Earlier this month, divers took to the polluted waters of Hong Kong's Rambler Channel, searching for the body of a drowned 7-year-old boy. A week earlier, the boy and his mother, a 39-year-old divorcée and welfare recipient, were seen plunging 17 meters to the sea from the Tsing Yi Bridge, near the city's container port. The mother's body was quickly retrieved, but except for a red schoolbag, there was no trace of the boy until March 4. On that day, his body was finally hauled out of the water, and Hong Kong notched up a peculiarly grim statistic: it was the third instance in a month of a mother killing herself and wanting her child to die along with her.
So-called filicide-suicides are not a new phenomenon in East Asia, but Hong Kong's relatively high number there have been at least 15 since the start of 2008 has raised alarm. "Three in one month is a critical warning sign," says Paul Yip, director of the Centre for Suicide Research & Prevention in Hong Kong. In the U.S., murder-suicides predominantly involve spouses killing partners before taking their own lives. But in Hong Kong, Yip says, at least 50% of cases involve the death of a child.
In a city that has seen two major recessions in the past decade and where the social stigma of failing to get ahead is exacerbated by glaring income inequality, financial hardship is thought to be the root cause of such tragedies. Two years ago, a study co-authored by the University of Hong Kong and the University of Macau found that a deranged sense of compassion was common parents killed their offspring to spare them from destitution and believed it their right to do so. "We take our children as our property," says Fernando Cheung, former head of the Hong Kong legislature's welfare panel. "Asian culture dictates that they're ours, that they are not independent beings, especially when they're small."
Harold Li of the Child Welfare League Foundation in Taiwan where the filicide-suicide rate is the highest in Asia (61 reported cases since 2008, with joblessness mostly identified as the cause) agrees that trouble arises when "the boundaries between family members are not clear." The child victims of murder-suicides in the West are typically killed in violent attacks, as one partner's way of taking revenge on the other. In Asia, on the other hand, parents leap together with their children or succumb arm in arm to carbon monoxide inhalation in a kind of ghastly euthanasia.
Cheung is particularly concerned about maternal perpetrators of filicide-suicide in Hong Kong, many of whom have been immigrants from mainland China married to local men. "These immigrant wives aren't eligible for welfare systems or public housing until they fulfill a seven-year residency requirement," says Cheung. "If their Hong Kong husband leaves them, they become stranded." Choi Sai-mui, who plunged with her son from the Tsing Yi Bridge, was one of these women. So was the woman who in 2007 tied the hands and feet of her 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son before jumping with them from the window of their flat. And while the woman who threw her 4-year-old girl from the seventh floor of a Kowloon shopping mall in February before leaping herself was not an immigrant, she was unhinged by feelings of social and financial despair. The mother apparently believed that her daughter's failure to win a highly coveted place at an international school had doomed the child to a life of mediocrity and that it would be best for them to die together (the girl miraculously survived unhurt, her fall broken by netting).
Feelings of isolation unite these cases. Researchers agree that in instances of filicide-suicide, parents feel there is no friend or relative able or trustworthy enough to care for the children. "In Hong Kong, it's common not to know neighbors who have been beside you for 10 years," says researcher Yip. While social and mental-health workers have been asked to pay close attention to depressed parents of small children, professional help remains thin on the ground in Hong Kong and is no substitute for a strong personal-support network. "It is packed here," says Yip of a city whose population density, at its highest, exceeds 50,000 per sq km. "Physically we are very close, but emotionally we could not be more distant."