He went missing as a child in China 20 years ago: remembering the tragic tale of Yu Man-hon

It has been 20 years this month since Yu Man-hon ran away from his mother and into the headlines. Physically, he was aged 15; mentally, the doctors said, he was about two.
He was strong enough to leap off the MTR train just as the doors were closing at Yau Ma Tei station on Hong Kong’s Kowloon peninsula and, somehow, make his way to the Lo Wu crossing to mainland China 25km (16 miles) away. What he couldn’t understand was the concept of borders.
It must have been a sleepy Thursday afternoon at the frontier because he managed to dart across the bridge before China’s authorities grabbed him and returned him to Hong Kong. But the city’s immigration officials, having watched him cry unintelligibly, wet himself and throw food around, and having also assessed the low-quality of his clothing, decided he was an illegal immigrant from the mainland. So he was sent back across the dividing line and from that day – August 24, 2000 – to now, he has not been seen again.
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It wasn’t the first time Man-hon had been mistaken for an illegal immigrant. I wrote several stories for the Post on his disappearance and his mother, Yu Lai Wai-ling, told me that one time he ran away, police found him in Ma On Shan after residents complained there was an illegal immigrant hiding in the bushes.
Back then, if you were Chinese but a bit different – a 1.8m-tall teen with the mental age of a two-year-old, for example – you were assumed to be a cross-border peasant who’d sneaked over to raise the crime rate. In those early years after the 1997 handover, Hong Kong wanted to preserve its identity by keeping itself distinct from the rest of China.
On that occasion, Man-hon was taken to a hospital until his parents reclaimed him. He lived, with a younger brother, in a housing estate in Lok Fu. In his bedroom, a large poster of Hong Kong Island hid his scribbles on the wall. After he vanished, a fish tank was installed on the advice of a feng shui expert, as if it might somehow induce him to swim home. In the coming years, many psychics would offer their expensive services, with zero success.
In the sitting room, a fax machine spewed out information about possible sightings. Man-hon’s father, a Housing Authority caretaker, was in poor health, so it was his mother who travelled backwards and forwards. She based herself in the Railway Station Hotel in Shenzhen, just across the border from Lo Wu. She handed out thousands of black-and-white copies of his photograph with her phone number attached. In February 2001, I stayed there too for a few days, to write about her search.
In her room, she’d pinned up a map of China. The scale meant a geographic speck could turn out to be a city of millions. At night, the plaintive hoot of the trains could be heard below, setting out across the vast nation. Everything across the border was bigger, faster, harsher. The phone rang constantly; voices demanded rewards or ransoms.
Strangers sent her letters and photos of other lost children who might be, but weren’t, Man-hon. There was a naked wolf child scrabbling in a gutter. There was a grinning, vacant child propped against a stained wall by an adult hand. And, in a Public Security Bureau station, there was a boy, crouched in a corner: filthy, speechless, clutching a piece of coconut, who would be thrown back on the street five minutes later because he wasn’t Man-hon.
People in Guangdong province, on the other side of the map’s dotted line from Hong Kong, were puzzled. Why was this mentally incapable teenager getting so much attention? In China, children disappeared all the time and the authorities did nothing. Why was this one important?
To some, it was a further example of how China’s new Special Administrative Region received special treatment. Hong Kong already took the best of Guangdong’s water; now its chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was ringing up Shenzhen’s mayor demanding action for its own mistake.
I was guilty of being partisan, too. In 1998, I’d interviewed some Shenzhen parents whose children had gone missing. In the new Chin…