The Hello Kitty Murder: Hong Kong’s most sordid crime in a decade

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Detectives were skeptical when a pretty 14-year-old girl turned up at a Tsim Sha Tsui police station in May 1999 saying she was being haunted by the ghost of a woman she had helped torture, kill and butcher a year earlier. But when they followed up her claims and visited a third-floor apartment in Hong Kong’s shoppers’ paradise, Granville Road, they uncovered what many police and lawyers consider Hong Kong’s most sordid and revolting crime in almost a decade.

Words by Tom Hilditch

A story that reveals a Hong Kong most people would not recognise – a gangster world of money, sex and drugs. A brutal city, without moral order, watched over by a super-cute cat with no mouth that agrees with everything you do.

MELODY’S STORY

Melody (name changed) had just turned 13 years old when decided she’d had enough of her childhood. She loathed her slum estate home, hated her bossy elder brothers and argued constantly with her parents. Just before Lunar New Year in 1998, she ran away. Later she would tell police that she found herself “sitting in a daze in a cheap restaurant, praying that someone would come along and change my luck”. The 18-year-old who sat down at her table certainly did that. Later a Hong Kong court would hear their meeting was: “the most disastrous conjunction of two human beings imaginable”. He wore a fake black Armani suit, gold neck chain, gold ID bracelet. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Leung Wai-lun, but my nickname is Gangster.” Melody was besotted. Why not? Triads are cool; they’ve got money, connections and power. The average Hong Kong movie is a 90-minute advert for gangster chic. Melody and Gangster became lovers that night. Over the next year, visiting her parents only occasionally and school hardly at all, 13-year-old Melody embraced a neon and plastic world of love hotels, nightclubs and karaoke bars with names like Big Spender, Golden Boss and Silver Turbo Dragon. One night, in the Big Echo Karaoke bar, Gangster introduced Melody to his triad “Big Brother”, Chan Man-lok. Chan was a ruthless 34-year-old pimp, loan shark and drug dealer. He said: “You must come and stay at my place.”

THE ICE KING

Chan’s place – a seven-room apartment above Kowloon’s famous shopping street, Granville Road – was perfect. It contained everything you ever needed to block out reality; cable TV, video games, Playstation, Hollywood movies, Hong Kong movies, sex movies and lots and lots of drugs. It had Hello Kitty curtains, Hello Kitty bed-sheets,
Hello Kitty kitchenware and Hello Kitty dolls. Chan used it as an operations center for loan-sharking, pimping, pirate porn and drugs – mostly ice (Metamphetamine), lots and lots of ice. And to understand Chan, to understand what happened in that apartment, you have to understand a little about ice.

Ice doesn’t blow your mind, it dissolves it. According for former users, when you smoke the drug, you do not feel much of the disorientating rush of other narcotics such as heroin, ecstasy or cocaine. The first effects are subtle. Energy levels rise. Body strength increases. Conversation flows. Before long, you feel more than sober. You feel razor sharp, super-strong, indomitable. You are a king. And you are deluded. You body temperature, heart beat and blood pressure have risen to extreme levels. If the room seems brighter and your vision seems more intense it is because you pupils are dilated and your nervous system is speeding up. If you feel impervious to pain it is because the drug soaks your brain with the “feel-good chemicals”, dopamine and serotonin. You are becoming dangerously unbalanced. One user quoted in a Hong Kong Government report on the effects of metamphetamine said: “When I’m iced, all the normal rules of society slip away. Everything is so simple. I just want sex and violence and I don’t care how I get it. I’m a Playstation super-hero and the world is my video game.” Welcome to Chan’s house.

THE VICTIM’S STORY

For their 23-year-old victim, Fan Man-yee, known as Ah Map, the real world was also a place to avoid. Abandoned as a child, Ah Map was raised at Ma Tau Wai girls’ home. By her mid-teens she had settled into a life of petty crime, prostitution and drug addiction. Most of her relationships were with her triad clients and invariably their chief
components were sex, money, power and violence. Her “husband” was also a drug addict. They met while she was working as a dancer in the Empress Karaoke nightclub in May 1996 and gave birth to a son two years later. Neighbours at their Kwai Chung home complained to reporters of being kept awake by the sound of domestic violence.
Ah Map met the man who would preside over her torture, death and dismemberment in 1997 while she was working as a prostitute in inappropriately named Romance Villa, a Kowloon brothel. Chan was a regular client, and the pair often indulged in long sex and ice binges together. But when Ah Map stole Chan’s wallet, containing $4,000, she
made a mistake that would cost her life. And although Ah Map paid Chan back the $4,000 plus another $10,000, the loan shark, as loan shark’s do, demanded a further $16,000 “interest”.

On March 17, 1999, Chan ordered his two accomplices Leung Shing-cho and Gangster to abduct Ah Map from her home. The plan was to hold Fan at the Granville Road apartment and put her to work as a prostitute and take all her earnings until her ever-increasing debt was paid. But the plan had a fatal flaw. A disfigured, battered and bruised prostitute does not attract customers. And for the three triads living in the apartment, high on “ice”, torturing Ah Map was just too much fun. Thirteen year old, Melody told the court: “They beat her all the time . . . They beat her when they were bored. They beat her for laughs.”
From time to time the 14-year-old would join in. Despite saying she liked Ah Map and got on well with her, she recounted in court how she burnt and hit her with the others. Why did she do it? “Well,” she told the court, her face blank, her voice flat and devoid of emotion, “I did it for fun. Just to see what it was like to hurt someone.” Sometimes
her tormentors would make Ah Map laugh out loud and pretend to be happy while she was being beaten. “It was a game they played,” said Melody.
“If she didn’t pretend to be happy they would beat her harder. They told her to laugh and smile while they burnt her. It was a fun atmosphere.”
The apartment’s kitchen became a torturer’s arsenal. Between them they found a use for almost every appliance and condiment. They set drinking straws alight, held down Fan and dripped melted plastic on the soles of her feet until her skin blistered and oozed pus. When they tired of that they lit her feet directly, then beat them with a stick.
Chilli oil was poured on her wounds, oyster sauce thrown on her face. She was made to drink oil. She was beaten with water pipes. She was beaten with metal bars. Often the men would piss on her face or into her mouth, beating her when she failed to swallow their urine. On another occasion, “for a laugh”, the 13-year-old girl shitted in a
shoebox and the men made Ah Map eat it. Sometimes, when there was nothing on the telly, they would string up Ah with electrical wire, hang her from a hook on the ceiling and beat her with iron bars. Then, having grown bored, they would leave her hanging there overnight. Towards the end of Ah Map’s life she would be left to drift in and out of consciousness either on the floor or tied up while her tormentors went off to play video games. “She was broken and playing with her wasn’t so much fun after that,” said Melody. “But we carried on anyway. There wasn’t anything else to do”

MURDER AS PORNOGRAPHY

Perhaps the only aspect of this case more disturbing than Melody’s testimony is its reportage in Hong Kong’s mass market press. All of the newspapers run the story on the front page and all of them show similar images. First there is the court issued photo of Ah Map holding a child. Her eyes are tired, her face is drawn. She is not sexy. But next to the newspapers have other pictures, weirder pictures. These have been generated on computer and show a very different victim. Here Ah Map is the kind of thin armed, pert-breasted, chiseled-cheeked cyber-babe found in any Japanese video game. She has the body of an Asian Lara Croft.. Only, here, of course, she is bound with duct tape and being subjected to a brutal sadism. The newspaper story says you are looking at a representation of a real event. “Girl Eats Shit and Drinks Piss” says the banner headline and a computer image beneath it shows just that. Yet, really, they might as well be stills from graphic Japanese pornography or X-rated manga. This is the most unpleasant crime to come to court in many years and yet the pictures seem to celebrate it. Clearly Meoldy and her wired triad friends aren’t the only ones living a cartoon world.

Chatting outside the court that morning, the chief prosecutor says: “This case has taken my breath away. It is the ugliest and evilest case I can remember. It is not just the facts are grim, but the characters involved – they seem to be completely without any normal human emotion.” I ask him what he thinks happened to the minds of Ah Map’s
torturers. “I think they went mad without realising it,” he says. “Living together in that flat, high on drugs, they started to believe their world was normal. They had only themselves against which to measure their sense of human decency. Torture became a game for them. In their twisted minds it became acceptable.” Later, reading these
notes back, I wonder if they don’t apply to the whole city.

THE FINAL DAYS

One day – after the torture had been going on for almost a month – Melody woke up and found Ah Map dead. She had spent the previous couple of days on the bathroom floor and, ignored, had passed away overnight. They talked about what to do with the body all afternoon but were unable to come to a decision. So Ah Map was left on the floor. “In the evening we went out to play more video games in a nearby arcade,” Melody told the court. “Then we came back and fell asleep.” The corpse stayed where it was. The next day Chan, steeled by another “ice” binge, gathered his men. “Now she must be destroyed,” he told them. “She will go into thin air.” In the gruesome 10-hour operation that followed Ah Map’s corpse was lifted into a bathtub and cut up. Chan himself cut off the head with a wood saw while his triad underlings stripped and bagged
the flesh, storing it in a refrigerator. Melody recalls being woken to find her boyfriend handing her a plastic bag containing Ah Map’s butchered intestines. He told her: “Go
cover them in hot water to stop them smelling.”

Later while Leung Shing-cho was cooking the head, he called Melody over. “Come here, take a look,” he said. “No, I’m scared,” said the teenage girl. “Just pretend you’re watching television,” he said. So she did and told the court: “When I looked in the pot and saw the skull boiling I thought he was right – it looked like the one we saw in a
film.” In the middle of the macabre production line, they broke for lunch. The head was still boiling on one hob while they cooked noodles on the other – the same spoon was used to stir both pots. Once the head was boiled down to a skull, Fei-tsai took the initiative of hiding it inside the giant Hello Kitty mermaid doll.

HELLO KITTY, WHAT YOU DOING HERE?

Hello Kitty is not famous for any film, cartoon or book. Unlike all the Disney characters she did not emerge first as a character in a story. Moral judgements are not her bag. She just sits and empathises: silent , mouthless, beatifically cute. According to her creators, Japan’s Sanrio Company, she weighs as much as “three apples” and likes
“small cute things, like stars, candy and goldfish”. Her image appears on a staggering 15,000 products (body bags are not among them) with another 300 to 600 new ones (not counting counterfeits) appearing every month.

It took me a while to notice Yammie in Court 13. Almost every item she wears or carries is stamped with or accessorised by Sanrio’s little icon. “Normally I am a medical reporter,” she says, “but for the last year I have badgered my editor to let me cover this case.” Yammie, 26, is obsessed with the cat. “We were born in the same year – 1974,” she says. She has been to Hello Kitty Land in Japan four times.
“You must be angry about what they did with the Hello Kitty mermaid,” I suggest. “No,” she says, “anything can happen to Hello Kitty, that’s the point. In fact, that’s what the mermaid is all about - cat head and fish body. It is crazy and upside down. Everything – even crazy stuff – makes sense to Hello Kitty.” On the last day of the trial, when the verdict comes in - manslaughter not murder – Yammie isn’t pleased. (The jury chose manslaughter because of the possibility that Ah Map’s drug intake contributed to her death. The three triads got life in any case.)”Do you want to go to the flat and ask Ah Map’s ghost what she thinks of the result?” Yammie says. It is midnight when we arrive at Granville Road. Stripped of its shoppers, the area reveals a new character. Triad types loiter on street corners, giggling packs of karaoke girls in denim jeans and platform shoes pass by in a haze of menthol ciggies and hairspray. The front entrance to the flat is chained and bolted. A marker-pen sign has been scrawled across the door: “Warning. If you enter here without permission you will die a sudden death.” The back door, however, is open and we enter. Broken glass and trash crunch underfoot. Yammie’s Hello Kitty torch throws a dim light on a broken world, picking out various Hello Kitty products decaying in the trash. A circle of candle stubs and moldy oranges skewered with incense sticks mark the spot where Ah Map died. The surrounding floor space is littered with Hell’s Banknotes, which the Chinese burn to send to their
dead. Yammie tells me many Hong Kong magazines have conducted seances in which they successfully interviewed Ah Map. She kneels down on spot where Ah Map died, joins her hands in prayer and tries to speak to the dead woman.

“Any luck,” I ask, in between her Cantonese incantations. “No, I think she is eating.” Then Yammie’s torchlight catches something in the room where Ah Map was held. A blue Hello Kitty china doll with a chipped ear has somehow survived the endless police searches and press visits. Yammie, without embarrassment, speaks to it. “It belonged to Ah Map,” she says, adding: “It’s a fake, of course, you can tell by the poor colouring.”
“Does Hello Kitty hate the people who killed Ah Map?” I ask. “Oh no,” she says. “Hello Kitty doesn’t hate anybody. She never tells you off.” Hello Kitty, the perfect icon for an amoral age.

Words by Tom Hilditch
Original post: http://hkmurder.wordpress.com