A Death in Hong Kong

The Troubling Fate of Vicenta Flores

Vicenta Flores, RIPA death is always a tragedy. Often it hits family and friends bitterly hard, and sometimes even whole societies. Then there are deaths that people want to avoid, that societies don’t really want to know about. Vicenta Flores died in Hong Kong just over a week ago, and according to the coroner’s office the case is closed. Or it might be, we’re not sure. The police have finalised investigations, or they haven’t – that’s uncertain too. The only thing definite is that we’re all supposed to forget about it.

But that’s not going to happen.

Big cities continually offer up their dead, from age, from illness, from misadventure. That’s the cycle of urban life, the wheel on which so many of us spin. In a sense death has become anonymous, but not in this case. Why? Because Vicenta Flores, Vicky to her friends, had lived for 12 years in Discovery Bay on Hong Kong’s Lantau island – a small community of 16,000 people hemmed in by the sea on one side and a mountain range on the other. It’s where I live. People know each other here, and many people knew Vicky.

Here’s a short video that my wife shot of a candle-lit vigil and walk held for Vicky last night. This is not a community that doesn’t mourn its own. But curiously enough, the South China Morning Post claimed in its print edition this morning that only 50 or 60 people attended. Count them as they walk past – I’m sure you’ll see more.

So the shock of finding that Vicky Flores had died last week really has been palpable. And this isn’t an easily troubled community – it might appear laid back, and it is operated by a resort developer, but it’s home to corporate lawyers, bankers, flight crew and a full gamut of other harried professionals. Not the sort of people who jump at shadows.

What has been causing concern is that Vicky was found washed up in Tung Chung, on the opposite side of this very large island, wearing only her pajamas. The South China Morning Post – the only local media outlet bothering to carry the story – claimed that a subsequent “postmortem examination found no cause of suspicion”. The case, it said, was closed. The implication, of course, was that the woman had committed suicide.

But Discovery Bay residents aren’t buying that.

Given the sheer distance and flow of the tides, it is highly unlikely that Vicky threw herself into the water here and floated to Tung Chung. That leaves only one option – she travelled there overland. But Discovery Bay is a gated community: the road to Tung Chung runs through a toll tunnel that accepts only service vehicles and local buses. A 20 minute bus trip then a walk through a built-up urban area to commit suicide by drowning hardly seems a credible scenario.

And the police reaction has been little short of appalling. It turns out they haven’t closed the case – they started interviewing neighbours yesterday, almost 10 days after Vicky disappeared. And they only did so then because the woman’s relatives, friends and neighbours convinced them that they should. Participants in the Discovery Bay Forum have been venting about this for days, and what they’re saying doesn’t lie easily with the initial position the police took – Vicky fled home, pursued by her employer.

You might have guessed from her photo and her name that Vicky was a Filipino. She was a live-in domestic helper, one of the extremely hard-working women who keep this community going. And one of those people with a different colour skin, lower social standing and minimal legal status enforced by labour contracts.

The sort of people who are easy to ignore.

My Big Question, by KarmenRose, with Creative Commons licenceVicky’s relatives have asked for a second autopsy to be carried out. That only seems just, even though they have to pay for it themselves. Discovery Bay residents have offered to foot the bill, and it’s the least we can do. But this situation has only arisen because the Hong Kong authorities just don’t care enough about foreigners. Ours is a cosmopolitan city, they declare, but look the other way if you don’t have money. So who pays the price of indifference?

Vicky Flores, for one. May she rest in peace.

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4 Responses to A Death in Hong Kong

  1. Lulu Zuniga-Carmine says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you very much for writing this. It helped clarified at least the sequence of events as well as capturing how I (and others in DB both employers and helpers alike) feel about Vicky’s death. It is scary to think that if this one gets ignored and if someone gets away with this our community may mourn another Vicky in the future. Most people said it doesn’t happen in DB but it did. So what or who will stop it from happening again? Maybe a united community who does not look the other way and tolerate indifference and possible injustice. May she rest in peace and may she be the last!

  2. kim sbarcea says:

    Shocking Mike and good on you for bringing this to everyone’s attention. Just a few weeks ago, I was in HK for a conference and took a day out for photos. I came across (as I had done previously) Filipino women on a Sunday congregating in the most oddest spots (well odd for an Australian) – in railway stations, under bridges. They erected cardboard boxes to sit in, they were doing their nails, talking, reading their Bibles. I found out they are called amahs (hope that’s right) and this is their only day to come together as a (clearly) ostracised community and gain a sense of bonding and safety I guess. I was told that sometimes these poor women sleep in bathtubs at the house in which they are an amah (I’m hoping I was given incorrect information here!). I trust that Vicky’s story will come more fully to light so the sorry tale of Filipino women just trying to make a living in a foreign land will become more known to Westerners.

  3. Mike Poole says:

    Yes, I certainly hope so Kim. That’s why we’re acting now (see my latest post). Much of the problem lies in treating people like commodities to be trafficked, whether they’re Filipino, Indonesian, Nepalese or anyone else in Hong Kong. It’s usually a difficult situation to discuss, because most people tend not to want to face it. A local professor of sociology here that I talk to every now and then has described the situation as one of ‘slavery’.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hello! I was reading your article and I am not surprise with that story. I went to hongkong with my family last week and to tell you the truth ‘t was my first time to go there. I was taken aback simply because Hongkong is suppose to be a tourist spot, ironically most people in the place really sucks- as in they sure are NASTY! It’s just too bad, that our country couldn’t do anything to protect Filipino Domestic workers considering the money that they are bringing here in the Philippines. I just hope that Vicky’s death would be an eye opener to our government. May she rest in peace and God bless her family….

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