Hong Kong (CNN) The postcard image of Hong Kong is one of glittering skyscrapers against lush mountains, dim sum restaurants and investment bankers in suits.
But in recent weeks, the international financial hub has once again been in the headlines for something darker: the death of model and influencer Abby Choi, whose dismembered body parts were found along with a meat cleaver and electric saw in a rental unit last month.
The 28-year-old’s death tender has not only terrified a city regularly ranked as one of the world’s safest, but gripped much of the world’s media with the gruesome details of her alleged murder.
For Hongkongers, it has also rekindled painful memories of previous cases of demolitions in the city – many targeting young women and almost all perpetrated by men.
There is the so-called “Hello Kitty” murder in 1999, when 23-year-old Fan Man-yee was abducted by gang members and brutally tortured for a month before her death and dismemberment. Her skull was eventually found sewn inside a Hello Kitty plush doll.
There were the four women, the youngest just 17, killed by a taxi driver who kept their dismembered body parts in jars before his arrest in 1982. Then came 16-year-old Wong Ka-mui, who was strangled and dismembered in 2008 and her remains flushed down a toilet.
And in 2013, Glory Chau and Moon Siu were murdered and dismembered by their 28-year-old son, a crime described by the judge as “evil” and “absolutely atrocious”.
Tons of headlines followed each murder. But despite all the media attention, experts point out that such cases are exceptionally rare in Hong Kong, a city with an incredibly low rate of violent crime for its population of 7.4 million.
Hong Kong sees only a few dozen murders each year, compared to several hundred in New York. And it recorded just 77 robberies last year – compared to more than 17,000 in New York and 24,000 in London.
So why the huge interest in these earlier cases? Their rarity, combined with their brutality, is a factor, experts say.
But there may be something else at play: that buried beneath all the grim details of death is a peculiar insight into living in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
No place to hide a body
Roderic Broadhurst, an emeritus professor of criminology at the Australian National University who was formerly based in Hong Kong, where he founded the Hong Kong Center for Criminology, estimated that there had been a dozen or so dismemberment cases in the city over the past 50 years.
Philip Beh, a semi-retired forensic pathologist who previously worked with the Hong Kong police, gave a slightly lower estimate, saying he could recall fewer than 10 such cases in his 40-year career.
Both experts emphasized that Hong Kong is still very safe and that these numbers are relatively low. In fact, Hong Kong’s reputation for safety meant that the few cases that did occur left a stronger “imprint” on the city, Broadhurst said.
But both also suggested the gruesome nature of those earlier cases – particularly the dismemberment – reflected the realities of life in Hong Kong.
Simply put, hiding a body in the densely packed city, home to tiny apartments and some of the world’s most densely populated neighborhoods, is much more difficult.
Someone trying to dispose of a body in rural areas of Australia, Canada or the United States has “a very good chance of getting away with it,” thanks to the large space and open terrain, Beh said.
Not so in Hong Kong.
“These are essentially people who are trying to get away with a crime but can’t,” Beh said.
A killer in Hong Kong would more likely than not live within just a few meters of dozens of people who could see them trying to dispose of a corpse — which prompts someone to cut the victims into smaller pieces for disposal.
“Most people live in blocks of flats on top of each other. We don’t have individuals with houses and gardens where you can go out and dig a hole and try to bury a body,” Beh said. “You’re never really alone; your neighbors are above you, below you, beside you. Anything out of the ordinary will catch someone’s attention.”
Broadhurst agreed, pointing out that in apartment buildings a killer might have to enter an elevator shared by more than 100 households just to get out.
Several previous cases have involved killers cooking or boiling body parts – details that have horrified the public, and likely fueled by unsubstantiated rumors surrounding cases such as the 1985 “pork bun murders” in neighboring Macao. A man killed a family of 10, including the owners of a restaurant, and – as the urban legend (and the movie it inspired) says – supposedly served them in bowls.
But the explanation is far more mundane in most cases, said Beh.
In Hong Kong’s subtropical, humid climate, “the smell of the body very quickly grabs attention,” he said — hence why some killers may try to remove the smell by boiling dismembered parts.
Few cars or freezers
As for why these killers didn’t use methods often seen in other countries—keeping bodies in freezers, dumping them in the water late at night—Hong Kong’s density poses another difficulty.
In the notoriously expensive housing market, apartments are usually too small and cramped for large furniture or kitchen appliances.
“Very few individuals have large refrigerators at home,” Beh said. “Even fewer have freezers. You couldn’t even keep the body if you wanted to.”
He added that the same scarcity applies to cars – and thus the same difficulty in discreetly transporting a body.
Few residents own vehicles since buildings with places to park are at a premium—in 2019, a parking space sold for nearly $1 million, a record—and the city has an extensive, efficient public transportation system anyway.
These combined factors may explain various cases over the years where killers used bizarre, grotesque methods to dispose of their victims’ bodies – like the woman killed by her husband in 2018 and her body kept in a suitcase, or the 28-year-old man whose body was found in a cement block in 2016.
“We live in a place where essentially, if you’ve killed someone, your next very pressing question is: What do you do with the body?” said Beh.
“There are very few options.”
CNN’s Kathleen Magramo contributed to this report.