Skip to main content

Incident at Heathrow 希思羅事件

Beep, beep, beep.

The x-ray machine went off as I walked through the gantry. I was going through security at Terminal 3 of London’s Heathrow Airport, where I was to take a connecting flight back to Hong Kong from Geneva. I didn't understand why there was no direct flights between Hong Kong and Switzerland. I also didn't understand why connecting passengers who had just got off a plane and never left the restricted area would need to go through security again.

Even the purple and yellow signage inspires hatred

Airport security officer Patel* signaled me over and asked me to stretch my arms for a manual screening. He began waving a handheld metal detector over my body. “Lift your arms higher please,” he said. I complied.

I didn’t have any cell phone, loose change or keys on me. It had to be my belt. But I thought belt buckles wouldn't set off airport alarms. I am a frequent traveler and I don't remember ever removing my belt. And why didn’t the same belt give me problems at Terminal 5 when I passed through London just a few days ago?

Surely enough the metal detector beeped when it swished over my stomach. “Please remove your belt, sir,” Patel said.

I removed the offending belt and placed it in a plastic bin held by female officer Dolton.

What followed was a full body pad-down conducted by Patel. It was more invasive than a police frisk in a drug raid. He ran both the palm and the back of his hands down the arms, over the torso, up the thighs and into the groin. For all intents and purposes, Officer Patel was groping me. In any other setting it would have been considered sexual assault. But it was perfectly acceptable because I was at Heathrow.

"Awwww... yeeaaaah!"

When his hands began to travel from my sides down to the buttocks, I finally said to him, “Is this really necessary? I have already taken off my belt, why don’t you just let me walk through the machine and see if it beeps again?” It sounded like a sensible suggestion; certainly more efficient than what he was doing.

“We can’t let you do that, sir. This is our procedure,” Dolton answered for her colleague. The two were playing tag team.

“I guess some passengers just don’t appreciate being groped because of a belt buckle, that’s all.” I stated the obvious.

“That’s the way we do things here. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to fly this airport,” Patel snapped, taking back the conversation.

“Is that your answer to every question around here: 'you don't have to fly this airport?'” I snapped back. Most passengers don’t get to choose which airport they connect at, and I certainly would have taken my business elsewhere if I could.

“That’s a perfectly sound answer.” Dolton weaseled her way back into the conversation again, ever the faithful sidekick to her partner.

My friends were all waiting behind me on the other side of the x-ray machine just three feet away. They were getting impatient and rather concerned. “What’s going on?” one of them asked.

“Don’t get me started. It’s ridiculous,” I said to my friend, shaking my head.

As if I had just uttered the word “bomb” or “terrorist,” Patel aborted the pad-down as soon as he heard what I said. “Sir, you have now distracted my search with your talking,” he lied. “You have made it impossible for me to complete my procedure,” he lied some more. “And now I need you to step over to the private room.” That last bit was true.

“That’s right, the private room,” Dolton grinned. “That sounds like a good idea!” Her grin now turned into a laugh, and she began to snort like a common swine.

Ah, the private room! I had heard about it before. In the United States before an airport security officer conducts a full body pad-down, he or she will recite a scripted warning the way a cop does the Miranda rights. The warning goes like this: I am about to give you a pad-down. You have the right to request the procedure be conducted in a private room and you have the right to have the pat-down witnessed by a person of your choice.

No one knows what goes on in the private room. No one wants to know. Its name conjures up images of the Turkish prison in the movie Midnight Express or Room 101, the torture chamber in George Orwell’s 1984. If the sound of it doesn’t intimidate you, the delay of a potentially lengthy procedure should. The fact that Patel was already done searching me but still chose to escalate the situation suggests only one thing: the private room is routine punishment at Heathrow for passengers who talk too much.

The 80s movie that destroyed Turkey's tourism industry

At that precise moment I had two options: I either back down and apologize to the officer and get on with my journey, or violate the first rule of traveling – and the first rule of life in general – by picking a fight with a stranger who can make my life hell. Any sensible man would have chosen the first option. But I wasn’t a sensible man at that moment. I was caught in it. My flight wasn’t scheduled to leave for another 90 minutes and I was ready to play ball.

“Sure, let’s all go to private room," I said. "What little power you have, you abuse it the first chance you get.” There was venom in my voice.

“Would you like to say that louder so that my supervisor could hear you?”

“As a matter of fact, I would like to speak to your supervisor.”

Patel muttered something into his walkie-talkie. Within seconds, a disheveled 50-year-old woman in an oversized blazer appeared.

“Wait here, let me speak to her first.” Patel began whispering to the supervisor like a school-boy reporting to his headmistress. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I could guess as much.

“What seems to be the issue here?” the supervisor asked me with the same tone as Anne Robinson’s in The Weakest Link. I explained the situation and suggested once again that I walk though the machine without the belt.

“I don’t care what you think, sir,” the Supervisor barked. “My colleague believes the only way to satisfy his search is to perform it privately and that’s what he will do.”

Anne Robinson, the feared game show hostess

I had to be fairly naïve to think that speaking to the supervisor would change anything. This wasn’t the Ritz Carlton after all. That’s why Patel wanted me to speak to his boss in the first place: they were all in cahoots!

By then all my friends had all gone though security and were standing next to me trying to understand what was happening. I asked one of them to follow me to the private room as a witness. I knew my rights.

The room was not far, just a few steps away. The walls were painted grey for effects and there were no windows. There was a desk, a chair and a spare x-ray machine that wasn’t plugged in. Patel closed the door behind him, locked it, and asked me to drop the pants. I proceeded to take my jeans off, but then he stopped me and said, “No, no, just lower them to your ankles.”

I did. He took a step closer to me and visually inspected the waistband of my undershorts. Then he said, “Alright, thank you.”

That’s it? Are you serious? That’s the best you’ve got?

My anger and frustration were quickly forgotten, replaced by disappointment and bewilderment. I was disappointed because the private room showdown was thoroughly anti-climactic. I take more clothes off at the Zara fitting room! I was bewildered because I couldn't figure out what's in it for Patel. I didn’t feel the least humiliated if humiliation was what he was after. He, on the other hand, had to stare down another dude in his underwear. The punishment was as much for me as it was for him.

“Go and find another job, pal,” I said to Patel as my friend and I walked out of the room. My snide comment was unnecessary, almost childish. But by then there was nothing more he could do to me. There were no more bullets in his gun. He would return to the x-ray machines and harass the next unruly passenger. And I would rejoin my friends and get back on our journey to Hong Kong.

*                      *                    *

This is a true story. It happened after my ski trip in Chamonix, France, during the Chinese New Year holidays. What I did was rash and stupid. I should have dropped the matter when I still had the chance to, but instead I went against my judgment and let my disdain for authority get the better of me. I scoffed at Alec Baldwin when he got thrown off the plane for being, well, a smart aleck with the flight attendant who made him turn off his phone. Like Baldwin I could have ended up missing my flight altogether. And for what? Smart people don’t take uncalculated risks. Neither Baldwin nor I is very smart.

Smart Alec should have kept his month shut

I don’t know why I did what I did. Was I defending civil liberties when they were trampled on in the name of national security? Or was I standing up against rules and policies that defy common sense, when most passengers would take it lying down to avoid getting into trouble? What I do know is that from now on I will avoid Heathrow like a plague. 

My incident at Terminal 3 has confirmed every horror story I have heard about the universally hated airport: passengers losing their baggage, flights cancelled at the first sign of snow, security staff confiscating alcohol still in a duty free bag. If Heathrow is symptomatic of what’s wrong with Britain, and if Britain is representative of the rest of Europe, then I am seriously worried about the global economy. The European debt crisis might just be as horrendous and hopeless as the airport itself. 

To those of you who plan on going to the London Olympics this August, I wish you good luck.

* The names in this article have been altered.

A last century's power clinging on

Popular Posts

Book Review: "Generation HK" 書評:《香港世代》

Unpacking the young generation in Hong Kong is a tall order, not least because a singular, archetypical “Hong Kong youth” does not exist. The cohort is as diverse and divergent as it comes, from socioeconomic background and upbringing to education and exposure to the wider world, to values, ideals and aspirations. It defies stereotypes and generalisations.

Ben Bland, a British correspondent for The Financial Times, is in a unique position to take on that ambitious project. Whereas Bland’s extensive experience reporting in Asia—including stints in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar—has given him a broad field of view, his relatively short tenure in Hong Kong—just over two years—allows him to look at its people through a long-range lens.
It is that unadulterated objectivity and his unquenched curiosity that make Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow a discerning and refreshing read. Released last summer under Penguin Book’s inaugural “Hong Kong series” to mark the 20…

About the Author 關於作者

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight. His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK).

Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. In 2017, Jason co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20, an anthology that marks the 20th anniversary of the handover. In July 2017, he was appointed Advising Editor for the Los Angeles Revie…

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice.
The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin-starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants, serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds.

While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents and visitors alike. Whatever your budget and palate…

Media Attention + Upcoming Events 媒體關注 + 最新動向

Upcoming events and speaking engagements in 2018

Shooting of British documentary about free expression in Hong Kong
Venue: Centennial Campus, University of Hong Kong
Date: 21 October
Release date: 2019

Panelist at Pink Dot Hong Kong 2018
Topic: Choice of jurisdiction for same-sex marriage
Venue: West Kowloon Cultural District
Date: 21 October
Time: 6:00pm

Launch of new website:
Date: November

Deliver legal workshop for foreign domestic workers organized by Philippine Consulate General HK and Wimler Foundation
Topic: Know your rights
Venue: Philippine Consulate General HK, Admiralty
Date: November

Book launch of Hong Kong Noir published by Akashic Books
Venue: TBD
Date: November

Release of Hong Kong Highs and Lows (2018 anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle)
Short story: “Points of Inflexion”
Date: December


Speaker/panelist on BNP Paribas diversity & inclusion panels
Topic 1: What is an LGBT ally?
Venue: BNP Paribas, IFC Two
Date: 8 October
Topics: Male allies: a panel on…

Past Events: 2017年活動

Media coverage and speaking engagements in 2017

Interview with Apple Daily 蘋果日報
Title: "下月8日提訊 料親身上庭 [Patrick Ho] to be arraigned on 8 January, expected to appear in person"
Publication date: 22 December

Interview with Ming Pao Daily 明報
Title: "依法限提訊後70日開審 律師指變數仍多 [Patrick Ho to be tried within 70 days of indictment, but timing is subject to change" Publication date: 21 December

Interview with Ming Pao Daily 明報 Title: "何志平案1月8日提訊 或3月中開審 料獄中過農曆年 Patrick Ho to be arraigned on 8 January pending trial in March, expected to spend Chinese New Year in prison" Publication date: 21 December

Interview with Apple Daily 蘋果日報 Title: "起訴書:何志平倘罪成須充公財產 Indictment says Patrick Ho's assets to be seized upon conviction" Publication date: 20 December
Radio Interview with BBC Radio Title: "Censorship and freedom of expression in China and Hong Kong" Show: The Cultural Frontline Presenter: Tina Daheley Broadcast date: 11 December
Moderator at Enrich HK panel …

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Let the Tanhua Bloom 曇花再現

When I moderated Kevin Kwan’s book talk for China Rich Girlfriend at a Hong Kong literary event in 2015, the Singaporean-American author was in the process of casting for the Hollywood adaptation of his first book.
Three years later, Crazy Rich Asians the movie—a cross between Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice and The Bachelor—is a runaway hit in North America. The romantic comedy topped the U.S. weekend box office in its opening week and proved to Hollywood studios that a film featuring an all-Asian cast can be just as bankable. 

For Asian audiences everywhere, CRA is more than a feel-good summer blockbuster. It is the coming out party a long time coming. If the people we see on the big screen look cool and sassy, we feel we all do. But god forbid if they come off as dorky or lame, we all do too.
It’s not just the moviegoers who get the jitters. The same is true for actors, directors, screenwriters, and novelists of Asian descent. Whether CRA is a hit or a flop may jumpstart or cut sh…

Who is Agnes Chow? 誰是周庭?

It was roughly six months ago when Nathan Law, chairman of Demosisto, lost his job. He and five other pro-democracy lawmakers had strayed from the prescribed oath during the swearing-in ceremony, and were ousted from the Legislative Council (LegCo) after Beijing issued a reinterpretation of the oath-taking provisions in the Basic Law. Many saw the unseating of six democratically-elected lawmakers, dubbed “Oathgate” in the local press, as a calculated political move to purge the legislature of the opposition.

The time to fill some of these vacated seats is finally upon us. Four by-elections will be held simultaneously on March 11, in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, New Territories East and for the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape sector.
Barely old enough to run, 21-year-old Agnes Chow (周庭) of pro-democracy party Demosisto has thrown her hat into the ring hoping to win back Law’s Hong Kong Island seat. Her decision to run has not come without a price: she has deferred …

The Joshua I Know 我認識的之鋒

When I shook his hand for the first time, I thought he was the strangest seventeen-year-old I’d ever met.
It was 2014, and considering how much Hong Kong has changed in the last three year, it felt like a lifetime ago.
Joshua sat across from me at a table in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, with his iPhone in one hand and an iPad in the other. I ordered him a lemon iced tea with extra syrup.
He was eager to begin our conversation, not because he was excited about being interviewed for my article, but because he wanted to get it over with and get on with the rest of his jam-packed day.
During our 45-minute chat, he spoke in rapid-fire Cantonese, blinking every few seconds in the way robots are programmed to blink like humans. He was quick, precise and focused.

He was also curt.
When I asked him if he had a Twitter account, he snapped, “Nobody uses Twitter in Hong Kong. Next question.”
I wasn’t the least offended by his bluntness—I chalked it up to gumption and precocity. For a te…

Seeing Joshua 探之鋒

“We are here to visit a friend,” I said to the guard at the entrance. 
Tiffany, Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s long-time girlfriend, trailed behind me. It was our first time visiting Joshua at Pik Uk Correctional Institution and neither of us quite knew what to expect.

“Has your friend been convicted?” asked the guard. We nodded in unison. There are different visiting hours and rules for suspects and convicts. Each month, convicts may receive up to two half-hour visits from friends and family, plus two additional visits from immediate family upon request.
The guard pointed to the left and told us to register at the reception office. “I saw your taxi pass by earlier,” he said while eyeing a pair of camera-wielding paparazzi on the prowl. “Next time you can tell the driver to pull up here to spare you the walk.”
At the reception counter, Officer Wong took our identity cards and checked them against the “List.” Each inmate is allowed to grant visitation rights to no more than 10 friends and fam…