Skip to main content

Kindness of Strangers 陌生人的仁慈

It was around 9 pm Sunday night when I received a frantic text message on my iPhone.

“Jason, I got a problem! I missed my flight and need cash to buy a new ticket. My ATM card doesn’t work in HK. Can you give me your credit card number? I’ll pay you back when I’m back in the Philippines.”

The S.O.S. was from Carlos, a young journalist from Manila visiting Hong Kong for the weekend. We had met the first time at a media event just the day before. My instinct told me it was probably a scam – earlier this year my brother got a phone call from a mysterious man saying that a distant relative of ours had been hit by a motorcycle and needed money for surgery. My brother hung up before the man finished talking.

I was about to delete the text message when another one buzzed in.

“This is for real. I’m stuck at the airport. I’ll pay you back. Promise!”

I decided to put my foot down.

“We just met. I don’t feel comfortable giving out my credit card number over the phone. Sorry and good luck.”

Carlos made it back to Manila that same night. The next morning he sent me an e-mail to explain what had happened at the airport and how he had managed to get home eventually. After contacting four or five people in Hong Kong, only his cousin who works here had believed him and was willing to lend him money. Everybody else had declined to help — I was one of them. “We aren’t a very trusting people,” I apologized to Carlos in my reply. Living in a big city, it seems, has turned us into Bad Samaritans.

*                  *                   *

Bystander apathy

When it comes to dispensing kindness to strangers, Hong Kongers can be a bit schizophrenic. We rank 10th out of 135 countries on the World Giving Index, donating generously to anyone in need, from earthquake victims in Sichuan to starving children in far-flung corners of the world. Yet, for simple things like holding the door for a mother with a baby-stroller or pressing the “open door” button in a lift, we can be downright stone-hearted. Every now and then, I hear scathing accounts of urban apathy from friends and co-workers. A lawyer in my department recently complained to me that she had once slipped and fell in a crowded shopping mall but no one had gone to her aid. I have witnessed an elderly deliveryman tripping over an uneven sidewalk in front of a half-dozen men smoking outside an office building, none of whom had chosen to act.

But each time I am about to give up on humanity, a heart-warming Good Samaritan story will reel me back in. A few weeks ago, my hairdresser Herbert fell down a flight of stairs after a night of drinking at Knutsford Terrace. The fall left him with a blood clot in his brain and put him in the ICU for a week. “If it weren’t for this passer-by who stopped and called an ambulance,” said Herbert, “I wouldn’t be cutting your hair right now.” Anecdotal evidence like that tells me that bystander behavior is more complex than I think, and that there is much more at play than the easy conclusion that we have all become creatures of indifference.

Creatures of indifference?

In a chilly spring morning in 1964, 29-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed and killed in front of her New York City home while 37 neighbors watched but did not intervene. The Genovese murder shocked America and inspired social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to begin their seminal research on bystander apathy. The team designed a series of experiments to analyze helping behavior and postulated that a bystander goes through a five-step process before intervention: he first notices the event, identifies it as an emergency, takes responsibility for helping, formulates a response and finally takes action.

Darley and Latané found that the presence of other people can disrupt the bystander’s decision process at the third stage (taking responsibility) and turn a Good Samaritan into a passive onlooker. They argued that the psychological cost of doing nothing is significantly reduced by the assumption that somebody else will help and by the sharing of guilt among the group. It is this “diffusion of responsibility” – rather than a lack of compassion – that led to the neighbors’ inaction during Genovese’s attack. Diffusion of responsibility also explained why I declined Carlos’ call for help. I had assumed, consciously or subconsciously, that he must have friends and relatives who are in a better position to bail him out than someone he has just met.

Who really killed Genovese?

Half a century after the Genovese murder, the debate over bystander apathy has reignited once again, this time in the Wild Wild East of Modern China. On 13 October 2011, a two-year-old girl named Wang Yue (小悦悦) was playing on the street when she was run over by two separate delivery trucks. A surveillance camera showed that 18 passersby ignored the victim; some even skirted around the blood. Wang died at the hospital a week later. Within days, the video went viral on social media and sparked a nationwide discussion on the erosion of social conscience. Wang’s tragic death is a wake-up call for China not only because of the shocking callousness of the passers-by (a textbook case of diffusion of responsibility), but also because it reveals a far more troubling factor that affects bystander behavior: fraud.

I’m not talking about phone scams — like the one my brother encountered — or identity thefts —what I feared when I was asked to give out my credit card number. I'm talking about victim’s extortion, a burgeoning social phenomenon in China. It all started in the morning of 20 November 2006, when Peng Yu (彭宇), a college student in Nanjing, aided an elderly woman who had fallen off the bus. Instead of showing gratitude, the woman accused Peng of pushing her and filed a lawsuit demanding RMB45,000 (US$7,000) in medical expenses. Siding with the “victim,” the judge wrote: “According to common sense, the defendant wouldn't have helped the plaintiff if he weren’t in some way responsible.” Since then, several judges in other provinces followed the same line of reasoning in similar rescuer-turned-culprit lawsuits. In one case, a storekeeper accused of knocking down a customer whom he had helped was exonerated by a closed-circuit television. The footage showed that the storekeeper was nowhere near the victim when she fell.

Poor Wang Yue

China is no stranger (pun intended) to the persecution of do-gooders. Social advocates like Ai Weiwei (艾未未) and Zhao Lianhai (趙連海) are routinely harassed, beaten and jailed for speaking out against injustice and government corruption. That, combined with the presumption of guilt in Peng Yu-type lawsuits, has taught ordinary citizens to mind their own business — as did the 18 bystanders who left Wang Yue for dead on the street. An opinion poll in Beijing found that 87% of respondents said they would not aid old people who have fallen for fear of being sued. These days, bystanders have learned to self-protect by taking pictures on their smart phones before lifting someone up or performing CPR. Likewise, the only way for some senior citizens to get help is to declare aloud “I fell by myself. I won't sue you!” This is a country with some serious soul-searching to do.

Facing a mounting public outcry, Shenzhen passed China’s first Good Samaritan law in August 2013. The new law punishes false accusers and absolves from liability anyone who renders assistance to those in need. In November 2013, the Beijing government launched a pilot accident insurance programme for the city’s three million senior citizens in an attempt to discourage injured elders from turning Good Samaritans into ATM machines. The hope is that the combination of carrots and sticks will go some way to mend a social fabric ripped apart by corruption, income disparity and old age poverty.

"Will anybody help?"

Despite legal measures in test cities like Shenzhen and Beijing, victim’s extortion has shown no signs of letting up. Just this past January, a garbage collector in Guangdong committed suicide after an elderly man he had rescued blamed him for the injury and demanded hundreds of thousands in compensation. It is a reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight, especially for a nation of 1.4 billion people. It will be some time before citizens will feel at ease again to be Good Samaritans, like the dozens of commuters in Perth, Australia who performed an urban miracle last week by tilting a subway train to save a man trapped in the platform gap. Until then, people may want to wear a GoPro camera whenever they go out.

No diffusion of responsibility there
________________________

This article was published in the September 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As published in MANIFESTO

Popular Posts

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 Review…

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…

What’s Killing Hong Kong Bookstores? 誰令香港的書店滅亡?

Earlier this month, Page One unceremoniously announced the closure of its megastores at Harbour City and Festival Walk, ending the Singapore bookseller’s nearly two-decade stint in Hong Kong. The news came less than two years after Australian outfit Dymocks shut down its IFC Mall flagship and exited the city.
Reaction on social media to the loss of yet another bookstore chain was both immediate and damning. While some attributed Page One’s demise to competition from e-books and online retailers, many put the blame on the lack of a robust reading culture in Hong Kong. Still others pointed their finger at greedy landlords and the sky-high rent they extort from retailers.
But what really killed Page One? An autopsy is in order to examine the cause of death of the book industry’s latest casualty.

E-books
The technorati have long prophesized the end of paper. Portable and affordable, Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers are the physical book’s worst nightmare. But are they really?
After yea…

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…

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

2017 and upcoming events and speaking engagements


Keynote speaker at Leadership & Social Entrepreneurship Program graduation ceremony co-organized by Wimler Foundation and Ateneo University Venue: TBD Date: 22 October Time: 9:00am to 1:00pm

Guest lecture at Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong Course: International and regional protection of human rights
Topic: Universal suffrage and free expression Venue: Centennial Campus, Pokfulam Date:16 November
Time: 6:30pm

Legal workshop for foreign domestic workers at University of Hong Kong's Domestic Workers Empowerment Project (DWEP) Topic: "Understanding Hong Kong Culture" Moderator: Dr. Michael Manio Venue: Ming Wah Complex, University of Hong Kong Date: 19 November Time: 1:30 to 4:00pm

Talk at Independent Schools Foundation Academy
Topic: No City for Slow Men
Venue: Telegraph Bay, Pokfulam
Date: 30 November
Contributor to HK24 (2017 Anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle) Release date: December

Guest speaker and prize prese…

Maid in Hong Kong - Part 1 女傭在港-上卷

Few symbols of colonialism are more universally recognized than the live-in maid. From the British trading post in Bombay to the cotton plantation in Mississippi, images abound of the olive-skinned domestic worker buzzing around the house, cooking, cleaning, ironing and bringing ice cold lemonade to her masters who keep grumbling about the summer heat. It is ironic that, for a city that cowered under colonial rule for a century and a half, Hong Kong should have the highest number of maids per capita in Asia. In our city of contradictions, neither a modest income nor a shoebox apartment is an obstacle for local families to hire a domestic helper and to free themselves from chores and errands.

On any given Sunday or public holiday, migrant domestic workers carpet every inch of open space in Central and Causeway Bay. They turn parks and footbridges into camping sites with cardboard boxes as their walls and opened umbrellas as their roofs. They play cards, cut hair, sell handicraft and p…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…

The Hundredth Post 第一百篇

This month marks the third birthday of my blog As I See It, a social commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in Hong Kong. The occasion coincides with the 100th article I have written under the banner. Having reached a personal milestone, I decided to take the opportunity to reflect on my still-young writing career and wallow in, dare we say, self-congratulatory indulgence.

It all started in November 2008 on the heels of the last U.S. presidential election. I was getting ready to create a personal website as a platform to consolidate my interests and pursuits. To do that I needed content. That’s how my blog – or my “online op-ed column” as I prefer to call it – came into being. 
Before I knew it, I was banging it out in front of my iMac every night, going on and off the tangent and in and out of my stream of consciousness about the odd things I experienced in the city, the endless parade of pink elephants I saw everyday that no one seemed to bat an eyelid at. Though singi…