funeral of Dr Joanna Tse Yuen-man
Funeral of Dr Joanna Tse Yuen-man in 2003 / South China Morning Post
One thing is certain: in you, there are two natures.   
The miserly, the prudent one against the generous.   
For many years you will attempt to reconcile them   
Till all your works have grown small    
And you will prize only uncalculated gifts,   
Greatheartedness, self-forgetful giving,   
Without monuments, books, and human memory   
(From A Boy, by Czesław Miłosz)

If we know anything about human beings in extreme circumstances, it is their remarkable capacity for goodness.

I don’t mean the goodness of saints, for that is something attained only by the few. I mean a kind of practical, unpretentious helpfulness that I shall here call decency. In everyday life, such decency often passes unrecognized, though it is what keeps communities together. In extraordinary times, it takes on a heroic aspect. “Heroic decency” is, at first sight, an improbable conjunction.

What follows is a story about its appearance. It occurred in the life and death of a young Hong Kong doctor who, in another year of fear and uncertainty, the SARS crisis of 2003, came to exemplify the everyday heroism of which people are capable.

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During the SARS outbreak of 2003, no group earned more respect from Hong Kong people than the front line health workers. Universally they were described as the heroes of the day. And when the disease finally abated, the South China Morning Post reporter Ella Lee remarked that “the eight health workers who died in the battle against Sars … showed us what heroes are really like – people without halos but simply devoted hearts.”

The most venerated of the “heroes” was a young doctor called Joanna Tse Yuen-man. From her base at Tuen Mun general hospital, she contracted SARS from a patient, as many doctors did elsewhere, but a number of factors combined to make her special. Dr. Tse volunteered to work with SARS patients; she was not ordered to do so. She was aware of the risk she was taking. She was the first public doctor to be felled by SARS.

Dr Tse also radiated an unusual kind of pathos. When she died on May 13, 2003, she was only thirty-five. She was childless and lived alone. Her husband had succumbed to leukaemia the year before. Together, these bare facts of her life were then further invested by the anxieties, yearnings and hopes evident during the SARS crisis.

Joanna Tse became a public symbol of the ordinary, unprivileged person – “a true daughter of Hong Kong” was a common refrain — who did an extraordinary thing. The epitome of professionalism, she sought to save others despite the potential cost to herself. Her death unleashed a wave of sorrow in Hong Kong. Tributes on radio and in the newspapers movingly recalled her “sacrifice” and “selfless devotion.” Hundreds attended her funeral.

And soon after Dr Tse’s burial a process began that continues till this day: her “story” has entered the curriculum of a number of schools designed to instruct Hong Kong children about the virtue of selflessness and the spirit of volunteerism. Two hundred and fifty thousand copies of a memorial booklet, produced by her church, Praise Assembly, were distributed en masse to schools and hospitals.

And in April 2004, a film called The Miracle Box opened in Hong Kong cinemas detailing the pre-SARS life of Joanna Tse. Even before the film was officially released, 240 screenings of it had been booked by schools and religious organizations.

It is a common observation that “heroes” are typically abashed, or at least surprised, by the fanfare they receive. Sometimes they even refuse official commendation. Might this simply be false modesty? Doubtless it is in some cases. But in others it derives from the belief that “I was just doing my job” or did “what anyone else would do under the same circumstances.” Doctors are supposed to take care of the sick. The Hippocratic Oath, the tacit pledge that defines the doctor’s vocation, states that “I will use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment; I will abstain from harming or wronging any person by it.”

Joanna Tse practiced her vocation and died as a result. Yet if that was the case, if she was just doing her duty, is it true to say that she was a “hero”?

In his 1947 novel The Plague,centred on the disease-infested Algerian coastal town of Oran, the French writer Albert Camus suggested that the ascription of heroism is both a tribute and an evasion simultaneously. Tribute: because heroism is the highest honour we can bestow on those who show extraordinary courage. Evasion: because the very notion of exemplary conduct implies that only the superhuman are capable of it.

By definition, heroism does not seem the metal of which ordinary citizens are minted. As such, great deeds – and even smaller ones — can be left to others. “I have to tell you this,” says the narrator and protagonist of The Plague,Dr Bernard Rieux, “this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency”. 

So what is decency, then? Decency, according to Camus, is the workaday, unpretentious, practical quality of helpfulness that expects little of people and assumes only that “that there is more in men to admire than to despise.” While heroism is reserved for the few, decency is a democratic virtue, available to the common stock, based on the expectation that all are capable of contributing in small ways to the common good and to the fight against wretchedness and depravity.

Decency is not an intellectual virtue. It is matter-of-fact, rather than altruistic or utopian. It suggests not endless vistas of the permissible but human limits, including the limits of what can be tolerated without protest or opposition. Its sensibility is typified by Rieux’s remark that the health teams acted as they did, not out of a wish to become saints, but simply because failure to act – “not doing” anything – “would have been incredible at the time.”

Consider in this context the non-fictional example of those Gentiles who, during the Second World, saved Jews from Nazi deportation and death.

Marie-Elise Roger, who sheltered Jewish children in France, declared: “I did nothing unusual…I only took in a little guy who had lost his parents…I loved him and gave him food to eat. If I had not done this, that would not have been normal.”

And on the occasion of being honoured in Israel in 1983 for hiding Jews in Holland, a woman called Tine zur Kleinsmiede said: “’Anyone would have done the same thing, in my place. Any decent person, that is.”

Again and again, those who risked their lives to protect others spoke, when asked to do so, of the normality of their actions. They were afraid, yes, but morally the choice was obvious to them.

I find Camus’s argument about decency poignant and compelling. But I think that there is a key distinction that we can add to his account which helps us make sense of the public attribution of heroism to Joanna Tse, and to those few who, at great risk to themselves, their families, friends and comrades, help strangers in frightening times.  This is the distinction between the heroism of glory and the heroism of decency.

The heroism of glory refers to dangerous actions performed by individuals for some ideal. Their action is typically loud and volcanic, spectacular, dramatic, self-conscious, performed to make a righteous point, to secure a vital objective, and to be remembered. Frequently, it is accompanied by a tinge of satisfaction, pride or pleasure in the accomplishment. Heroes of glory are typically seen by themselves, and by others, as leaders or crusaders, in the vanguard of some great movement. The heroism of glory is stimulated by war because military conflict is its prime, though not exclusive, medium of actualization.

The heroism of decency is something quite different. To begin with, it is quiet and un-intrusive. The decently heroic act to uphold a standard, rather than to be leaders or servants of destiny. Heroic decency is not about the aggressive pursuit of a cause. Nor is it about being publicly celebrated. It is about being true to a civilized way of life that is under threat.

And while the heroism of glory may prompt its bearer to leave the community, to break with it or leave it behind so that the great deed can be enacted, the heroism of decency is typically rooted in the community itself. Its heroism shuns the extraordinary performance – leading an uprising, falling on an explosive device to save one’s comrades, martyrdom for the Lord – but persists in the dogged determination to continue normal acts of helpfulness in contexts that have made them perilous.

What made Joanna Tse and other rescuers heroically decent, rather than simply decent, was that they were willing to behave in a normal way in dangerous times. They risked their lives and were willing to suffer. But they did not act in this way for glory or recognition.

Dr Tse took the ordinary virtues she had learned in a time of peace and applied them to a moment of social distress, an episode in Hong Kong’s history that appeared, to many participants, like a kind of war. Knowing the hazards of contact with SARS patients, she nonetheless volunteered to work with them. To answer the call of duty is to respond to a professional or vocational imperative.

To go beyond the call of duty is, in many instances, to show love and decency. To go beyond the call of duty in an act that evidently endangers one’s life is an act of heroism. Heroic decency is what Dr Tse displayed. And that is why Hong Kong, as long as it remains a decent place, will always honour her.

Peter Baehr

Peter Baehr is Research Professor in Social Theory at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.