Activists move to stem HK suicides
"These youngsters weren't trained to deal with problems. So when they can't think of a way out, they opt for death as the ultimate solution"
WHEN Chan Wing-yun and his two school friends headed out to an island retreat off Hong Kong recently, they carefully sealed the windows of their rented room and lit a charcoal burner.
Why the 14-year-olds chose to kill themselves remains a mystery, but they are among a growing number of suicides in recent years - an alarming trend that is straining Hong Kong's social fabric.
Social scientists believe most recent suicide victims were driven to unbearable despair by money and unemployment problems brought on by a hard recession, Hong Kong's second in four years.
But they also blame the molly-coddling culture in many families for the rise in suicide numbers among youths, who they say are not acquiring the skills they need to tackle growing up.
The number of suicides leapt to 988 last year, or 14.7 for every 100,000 people, according to help group Suicide Prevention Services. This compares with 915 in 2000 and 882 the year before.
"Many of the suicides are prompted by financial problems and related conflicts," said Simon Cheung, Suicide Prevention Services director.
Dennis Wong, assistant professor of applied social sciences at the City University, said: "If you look at those aged below 20, they were born at a time when the economy was booming and they didn't have to worry about their future."
"These youngsters weren't trained to deal with problems. So when they can't think of a way out, they opt for death as the ultimate solution," he said.
The rise in suicides has a blight on Cheung Chau, where teenager Chan Wing-yun and his two friends killed themselves.
Otherwise famous for its seafood restaurants and beaches, the island has acquired a reputation as the ultimate get away from it all retreat.
For reasons that are not clear, the island and its numerous holiday bungalows and rooms for rent seem to be a magnet for many who want to end their lives, a grim phenomenon that irks residents and businesses.
To Sum-yee said his guesthouse had suffered from the economic downturn and the recent spate of suicides only made things worse.
"We're more cautious now and don't rent to people who come alone," To said.
Inn operator Mrs Ho said: "There's too much media attention and that hurts our reputation. Now a lot of landlords have stopped doing day rentals, just in case."
But she downplayed Cheung Chau's dubious reputation. "There are so many people on Cheung Chau, what's so strange if a few die each year?" she said.
Of all the ways to die, charcoal burning seems to be gaining in popularity in Hong Kong.
Its first locally publicized case was in late 1998, and like a forest fire, the practice spread quickly.
Offering the sweet smell of burning wood - a scent many associate with weekend barbecues - charcoal burners became the second most common local method of suicide in 2001 after jumping from buildings, according to Suicide Prevention Services.
"Some people might not have killed themselves if charcoal burning wasn't an option, because they thought it was convenient and painless," said Dominic Lee, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
According to Lee's figures, 20 per cent of suicide victims died in 2001 from charcoal burning in Hong Kong, up from 17 per cent in 2000, he said.
When burnt, charcoal gives off carbon monoxide which can kill in a confined space. But contrary to popular belief, it does not bring a painless death.
"The lack of oxygen causes choking and in some cases, we have come across victims who burned their hands black," Lee said.
Cause for concern
The rise in suicides in Hong Kong has alarmed not just social workers and academics.
Some residents have joined the ranks of suicide prevention groups to manage hotlines and the government is running television commercials to encourage those in depair to seek help. Even retailers have pitched in to spread consoling messages.
Clothes retailer Giordano International recently put on sale thousands of T-shirts bearing the Chinese characters for "treasure life", pledging to donate the profits to suicide prevention charities.
Supermarket chains Park n Shop and Wellcome will soon post similar messages on bags of charcoal in their stores.
(Agencies via Xinhua)