The Lamma Ferry disaster

Outside of Bangladesh, the Philippines or Indonesia, the deaths of at least 38 people in a ferry accident is a major deal, so it is hardly surprising that Hong Kong is in something of a state of shock following Monday night’s tragedy off Lamma Island. The disaster will be remembered for years to come, not only because of the scale of the loss, and not only for any repercussions from the official investigations still to come, but because of the atmosphere and background – and zeitgeist – all around it.

October 1 was the day following, and the official public holiday for, the lunar Mid-Autumn Festival, traditionally a time for joyous family gatherings. The families on the Lamma IV were sailing to the harbour to watch the fireworks celebrating an annual event always marked on October 1 – the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, marked by another public holiday pushed forward this year to the following day. This confluence of old cultural and modern Communist observances is not exactly auspicious.

Hong Kong’s greatest maritime tragedy for four decades had to happen in 2012, a year (so far) of exceptional strangeness. The year when Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, CY Leung, unexpectedly came to power owing to an unknown combination of local popular protest and Beijing-influenced surreptitious sabotage, manipulation and internal wrangling. The year when the downfall of Bo Xilai and his wife and cronies exposed the rottenness of China’s government system and sparked infighting in the midst of a national transition of power, leading (probably) to the rash intensification of China’s obnoxiousness to its neighbours over territorial claims. And the year the Big Lychee’s great phobia finally poured out in the backlash against National Education, the influx of Mainland visitors and the whole trend of Mainlandization.

Just to make things more jarring, the ferry disaster attracts unprecedented involvement by Beijing. To quote the South China Morning Post:

…state broadcaster China Central Television ran in its main newscast last night[:] “Comrades [President] Hu Jintao , [Premier] Wen Jiabao and [Vice-President] Xi Jinping … issue important instructions, ordering the Hong Kong government to spare no effort in searching for missing persons, treating the injured and comforting their relatives.”

The CCTV report was preceded by the unusual appearance of a Beijing liaison office official with Leung on his first hospital visit hours after the National Day tragedy on Monday night.

Li Gang, deputy head of the liaison office, spoke for two minutes at Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam, detailing how he felt and what Guangdong authorities would do to help.

Li – who has no role in the city’s administration – went a step further, becoming the first public figure to confirm deaths. “We are deeply sorry about the deceased citizens,” he said.

Guangdong, meanwhile, sent four big salvage ships that were eventually not used because, sources said, the waters at the scene were too shallow.

Maybe it was because the death toll was so large, or because it was National Day. But it was almost as if a contingency plan were in place – perhaps drawn up after the 2010 shootings of Hong Kong tourists in Manila – for multiple displays of Mainland activity and concern the next time Hong Kong underwent a tragedy. Such an attempt to curry favour and gratitude and to underline the Beijing leadership’s deep interest would seem this contrived, inappropriate and even a bit creepy, wouldn’t it?

And then, of course, Li Ka-shing enters the scene. The Hong Kong Electric staff pleasure launch ultimately belonged to Asia’s richest man, so into the hospital he goes to meet survivors and offer them generous sums of money, upon which Hong Kong’s ever-pragmatic press lavishes extensive attention. The fatal collision attracts other quintessentially Hong Kong characters onto the stage. Commentators and passers-by expressing shock and outrage that emergency vessels didn’t attend within seconds and that, with no manifest, the police couldn’t instantly name every passenger on the boat. Last and beyond any doubt least, Lamma island residents arriving back home on the damaged ferry, safe and unharmed, complaining that they had to give the lifejackets back.

It’s not as if Saturday and Sunday had been great, with tourist masses finding new spots to inundate, two kids drowning off Shek O, and a vague feeling that there were more suicides going on than usual. Maybe next year, four-day weekends can be fun again.

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19 Responses to The Lamma Ferry disaster

  1. Lola Bugatti says:


    1. Ignore all warnings, portents, obvious failings. Build more shops, squeeze in more passengers, tenants, vehicles, customers and hope for the best.

    2. Remember that Hong Kong Government functions in two modes: laissez faire and crackdown.

    3. Express horror and surprise when the obvious happens.

    4. Arrest a few scapegoats and have a crackdown.

    5. Offer large sums of money to keep people quiet.

    6. Set up a public enquiry, presided over by a judge yearning for promotion or a proven Government yes man and/or dolt.

    7. Hope it doesn’t happen again but of course it will – the MTR stations at Mong Kok and Kowloon Tong have shops instead of wide corridors for people to escape in emergencies, for example, and are a disaster waiting to happen.

    8. Er…

    9. That’s it!

  2. Ping Che says:

    Will the government now issue a Black Travel Warning for Lamma Island?

  3. Joe Blow says:

    Reminds me of the Great Lan Kwai Fong Tragedy on New Year’s Eve, 20 years ago.

    Large, festive crowds, out to have fun on a special holiday, a mishap caused by, umm, large festive crowds colliding, resulting in dozens of dead bodies.

  4. Maugrim says:

    Its a tragedy and I feel for the families involved. However, you do get a feeling that its a situation straight out of Bonfire of the Vanities and that a number of hangers on are going to use this as an opportunity to grandstand lest they be seen as being ‘inactive’. For example, 7 crew members have been arrested. Surely they can’t all be to blame. Worse, plod said that more arrests are likely to follow. Who? The ticket seller at Yung Shue Wan? What’s the bet it won’t go as far as Li san though.

  5. Stephen says:

    My Condolences to all those who lost loved ones.

    My comment relates to the involvement of The President and Premier issuing “orders” and Li Gang being present with the Chief Executive at the hospital and confirming fatalities. In addition Vessels from the mainland were dispatched on the orders of someone to assist in the salvage. As this tragedy is not about Foreign Affairs or Defense what has this got to do with the PRC Central Government? Send your condolences by all means but that’s it – unless, of course, the HKSARG asks for specific help.

    Are our top public officials and top Chinese leaders so insensitive to how this now Iooks? It now would appear that the whole two systems bit is over. The President to admit that they thought they would give it a go for 50 years but after 15 years they realized it wasn’t working for the CCP and not really what they envisaged?

    Isn’t it about time it was made official? Maybe it’s for the best so we don’t have to go through the gut churning charade of Universal Suffrage with Chinese Characteristics for the CE in 2017?

  6. Walter De Havilland says:

    Looking around Hong Kong the potential for disasters is ever present. We have petrol stations built into high rise buildings, gas storage depots abutting housing complexes and aircraft departing the airport flying directly over the urban area. The potential for a crowd panic and crush on the MTR is very real: just visit North Point MTR Station at 9 am on a working day and watch the crowds switching lines. It is truly frightening.

    The stuff that goes on at the Hong Kong 7s is also a real concern. You have drunk people, in an excited state squeezed onto a sloping stand. It’s an accident waiting to happen. People blindly go about their business each day ignoring the risks and then are surprised when reality intervenes. Have a nice day.

  7. Old Timer says:

    “…ordering the Hong Kong government to spare no effort in searching for missing persons, treating the injured and comforting their relatives.”*

    *Until they start asking questions, at which point they should be locked up, right?

  8. Real Fuck Sayer says:

    I echo Stephen : my real condolences to all those families

    This is not a trivial matter , and so SO stupid that it happened in HK’s ” super – safe ” waterways

    Memories of Lan Kwai Fong…. ( 1993? )

    ( Although one could argue that 3,000 unnecessary * deaths per year due to avoidable air pollution is a much greater sin )

    * Hemmers: You need better spell-check software !

    But what irks me most of all is that THIS KIND OF SHIT HAPPENS / HAPPENED

    Here we are … one of the most advanced mini-societies in Greater China and STILL this kind of SHIT happens

    Can’t blame it on CY . can only blame it on the “tycoon-permissive” eons-long permissive legislation that allowed this kind of thing

    Next faux pas ? A whole multi-story building collapses during a super- typhoon or mini- earthquake ?

    K.S. Li ( “bless” his soul ) extends “remorse ”

    FUCK you sir ( spelt CUR) KS


  9. PropertyDeveloper says:

    To “help” someone in Chinese has a special meaning: to assess the relative hierarchical position of the two interlocutors, and where necessary take charge.

    The mainland tourism help to HK has in this way proved to be a trojan horse; and so did CY’s visit to the hospital with his boss and the ships designed to show how puny HK marine vessels are.

  10. The Plod says:

    Can’t folk for once just respect the fact that this was a disaster, cause(s) yet to be fully ascertained, and not see it as part of some sort of Communist conspiracy takeover?

    How many posters above so far have spared a thought for the families rather than posting to make their personal point?

  11. darovia says:

    Condolences to all families involved.
    Flash news from the ‘jump on the bandwagon’ department (actually, taken from RTHK website)
    “District councillors have called on the government to tighten regulations to improve navigation safety in local waters in the wake of the Lama ferry disaster. The Islands District Council held a special meeting to discuss the tragedy, after observing a minute’s silence in memory of the victims.
    One councillor, Holden Chow, urged the government to deal quickly with the aftermath of the disaster so that survivors and relatives of the victims could pursue legal claims against whoever was found to be responsible.”

    Gosh those district councillors really know their stuff – case solved already. Here was I thinking it was YOUR fault when all the time it was the regulations that were to blame. Clearly, we should scrap the one that allows ships to bump into each other. Note the last line; they might not know much about accident investigation but they know what people want to hear.

  12. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Hush hush Plod, folks are jumping on the resurfaced wreck of the sunken ferry to make pet points against other, more well known folks who jumped on the same wreck today to make their own pet points.

    It’s not surprising there is little room left for any of them to feel some sympathy.

  13. mumphLT says:

    ‘Comrades [President] Hu Jintao , [Premier] Wen Jiabao and [Vice-President] Xi Jinping … issue important instructions, ordering the Hong Kong government to spare no effort in searching for missing persons, treating the injured and comforting their relatives.”

    ‘issue important instructions’ – that really grates my nerves.

    Why? Because otherwise nothing would have been done?

    I feel sympathy for those who have lost family & friends in this tragedy.
    – As we were walking to the Harbour to watch the fireworks the other night, seeing so many vessels in the harbour we were talking about how safe, or not it was; evidently it wasn’t.

  14. Cerebos says:

    Ref: The two teenage drownings, Shek O beach has for the past two years had the highest number of fatal drownings and rescues of any beach on the planet period. More than Pipeline, more than Bondi and Manly.. And the LCSD only records a rescue or a fatality if the lifeguards are on duty. Last year total fatal drownings in Shek O = 9. This year 5 and counting. Over the long weekend we lost count of the number of people hauled unconscious from the water.

    The ferry disaster is an absolute tragedy and it will get a deserved amount of attention – hopefully constructive, sensitive and compassionate. But it would be great if something could be done to make people aware of how close they are to winning a Darwin Award if they choose to go for a drunken dip in 8ft surf with negligible swimming skills and a lilo for company.

  15. Chimp says:

    What a bloody horrible weekend. To the parents of the dead kids at Shek O, and the families who lost their darlings on Monday… my condolences.

  16. Kyon says:

    Horrible disaster…
    If they cancel the firework next year on national day then there won’t be any “64” firework launched into the sky.

  17. The Plod says:

    Re. Shek O beach drownings – if you go to any LCSD managed beach in HK at 6am any day of the week, you’ll find the waters full of elderly swimmers with not a lifeguard in sight.

    I really respect the plucky energy of old folk here but when will LCSD get their heads out of the sand and actually deploy their LIFESAVING resources at the times when the risk is genuine?

  18. Old fart says:

    My condolences to all those that have lost a loved one.

    I would ask you to consider these questions:

    1) why do fast cat ferries have an exemption from the speed limits set in our waters that are applied to other vessels?
    2) why is it that a ferry boat has benches in a cabin that are not fixed to the floor?
    3) who owns the companies that the two ferries belong to?
    4) who is now fawning to the higher echelon’s in power now that there has been a disastrous collision?

    You should have got the point by now…

    Only 15 years since the handover, and we have slipped so far, as to now be able to stand tall and tell our friends in the Philippines, that we too have a such a level of incompetence that we can have our own tragic ferry sinkings !

  19. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Cerobos


    @ Old Fart


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