Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hong Kong's Acid Scare

Crowds in Mong Kong
An unknown assailant baffles police, frightens tourists and shoppers

Hong Kong's police have been stymied for the seventh time in a year by unknown assailants who throws bottles of acid off buildings into crowded pedestrian areas in what has always been presumed to be one of the safest cities in the world. The latest attack, almost exactly a year from the first, occurred Saturday night when bottles were thrown off a roof in the Causeway Bay shopping area that injured six people, two seriously.

The attacks have emptied out popular shopping areas as tourists and shoppers have shunned them out of fear. Police believe the latest attack is linked to three others in the crowded Mong Kok shopping and entertainment area in Kowloon. The first took place on Dec. 12, 2008, when 46 Mong Kong Christmas shoppers suffered acid burns.

The attacks have prompted increased police surveillance, anxiety among locals and visitors, and the suspicion that at least one copycat might be involved. Calls have been made for "eye-in-the-sky" cameras to be installed in busy areas, but it would seem technologically impossible to cover all the possible areas where an attack could occur.

The attacks have injured more than 100 people, according to police records. Police have installed HK$1.7 million worth of cameras in the Mong Kok area, stepped up patrols and offered rewards, but the attacker has so far avoided detection and has given no reason for the attacks.

The attacks have confounded law enforcement. Hong Kong, according to a report to the 9th International Anti-corruption Conference by Ian McWalters, a senior director of public prosecutions, remains one of the safest in the world in terms of street crime, with a crime rate at roughly the same level as Singapore and lower than New York, London or Tokyo. The very randomness of the attacks argues against intimidation by the city's infamous triads of shopkeepers or extortion and protection racketeering against bars or billiard halls.

Nor is acid throwing common to either Hong Kong or mainland China. Only one incident, called China's first, was reported in Shanghai in 1986. It is common in South Asia as a form of revenge for sexual or marital refusals in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh and Afghanistan, blinding or maiming to women.

To some extent, the attacks call up the mysterious random poisoning of dogs along the five kilometers of Bowen Road above Central. So far, an unknown person has killed 22 dogs since 1989 and has never been identified or apprehended. The person leaves poisoned food along the path, one of the most popular hiking areas in the city and a magnet for people to walk their dogs to get away from crowded flats.

Prior to Saturday's attack, the latest was on Nov. 1 in the Sai Wan Ho neighborhood when someone tossed a bottle of acid at a noodle salesman, burning his leg. In late October, according to police records, beer bottles full of acid were tossed onto the street in the Sham Shui Po neighborhood. No one was injured in those incidents. Police presence has been increased after the most recent incidents, and neighborhood leaders in Sham Shui Po have called for surveillance cameras there, too. Police told the local press they think the most recent attacks aren't related to the ones in Mong Kok.

There, around 30 officers regularly now patrol the area, according to a police officer in the area. They watch Sai Yeung Choi Street closely since three attacks have occurred there.

"Of course we are still concerned, and when we get this guy, we can focus more on other crime again," a policeman said. He asked remain anonymous because of his job.

Many shoppers in Mong Kok remain wary because of the attacks. Alex Cheung, a 35-year-old guitar teacher who lives in Mong Kok, says he pays close attention to the tall buildings around him.

"When you walk through these places, it goes through your mind: This is the place, and then I quickly hurry away," he says.

Twenty-five-year-old Danish tourist Eva Moeller recently vacationed in Hong Kong with her friends. They avoided Mong Kok completely. "I didn't want to explore the area because I didn't feel safe," she says.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board says no one has called about the acid attacks, but that the incidents could be hurting business in Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po.

"The acid attacks may affect tourism and also the visits of locals to the area because in this case it is about fear," a board spokesperson says.

Benny Lam, a clinical psychologist in Hong Kong, says he suspects that at least one copycat is involved in the most recent attacks.

"This is a behavior that people might want to copy," Lam says. "It is usually not people with mental problems, but people who have a problem with the government. And if it happens again, it will create unnecessary fear among people."

Lam says the recent attacks differ from those in Mong Kok and probably involve a different attacker.

"He is not like the person in Mong Kok, who might want to see people suffer," Lam says. Lam points out that no one was injured in the Sham Shui Po attacks, perhaps by design.

For many tourists, the attractions of Mong Kong are too strong to resist. Polly Wallace, a 44-year-old Australian, visited the Lady's Market there with a friend while on vacation. Wallace and her friend, Lies Greet, also 44, carry three shopping bags and plan to keep shopping, attacks or no attacks.

"Stuff happens, this doesn't affect me," Wallace says.

"If you like shopping, this is still the place to be," Greet says.


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