Two Tales of the City

In the past, I have frequently commented on how the English-language coverage of news in Hong Kong often varies significantly from the Chinese-language coverage.  Today, just to be fair and balanced, I will present a case study in which there is a major discrepancy between two Chinese-language news stories on the same event.

First up, we have the illustrious Ming Pao (March 20, 2005):

During the past year, there were four unsolved robberies that followed the same pattern.  Three of them occurred in February, May and November at the Tai Tam and Pok Fu Lam Parks on Hong Kong island, and the fourth occurred in July at Lion Rock Park.

In each case, the robbers who speak with mainland Chinese accents approached individual or couple trail hikers and used knives to threaten them.  The victims were robbed of their possessions and tied onto trees.  Some of the robbers would take their ATM or credit cards, got the victims to yield their access codes, and then go down to the city to withdraw cash.  Meanwhile, a robber was left to guard the victims and he would not leave until his companions came back to announce success.

It was not easy for the police to patrol all the hundreds of miles of park trails.  The best that they can do is to increase their patrol frequency and hope to encounter the robbers again.  Meanwhile, the citizens were avoiding the trails because of the perceived dangers.

Yesterday around 5 pm, a team of undercover police officers was going through Pok Fu Lam Park and observed three individuals sitting on a stone bench at Sir Cecil's Ride Trail.  The three were dressed in western business suits, and therefore looked out of place on the trail, and they seemed to be scrutinizing the trail hikers carefully. 

The police officers decided to watch the three from afar.  Before long, the three might have detected that they were under observation, and proceeded to head downhill.  The police officers then radioed a separate team to approach from downhill.  When the three saw that they were surrounded, they tried to jump into a 2 meter deep ditch and run away.  All three were eventually apprehended, and taken down to the police station for questioning.  One of them had a foldable knife on him.

So far, it has been established that the three are Chinese citizens from Yunnan province with 30-day temporary visas.  They had arrived yesterday morning and they claimed to be taking an afternoon walk.  The police believe that their appearances matched those of the suspects in at least three of the robberies.  A police line-up is being arranged for the robbery victims to identify them.

So this is a story about how increased police patrol yielded a potential breakthrough.  Lady Patience and Lady Luck had everything to do with this.

Next, we go to the same story as covered in Oriental Daily and The Sun.  These two are sister newspapers and share the same resources.  And what a difference!

On November 15, 2005, a male and a female were hiking in Tai Tam Park on Hong Kong island and were accosted by three robbers.  The two were robbed of their credit and debit cards as well as their Octopus cards and then tied to a tree for nine hours before being found and released.  The robbers made sure to remove their cigarette butts and water bottles so as to leave no physical evidence behind.

That case was assigned to the Major Crime Squad in the Hong Kong district, and they immediately tracked down the usage of the credit and debit cards.  Money had been withdrawn from a machine on Hong Kong Island and then later from another machine in Shatin.  The police immediately obtained the relevant closed circuit television films of the users from the machine operators.

Since the movement had gone from Hong Kong island to Shatin, the detectives believed that the gang was heading towards mainland China.  So they tracked the use of the Octopus cards of the victims.  Octopus cards are anonymous, since people could pay for them with cash.  So how would the detectives track down those two specific cards?

Each Octopus card does have a unique number, and its usage can be tracked through that number.  No citizen is likely to know the unique number on his/her Octopus card.  So the detectives asked the victims what they had done with their Octopus cards most recently before they were robbed (e.g. entering subway station X at around 830am and exiting station Y at around 900am on the day before; bought a can of soda at a 7/11 convenience store in Central Hong Kong around 11am;  etc).  With sufficient data points, it is possible to track down the ID of that particular Octopus card.  For example, there may be 200 cards that made the trip from station X to station Y around that time; of these only 1 made the soda purchase at that time at that location; and the entire history of that one card can be printed out and confirmed with the victim (For example, Did you take the Airport Express from the HK International Airport to the Hong Kong central district on November 8, 2004 at 335pm?).  Afterwards, the detectives can see how that card was being used after the robbery occurred.

Lo and behold, the Octopus cards were used by someone to travel by train from Shatin station to Lo Wu station on the Chinese-Hong Kong border.  The detectives now knew the approximate time when the robbers arrived at the Lo Wu immigration control station.  By examining the closed circuit television films taken at immigration control, comparing against both the automatic teller machine films as well as the victims' description of the robbers, the detectives now knew the identities of the three suspects as well as their immigration records (including prior travel dates).  Based upon their prior immigration records, it was also noted that their pattern was to enter on Saturday and depart on Monday once every two to three months on temporary visas, and the previous trail robberies all happened over those weekends.

Yesterday morning, the three individuals entered Hong Kong again.  But a team of detectives had been waiting patiently at the border for nearly four months.  The immigration officers admitted the three but alerted those officers immediately and they began to tail the three suspects from the moment that they crossed the border.  At 8 am yesterday morning, the three of them were observed to be heading up the hills near Pok Fu Lam Park and checking out the surroundings.  The detectives immediately notified the special park patrol team to get ready.  At 520pm, when the three finally came down the hill, they were confronted by the patrol team and apprehended after a brief unsuccessful attempt to escape.

Lady Luck had nothing to do with this!  It was a meticulous, professional and hi-tech job by the Major Crime Squad, and they worked closely with Lady Patience.

Which is the true story?  Well, I am just a blogger/translator and I can't tell you.  I have a sentimental favorite which should make a better movie.  But I will only say that Hong Kong is a very interesting city ... We are blessed with free, vibrant and competitive media, but you mustn't believe everything that you read!