Hongkongers caught up in Japan's day of terror

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am

It took a while before the true extent of yesterday's horror kicked in for the traditionally tranquil Japanese people, said Hong Kong student Ricky Wong, who experienced the huge earthquake first hand.

'Suddenly everything in my apartment jumped up and down. I knew it was a big earthquake and I immediately went down to the street. Many people did the same,' said Wong, who has been studying in Tokyo for two years.

He said Japanese people reacted in a calm and organised manner. The true horror only sank in later.

'Maybe they are used to earthquakes,' said Wong, who said there were also three powerful aftershocks. 'But when they saw on TV how the tsunami [swept through], many broke down in tears.'

Wong is one of tens of thousands of Hong Kong people in Japan.

Japan, particularly Tokyo, has long been a favoured travel and study destination for Hong Kong people.

It was hard to put a figure on exactly how many Hong Kong residents were in areas around Sendai - the city worst hit by the tsunami and quake. Undersecretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok said there were 477 Hong Kong people in 22 tour groups in the region. The tour agencies of all 22 groups confirmed they were safe.

Another 800 Hongkongers bought individual tour packages from various travel companies, Lai said. The number of travellers in Japan on their own remains unclear.

Japan is the most popular holiday destination for Hong Kong people. According to the Japan National Tourist Organisation, 508,700 Hong Kong people visited Japan in 2010.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen offered his condolences to the Japanese people, Lai said. The government has issued a red travel alert for Japan - meaning people are advised not to travel there unless it is essential. It has also set up a hotline and had received 263 calls for assistance and 594 inquiries last night. Two immigration officials flew to Tokyo to help any stranded Hong Kong people.

Lai asked the public not to panic if they temporarily lost contact with relatives and friends as telecommunication systems in Japan were paralysed.

Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung asked people booked on tours to Japan to contact their travel agent.

'There are 37 tour groups, with about 800 people, who plan to go there later this week. Most of these tours are now cancelled,' Tung said. He said Sendai was not a tourist destination and only 'a few Hong Kong people' went there.

Such was the power of the tsunami that the sea level around Hong Kong rose by 50 centimetres, within normal daily tidal variations, when the crest of the tsunami reached the city at around 9pm, according to the Observatory.

Through all the chaos and panic, many people stranded in Tokyo tried to reach out through the internet. Some contacted the South China Morning Post to ask for help.

'[The] telephone network in Tokyo has collapsed. I tried to make calls many times but all failed. All the trams have stopped and there are people everywhere in the street,' Zhang Hong wrote from Japan.

'There are many aftershocks. But Tokyo is better off than Sendai. Many people are missing there and houses are flooded,' he said.

Hong Kong Airlines flight HX618 to Tokyo, was forced to turn back to Hong Kong after departure. The Airport Authority said that of the 25 flights between Hong Kong and Tokyo, at least three were delayed, while others had to land elsewhere in Japan. Cathay Pacific said all flights to Tokyo would be suspended until this afternoon.