On a clear day, a ferry ride from one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands into the business district of Central is a wonderful way to get to work. At times, when the sunlight strikes the blue water of the horizon, it is astonishingly beautiful. Grassy islets fly by the window, white spray washes over the gently plunging bow, and the journey passes in an agreeable meditation of morning papers, takeaway latte and chatting to one’s neighbors. Then the Western Approaches are breached, the glory of Victoria Harbour hoves into view and even the most seasoned commuter falls momentarily silent, gazing in mute appreciation at the seaborne traffic and that unforgettable skyline. I should know. I’ve been making the 25-minute journey from my home on Park Island to the city center many times a week since 2006.
From the commuter catamarans to the brilliant pleasure craft, from the chugging sampans to the ferryboats — like the famous Star Ferry — that ply the inner harbor, maritime traffic in a port like Hong Kong is generally safe, pleasant and ubiquitous. This isn’t the Java Sea, where unseaworthy hulks routinely capsize and dozens perish. It’s not Bangladesh, where overcrowded packet boats heave up and down the riverine plains and cavalier crews play fast and loose with passenger safety at the cost of many lives each year. This is Asia’s World City, where a vast establishment of incorruptible bureaucrats and unsmiling inspectors ensures that maritime regulations are obeyed, and where nobody expects danger on the water.
In that assurance and complacency, we have naturally created the perfect conditions for an accident, and as if obeying some terrible law of tragedy that states that death shall come when least expected, two vessels collided here on the night of Oct. 1 — China’s National Day — with the loss of 38 lives. One was a commuter ferry bound for Lamma Island, 30 minutes’ sail southwest of Hong Kong. The other was a vessel owned by a local utility company, carrying 120 people, employees and their families, to see the National Day fireworks. Because it was a four-day weekend, much of Hong Kong didn’t find out about the disaster until the next morning. As lives were being extinguished in the black waters off the north Lamma coast, we were carousing at parties or enjoying long dinners, happy in the knowledge that the next day was a public holiday. The text messages and tweets and news alerts began to arrive with daybreak, beeping through the hangovers with awful, high-pitched insistence.
Authorities have still not established how or why the collision happened, and indeed it may be days or weeks before full details emerge. The search for missing people continues, on the sea and in the city’s hospitals and morgues. Three days of mourning have now been declared, and crew members and both captains have been arrested. During this morning’s return to work, there must have been many ferry commuters glancing, like me, at the location of life jackets and emergency exits — just in case. And suddenly the crowded harbor traffic doesn’t look so charming. It looks like the possibility of death in a thousand pitching, bobbing forms. So, incidentally, does the drunken debauch that is the weekend junk trip — in Hong Kong, the word junk is used to refer to pleasure craft as well as the traditional Chinese sailboats of yore — where the next accident is plainly waiting to happen. Every Saturday and Sunday, dozens of junks, carrying dozens of people each, set sail for the remote beaches of the Sai Kung peninsula, many of them chartered on eight-hour, all-you-can-drink packages. They drop anchor, the pitchers of Sea Breeze (and often the joints) are passed around, and before long, inebriated fools are stumbling across the slippery upper decks and jumping headfirst into the maws of the sea. Stupefaction and deep water: What unregulated madness is this?
In the aftermath of the Lamma tragedy — and this being Hong Kong, where there is only one political story these days — as much thought has been given to China’s response to the disaster as there has been to the causes of it. The territory’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has been criticized for visiting hospitalized survivors in the company of Li Gang, deputy head of the central government’s liaison office, who asked Leung if he could tour the wards. Leung was also taken to task for allowing authorities in Guangzhou to send four salvage vessels to join the disaster response (they were never used, because they were too large to navigate the shallow waters at the scene of the accident). You may have assumed that it would be an uncontroversial thing for the sovereign power’s representative to visit victims of a tragedy that, after all, took place on National Day, or for a mainland city, just a short distance upriver, to dispatch fraternal aid. But that’s how jittery Hong Kong has become about China. Even maritime disasters are politicized. And how ironic for the fractious state of China–Hong Kong relations that National Day — the one day that should commemorate unity — shall henceforth, at least in Hong Kong, be a day of remembering the drowned.