The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

U.S. Crime Writer Tackles a Real Hong Kong Cold Case

by Christopher Shay

Ani Ashekian, a 31-year-old Canadian tourist, arrived in Hong Kong on Nov. 9, 2008, traveling solo. After spending the night at a guesthouse in Chungking Mansions, a famously shabby tenement building, she text-messaged her niece to wish her a happy birthday and withdrew money from an ATM across the harbor. After that, Ashekian vanished.

The same week, best-selling American crime novelist and filmmaker Michael Connelly spent two days combing Chungking Mansions, researching a new novel and shooting video for short promotional spots. His book Nine Dragons, which debuted last month at No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list, follows hard-boiled detective Harry Bosch, in his 15th novel, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong’s Kowloon district in search of his missing daughter. Months after his visit, while preparing for his book’s launch, Connelly ran across a YouTube clip about Ashekian’s disappearance — a case that bore an eerie similarity to his own fictional story. Connelly immediately went back to the film his videographer shot in Chungking Mansions. He had raw footage — much of it shot secretly to avoid confrontation — from the last place she stayed. Maybe, just maybe, Connelly could find a clue.

If this were one of Connelly’s novels, Harry Bosch surely would have found some piece of evidence; no one disappears in a crime thriller for good. In the real world, however, Connelly saw nothing out of the ordinary in the video of the hustle and bustle of Chungking’s crowds. A year later, despite the ongoing efforts by Ashekian’s family and friends, a private investigator, local volunteers and some 150 Hong Kong police officers, there are still no leads. Ani Ashekian’s 29-year-old sister Sossy describes Ani as a “smart, adventurous, vibrant, kind, beautiful, energetic, loving woman that will do anything for you” — and now she’s gone.

What links Nine Dragons and Ashekian’s case is Chungking Mansions, which a character in Connelly’s novel describes as a “post-modern Casablanca — all in one building.” Built in 1961, the building holds about 1,000 cheap guesthouse rooms, some with deceptively pleasant names like the New Hawaii and the Happy Guest House that mask the more typical reality of dingy rooms barely large enough for a bed. At any given time, there are some 4,000 residents living in 15 floors of apartments and 10,000 others passing through the complex’s restaurants and dimly lit bazaar, which sells everything from saffron to sex to cell phones. And there are a lot of cell phones. Gordon Mathews, an anthropology professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong who has written extensively about Chungking Mansions, estimates that about 15% of sub-Saharan Africa’s handsets — or more than 10 million units — flow through the building each year. Mathews has counted 129 different nationalities that have stayed in the building over the past three years. “It’s a world center of low-end globalization — not the globalization of Coca-Cola or Sony, but the globalization of Africa and South Asia,” Mathews says. Ashekian, a Canadian citizen of South Asian descent, would not have stood out in the building’s diverse crowd.

Despite its lingering reputation as a drab building rife with petty crime, as a whole, Chungking Mansions has cleaned itself up in the past decade with the addition of more than 200 security cameras and an increased police presence. Thanks in part to Wong Kar-wai’s popular 1994 film Chungking Express, the site draws a regular flow of tourists to its affordable curry houses and warren of knockoff-electronics booths. While members of Hong Kong’s triads — the local underground crime syndicates — play a key role in Nine Dragons, they don’t have much of a presence in the real-life Chungking Mansions. Mathews says that though the complex’s seamy reputation may have been deserved in the 1980s and ’90s, it is safe now. “There are closed-circuit-TV cameras watching everything. The chances of someone being abducted are virtually nil,” he says, adding that Chungking Mansions “doesn’t deserve a bad light because of what happened [to Ashekian].” Commercial closed-circuit televisions usually run on a 24- or 48-hour loop, but Ashekian’s disappearance wasn’t reported until she missed her flight home on Dec. 15. The camera recordings at Chungking Mansions and elsewhere would have been wiped clean.

The Hong Kong police are still actively investigating, but according to Guy Shirra, a retired Hong Kong police officer working pro bono as a private investigator on the case, “We are approaching the moment where there’s no more we can do.” Calling the case “extremely puzzling,” Shirra listed a number of possibilities for what could have happened to Ashekian, from falling down a hillside on a hike to illegally sailing out of Hong Kong with someone she had met traveling.

Though the site where she last stayed may be statistically safe (there have been no murders at Chungking Mansions for years), with its shabby hallways, dark corners and din of arguing deal hunters from around the globe, it is easy to imagine someone becoming embroiled in something dangerous there. Connelly, a former Los Angeles Times crime reporter who spent years milling about crime scenes and interviewing victims, says he chose to set a major part of the book in Chungking Mansions because, as a stranger, it is the type of place “where you want to look over your shoulder.”

When he found out about the Ashekian case this fall, Connelly felt compelled to get involved with a real-life mystery again. He has written about Ashekian on his blog and for CNN and has been doing interviews with foreign media in Hong Kong, trying to bring attention to her disappearance. “When all this tumbled together, I had to do something,” Connelly says. “No one disappears in a vacuum. Someone knows something.” With some noting that Jaycee Lee Dugard, an American girl abducted 18 years ago, reappeared in August and is now back with her family, no one has given up — not the police, not Connelly and definitely not the Ashekian family. Sossy, Ani’s sister, told TIME, “She’s still out there somewhere, and until we hear otherwise, we will not lose our hope in finding Ani.”

Published on on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009

Category: Article, Odds + Ends

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