Over the past few weeks, disparate tragedies in Hong Kong have snuffed out a dozen lives. Seven alone died in a tenement fire. Three of the deceased were children — one died in the fire and two in a suspected murder-suicide that also claimed the life of the children’s mother.
A 4-year-old child was thought to have spent 30 hours by the side of his young mother who was reportedly stabbed to death by her husband, the child’s stepfather, who was later found dead. It is suspected that he died by suicide. When police rang the doorbell, according to media reports, it was the little boy who opened the inner door to his mother’s flat.
It is impossible to even begin to gauge the depth of the bereft little boy’s trauma and that of the fire survivors. And we can’t even begin to imagine the grief of a father who has lost his entire family in one fell swoop.
And yet, in media commentary and casual conversations, there is an implied disapproval of the manners of death. The fire victims cannot possibly be blamed for the cause of their deaths. As cannot the young mother who is suspected to have killed her children, aged 6 and 10, before killing herself — reason unknown.
People often don’t know why they do things that they do and sometimes they do things out of willful ignorance. But death is perhaps the greatest leveler, and in every culture, it is disrespectful to think or speak badly of the dead.
What is equally sad is the inevitable relegation of such tragedies to the inside pages of newspapers after a day or two and their clinical scrubbing from social media feeds. It’s a feel-good world and we move on quickly enough not to dwell on tragedies that are not entirely personal. This inability to empathize perhaps says a lot about urban living, where strangers may have often lived as neighbors for decades. Our failure is not in failing to engage but in failing to be willing to.
In Hong Kong’s acutely status-conscious society, a lack of upward mobility is often seen as a statement of dereliction. A child ranked last in class is made to feel as miserable as the mother who is struggling to raise a differently abled child. Imperfection is seen as a personal failing and with so many success stories linked solely to wealth, we often forget the everyday heroes — for example, the street cleaners who worked tirelessly to make Hong Kong presentable within hours of violent protests.
On social media, users often brag unthinkingly of accomplishments and think nothing of documenting acts of kindness for expressing praise even in these hard times when piety should come naturally and without the expectation of express acknowledgment. The American Nobel laureate John Steinbeck comes to mind; “For giving can bring the same sense of superiority as getting does, and philanthropy may be another kind of spiritual avarice.”
A sense of unabashed superiority comes hand-in-hand with acute self-consciousness. In moderation, it engenders drive and a fire in the belly. In extremes, it pushes out perspective, fuels intolerance, hardens convictions not supported by common sense, inhibits compassion, and naturally, clouds judgment.
Recently, on a bus ride home after work, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a taped exhortation to give up seats to those who needed them because giving up for others brought happiness. I was also a little ashamed that we needed a reminder.
Values such as piety, patriotism and plurality are taught at home and can be internalized if taught well. If we need institutional reminders to do what we should be doing naturally, it is a telling commentary on our value system and our moral compass.
No wonder then, that we are so easily able to push into the back of our minds the trauma of a 4-year-old who spent 30 hours in a closed flat with his murdered mother, waiting and waiting for someone to help.
Really, what does it tell us about us?
The author is a Hong Kong-based journalist. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS