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Dazed and confused: Hong Kong’s tourists at risk of drink spiking in Wan Chai

He awoke in the lobby of One Island East in Tai Koo, foggy and disorientated. It was 6am, and he had no recollection of how he got there. The British businessman was surrounded by police, later finding himself accused of assaulting a taxi driver and causing HK$6.7 million worth of property damage by flooding two floors, according to initial estimates.

It was meant to be a routine work trip last September – one night in Hong Kong before heading to Guangzhou for a meeting the next day. But reclining on a bench in the glittering high-rise, facing arrest, the businessman in his early 40s was at a loss. The past six hours were a blank. His last memory was drinking with a colleague after a long haul flight a few hours prior.

“It was horrendous. I was very confused,” he told HKFP. Unbeknownst to him, as he was taken into custody, the businessman had become a victim of drink spiking – a crime seen in Wan Chai, a district bristled with clubs and watering holes.

Wan Chai bars

Photo: HKFP remix.

On any given night, neon lights illuminate its crowded streets and women huddle under the glow of entrance signs. But, every year, a number of tourists to the area fall prey to drink spiking – carried out using so-called date rape drugs such as Rohypnol and gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB).

The perpetrators, according to police, are usually criminals bent on inducing pliable victims, usually lone male foreigners, to spend their money or hand over ATM card information. “Victims often only realise they have been targeted and robbed when checking their bank accounts the next day, or when they try to withdraw cash but find their daily limit has been exceeded,” police wrote.

Professor Brian Tomlinson, a clinical toxicology expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told HKFP that symptoms of drink spiking include the victim acting sedated and confused. “There may be loss of inhibition and abnormal behaviour. Afterwards, there may be a hangover effect and amnesia. Bystanders may notice these features. The victim is typically not aware,” he said, adding that if a person suspects they may have had their drink spiked, they should carry out drug testing as soon as possible.

“If drink spiking is suspected or claimed when a person is in police custody, tests of urine and blood should be arranged as early as possible,” he explained. “Some drugs may not be detectable by the standard tests after two days or even one day.”

Tomlinson added that although drink spiking is not a problem he regularly encounters, the crime may be more prevalent in Hong Kong than expected. “Many cases may not be reported as victims may feel reluctant to report. It is probably very common,” he said.

Wan Chai bars

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

A browse through online expatriate forums reveals a taste of its extent. “Spiked drink nightmare,” a thread from last October reads. “Hong Kong bars – DANGER!!!!!,” says another, dating back to 2007.

A police representative told HKFP they do not maintain statistics on the number of arrests or charges for drink spiking-related offences. But police figures acquired last November by Vidler & Co. Solicitors show that, from 2003 to January to August 2018, there were 84 reported cases of drink spiking or persons “who unlawfully and maliciously administers” substances to “endanger” life or “inflict any grievous bodily harm” under section 22 of the Offences against Person Ordinance, Cap. 212. Of those reported, 57 arrests were made.

Meanwhile, police said that during the same period there has only been one reported case and arrest of persons who “unlawfully applies or administers” drugs with the intent of committing “any indictable offence”; seven reported cases of such spiking to commit “an unlawful sexual act,” with only six arrests made.

HKFP spoke with four foreign men who said they had their drinks spiked – all of whom requested anonymity owing to ongoing legal cases, fear of jeopardising their jobs, or stigmatisation. Three of them were transiting through Hong Kong for a number of days and the other was a long-term expatriate. In all instances, the men did not remember being solicited. Two of them had over HK$15,000 missing. Police did not offer any of them a drink spiking test.

Breadcrumb trail

In the months after the incident, the businessman who awoke in Tai Koo traced his steps along a breadcrumb trail of CCTV footage and witness accounts.

Wan Chai bars

Photo: Chris/Flickr, remix.

He said at 3am on September 9 he left Spin Bar to take out cash for fast food, whereby he was separated from his colleague. In the following hours, a receipt from Taboo showed he bought a vodka and two tequila shots – an order he described as unusual – after which he got into a cab with two black women to Taikoo Place, where he allegedly assaulted the taxi driver.

Security footage then reportedly showed him entering a fire exit stairwell where, out of sight, he allegedly ripped out four fluorescent tubes, mangled an office doorbell, set off a fire alarm and opened two water pipes. After a hearing last month, police reduced their property damage estimate to between HK$1.5 and 2 million.

“I don’t hit people… I’ve never damaged anything in my life,” he said, adding that he believed the women had intended to steal money from him but fled the scene after their plan began to go awry.

‘Traumatic’

An exit restriction was imposed on the businessman owing to his ongoing legal case, during which he felt the effects of the incident encroach on most aspects of his life.

Wan Chai bars

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Having been denied an immediate drugs test by police, despite his pleas, he sought out a private one, with little hope of a positive result after the 72-hour detection window. He found his blood pressure had skyrocketed. “Like off the scales,” he said. “It’s consistent with typical symptoms of Rohypnol and GHB and those sorts of drugs.”

He was subsequently diagnosed with severe hypertension and, in March, signed off of work until May for anxiety with depression and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder. “Mentally, I’ve not been in a good place at all,” he said.

Adding to his concerns were the mounting legal fees, private drug testing (HK$15,000 for a GHB, HK$3,500 for Rohypnol and HK$3,500 for general sedatives), and global travel costs that left him out of pocket. “I’m out about HK$600,000,” he said. “And I don’t have HK$600,000.”

“I don’t drive a Ferrari, I don’t have loads of money,” he added. “We don’t have any savings, certainly not now.”

Beyond his bank account, his legal case meant he could not leave Hong Kong for four months, where he spent Christmas, his birthday and his son’s birthday away from his family. “They expected me to be away for a week, not four months,” he said. “It’s been painful for my family.”

“I’ve got two boys, one of whom doesn’t know what’s going on, so he thinks I’m a spy because I’m always in Hong Kong, which is sort of funny but not funny because I’m lying to him,” he said.

Uncanny resemblance

Another case that bears an uncanny resemblance to the businessman’s ordeal occurred only a few days earlier last September, at an upmarket residential building near Pacific Place that boasts scenic views of the metropolis below.

alcohol

Photo: jProgr via Deviantart.

A German man in his late 20s, on a 24-hour business trip to the city, vanished abruptly while out for dinner with his colleagues. Fast forward to 3am, when he regained awareness, groggy and confused. He had allegedly flooded four elevator shafts.

In the hours that followed, it emerged that – after a meal, where the man had two to three beers – he went to a bar with colleagues, consuming two vodka straights and a black Russian. He then went to Dusk till Dawn, though – from that point onwards – it is unclear when, if ever, he had his drink spiked.

He told HKFP that without the results of an immediate drugs test it was not possible to prove the cause of his unusual blackout. “There’s a very good chance my drink wasn’t spiked and I went fully overboard,” he said. In an unusual twist, the man had no money missing.

Facing an estimated HK$800,000 worth of property damage, he never made his morning flight back to Europe and lost his job.

With little alternative evidence to go by, police and local media dismissed his behaviour as that of a drunk tourist – an accusation his legal team told HKFP the police tried to persuade him to admit to. “They were quite unfair. Before we came they tried to persuade him to admit guilt,” said his solicitor Stefan Schmierer of Robinsons, Lawyers. “When we were there, we told him to say nothing. He kept quiet.”

In response, a police spokesperson told HKFP that officers deal with each case justly: “Regardless of case natures, police officers will handle and investigate all reports of crime in a professional, fair and impartial manner,” they said. The charges against the man were dropped in December.

‘Slightly dodgy bar’

In almost every account interviewees claimed to have no memory of the period when the potential drink spiking took place. A British teacher based in Thailand told HKFP he believed he had his drink spiked while visiting Hong Kong last October for five days with two friends. It was a Wednesday and the group had gone to watch the weekly horse races – a popular spectacle filled with boozy tourists and thunderous pop music.

Wan Chai bars

Photo: Wikicommons/HKFP.

As the night wore on, the teacher and a friend went on to a bar in Wan Chai. He said, in total, he drank three beers at the races and one later on. And then, as though waking up, he regained awareness at 2pm the next day, in a local restaurant, his right arm searing with unexplained pain, with little to no memory of the past 12 hours.

He checked his bank account and had over HK$27,000 missing from two separate cards – around HK$25,500 of which was later reimbursed by his bank.

As with other potential drink spiking victims, details of the incident emerged through flashbacks and eye witness accounts. “I don’t remember this, but my friend was saying we went across the road to what I hear is a notorious, slightly dodgy bar,” he said. “The only flashback I remember was I was in there, acting very ‘high’ – not drunk, but a weird high, like air guitaring on the floor and going up to people… telling them I loved them.”

He added that, in another flashback experienced days later, he remembered being sat in a dark bar with girls either side of him asking him to buy drinks. “I’m off my head, clearly, and I went ‘no, get your own drinks.’ But obviously, at that point they’d already taken my cards or whatever,” he said.

His bank transactions showed thousands of dollars spent in Amazonia. “All their drinks are relatively cheap,” he said. “So, for someone to spend that amount of money, they’d have to buy everyone in that bar three or four drinks each.”

Wan Chai bars

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

In the following days, the suspected drugs continued to have an effect on him. In a conversation with a friend immediately after regaining awareness, he explained: “She could see I was off my rocket because – she was telling me later, I was talking absolute gibberish and was clearly… mentally affected.” He added that he felt “spaced out” and emotional for several days.

Despite reporting the incident to the police, the teacher said he did not pursue further criminal justice measures after giving a statement. “The impression I got, and this is only an impression, was I went in, reporting the crime – you know, it’s all about logging details into the computer,” he said. “There was no real further questioning, like tell me what happened… ‘what is the name of the bar,’ which I would’ve thought is an obvious question.”

He added that he was not traumatised by the incident, which he attributed to having no memory of the night in question.

Underreported

Drink spiking can often go unreported. Without an immediate drugs test and testimonies from key witnesses – namely, the victim who cannot recall the events of the past few hours – cases usually fall apart owing to scant evidence. Many victims can simply get their missing cash reimbursed by banks, thereby choosing to forgo formal justice altogether.

An American teacher who has lived in Hong Kong for six years told HKFP that, in 2017, after a suspected drink spiking where he lost over HK$19,500, he attempted to report the incident. “Most people would ignore it and chalk it up to a bad experience,” he told HKFP. “But I was in between jobs at the time and really needed the money.”

It began after the teacher visited a bar where, as the night wore on, his memory became hazy. He woke up in a snap at 7am, wandering the streets of Wan Chai with “the worst hangover ever.”

drink spiking hong kong

File photo: Wikicommons.

He racked his brains for solutions. Stumped and exhausted, he gave a lengthy statement to the police where he said, towards the end, “I just wanted to get the hell out of there.”

Going through his bank transactions he found receipts for Players and The Station at 3 and 4am, then again at 7am. “It’s a long time to be blacked out,” he said. “I’ve never had any experience like this before, where I can’t remember such a massive event.”

In the coming days, the night would come back to him in a series of fragmentary flashbacks. “In Amazonia, there were a team of girls that had their eyes on me,” he explained. “I do recall one girl saying to me ‘do you want to go to the ATM?’.”

“Going to a bar with a bunch of girls is not my style. I wouldn’t go and spend a lot of money,” he said. “But can I prove I was drugged? No, I can’t.”

Donald Youngson, general manager of Players, told HKFP that drink spiking is “absolutely not” a common problem at Players. “We are aware of drink spiking incidents through newspaper articles but Players’ management firmly believes it does not occur inside Players’ premises.” Youngson nevertheless said that measured had been taken to prevent suspicious individuals from entering the bar: “We have trained and instructed our security team to stop regularly loitering individuals, who are spotted every night around the streets, to enter our premises.”

Other bars mentioned in this article did not respond to requests for comment.


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Dazed and confused: Hong Kong’s tourists at risk of drink spiking in Wan Chai