How Facebook helped to save a photographer from rural China

by on Mar.12, 2009, under humanity

Some of you would have read the news articles on Straits Times, CNet and WanBao about how facebook, twitter & plurk was activated to pull resources to locate and bring Ms Yeow to safety. Some of you would have questions in your mind like why she didn’t call her family/friends but went to facebook instead.

The news article couldn’t include all the information due to the limited space… so let me attempt to reconstuct the whole story so that everybody gets the full picture.

I met Ms Yeow once at a MacDonalds where she was reading up a book on photography. I invited her to the Singapore Photographers group I started to continue exploring photography from there. In the last several months, she took a sabbatical and went alone on a trip around China, exploring picturesque but sometimes remote places. She would update us with her photography on Facebook and I must say she has taken some breathtaking shots in places like the Leaping Tiger Gorge, Harbin, Heilongjiang and Lijiang just to name a few.

I was on a photography assignment to Kota Kinabalu over the fateful weekend. Luckily for free broadband access in the hotel room, I was on the internet on Sunday night, just the night before I was supposed to fly back to Singapore. A mutual friend messaged me about midnight asking me if I knew about Ms Yeow’s situation. I told her I didn’t and went promptly to take a look at her profile.

Here’s the timeline I gathered.

Fri 12:17am – Yeow is devastated by her latest loss.
Fri 4:27am – Posted a facebook note “wat’s next”

“all of me wish this is not reality but it seems time has come to a standstill for me and my broken heart – for the loss of my bag. items gone with it aren’t exactly expendables…they are my mobile phone with all the necessary contacts, passport, identity card, singapore bank card, usb (with all the pics taken for the whole time im here) and ALL of my money, i mean ALL, in cash and in bank. its looking more like a disaster than an adventure now that i lost access to my last singapore bank card (though not much is left of it)of which is an initial backup should i lose the first one, which i diligently did in yunnan during jan.
only that this time it was not lost but stolen. i was in an internet cafe when it happened, i was unaware at that time. 

i had since made a report at the local police and now am sitting in the officer’s room as i type. watching the cctv recording makes me want to ram my own head into the nearest wall. deftly in stealth my bag was removed from behind my back, quite literally. it was behind me against the seat as i was emailing a traveller recounting how i lost my travel journal last month in harbin. unconsciously undergoing another major loss whilst relating the last one. what irony.

im still carrying some hope that my precious irreplaceable belongings can be retrieved, i can go broke but not without a good reason to be.

so its looking really great now my adventure…it crushes me that i lost my passport and usb drive. if i’m not wrong, i have to leave china in order to replace my passport and losing usb means i’ll head back to home without any pics of china i collected in the last 6 mths. i feel like crying again all over again.

nothing left for me to do now except to try talking the officer into letting me have a copy of the recording, NOW thats something to document my travels in china.”

Fri 11:30pm – A friend asked Yeow to call him/her but Yeow replied in mandarin

(Roughly translated: The phones here can’t make long distance calls and no money to buy an IP card *at the brink of desperation*
I’ll try to post my situation here daily, tomorrow I’ll leave the hostel’s number and designate a time so that friends can call)

Sun 6:36am – Posted a note “nothing”

“nothing from the investigation. 2 is the number of times (at least) hostel staffs knock on my door pressing me for rent, they even call the policemen in charge of this case to remind them. come monday i’m looking forward to a reply from the embassy. no idea how i can get hold of a usb. it’s fucking cold wearing just a singlet and cardi. i’m going back to my sleepless night. depressed.”

At this point, I sensed something is wrong.. I knew she was a resourceful lady but yet there was no outcome after 50 hours and she was still freezing in a singlet and cardigan in the cold weather. It was over 17 hours since she had last posted her last note and she could have well been already in the safe hands of the embassy (I thought at that point it was the Singapore Embassy). But if it wasn’t I don’t want to run the risk of her starving and freezing herself while waiting for help to come.

I knew that with my Facebook contacts especially during that time (12am) there would be a lot of people online that could help.  So I posted a status message on Mon 12:19am asking for ideas and contacts to assist.

We needed to establish where she was first, which she didn’t mention in her notes, but I saw that she was “prepping for Kaiping in mounting anticipation” on Wednesday and she was in Guangzhou before that. We narrowed the search to Kaiping cos if she was still in Guangzhou, making international calls would have been easy.

She also mentioned that she was staying in a hostel, and knowing that she would go for budget hostels and she would probably do her research on the internet, we started scouring the net for clues to where she might be staying.

At 4.14am, her friend (Pinky) who managed to converse with her on Sat night shed some light onto the situation and presented some facts on my status and via MSN

  • She was in Kaiping
  • She’s holding a Malaysian Passport
  • She has been contacting a friend in Shanghai to help
  • Police opened an account for her to transfer money in
  • She was disoriented and couldn’t tell her address but promised to get it and post it up
  • She didn’t want people to know, especially the family to worry and thus Pinky was stressed over the last 2 days not knowing who to turn to for help.
  • She got a prepaid card from the police to access the internet
  • She borrowed RMB100 from the police two days after she lost her bag to get food since she hasn’t eaten at all
  • Best way to try to get in contact with her is via the police

We tried to get phone numbers of hostels and police station and tried calling them. We called through to the main police line and was advised us to call back at 8am when the officers handling her case would be on duty. 

I stayed online hoping that she would be able to log on and provide us with her location and situation while looking for other clues of where she might be staying, researching on the places in Kaiping she would be keen to visit as a photographer and if there would be lodging in those areas, using Google earth, maps, web reviews etc.

At 8am+ I called the police and they confirmed that there was such a report, told me the name of the station and phone number. Pinky called and ‘the guy said “I don’t know” to everything’. Someone else tried calling saying that she was family and they refused to divulge any information due to ‘privacy’.

I left for the airport at about 9am and fortunately there was WIFI access before going into the secure area. At 10:22am, I knew that there would be more people online to see my status message and posted an appeal for anyone with connections to singapore/malaysian consulate to assist. I tried to compile as much info from the various statuses into this one so it’s easier to get information rather than digging up for it in the various threads but I had to enter the secure area and didn’t manage to compile all the info.

I managed to get back online in Singapore at 2:15pm and was planning to head straight to the Malaysian High Commission to appeal for help. I called the police at 999 to ask for advise and he told us to make a police report. The nice part was that the officer called back and offered MFA’s number to call which I called but was advised they can’t do much as even if Yeow is a Singapore PR, she holding a Malaysian passport.

I detoured to Cantonment Police Station, and was in a queue with 5 persons before me. Explained to a nice girl that it was urgent and managed to swap my number with hers putting only 2 persons before me. The queue however didn’t seem to move at all after a long time and I approached an officer explaining that I had to try to rush to the Malaysian High Commission before it closes. The officer was nice but told me he can’t do anything as we didn’t have Yeow’s identity number, I had to go ICA to get it.

Serene, the journalist SMSed me after seeing my post that I’m trying to get her ID no and passed me a PR contact in ICA who might be able to help. Just as I was about to reach ICA, Yeow came online at 3:30pm!

All she needed to do was to get out of KaiPing, just RMB38*4 nights for hostel, RMB100 for the police loan and money to get transport to Guangzhou. Everyone we knew advised us against doing a TT to the account that the police setup, for whatever reason that being diplomatically correct I won’t mention here. She was then arranging for a friend in Shanghai to FedEx a parcel over to her. She was less distraught now that the rain has stopped and it’s less cold.

We told her that waiting for the parcel may be too slow and we want to get her out that night.  She posted her location and I called Bhakt who was in Shenzhen waiting for news. Bhakt tried to arrange for a taxi to pick her up, advance some cash to pay off the hostel & police and take a 4 hr ride to Shenzhen. However, the taxi company insisted we pay up front in Shenzhen, drive 4 hrs up, pay off hostel & police then drive 4 hrs back down. It was too risky as the possibility of not being able to meet up with her (remember there was only the hostel number but no way to ensure that the taxi driver would wait for her or know who she is), or that the taxi could just not even make the trip and pocket the money.

We knew then we had to get someone to physically go from Guangzhou to Kaiping to pick her up. I called the Singapore Consulate in Guangzhou and they said that they didn’t have the manpower to pick her up, she has to come personally to the consulate for help. When I said that she had no money to go there, the staff suggested transferring money through MFA for her, but somehow she still has to go to the consulate (can’t remember if the pick up point was the consulate or that she needed the documents from the consulate to verify her identify to pick the money up). Throughout this, I didn’t mention that she was a Malaysian at all, so even if she had a Singapore passport, the consulate can’t help.

At 4:51pm I posted a call for help if anyone could go from Guangzhou to Kaiping. At 5pm she left the internet cafe with little credit on her prepaid card left and said she would wait by the phone of the hostel at 6pm for us to let her know the progress.

Within this 1 hr, we had a few options with 4 close possibilities. We eventually decided on a trusted close business associate who could sent her good friend to drive to Kaiping to pick her up. At 6pm, she called Yeow and spoke with her on the phone and made arrangements. Yeow was safely back in Guangzhou at her place by 11pm.

This episode has revealed the humanity of many people.. and the lack of in some..

Huge thanks to the friends on facebook who have shown their support, especially those who have gone out of their way to make overseas calls to their friends & the authorities, search for information etc. It really encourages me that there are people who do care even if they do not know the person and will go out of their way in these times of need.

Of course we also see the ugly side of people, those who are uncompassionate about the situation and some who seek to make a profit from it, those who are skeptical and can’t comprehend the situation she was in. I think many of us take too many things for granted and can’t understand how it’s possible that she didn’t manage to get help. I was at the airport talking about this and an Iranian girl said “I can understand how difficult a situation she is in as I came from a third world country”, but the others who have been living in modern countries found it hard to understand. I have had the priviledge of being on a few exchange programs and volunteer projects to these places and can understand the frustration of how many things are hard to do even with government support.

P.S. I hate writing.. and I took a good 4hr+ to write this until almost 7am in hope that it will fill in some of the details for everyone to make a better judgement and not wonder why she didn’t/couldn’t do this or that..

Those who are keen to take a look at the facebook statuses could see them at my profile on facebook or link to the status comments directly

There is hope for humanity, never give up for there will always be those like you who will not.


23 Comments for this entry

  • Glenn

    You are really great! It’s really not easy to get her out of the situation but you did it. 😛

  • Pamela

    Congratulations and bravo in upholding the human spirit. Good Job Willy and thank god for a heart of gold like yours. You will be blessed.

  • saffyz

    There’s hope for humanity indeed… I had been following the threads, it’s indeed touching.


  • Ivan Chew

    I think Facebook was merely the tool. It was ultimately good people like yourself and friends of Ms Yeow, and Ms Yeow herself, that got her through the crisis.

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for this elaborated post! This article gave the 3rd perspective view on Ms Yeow’s entire experience. She must have been so exasperated! Glad that she is now safe and sound, thank God!

  • Kee

    I salute you Willy! Thank you for helping a fellow Malaysian.

  • Peter Chow

    Just came across your post and I am impressed with your generosity & humanity as well as all the kind souls that chipped in to assist, and gained a sense of respect to the goodness within each and everyone of us – well yes, even the culprits who didn’t bother to help – as well as how social media technology like Facebook played an important role. I am indeed humbled. Humanity has hope yet. :-)

  • Bert

    I sympatize with Yeow and am glad she is back safe and sound. This is a lesson to everyone out there with wanderlust. Being overseas from Singapore for almost 20 years, 5 of which are in China, you can never be too careful when traveling abroad. Even in places where you feel secure, it is often better to be safe than sorry. For Yeow’s case, as horrifying as it sounds, it is actually not as bad as it can turn out. Fellow travellers please, make sure you make ample security preparations and also stay alert at all times. This is especially more true for more remote places like China, India and Mongolia. For most of us seasoned travelers, we know things can get very much worse, for example, I have heard of first hand accounts of how people are robbed in a crowded train station in Hunan, while the police watched on without any action. Always be mindful about safety and be pro-active about it. Some advice:

    1. Always have a under-the-clothing on the body hidden pouch to carry most of you cash and your backup/under-used credit cards.

    2. Only keep enough cash for the day and 1 card you really use in your wallet, everything else goes into a hard-to-acess and hidden comparent on your body.

    3. Always shield your wallet, money or pouch from view when taking money out to pay for something, or separate money into usable small stacks in your pocket.

    4. When walking in dark or secluded areas, always be alert, and have something on hand to defend yourself with (a tripod, a heavy camera on a strap works). Rather break a lens or cover than lose everything or worse, be harmed.

    5. Never take up offers with ‘private’ taxi touts. Not even in big city like Shanghai.

    6. Even with legit taxi, always know how far away is your destination (planning).

    7. BEFORE you put your luggage into the trunk of the taxi or get it, ask for the rate in advance, if it is by meter or flat rate.

    8. Always dress down and avoid jewellery. I have seen people rip earrings off people’s ears in broad daylight in Guangzhou city.

    9. Never talk too long on the mobile phone on the street or open area.

    10. If you know it, speak mandarin all the time. If asked from where, say you are from some other province. (I always say I am from Fujian province).

    11: Try to gaffer tape all your camera brand and model number.

    12. Never carry your wallet in your back pocket. Everything goes into your front pockets.

    13. Always hold your bags very tightly. In crowded places, I carry my backpack in front. I have friends whose handbags were stolen by having their straps cut by razor blades. And yes, this is in ‘safe’ shanghai subways.

    12. Lastly, NEVER every let your belongings out of your sight. If traveling in groups, someone must watch over all stuff at any one time. If going to toilet, I bring my backpack/handcarry with me all the time. If I nod off to sleep, I wrap straps around my hands/body and hug it like a bolster.

    If you take the right precautions, you will be able to enjoy your trip better knowing you are prepared.

  • Bee

    Hi, stumbled upon this site while looking for something else, read your story and felt deeply touched.
    It shows to me how warm the human heart can be in this dog-eats-dog world. Bravo to all the people who took part, you guys did a wonderful job! Salute!

  • andrea

    i was on vacation in shenzhen 9 years ago and my bag was stolen exactly the same way as hers – slung behind the back of my chair in a restaurant. like her, there were also kindred spirits who went out of their way to help me.. your story has brought back a flood of memories. kindness still abounds in this world.

  • Lin C

    This is one really lengthy post. I really don’t have the patience to read super long blog entries but this particular one has kept my eyes peeled and hungry for more the whole time! I found your website thru Facebook, (coincidentally!) and I really must say you do have quite a big heart to have made so much effort to save Yeow from distress! Though it’s been months since this has happened, still better late then never – Kudos to You and everyone else who helped!

    Please don’t remove this entry or this site.. I’m really sure there will be many others will be inspired by your kind acts =)

    Speaking of which, it is time for an update!

  • Cant believe it

    Are u all nuts? U sure about that? Then that gal must be super poor thing with no friends at all… Use common sense to get help from police …

  • willyfoo

    To the last poster.. the police was involved.. sad to say they didn’t help much. In fact, the embassies were involved as well and they couldn’t help.

  • Nature Photography

    What a fascinating story! Thanks for sharing this!

  • Name

    Hi Willy, just read this post. Agree that your friend was really lucky to have gotten yours & your friends' help in time. Also luckily she was there before the Xinjiang riots so Facebook wasn't blocked in China yet! It's heartening to know there are kind souls out there, but on the flip side, there are also cybercrooks trying to make use of people through the Internet & Facebook so it pays to be careful too. There are cybercrooks who hack into people's Facebook accounts, pretend that they are exactly in the same situation (robbed, stranded in a foreign country with no money), post status msgs asking for help & money, so if friends try to help by sending them money, it actually goes to the crooks.. Good idea to verify that the person is who they claim to be. Well, glad there was a happy ending to this :)

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