‘Professor Kim’, Hong Kong’s yoga ball murderer, was my landlord
Khaw Kim Sun was found guilty on Wednesday of murdering his wife and daughter using a gas-filled yoga ball, in a case that has gripped the city. A former Lantau resident tells how she came to rent his decrepit 1,400 sq ft house in the tiny village of Tong Fuk, and how Khaw kept up the pretence of a popular and sociable family man struggling to deal with personal tragedy. The writer of this article asked to be identified only as H.E.B.
I needed a new home in a hurry. It was early June 2015 and my neighbours’ dogs in Mui Wo, on Lantau Island, had on May 30 savagely bitten my leg. I was frightened they would strike again. Knowing the mutts would not be destroyed meant staying put was not an option. I needed a place to rent with a garden for me and my own dogs.
“Tropicana”, an oddly English-looking, creeper-covered house in the seaside village of Tong Fuk, was being offered in Mui Wo property agents’ windows. But there was a problem. The agents told me that because the landlord’s wife and teenage daughter had died in a tragic carbon monoxide poisoning accident in their car just two weeks ago, I could not rent the house. The landlord, Khaw Kim Sun, referred to simply as “Professor Kim”, was still so grief stricken that no agent was prepared to disturb him.
A week went by, and I was anxious to move. Perhaps the bereaved landlord would welcome a tenant who would clean up the place, since the 6,000 sq ft garden was wild and overgrown, I reasoned. Perhaps he would welcome it being taken off his hands at this terrible time – one less thing to worry about.
Finally, one agent who knew Professor Kim quite well agreed to give it a go, but warned me she was unlikely to make any progress. How wrong she was. Khaw was immediately open to negotiation, and in a few days I had the keys. My lease started on July 1, 2015, some five weeks after the gas poisoning.
It was a singular house: the picturesque Virginia creeper looked less charming inside the bedrooms, where it had been growing untrimmed through windows and across the ceilings. Pull it down, advised my new landlord, who had established a WhatsApp group to discuss house matters. But the creeper resisted all my attempts to remove it, clinging tenaciously to the plaster.
The house was originally a 1,400 sq ft two-storey structure, but over the last few decades several sheds and a wobbly roof extension had been added. Some of these were waterproof, but Professor Kim thoughtfully sent me photos of the house with water lapping around the door handles to warn me it was prone to flooding.
As the weeks passed, rumours of the yoga ball with carbon monoxide surfaced. When my friends heard about it, the wisecracks started.
“Aren’t you worried when he comes round to check the gas?” were typical quips.
The thought had crossed my mind. He was an anaesthesiologist, meaning an expert in medical gases, and his wife and daughter had died mysteriously from ... gas poisoning. However, I told myself not to be silly. Inquiries about the family locally in Tong Fuk had all been positive. The Khaw family were fondly remembered. They had loved their Tong Fuk weekend retreat but stopped coming in the mid-2000s, I learned. The wife was a charming, gentle woman, the professor friendly and funny. The children loved playing on the beach. All reports were good. Nevertheless, my friends kept up the teasing, telling me to be wary of any stray yoga balls found in cupboards.
It started to bug me. Supposing the professor had done it? I asked a police officer friend to check with his Sha Tin criminal investigation colleagues if there was any likelihood the professor would be implicated in the deaths.
“None whatsoever,” came the emphatic reply. “Nothing suspicious. Accident.”
Feeling better, I settled into the delights of living in Tropicana, having first evicted several hornets’ and wasps’ nests which had made the Virginia creeper their home.
“Do what you like in the garden,” the professor advised via our WhatsApp chats. “But don’t touch the banana plants – they were a gift from my secretary and have sentimental value.”
So the scraggy bananas remained.
As the months passed he would mention missing his wife and daughter, feeling sad, the cost of school fees and how much he relied on my HK$36,000 (US$4,590) monthly rent to keep his four kids in school. It seemed the cost of their education was a financial burden for him. This struck me as odd, considering he must have been well paid.
I would write pleasant, anodyne replies. He would describe attempts to distract and cheer up his surviving three children with active family holidays. He took them skiing to New Zealand and later to California. In the photos the children looked solemn, with fixed smiles that stopped short of their eyes.
He sent via WhatsApp surprisingly personal family photos of, for example, the eldest daughter serving a Sunday breakfast fry-up to her two siblings and father. Why, I wondered, would he send private photos to a female tenant he’d never met. The WhatsApp messages were no longer just about the house, which struck me as strange, too. Why would he continue to write to me? My friends thought this odd and continued ribbing me about my strange landlord, but to me it seemed he was just understandably lonely and needed a friend to chat to.
He asked me to hand-carry cash for his eldest daughter, a medical student studying in Kuala Lumpur, on my frequent trips to Malaysia. He monitored the volatile ringgit-Hong Kong dollar exchange rate to snap up the best deals and avoid bank fees. I agreed to his request, but never actually did it.
He was money-conscious and thrifty and I soon realised he wasn’t going to do anything maintenance-wise in the house beyond emergency repairs. When I replaced the knackered ceiling fan, he asked me to keep the old worn out fan parts as he planned to reuse them in another house. Tropicana’s ancient electric wiring could only be replaced if I moved out, he said, so I would have to put up with it.
He claimed to love Tropicana and waxed lyrical about how he and his late wife had intended to keep it for their retirement. But he had stopped coming to Tong Fuk about 10 years ago because it was too far from his new home in Sai Kung – a stunning waterside property more convenient for his work at Chinese University. He planned to knock down and rebuild Tropicana on a high plinth with sweeping steps up to the front door, high enough to be flood proof. The new house would be double the existing size, making maximum use of the 6,000 sq ft plot.
I wondered why he needed such a palace for just two of them. This dream would never be fulfilled now, he said wistfully, since he couldn’t face living there alone without his wife. I commiserated. He would not sell Tropicana to me. I checked: he owned the house jointly with his wife.
We discussed him dropping by for coffee but he never did, and in the 14 months I lived there he came by just once, when I was out. We never met in person.
He presented himself on WhatsApp as a man struggling to deal with personal tragedy and loss, but a good egg, a popular and sociable chap. He included me in his large hospital and university staff WhatsApp group, where jokes and funny stories were shared. There was never any mention of a girlfriend. He seemed to have supportive friends who were fond of him.
He never said anything untoward to me. He often referred to his love of pets, especially snakes, mentioning a rednecked keelback he had caught in the garden and kept, until finding live prey for it became too hard.
He was highly observant. I once sent him a photo from Facebook of a huge sleeping python in Pui O. He replied with handwritten comments over the electronic picture: “Wonder whose doggy is inside?” he wrote, with a red arrow pointing to a distinctive bulge midway along the snake’s body. He was almost right: it turned out the snake had just swallowed a cat. He clearly found this amusing.
I moved out when the realisation that electricity and water don’t mix and the combination of dodgy wiring and worsening water leaks became too alarming. I did not want to be electrocuted and the professor had already said the house could not be rewired with me in situ. I left Tropicana at the end of August 2016, 14 months after moving in.
Professor Kim’s WhatsApp messages mostly ceased after I left. My last communication came on June 20 last year. He requested rental records for the government’s Inland Revenue Department. I said I would look.
He replied: “Thanks. I have been waiting for the agent to get back to me. Hopefully she’ll have a copy or record. Unfortunately my filling system at home is a ‘one-way process’ and usually I can’t find anything again!”
A wry thought occurred to me as I read of the jury’s guilty verdict and his life sentence: I had come within an inch of meeting a double murderer, someone who had WhatsApped me, a stranger, continually, for months. That still strikes me as very odd.
He may still get to enjoy a south Lantau retirement home, but it will probably be Tong Fuk prison, not a luxuriously remodelled Tropicana. He can look down on his house from the hilltop jail and think of how different life might have been.