SCMP Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Feeding on tragedy


Four-year-old Cheung Chi-ho barely understood why his father, who committed suicide last month, had suddenly disappeared from his life. Nor was he sure why strangers were suddenly taking him out and buying him hamburgers, a treat his poverty-stricken family had never been able to afford.
As he and his 11-year-old brother chomped cheerfully on meals at McDonald's, the day after their father's death, he was captured on film. The strangers were reporters and the burgers were being bought at least partly because they wanted to publish pictures of Chi-ho eating them.
The tragedy which has beset Chi-ho's family has captured the public imagination and was still being discussed at a Kwai Tsing District Board meeting yesterday. The tear-jerking newspaper and television stories have prompted donations for the family from members of the public and exposed failings in the social-welfare system.
But they have also led to allegations that Chi-ho and his brother Chi-shing, have been exploited by the media in the pursuit of a good story. Doubts have been expressed about whether it was acceptable for the young boys to face questions about the tragedy on the day their father died and then, the next day, to be taken to McDonald's by reporters and photographed tucking into burgers.
One resident in the family's neighbourhood expressed disgust at television footage showing the boys being fed hamburgers.
"It is good for the media to report the tragedy, but is it necessary to feed the boys food in front of the camera? It is rather like a show instead of news reporting," the neighbour said.
The brothers' mentally ill father, Cheung Man-sum, jumped to his death at Cheung Hong Estate in Tsing Yi on April 30. The part-time restaurant worker, who sometimes made only a few hundred dollars a month, left behind his wife, two young sons and an 81-year-old mother suffering from the later stages of cancer.
The family caught the attention of the media not so much because of the suicide, but because of the appalling circumstances in which they lived. It was seen as a scandal that such conditions could exist in a city which Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has pledged to transform into Asia's answer to London or New York.
The family of five was so poor they could only afford to spend $10 on each meal - $2 a head. The sick grandmother's social-security allowance of about $1,600 has been their main source of income. Cheap fish that most people would only feed to pet cats provided the family with their major source of nutrition.
Pictures of Cheung's widow and the two boys in front of a big bowl of "fish for cats" were splashed across the front page of several popular Chinese-language newspapers on Tuesday of last week, the day after their father died.
Despite the way in which the story intruded into the family's grief, the pictures had a powerful effect. They instantly conveyed the daily struggle experienced by people in the poorest section of the community.
The case has demonstrated the power the media can wield in fighting for social justice. The news reports won an overwhelming response from readers and exposed how government red-tape can delay the provision of aid to people who urgently need it.
Kind-hearted members of the public, touched by the media coverage, donated money, food, clothes and toys to the family. Some people travelled from far corners of the SAR to visit the family and offer comfort. Concerned neighbours launched a fund-raising campaign so the father could receive proper funeral arrangements. The family so far has received about $200,000 in donations from various sources.
Cheung's widow, Chan Chui-chun, has been struck by the response of people who want to help. Ms Chan, who came to Hong Kong from the mainland about a year ago, said: "I would never have thought that Hong Kong people are so kind, I am very grateful to them."
Her mother-in-law, Chan Yuet-har, wept when she recalled how two elderly men had travelled from Nam Tin and Chai Wan to visit them. "The two men are also receiving social security, but they did not mind giving us some money. We are all poor people, we share our sufferings, and we cry together," she said.
Given this response to news coverage of the family's plight, the media might have expected nothing but praise. But this was not to be the case. Questions are being asked about the effect of the coverage on the boys.
As the first reports appeared in the press, Director of Social Welfare Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor publicly expressed concern about over-sensational reporting. Although she did not mention any specific case, her comments were widely interpreted as referring to the Cheung family tragedy.
Amid the furore about the boys' plight and possible failings in the social-welfare system, the timing of Ms Lam's remarks were criticised by legislators and sections of the press. She clarified her remarks, stating that she simply wanted to encourage the media to adopt a more positive approach.
There are those who think Ms Lam may have had a point, if she was targeting the coverage of the family tragedy. Serious concerns about the overall impact of the coverage on the children have been expressed by a district board member and a psychologist.
These concerns grew when follow-up stories began appearing in numerous Chinese-language newspapers. Reporters were clamouring to take Chi-ho and Chi-shing for a meal - realising this was a treat the children never even dreamed about when their father was alive.
According to a report in Sing Tao, one television film crew took two hamburgers to the family home and asked the brothers - who by this time had already had their fill of burgers - to take a bite for the benefit of the cameras.
The case has rekindled memories of the controversy surrounding Chan Kin-hong, a widower who was paid by reporters to go gallivanting in Shenzhen, looking for women, just days after his wife jumped to her death together with her two children.
Extensive reporting of Mr Chan's behaviour caused a public outcry. The incident prompted Apple Daily to publish a front-page apology. It also rekindled the debate about whether there should be a press council to regulate the behaviour of the Hong Kong media.
In the case of the two boys, cheque-book journalism is not much of an issue as only a few dollars were spent on hamburgers. But there was still an element of manufacturing a story as reporters apparently vied to show readers how well they were treating the boys.
Mak Yin-ting, chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association, said reporters were wrong if they intended to take the children to McDonald's or give them other treats in order to exploit their plight.
"It is difficult to prove the reporters' intention. It would be wrong for a reporter to bring the kids to have a hamburger with an intention to take a picture," she said. "Such an act derails a journalist from the role to observe and report the facts. It is rather like directing the news."
A District Board member, who did not wish to be identified, was worried that the sensational coverage and donations the family received may have a detrimental effect.
"When other people see that the family is given so much money, they may think committing suicide is rewarded in some form - at least it may bring a fortune to their families after they died. Such a mentality will be very dangerous," he said.
Mak, however, emphasised that the media must be free to expose injustices in society. "The media has an important role in digging out the truth. The case tells us that in such an affluent place as Hong Kong, there are families still living with a bad quality of life. The children cannot enjoy their rights. I do not see why the media should not report this.
"The reports may sadden some people, but it is the fact that there are people living in poverty and they need help. The Government should act to solve the problems instead of criticising the press."
Others feel the media ought to be applauded for revealing how the Social Welfare Department failed to react to help the family. The day of Cheung's death was a public holiday and no one from the department visited the family to offer them emergency assistance until two days later, when the family was already receiving donations from members of the public.
Carmen Chan Ka-mun, a Kwai Tsing District Board member, said the department had made a mistake by not responding at once. She asked: "Does it mean the poor people do not need to eat during public holidays?"
The Kwai Tsing District Board yesterday discussed the case and called on the department to act more promptly to similar cases in future.
Social workers at the department have admitted to making a "misjudgment" in the case. The department has now issued $25,000 in emergency assistance for the family and about $8,000 in Comprehensive Social Security Assistance payments.
A department spokesman said: "We are concerned very much about the interest of the boys. We have a welfare plan for them including counselling from clinical psychologists and child-care services for the family."
The way the young boys were interviewed by the media angered some professionals. Tsang Lai-man, a clinical psychologist at Hong Kong Caritas, said interviewing young children immediately after the sudden loss of a parent should always be avoided.
"We should all protect the children and help them to let out their grief and stress. Interviewing them at that very moment is too intrusive. Asking them so many questions will put them under stress."
She added that children of three or four years old might have difficulty understanding what adults say. Children could be easily distracted simply by giving them a toy or nice food. But it did not mean their emotional well-being was taken care of.
"When children lose their parents, there is so much uncertainty in their mind. Distracting them for a moment without proper counselling means their uncertainties just keep accumulating."
The family is now applying to the Housing Department to move to Shamshuipo, where they will be able to receive more support from relatives living in the area.
The grandmother hopes to be given a place in a home for the elderly. "I will never forget how other people helped us. We are poor, but at least our family can live together. That is what we treasure the most," she said.
Ella Lee ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.