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.