HONG KONG - This city is grieving. Flags are flying at half staff, tears are
flowing and eulogies are already being spoken for the eight Hong Kong tourists
who were killed on Monday after being held hostage for more than 10 hours by a
former Filipino policeman turned gunman on a tour bus in the heart of Manila.
While most of the dead were believed to have been shot by the gunman, Manila
police cannot rule out that some were killed in crossfire during the rescue
This is the first time in history that a Hong Kong tour group has ever been
held hostage in a foreign country.
But Hong Kong is also angry - very angry - from the chief executive down to the
average person in the street. Death calls for mourning. Needless, pointless
death provokes rage. And in this
case, Hong Kongers are of the opinion that if not for what appears the rank
incompetence of the Philippine police, those eight residents of their city
would still be alive, and seven more would not have been injured. Five of the
victims, three of whom died, were also Canadian citizens.
The bodies of the dead arrived back in Hong Kong on Wednesday night, and three
minutes of silence were observed across the city for the victims at 8.00 am on
Since the tragedy of errors unfolded on live television on Monday night, Hong
Kong has been rife with pleas for an explanation, an apology, and even revenge.
Newspaper editorials screamed for justice and accountability, and protesters
besieged the Philippine consulate in the city, condemning the country's
government for its confused response to the crisis, which stretched out for an
agonizing 10 hours.
The fury that some Hong Kong people feel over the hostage debacle has spilled
over into racist appeals for retribution, with Internet posts calling for
Filipino maids in the city to be sacked and sent home. There have been reports
that some Filipino maids were hurled insults on streets by local people, so
much so that some maids have been advised by their employers not to go out.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino's Facebook page has also been the target of
a torrent of incendiary attacks, some of which carry clearly racist overtones.
About 140,000 Filipinos live in Hong Kong, most of them working as domestic
helpers, so mass sackings and deportations would have a major impact on the
city's way of life while also bringing Hong Kong international opprobrium.
Thankfully, despite the hateful, irrational cyber rants, nothing like that is
going to happen. Grief will subside, daily routine will return and tempers will
cool. Then the people of Hong Kong will once again realize that this city would
be brought to its knees without its army of amahs from Indonesia, the
Philippines and elsewhere in Asia.
It is this cheap, imported labor that allows Hong Kong's upper and middle
classes to put in all those long, productive hours at the office without
worrying about child care, washing of their clothes and the mopping, scrubbing
and sweeping of their homes.
In many unrecognized ways, this huge force of underpaid foreign workers makes
Hong Kong click. The city simply would not be the financial powerhouse it is
Nevertheless, there is a lot to be angry about. Philippine Interior Secretary
Jesse Robredo has admitted to a series of blunders that allowed a disgruntled
former police officer, 55-year-old Rolando Mendoza, to walk through the streets
of Manila carrying a M-16 assault rifle before seizing control of a Hong Kong
Thai Travel tour bus carrying 25 tourists.
Mendoza, a decorated senior inspector who was demanding to be reinstated after
his discharge last year for extortion, could have been taken out by SWAT
(special weapons and tactics) snipers as he sat in clear view staring out a bus
window, hours before he shot the tourists. But, at that point, SWAT officers
decided not to fire on Mendoza, who had agreed to free nine of his hostages.
They believed that the crisis could be resolved peacefully.
Things went badly wrong, however, when Mendoza's brother, Gregorio, also a
police officer, showed up unannounced carrying a firearm and offering to help.
Police wrestled Gregorio to the ground and arrested him while, on the bus, his
brother, like many in Hong Kong, watched the drama unfold on live TV.
Soon thereafter shots were fired, and the SWAT team decided to storm the bus,
struggling to break though its windows with clumsy sledgehammers. An hour
later, they finally succeeded in boarding the bus and killing their man - but
that was far too late to save the lives of the Hong Kong tourists.
Manila's metropolitan police chief and the four SWAT officers who led the
assault have since been suspended. The Philippine government has also promised
a full investigation of the failed effort and announced plans to send a
delegation to Hong Kong to explain more fully what went wrong. On the night of
the tragedy, the Philippine president's failure to take a phone call from Hong
Kong chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen led Tsang to publicly vent his
dissatisfaction with Philippine authorities.
''It is most regrettable,'' he said, fighting back tears. ''The way it was
handled, particularly the outcome, I find is disappointing. I hope the
Philippine government can give me a full account of what happened.''
Tsang subsequently issued a travel warning, advising Hong Kong residents to
scrap any Philippines holiday plans.
Aquino later expressed condolences to the relatives of those killed but also
defended the police and blamed the media for inflaming the crisis with live
coverage that was being watched by the hijacker.
He failed to mention, however, that it was the police who had allowed the media
a bird's-eye view and did nothing to disperse them. When critics insisted that
the government should have imposed a news blackout on such a potentially
explosive situation, a clearly conflicted president responded: ''If we ordered
a news blackout, you would tell us we were guilty of censoring the news. We did
Aquino's remarks only served to fan the flames of anger in Hong Kong, where the
authorities view the promise of a full investigation and clear explanation of
the tragedy by Manila with skepticism. The city's security minister, Ambrose
Lee Siu-kwong, has raised the prospect of undertaking his own investigation.
International hostage-taking dramas have a long history of bedeviling Filipino
In 1986, less than a year into the first term of the late Corazon Aquino,
mother of the current president, communist rebels seized an executive from
Mitsui Group, one of Japan's largest conglomerates. Wakaoji Noboyuki was
eventually freed; in the interim, however, relations between the two countries
were badly strained, and Japanese investors lost faith.
In April of 2000, the presidency of Joseph Estrada was also cursed by a hostage
crisis when 21 people - 10 foreigners and 11 resort workers - were kidnapped by
the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf from the Malaysian island of Sipadan.
They were then taken to one of the group's jungle havens on the southern island
As the ordeal dragged on, with Abu Sayyaf regularly updating its demands
through the media, a Filipino television evangelist and 12 of his followers
headed into the Mindanao jungle that July to negotiate the release of the
hostages. But they, along with three employees of a French television station
and a German journalist, were also seized. It was September before the hostages
were released, and the mediation of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi appeared to
have had more impact on their liberation than anything the Philippine
government had done.
Less than a year later, Abu Sayyaf struck again on the southern resort island
of Palawan, taking 20 hostages and eventually killing five, including two
Americans. In addition, at least 22 Filipino soldiers were killed in attempts
to free the hostages during their 12 months in captivity. This happened four
months after Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Aquino's predecessor, assumed office.
Taken as a whole, it is a bleak index - to which Hong Kong has now added its
own terrible tally.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at