‘It would be the greatest thing in my life to see him again’: 17 years of heartache for mother of missing Hong Kong teenager
Yu Man-hon ran off at Yau Ma Tei MTR station on August 24, 2000 and was never seen again, leaving his mother to live in daily agony. Is there still hope for her and thousands of other people whose loved ones have vanished?
Yu Lai Wai-ling opens a wooden box in her living room and digs out piles of pictures of her oldest son, who has been missing for almost 17 years. Sobbing, she says: “If he ever comes back, it’d be the greatest thing in my life.”
The disappearance of her autistic and hyperactive teenager Yu Man-hon on August 24, 2000, is one of the most prominent missing person cases in Hong Kong. On that day, Yu Man-hon – then aged 15 but with a mental age of two – let go of his mother’s hand at Yau Ma Tei MTR station and ran off.
It remains unknown how the teenager managed to cross the border at Lo Wu. It’s also unclear what happened to him after Shenzhen immigration officers tried to return him, only for Hong Kong officers to turn him away.
The disappearance of the teenager, who would now be in his early 30s if he is still alive, is shrouded in mystery. His family have faced almost 17 years of agony as they search for their son.
“We have been to almost every part of mainland China, placing ads in newspapers and giving out posters, but we still couldn’t find him,” said Lai, who lives with her husband and younger son. “I’m getting old now and don’t have the energy to search around any more.”
Three years ago an anonymous donor pledged HK$1million for information leading to the return of Yu Man-hon, but it has gone uncollected.
In June last year, Lai, accompanied by four Hong Kong police officers from the missing person unit, went to Lo Wu police station on the mainland in her search for answers regarding her son’s case.
“They [mainland authority] only said they would continue to try their best,” she said. “They also said communications between two sides of the border could be much more simpler, because it took a long time for them to receive just one letter from the Hong Kong authority.
“The four officers basically sat there and listened. They barely said any words. The Hong Kong government always said they would help me find my son, but by then I knew it’s all empty words.”
Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, a member of the Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, said it had been campaigning for urgent action on the case ever since Man-hon’s mother approached them for help more than 15 years ago.
He said as a missing person case, the disappearance was unique in how it centred on the lack of co-operation between the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese authorities.
“It seems there was some mishandling of the case at immigration,” he said. “It was quite a strange situation. This case may not relate entirely to the general missing person landscape. We are still pushing the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese authorities on this case, but there is no progress.”
Wong Chi-yuen, also a member of the commission, said the lack of progress had been “very frustrating” for the missing boy’s family.
“The Hong Kong government is still very passive on this case,” he said. “It is really painful for the family. Sometimes his mother sees someone who might be Yu Man-hon and sends us a text message, but she has never found him.”
A spokesman for the Hong Kong Police said investigations into Man-hon’s disappearance remained ongoing and urged anyone with information to contact them.
Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world but every year thousands of people disappear and many of them remain missing indefinitely.
Between January 2011 and December 2016, 28,195 people were reported missing in Hong Kong, and while most of them were found, up to 3,000 people remained missing, according to police data from that period.
While the case of the five missing Causeway Bay booksellers made international headlines because of the worrying political connotations, there remain thousands of other Hongkongers who disappear each year for non-political reasons.
Social workers have previously cited financial problems as a leading cause of why adult Hongkongers go missing, as some feel forced to flee after becoming embroiled in scams with debt collectors. For runaway children, they suggest, communication breakdown within the family is a more likely cause.
In searching for a loved one, families can apply for free legal advice from the government’s Duty Lawyer Service, or hire a private investigator, but this can be costly and is not guaranteed to produce results.
The Hong Kong police maintains an online list of missing people, with details of when they were last seen. But due to restrictions with privacy law, they do not release contact details for families in individual cases to the press.
Professor Wong Kam-chow, a former Hong Kong police officer who served during the late 1960s and now works in the department of criminal justice at Xavier University in Ohio, US, said officers would classify missing people according to the circumstances of the case.
He said the six main categories of cases were:
“catastrophic”; such as mountain falls, where the missing person may be presumed dead after a short time
“elderly dependants”; often people with dementia who have voluntarily but mistakenly left their homes
“parental abduction of a child”; in which one parent has run off with their child without the consent of the other
“child runaways”; youngsters who have deliberately left their homes after a family dispute
“stranger abduction”; where someone unknown to the victim is believed to have taken them
“suspicious circumstances”; in which there could be other forces at play in a person’s disappearance – e.g. the Causeway Bay booksellers.
Wong said he considered the Hong Kong police force’s approach to the problem to be “no different to any other country”, but he acknowledged the numbers of people who go missing each year could be higher than official statistics because officers would not officially log a case if he or she lacked key details.
“I think we need to be more careful about this, but I also know the realities of policing,” he said. “It is because the police force is so paperwork-based. You face many more questions from your boss if you lack certain details.”
He said that in cases where it turned out the missing person had been attacked or even murdered, he would expect an officer to gain a sense of this likely possibility “within the first 30 minutes” of investigating their case.
But he said cases were likely to “go cold” after 30 days without a lead. “Generally the police will take all cases seriously, but undoubtedly the more high profile the case, the more effort they will put into it,” he said.
“But I think rewards do help. If we really do care as a society then we should provide a reward for significant help in these cases. The current system is still back in the 18th century. We are expecting superwoman or superman to save the day, but in a city like ours, money talks.”
Although there is no dedicated missing person charity to support families, the Hong Kong Red Cross provides support and tracing services to some families hoping to trace missing loved ones themselves. Either the inquirer or the missing person must be a Hong Kong resident in order to qualify for the charity’s tracing scheme. The charity focuses on situations where separation has occurred due to a natural or man-made disaster. Most of their work therefore tends to involve tracing Hongkongers or relatives of Hongkongers overseas in developing countries such as the Philippines.
The charity had a 35 per cent success rate regarding 31,289 cumulative cases between April 1979 and June 2017. But a spokeswoman said the tracing team could be enlisted to help a family searching for a child in a domestic child adoption case in some “special circumstances”. Since 2012, the charity investigated 172 adoption cases out of 1,198 tracing cases.
Meanwhile, there are several large local Facebook groups where residents are increasingly taking searches into their own hands by posting emotional appeals for missing relatives. But it remains unclear how effective social media is in tracing missing people.
Dr Marko Skoric, associate professor in the department of media and communication at City University of Hong Kong, said Facebook was a useful tool because the majority of Facebook users were only separated by three to four degrees of separation.
He said it also had the largest global audience of any social network, at more than two billion people.
“It would be an obvious platform of choice when it comes to searching for missing people,” he said.
“A missing person’s photo could potentially reach any Facebook user with only three to four ‘social jumps’. Of course, this is not likely to happen on a global scale, but within Hong Kong, a missing persons campaign on Facebook could indeed easily reach most of the active users.
“When you pair this with the ubiquity of smartphones in Hong Kong, and the fact that GPS location is embedded in every photo taken by users, you get a pretty powerful people searching system.”
A LAST FAMILY MEAL, THEN HE RAN OUT OF THEIR LIVES
It was almost the end of the summer holidays. Yu Lai Wai-ling woke up on a Thursday morning and found her autistic and hyperactive elder son jumping around.
She was afraid her neighbours would complain about the noise, so she took him to a Chinese restaurant in Yau Ma Tei.
After the family of four had enjoyed some quality time together at the restaurant, Lai and her 15-year-old son, Yu Man-hon, were ready to return home. Her husband, Yu Pui-lam, walked them to Yau Ma Tei MTR station, making sure everything was OK before he sent their younger son to a hair salon and then set off to work.
The mother and son passed through the gate and went down to the platform. But seconds after they entered a train, Man-hon let go of his mother’s hand and dashed out. He ran up an escalator, while his mother, who had trouble walking due to poliomyelitis, gave chase while yelling out for him to stop.
Lai called the police, station staff and her husband for help. It was August 24, 2000, the last time she would ever see her son.
“That’s how we started searching for him for almost 17 years,” Lai recalled in the same living room where her son played all those years ago.
Three days after Man-hon vanished, she received a call from a parent of her son’s schoolmate, saying the missing teenager was last seen at Lo Wu control point. Since then, the family has searched almost every part of the mainland.
It remains unknown how he got to the control point and what happened to him after Shenzhen immigration officers tried to return him, only for Hong Kong officers to send him back.
“I have nightmares every night since he’s gone,” Lai, who suffers from depression, laments. She has undergone operations to her lungs, uterus and intestines to remove tumours.
“I cannot look for him like I did years ago. I don’t have the energy,” she said.
For Man-hon’s younger brother, the years have also been hard as the two got along really well. “Man-hon couldn’t talk. But when his younger brother was happy, he would get really excited and happy,” she said while looking at old pictures of her two sons.
“Part of me thought of getting a death certificate for Man-hon as a closure of the case. Another part of me wanted to believe that he’s still alive. If he’s still alive, I hope he can take care of himself and come back home. We really miss him.”
THREE MORE WHO VANISHED WITHOUT TRACE
The 30-year-old Canadian tourist had been travelling through Asia and arrived in Hong Kong in autumn 2008 from Beijing. She was seen at Chungking Mansions on October 11, 2008. The Immigration Department said there was no record of her leaving the city, despite her reportedly having plans to travel to Argentina for a job.
The 33-year-old Nepalese man was last seen leaving a restaurant in Temple Street on May 19, 2014. He was reported missing by a friend two weeks later and has not been seen since.
Gregory Winston Brooks
The 49-year-old American left a Buddhist temple with his wife in Sung Shan New Village, Yuen Long, on June 17, 2012, and has not been seen or heard from since. His sister reported he had shown signs of extreme paranoia just a few weeks before his disappearance.