Shek Kwu Chau, Hong Kong’s drug rehabilitation island – changing times at the remote haven

Formerly called Coffin Island, the restricted area can only be visited with a special permit and its voluntary drug rehabilitation centre is home to 200 recovering male addicts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 7:15pm

Less than 4km west of Hong Kong’s bustling outlying island of Cheung Chau is a much smaller, more remote island with a tiny, transient population.

Shek Kwu Chau, once known as Coffin Island, measures roughly 1.5km by 1.2km. In 1962, it was handed over to the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers, which established a treatment and rehabilitation centre for drug addicts. To this day, the island is a restricted area that can be visited only by those with a special permit.

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“You could ask 100 people in Central about Shek Kwu Chau and I am sure at least 80 would have no idea it even existed,” says Patrick Wu Shun-on, superintendent of the facility.

That’s despite the fact that the small rock in the South China Sea has had its brush with fame. The late Princess Diana visited the island’s recovering addicts twice and the centre has a building named after her.

Fifty-five years after it was established, the centre is still home to some 200 recovering male addicts, supervised by Wu and about 50 staff.

The centre, adorned with mock Roman baths and faux marble sculptures – some standing in fountains and lily ponds, a legacy from a time when residents were engaged in stonemasonry projects to keep them busy – is also home to a few sheep, rescued dogs and cats, turtles and many exotic birds. The island also has its own reservoir.

The 9.25am ferry from Cheung Chau approaches the pier under the gaze of a classical goddess statue on a nearby rock. A reproduction Chinese imperial-era gatehouse on the quayside brings to mind fictional desert islands portrayed in films. The ferry is the only connection between the island and the rest of humanity, transporting staff and vital supplies as it runs back and forth three times a day.

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Shek Kwu Chau is one of four government- funded centres run by the society, and far from the public gaze. But Wu rejects the notion that Hong Kong prefers its drug abuse problem to be kept “out of sight, out of mind”, saying the island offers an alternative escape to those desperate for help.

Unlike most of the 40 or so drug rehabilitation facilities in Hong Kong, which are operated along distinctly religious lines, the centre does not endorse any single spiritual or moral philosophy. There is a Buddhist shrine, several Chinese temples and a Catholic Church, but vulnerable residents are spared the additional burden of sanctimonious judgment.

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All residents are admitted voluntarily, live in one of the island’s nine residential buildings, and are given responsibilities for maintenance and domestic duties around the island. These include providing foster care to the abandoned dogs and cats, and tending to captive endangered birds, which Wu says were brought over from Ocean Park to make way for a new hotel development.

There is a zero-tolerance approach to drug possession or use, and random urine tests are employed as standard. If a resident fails one, they are expelled from the island immediately.

“It is not uncommon,” says Wu, who spent 30 years working for Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department (CSD) before starting his nine-year tenure at Shek Kwu Chau, and who will retire soon.

The island may at first glance resemble a colonial-era penal colony, but Wu is at pains to point out that this is no prison.

“Residents at Shek Kwu Chau can leave at any time if they wish,” he says. In contrast to his days at the CSD, he has no legal powers to enforce discipline on the island, Wu says.

Over the years, the island has witnessed the changing mores of the city’s drug users, as can be seen by the wide age range of its ever-revolving cast of residents.

In its embryonic days, the centre catered for opium and heroin addicts, known as opiate cases, and this group still forms the largest part of the community. They tend to be older, aged 50 years and above, with long-term addiction problems.

“Every Wednesday a boat ­arrives with new admissions,” says Wu.

The new arrivals are first subjected to an intensive three-week detoxification process within the facility’s hospital block, when doses of the opiate substitute methadone are administered and gradually reduced over the period.

“Please don’t take photographs in here,” says Wu, as he opens white double doors at the far end of the hospital block to reveal a large, sparsely furnished, whitewashed room, where about a dozen male opiate addicts are staying.

These men, several of them elderly, have completed their first week of detoxification and will soon move to one of the houses.

Dressed in uniform purple-striped pyjamas and slippers, the men watch a television chat show being broadcast on a large screen or just stand staring, hollow-eyed, at nothing in particular. Wu says about 75 per cent of the residents have returned for their second or third round of treatment.

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“Who can say when rehabilitation is fully successful,” Wu asks rhetorically.

The older opiate addicts are treated separately from a new generation of much younger addicts who are changing the profile of the typical resident, he says. These residents are more likely to be psychotropic substance abusers (PSA), and typically have addiction problems with crystal meth(known as Ice) or ketamine.

“The PSA guys come on a separate boat and in smaller numbers. They have different backgrounds and ages, so we don’t really want these older guys to be sharing their life experiences with them,” Wu says.

In another room, closer to the nursing station, an athletic looking 22-year-old man, dressed in casual sports attire, sits alone and anxious on the end of his bed, then wanders aimlessly around the small ward. He was admitted six days ago and his medical notes show he has been abusing methamphetamine for about two years.

“He’s been pretty normal but all of his speech and actions are in complete slow motion,” says duty nurse Fung Chi-hung, who has been carrying out intensive observation of the man that lasts a week.

“We have modified the programme here to accommodate the needs of the new generation of PSA cases,” says Dr Aaron Lee Fook-kay, the centre’s medical superintendent, explaining that PSA cases are also subject to a longer rehabilitation period than opiate cases.

“Most of the PSA cases suffer from mental illness because the drugs interfere with the central nervous system,” he says, and hallucinations, delusions and psychosis are not uncommon. “Occasionally, they will also experience convulsions and epileptic fits,” he says.

Lee believes the extent of substance abuse and addiction in Hong Kong is severely underestimated. He points to an incident in September this year when four young adults collapsed (one later died) at the Road to Ultra electronic music festival in West Kowloon, and all later tested positive for psychotropic drugs.

“The government’s official figures show that drug abuse is decreasing, but this is just the tip of the iceberg – the problem is hidden,” he says.

The new generation of drug abuser is more difficult to find, difficult to motivate and much younger, Lee says, so is more prone to risk-taking.

Only two of the nine residential buildings are occupied by the younger PSA residents, and Lee suggests this imbalance stems from the fact that the society’s counsellors work in government-run methadone clinics, so it’s easier to intervene with the traditional opiate group.

Lee says he is due to meet staff of a hospital accident and emergency department, which is seeing more PSA-related medical emergencies, often with acute psychiatric symptoms.

“The isolation here [at Shek Kwu Chau] can be quite useful for blocking the residents from peer pressure and from the source of [drug] supply,” he says.

In one of the houses, a PSA resident is nearing completion of six months of rehabilitation at Shek Kwu Chau and is preparing to return to his home near Sai Kung. Ricky asks for his full name not to be used.

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He is staying in King House on the southern tip of the island, and provides a brief tour of his temporary home. Residents prepare their own meals, have access to training workshops, individual and group counselling, and sports facilities. It is not luxurious by any means, but there is access to a 3D home cinema, and air conditioning is allowed at night during the summer months.

Ricky is about 30 years old. He seems cheerful, engaging and articulate, and says he is looking forward to resuming work as an excavator operator on construction sites.

“I’m not anxious about going back,” he says, talking with his social worker about the challenges ahead.

In the tranquillity of this unconventional island, with magnificent views from the house over blue seas to the Soko Islands in the distance and the aroma of lunch cooking on the stove, perhaps his rehabilitation process has not been too arduous?

“I have enjoyed it, yes,” says Ricky. “But I am never coming back to Shek Kwu Chau.”