at 1:00 a.m. on February 5],” said the Wuhan-born, Australian property agent turned TikTok star.
While he was aware of what happened with SARS in the early 2000s and realized a new pneumonia-like virus was spreading, as a fit and healthy 21-year-old Ou Yang was not worried—until he woke up to the news that around 56 million citizens in Wuhan and surrounding cities were now under lockdown.
“I had no idea of its severity until the morning of the lockdown [on January 23] when my aunt told me,” he said. “I don’t know what you mean?” he remembers asking her. “All public transport, the airport, everything in the city is closed down,” she responded.
For a Chinese city to be quarantined so close to Lunar New Year—the most important holiday of the year—and for all festivities to be cancelled, it had to be something “really, really big,” he said.
He looked out his window and saw that the entire city had come to a stop. “The usually heavily congested main roads [were] almost empty, all shops downstairs closed, the light rail and all other public transport were not running—it was a ghost town.
“But the scariest part was how people close to me were getting infected and dying.”
Three of Ou Yang’s grandparents’ colleagues have since died from the coronavirus, and there have been confirmed cases in each block of flats in the complex where his family lives.
To cope with fear and boredom, Ou Yang tried something he had never done before: He began vlogging on TikTok, the international version of hit Chinese short video app Douyin, to document his experience of being “trapped” and confined to his bedroom.
Beyond that, he said he wanted to use social media to share his experience and tell “his side of the story.”
“I felt it was important for me to let everyone back in Australia know what’s been happening here, as many [on social media] are using the virus as an excuse for discrimination against Asians,” he said.
Comments on his TikTok and Facebook posts have included such statements as, “Don’t come back to Australia, just stay in China. We don’t want your people’s disease,” and, “You guys deserve this because you all eat dogs and cats and bats.”
Ou Yang’s videos on TikTok have been hugely popular, generating an average of about 50,000 views each. He has amassed 17,200 followers and 155,000 likes.
The videos include POV shots from his window in Wuhan to self-mockery, such as shaking his head after hearing about how Australians are still not wearing masks in public.
“I wanted to mix humor and bring some [levity] into what’s happening right now,” he said.
“Since I watch a lot of other videos, I try to incorporate what I like about them into what I do with the music, which always has a storyline of its own,” he explains. “From there I try to make it relevant to what’s going on.”
Ever since Ou Yang’s TikTok videos and his diary-style Facebook posts have gone viral, he has been in demand for interviews with media, including the ABC News Australia and Singapore’s Straits Times.
His plan going forward, however, is to go back to his “normal life” in Sydney, where he works as a property agent.
Just after midnight on February 4, Ou Yang was evacuated from Wuhan on the Air New Zealand flight and is currently in quarantine on Christmas Island, off the northwest coast of Australia.
“If you do things like [TikTok], you’ll have to post something new every single day, if not, followers will forget about you,” he said. “Spending all my spare time posting content would take time away from family and hobbies.”
This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post.