Suicide by jumping off a high-rise building became more usual in Hong Kong when such structures became commonplace, with ready access to the upper floors or roof. It remains the most prevalent suicide method in the city today. Photo: Shutterstock
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie

Hong Kong suicides through history – from jumping into the harbour to eating poison to leaping off buildings

  • Hong Kong has always been an unforgiving place to live, and throughout history, the deprivation and overcrowding have worn down its citizens
  • Methods of taking life may have changed over time, but the need for prevention and counselling remains as urgent today as it has ever been

From Hong Kong’s earliest urban beginnings, the city has been a hard, unforgiving place. Unending pressures of daily life, grinding poverty, soul-destroying deprivation, perennial overcrowding, deep-seated personal unhappiness – the list of ultimate causes that cumulatively drive individuals to end their own lives has not changed significantly over time.

And when, their own endurance stretched beyond breaking point, individuals reach a moment of awful clarity, and decide, once and for all, to throw in the sponge and have done with their troubles, who can blame them?

Extended periods of political upheaval – as Hong Kong has experienced in recent years – with tensions exacerbated by long-unresolved socio-economic issues, followed by pandemic-induced business closures, extreme financial pressures and insoluble personal difficulties, inevitably lead to an increase in the daily number of suicides. Methods deployed have varied over time. Newspapers listed suicides in brief terms; coroner’s reports later provided more details about circumstances that culminated in a successful attempt.

Well into the 20th century, those utterly determined to succeed in their attempt usually threw themselves into the harbour. Deeply ingrained Chinese superstitions against saving the life of someone seen doing this – and thereby taking on that person’s own misfortunes should they survive – meant that bystanders (even a few metres away) would willingly watch another drown; no attempt whatsoever would be made to rescue them.

In this photo from 1985, more than 6,000 people turn out to pay their last respects to popular television actress Barbara Yung. The former beauty queen died of gas poisoning inside her flat. The police treated the case as suicide. Photo: SCMP

Among women, the most widespread suicide method was swallowing diluted caustic soda, usually Lysol, or another proprietary drain cleaner; most households had a bottle handy somewhere, which made sudden decisions tragically easy to act upon. Almost invariably fatal, the person nevertheless died in dreadful agony. Deliberate self-poisonings through barbiturates and other sleeping pills also became widespread as their availability increased in the post-war years.

Throwing oneself off a high-rise building became more usual when such structures became commonplace, with ready access to the upper floors or roof. First widely reported in Shanghai in the 1930s, the idea rapidly caught on in Hong Kong and remains the most prevalent suicide method today. After the Communist assumption of power in 1949, when political persecution escalated, and scores of various kinds were settled, the trend accelerated.

Rise in Hong Kong suicides during Covid should spark action

As means of departure from Shanghai gradually closed off, and with grim foreboding that – sooner or later – their name would be reached on some official’s action list, the mental strain became too much to bear, and desperate people resolved matters for themselves.

For prolonged periods, these death leaps occurred many times a day, right across the city. A local Portuguese friend, who left Shanghai as a young child with his family in the early 50s and settled in Macau before moving to Hong Kong, was old enough to remember being kept firmly away from the windows of the family’s high-rise block of flats by their amah. After several suicides occurred from their building, the frightful sight of some unfortunate person coming down fast had been witnessed more than once, followed quickly afterwards by a loud thud; a sight best avoided, if at all possible.

Since the advent of high-rise buildings in Hong Kong, jumping has become the most common suicide method. Photo: Shutterstock

American writer Dorothy Parker’s bleakly humorous 1926 poem Resumé examined, and then dismissed, various possibilities for ending life’s troubles. After considering the discomforts and potential for failure for each method:

Razors pain you

Rivers are damp

Acids stain you

And drugs cause cramp

Guns aren’t lawful

Nooses give

Gas smells awful

Parker wearily decided – as many others at the final brink of their endurance have done:

You might as well live.

While most who experience this mental health crisis fortunately reach the same conclusion, many do not, especially as events in recent years in Hong Kong have steadily crushed to dust the last resilience of too many otherwise robust, forward-looking people.
Brenda Scofield, chairwoman of the suicide prevention NGO The Samaritans. Photo: The Samaritans

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services.