Fourteen years ago tonight, I went out on New Year’s Eve for the last time. That was the year I spent New Year’s Eve in Hong Kong’s Central district. The area was packed with people, and most restaurants and bars were too crowded to admit more patrons by the time I arrived. So, I ended up ringing in the new year at the Foreign Correspondents Club, a cozy, private space situated in a former ice house. Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away, on Lan Kwai Fong — the center of Hong Kong’s nightlife for hip expats and locals alike — the crowd continued to grow. By some estimates, it reached 20,000 people, all crammed into a tiny, steep street that was once a nondescript row of seedy tenements and vegetable stalls. At one point, people began to slip on the pavement, which was wet with rain, beer and champagne. Someone jostled someone. Someone else pushed back. Suddenly, what had started as a peaceful New Year’s Eve celebration turned into a panicked mob, with all 20,000 souls rushing to get off of the street. When the melee ended, 21 people were dead and more than 100 were injured.
Two blocks away, I might as well have been in another world. When I left the FCC to head home, the streets were still packed with people, most of them oblivious to the nearby tragedy. But the next morning, the tragedy was all over the news, and for a very short while, Lan Kwai Fong became synonymous with death. However, in Hong Kong as elsewhere (or as nowhere else, perhaps), life goes on, and Lan Kwai Fong continued to thrive. Today, it remains a centerpiece of Hong Kong nightlife, albeit with a strong police presence on occasions like New Year’s Eve. For me, however, it cast a pall on the very idea of going out on New Year’s Eve. Three years later, I was living in New York, close enough to Times Square to hear the midnight revelers if the night was still and a window was open. The idea of joining the throngs never occurred to me.
It’s been a while since I thought about Lan Kwai Fong, but I was reminded of it when I decided to write something up about New Year’s Eve safety for the CR safety blog. In scouring the web for information, I found plenty of references to the tragedy, but very little practical advice for people who might want to exercise a little caution while still going out on New Year’s Eve. The best tips I found came from the office of the Mayor of London — not surprising, since that city’s New Year’s Eve party brings in as many as 200,000 people. But I was disappointed to find that that cities with even larger celebrations, such as New York and Sydney, don’t offer similar advice. That’s too bad. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world will go out tonight. Though a repeat of Lan Kwai Fong is unlikely, and many cities (including New York) have superb crowd-control measures in place, a little advance planning can go a long way when it comes to personal safety. That’s as true today as it was 14 years ago, when I was lucky enough to wander away from Lan Kwai Fong — and away from the hubbub of New Year’s Eve for years to come.