Content Warning: This story contains descriptions of violence that readers may find disturbing.
The postcard image of Hong Kong is one of glittering skyscrapers against lush mountains, dim sum restaurants and investment bankers in suits.
But in recent weeks, the international financial hub has been in the headlines again for something darker: the death of model and influencer Abby Choi, whose dismembered body parts were found in a rental unit last month, along with a meat cutter and a power saw.
The 28-year-old’s death Mother has not only horrified a city regularly ranked among the safest in the world, but also captivated much of the world’s media with the grisly details of her alleged murder.
For Hong Kongers, it has also brought up painful memories of previous instances of dismemberment in the city – many targeted young women and nearly all committed by men.
There’s the so-called “Hello Kitty” murder of 1999, when 23-year-old Fan Man-yee was kidnapped by gang members and brutally tortured for a month before dying and being dismembered. Her skull was eventually found sewn into a Hello Kitty plush doll.
There were the four women, the youngest just 17, who were killed by a taxi driver who kept their dismembered body parts in jars before his arrest in 1982. Then came 16-year-old Wong Ka-mui, who was strangled and dismembered in 2008 and her remains flushed down a toilet.
And in 2013, Glory Chau and Moon Siu were murdered and dismembered by their 28-year-old son, a crime the judge called “evil” and “absolutely heinous.”
Tons of headlines followed each murder. But for all the media attention, experts point out that such cases are exceptionally rare in Hong Kong, a city with an incredibly low violent crime rate for its 7.4 million residents.
There are only a few dozen homicides in Hong Kong each year, compared to several hundred in New York. And there were just 77 robberies last year – compared to more than 17,000 in New York and 24,000 in London.
So why the great interest in these few cases before? Their rarity combined with their brutality is a factor, experts say.
But there could be something else at play: what’s buried beneath all the murky details of death is an odd glimpse into life in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
Roderic Broadhurst, a professor emeritus of criminology at the Australian National University who was previously based in Hong Kong, where he founded the Hong Kong Center for Criminology, estimates there have been about a dozen cases of dismemberment in the city over the past 50 years has.
Philip Beh, a semi-retired forensic pathologist who previously worked with Hong Kong Police, gave a slightly lower estimate and said he could recall fewer than 10 such cases in his 40-year career.
Both experts stressed that Hong Kong is still very safe and these numbers are relatively low. Indeed, Hong Kong’s reputation for safety meant the few cases that did emerge left a stronger “print” on the city, Broadhurst said.
But both also suggested that the gruesome nature of these past cases – particularly the dismemberment of limbs – reflects the realities of life in Hong Kong.
Simply put, it’s a lot harder to hide a body in the densely packed city that’s home to tiny apartments and some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world.
Someone trying to dispose of a body in rural Australia, Canada or the United States has “a very good chance of getting away with it,” Beh said, thanks to the large space and open space.
Not so in Hong Kong.
“These are essentially people who are trying to get away with a crime but can’t,” Beh said.
A killer in Hong Kong will most likely live yards from dozens of people who might spot him trying to dispose of a body – prompted some to dissect victims into smaller pieces for disposal.
“Most people live in apartment blocks on top of each other. We don’t have people with houses and yards where you can go out and dig a hole and try to bury a body,” Beh said. “One is never really alone; your neighbors are above you, below you, next to you. Anything out of the ordinary will draw attention.”
Broadhurst agreed, pointing out that in apartment buildings a killer might have to climb into an elevator shared by more than 100 households just to get outside.
Several previous cases have involved killers who boiled or boiled body parts – details that have horrified the public and were likely fueled by unfounded rumors of cases like the 1985 “pork bun murders” in neighboring Macau. A man killed a family of 10, including the owners of a restaurant, and — like the urban legend (and the movie that inspired them) — allegedly served them in buns.
But the explanation is much more mundane in most cases, Beh said.
In Hong Kong’s subtropical, humid climate, “the smell of the body attracts attention very quickly,” he said — so some killers may try to remove the smell by cooking dismembered parts.
Why these killers didn’t use methods common in other countries — keeping bodies in the freezer and throwing them into the water late at night — poses another problem with Hong Kong’s density.
In the notoriously expensive housing market, apartments are usually too small and cramped for large furniture or kitchen appliances.
“Very few people have large refrigerators in their homes,” Beh said. “Even fewer have freezers. You can’t even keep the body if you wanted to.”
He added that the same scarcity applies to cars – and with it the same difficulty in transporting a corpse discreetly.
Few residents own vehicles because buildings with parking facilities are very expensive — a parking lot sold for almost $1 million in 2019, a record — and the city already has an extensive, efficient public transportation system.
These combined factors could explain various cases over the years where killers used bizarre, grotesque methods to handle their victims’ bodies – like the woman murdered by her husband in 2018 and her body kept in a suitcase, or the 28-year-old man whose body was found in a cement block in 2016.
“We live in a place where when you’ve killed someone, your next very pressing question is, what do you do with the body?” Beh said.
“There are very few options.”