Words by Tom Hilditch AS YOU drive from Central to Tuen Mun the tourist emblems of Hong Kong disappear one by one. First go the syringe-skyscrapers, the five star hotels and polished shopping centres. Then you lose the designer shops, the boutique cafes, the cavernous restaurants and their blazing neon signs. Finally even the old style tenements, their colourful markets and bustling streets fade away and you are left, as you complete the journey of between two and five hours, amid a clinical arrangement of brutal, sodium-lit, concrete tower blocks, shrivelled trees and broken playgrounds.
Tuen Mun slid from a governmental drawing board into the far east corner of the New Territories in the late 1970s – a brand new satellite town for 480,000 souls with its own leisure facilities and industries. It was supposed to be self-contained with most residents working locally. But when China’s cheap labour dragged manufacturers over the border, Tuen Mun’s residents found themselves having to make the arduous journey into Kowloon and Hong Kong for work. Today the satellite town’s most famous local products seem to be broken families, latch-key and home alone children.
Here, money is scarce and boredom an art form. Truancy and juvenile crime are among the highest in the territory. On any given day lethargic youths clog the shopping centres and playgrounds high on prescription drugs and bottles of cough mixture bought from Tuen Mun’s notoriously lax chemists. Heroin, “ice” and other narcotics are also available. The Sun Yee On triad has a powerful grip on Tuen Mun, running building sites, drugs, vice and loan-sharking. They recruit in the schoolyard. In 1992 Ip Kin-mei, a 13-year-old boy, was beaten to death by his schoolmates for refusing to join.
The sense of community planners envisaged never happened. At night, along the raw concrete corridors there is a sense of siege. Every iron door is bolted shut. Televisions blare. Family arguments rage. Gambling addiction, particularly among mahjong-playing housewives, is commonplace and Sun Yee On’s many loansharks exploit them with ready loans. Standards of literacy and education among adults is low. Child abuse is the worst in Hong Kong. According to Action Against Child Abuse, Tuen Mun’s problem is “inadequate parenting skills and social isolation”.
This is Hong Kong minus the money. A dormitory town for shampoo boys, karaoke girls and building site labourers. A Hong Kong of stone-washed denim jeans, of knapsacks, tattoos, white socks, mainland haircuts and plastic shoes. And it was here that Lam Kwok-wai spent his formative years. His father, already 60, stepmother and four siblings were the first residents in a 450- square-foot flat of Tai Hing House. When they arrived in 1980 the block was new and the planners’ delicate dreams still intact. But over the next 14 years their new home would decay inexorably. The paint in the corridors would peel away and be replaced by graffiti and brown spit stains. Adverts for “quick and easy” loans would appear on the lift walls and, in a desperate bid to stem the number of suicides, the management would lock the roof and brick up the upper storey communal windows.
For the young Lam, however, life was already miserable. His biological mother had left the family to live with another man when he was three. His father, a hawker, was drinking a catty of rice wine a night, his new stepmother was miserable and his relationship with his brothers and sisters was loveless. Crammed into their tiny one-bedroomed flat, the young Lam quickly learnt the classic Chinese strategy for communal living – silence.
According to his sister the atmosphere in the family flat was ugly beyond repair: “Night after night father would sit and drink and say nothing while the rest of the family would watch television in silence. Sometimes no more than a few words would be spoken in that flat over the course of a week.” As time went by Lam withdrew into himself. Later he would tell psychiatrists of “a terrible feeling of boredom and emptiness”. His school life was a disaster. The move to Tuen Mun required his third move to a new school in as many years. His conduct was poor and after repeating Form One and doing badly he decided to quit school forever at 15.
The same year Lam’s father got into trouble with loansharks and had to flee to Macau for a while. Lam took the chance to get out of the house. “I began hanging out with other boys my age in gangs in the parks around Tuen Mun,” he told psychiatrists. “Sometimes we would pass the time stealing or shoplifting. Sometimes we would beat people up or get into gang-fights. Once or twice we chased and killed dogs – anything to get rid of the boredom.”
One time, he went too far and aged 15 was sentenced to two months in a detention centre. On his release he drifted from one menial job to another and continued living in silence with his family and hanging out with his peers at night. “I started getting into gambling – playing cards with the others in the park,” he told psychiatrists. “Then when I was 18 I tried drugs, mainly because everyone else was.” The drugs were Mandrax, cough syrup and marijuana but none of them appealed to him as much as alcohol.
“My girlfriend Ah-sum taught me to drink every day and I liked it very much. Beer and brandy are my favourite but wine is good too. I liked the effect. It made me able to wander around aimlessly without feeling bored. I liked the way it made me feel retarded.”
To describe Lam’s self-esteem as low is an understatement. He dumped his girlfriend because “she was too superior to me, from a better family and much more successful at school,” and settled instead into a patten of casual affairs and weekly visits to Mongkok prostitutes.
Excitement and status became his Holy Grails. Playing cards gave way to gambling trips to Macau. Petty theft gave way to “more exciting” theft from cars. Finally he discovered his penultimate kick – road racing. “I think he was some kind of genius at illegal road-racing,” said Chief Inspector Wong Win-kee. “His will to win blocked out everything else. He would rather die than lose face by doing badly in a race. He would think nothing of causing others to crash or risk pedestrian life. The adrenalin kick and the status he got from winning became addictive. Afterwards, I think he found real life just too boring.”
April 24, 1992 was an average day in Tuen Mun: a 13-year old boy had tried and failed to commit suicide because his teachers punished him for wearing hair-gel, a student doctor had tried and succeeded because her grades weren’t good enough. Lam had been drinking heavily. Late into night he suddenly decided to wrap his quest for power, love, status and sexual satisfaction into one ugly, violent act. His first victim was just 19-years-old. Lam followed her as she got out of a taxi and walked into the No 1 lift of Oi Ming House. As the doors were closing Lam burst in and squeezed her throat with his right hand until blood spots appeared on her cheeks and eyelids. She awoke in a pool of blood on the third floor staircase, her jeans pulled down, her top pulled up and her virginity gone.
Her rape was no big news in Tuen Mun, where the number of rapes committed is double that elsewhere in Hong Kong, and made only a couple of paragraphs in three of the Chinese papers. Two months later almost to the day Lam struck again, randomly tailing a woman as she returned home at 4.30 am. This woman was 32-years-old and worked as a waitress in Wan Chai’s Club Versailles – but she could have been anyone. She was grabbed from behind, his right hand on her neck, squeezing until the blood seeped out of the veins on her face, her eyes and her eardrums.
“I slept at home all day and woke up very late,” he rather matter-of-factly told police later. “I was bored. I walked and walked near Tai Hing Estate until I saw a plump, shortish woman walking in my direction. At the time I just wanted to snatch her things. But when I went up to her she resisted. I grabbed her neck with my hands. She got dizzy. I dragged her underneath a staircase of a nearby building. I took off her trousers and mine and raped her.” Afterwards Lam went home, got into his bunk bed fully clothed and slept. His family never asked him where he had been. His family had stopped communicating with one other.
Two months later, almost to the day, he struck again. A 39-year-old woman was grabbed from behind at 4 am. Waking 50 minutes later she was half-naked. Two months later a 32-year-old woman entered lift two of Hing Ping House at 11.30.pm. As the lift doors were closing Lam rushed in and gripped her throat until she passed out. Then he dragged her to a stairwell on the 28th floor. One month later he raped a 32-year-old woman, 25 days later he raped a 28-year-old woman. She spent three days in hospital recovering. The style – bursting into a lift on a lone woman late at night and strangling her until she passed out – did not waver.
By now the people of Tuen Mun and the press were in a state of panic. It was clear a brutal serial rapist was on the loose, a rapist capable of strangling women to the point of death. His victims had been lucky to wake up again.
Li Hing was not so lucky. The 50-year-old Yaohan department store assistant was returning from a mahjong game at 4am when she entered the lift to her home in the Yau Oi estate. Lam Kwok-wai had spent the evening in his usual “retarded” stupor. “On the day I felt really bored, ” he later told police. “I sat around at home, then I went for a walk. Later I took a taxi to go home. On passing the Yau Oi estate I saw the hawkers selling food. I stopped the cab and bought some food from the hawker. I sat in the park outside Yau Oi estate, eating the food and drinking the beer. I drank a couple of bottles. I don’t know how long it was but later I saw the unaccompanied woman walking towards the building. I suddenly felt very excited and wanted to have her.
“I followed her into the lift. She was a bit fat and had messy hair. Each of us pressed one button. We were standing face to face. As the lift doors closed I grabbed her by the neck. When the lift door opened I pushed her out and dragged her to the rear staircase. At the staircase I pushed her on to the floor and seized her neck with my hands till she stopped moving. Then I pulled up her clothes and took off her pants. I rubbed her belly and lowered my trousers and raped her.” What Lam forgot to mention but forensic examination revealed is that he had raped and sodomised Li Hing after he had killed her.
Public panic slipped into hysteria. Although in 1992 there had been seven murders and a total of 16 reported rapes in Tuen Mun, Sik Moh or Sex Devil as the Chinese press dubbed Lam, became the focus of the area’s law and order concerns. Local politicians seized on the chance to win instant support by knocking the police, complaining about their low profile in the area and slow response to the serial rapist.
Marches and demonstrations were co-ordinated as the “community” organised and hit back. No one stopped to ask what kind of “community” Tuen Mun was when cries for help from the six raped women had almost certainly been heard and ignored by neighbours and that up to 20 people may have stepped over Li Hing’s body on the way to work before the murder was eventually reported.
The police response was not obvious because it was mostly covert. Extra units were drafted in undercover. Each night until Lam was eventually caught, a collection of women police officers posed as decoys, climbing in and out of lifts alone between midnight and 6 am while male officers waited to assist on upper floors. “I have never been so worried about my team,” said Chief Inspector Wong. “Our pathologists believe that Lam’s throat grip could kill within five seconds. The lift would take at least 10 seconds to get to the first floor which meant these women officers stood a good chance of being murdered.” Naturally it was volunteers only.
As the police operation grew the force employed the Miidass (Major Incident Investigation and Disaster Support System) computer which had been used in the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. Everyone convicted of wife battering, assault and sexual offences was scrutinised. An inordinate number were trailed and arrested. But Sik Moh – fitting none of the usual rapist profiles, being just 21, living at home and having no previous sexual offences – remained at large.
A few months after Li Hing’s murder Lam telephoned Wong Kwong-ching, an old schoolmate and perhaps his only friend. The conversation was surreal. “I’ve killed someone – it’s on the news now,” said Lam.
Still holding the phone Wong checked the screen.
“Do you like women who are 50-years-old?” he asked.
“Don’t ask,” said Lam. “Look, do you think I am mentally unbalanced?”
“I don’t know what to say,” Wong replied and hung up.
Later he phoned the police hotline and, treading a strange line between his loyalty to a friend and his responsibility to the community, said only: “You should make your photo-fit thinner in the face,” and then hung up.
On April 14, 1993, Lam killed again. His victim was Mak Siu-han, a 22-year-old disc jockey returning home from a stint at the New World Hotel’s Catwalk Disco at 5 am. She was found raped and dead between the fifth and sixth floors of Hing Shing House where she lived at 7.45 am. By counting the number of people who used the stairwell between 6 am and 7.45 am police estimated that this time up to 40 people may have stepped over the body before the murder was reported.
Lam’s nonchalant explanation is typically chilling: “I did not want to kill her. I just squeezed her neck too hard,” he told investigators later. Once again the story of how he spent the evening before the murder is one long catalogue of wandering around and getting “so drunk I vomited” on the roadside. His description of the murder is the most graphic he ever gave police: “I got into the lift together with her. We stood face to face. I had a sudden impulse. I wanted to have her. I grabbed the girl with my right hand and squeezed her neck. When the lift door opened I pushed her out of the lift and carried her to the rear staircase. I put her on the floor. The girl came round and started to yell. I became more excited. I couldn’t stop myself. I had this strong desire to have her. I kicked her and beat her. She lost consciousness and lay on the ground. I lowered her jeans and underpants . . .
The following night more than 200 Tuen Mun residents took to the streets in demonstration against inadequate policing. Security escort services were set up. Fear now paralysed the locals. Lam, meanwhile, deciding “the heat was too much” fled Tuen Mun to stay with his elder sister in Hunghom. Here he murdered Lau Sui-man a 23-year-old karaoke public relations hostess and he raped again on July 11, 1993. On this occasion the victim regained consciousness and struggled home.
Lam’s move to Hunghom did not fool police. His method of attack was as clear as a signature and he officially became Hong Kong’s most prolific serial rapist. (Police also believe traditional reluctance of Chinese women to admit they have been raped means Lam’s true number of victims is probably 15 or 16). Police fed the information into Miidass but got no nearer to him.
Lam’s tenth and last rape was the strangest. The sequence of events that led to his arrest are too weird for fiction and too weird for fact anywhere but in Hong Kong. Some psychologists say he wanted to be caught.
On August 8, 1993, just after 1.30 am, he attacked and raped a 21-year-old woman in Hunghom’s Mei King Street. He beat her face and kicked her and raped her on a wooden cart in a side street. Then suddenly, in the middle of it all, he stopped and started chatting. Petrified, the girl stood, wiped the blood from her face and chatted back to him. They walked along the road together and shared a cigarette. Then Lam turned to the girl he had just beaten and raped and said: “Will you be my girlfriend?” The girl said yes – anything to keep his mood from swinging violently. A date was arranged at the UA Whampoa cinema the next evening. “Please be there,” said Lam. “I’m a mess now in this old T-shirt and jeans but I promise I will be smart tomorrow. You’ll be proud of me.”
When she got home the woman told her mother-in-law she had been raped. Her mother-in-law told her to forget about it. The following afternoon she told her brother, a Correctional Services officer, who took her to the police to make a report. That night the Hunghom police were involved in several other operations and could only spare two men to stake out the Whampoa Ship cinema. The victim’s brother was asked to help them out.
Everything was arranged: if Lam turned up the woman would scratch her head and the police would grab him. At 8.30 pm Lam sidled up the polished marble floor of the Whampoa Ship to the girl he had raped and beaten less than a day before. He wore a creased white shirt, ironed black dress trousers and black all-leather shoes. His hair was heavily gelled and he smelt ever so slightly of cologne. The woman welcomed him and scratched her head violently. Nothing happened. She scratched more. Still nothing. The cops, wherever they were, had been distracted. Finally the woman screamed out, the two police moved in and Lam ran for it. The police never got close to Lam. In the end it was the victim’s brother who rugby tackled him. But Lam will tell anyone who asks that he would easily have outrun them all if only he hadn’t wanted to make a special impression, if only he hadn’t worn those leather shoes.
In police custody Lam, the ruthless killer and rapist, cut a pathetic figure. “He wanted to be loved,” said Chief Inspector Wong. “He was very lonely. He cried a lot and kept asking for officers to come and visit him in jail.” Feigning friendship, police eased out his confessions. Then the strangest thing happened. “Lam had just confessed to the murder of the three women,” said a police source, “when he started screaming.” He slid off his chair and started writhing on the floor, banging his head on the tiles.
Kneeling down to restrain him, officers found his face was covered in sweat and his eyeballs were vibrating in their sockets. Lam was whispering: “I can see them. They are watching me. I can see their ghosts going round the table.” Climbing back on to his chair Lam started crying for the first time. Then, inexplicably, he bent his head forward and fell into a deep sleep.
Lam was obsessed with the murder weapon – his own hands. He spoke often of the power he felt as he closed his fingers on a woman’s soft throat. He had even given his hand a name as if it wasn’t a human hand at all but a tool designed especially for murder. He called it his “fork”.
In court he spent a lot of time staring at his “fork” and stroking the contours of his right thumb and forefinger as if they weren’t supposed to be attached to him. And in the Siu Lam psychiatric centre he tried to turn the weapon on himself. Perhaps he had forgotten the hand is connected to the same power system as the brain, forgotten that when he became unconscious his grip would loosen. Whatever, he put his “fork” to his throat and squeezed like his life depended on it.