Hong Kong has banned face masks – but why do people in the region wear them?

Marie Claire Dorking
Asian woman with protective face mask waiting for subway MTR train in platform
Hong Kong has made a controversial ban on face masks. [Photo: Getty]

Hong Kong has banned face masks after months of violent protests.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the ban on Friday. It came into effect the following day.

The protest movement originally began in opposition to an extradition bill now withdrawn from the legislature but has now widened into a pro-democracy campaign.

Many of the protesters throughout the campaign have been wearing face masks.

Explaining how the ban will work, Secretary for Security John Lee said it would apply for approved rallies and marches, as well as in unlawful assemblies and riots.

However, the authorities will allow for exemptions for people wearing masks for health reasons, or if required by their profession.

The ban covers all kinds of facial covering, including facepaint.

While for protesters face masks may provide a way of hiding identity from family, employers and the authorities, they are also popular throughout the region for a variety of different reasons. Here are some.

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Face masks have been banned in Hong Kong following protests [Photo: Getty]
Face masks have been banned in Hong Kong following protests [Photo: Getty]


Though it isn’t known exactly when wearing face masks started becoming normal practice in Hong Kong and other East Asian regions, it is believed popularity originally started spiking around 2003, during a Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak. People started donning their masks to help prevent infection from respiratory droplets.

That was quickly followed by the bird flu epidemic in 2006.

“Face masks can help protect against viral and airborne diseases,” says Dr Diana Gall at www.doctor-4-u.co.uk

”In Hong Kong they have experienced outbreaks of Sars, which displays similar symptoms to the cold and flu, and in some cases there are a number of fatalities in an outbreak, as Hong Kong experienced.

“This disease spreads in a similar way to the common cold and is very much an airborne virus. Protecting the mouth and nose from breathing in these fatal viruses and pollution is one important reason why mask-wearing is so prevalent in Hong Kong."

After a while, it seems people got used to wearing the masks and it became the norm, with some schools even making mask-wearing compulsory if a child was showing symptoms of illness.

There’s another health explanation associated with the wearing of the masks too. One of the fundamental concepts of traditional Chinese medicine sees breath and breathing as a central element in good health. “‘Qi’ is a central concept in Chinese cosmology – and thereby physiology – generally having to do with energy and vapour,” Michelle M Ching, a board-certified practitioner of acupuncture and herbal medicine, told QZ.com.

“Qi has numerous meanings in Chinese including ‘air’ [kong qi], ‘atmosphere’ [qi fen], ‘odour’ [qi wei], which is perhaps another reason masks are so necessary, ‘strength’ [li qi] and ‘pathogen’ [xie qi]. When bodily qi is depleted, or its movement deranged, pain and disease develop. So breathing is critical in order to maintain good qi in the body.”

Earlier this year, Naomi Campbell posted her pre-flight routine on YouTube and confessed her fear of people coughing and sneezing on aeroplanes.

As well as disinfecting her seat with protective wipes, the supermodel also puts on a medical mask to cover her nose and mouth to protect her from breathing in germs.

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With cities around the world seeing a spike in air pollution, face masks are being seen to be of an increasing necessity when stepping outside, particularly in a smoggy city.

"The main reason for wearing a mask in populated busy cities such as Hong Kong is to protect against pollution,” says Dr Gall.

“Pollution can cause long-term damage to the respiratory system, leading to cardiovascular disease and respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and cancer.

“Living in a busy city and being exposed to high levels of pollution every day increases the risk of developing these diseases. Not only this, the short-term effects of pollution exposure can cause annoying symptoms which can disrupt your daily life. Irritated eyes, headache and nausea are among the symptoms associated with pollution exposure. Wearing a mask can help reduce this exposure and the risk of associated respiratory problems.”

Wendover Brown of mask-making company Vogmask says air pollution has had a huge influence on the popularity of mask-wearing.

“In almost eight years, the benefit of mask use is becoming widely known for protecting respiratory health from an array of contaminants,” she told Scmp.com.

“For our business, growth in the use of our product has also resulted from social influencers in communities of chronic illness, migraine, pulmonary wellness, allergy, asthma and other sensitive lungs groups, as well as the recommendation of leading health providers.”

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Face masks are considered to be a fashion statement by some [Photo: Getty]
Face masks are considered to be a fashion statement by some [Photo: Getty]


While initial reasons for mask-wearing may have been more health-lead, face masks have been increasingly been making an impact in the fashion industry. Back in 2014, QIAODAN Yin Peng Sports Wear Collection debuted its respiratory masks at China Fashion Week to global headlines.

Chinese designer Masha Ma later made the masks a real fashion statement by embedding them with Swarovski crystals at Paris Fashion Week.

Singer Ariana Grande also made a sartorial impact after donning a teardrop logo-embellished face mask in New York earlier this year and sharing a snap to Instagram. She later started selling Thank U, Next face masks.

Face masks have been making an appearance on the catwalk [Photo: Getty]
Face masks have been making an appearance on the catwalk [Photo: Getty]

Social media has perhaps had the biggest influence on the transition of face mask from health prop to fashion statement. The hashtag #pollutionmask is often used by fashion influencers promoting face masks for various mask-producing manufacturers.

“Celebrities, performers, opera singers and frequent travellers have been seen in masks to protect wellness [and voice], and this certainly makes masking normalised,” Brown told Scmp.com.

Social reasons

According to QZ.com, studies have found that in Japan many healthy teens now wear masks to signal a lack of desire to communicate. Experts believe this could be particularly relevant for young women seeking to avoid harassment, and who also enjoy a certain level of anonymity the mask provides.