Life

The 'Missing Person Hierarchy' – Why Some Disappearances Get More Press Than Others

Until 67-year-old Mee Kuen Chong's headless body was discovered 200 miles from her home, little attention was paid to the case. Why?
July 16, 2021, 8:15am
Mee Kuen Chong
Mee Kuen Chong.

Photo: @MPSBrent

The woman who answered the buzzer at the Emmanuel Centre had nothing to say about the investigation. Deborah had always seemed to move around a lot, she explained politely, before shutting the door.

Mee Kuen Chong, originally from Malaysia – and known as Deborah to many of her friends – had been a longtime member of the church, which is housed in a faded brick building not far from Edgware station.

The 67-year-old lived with a lodger in Wembley, out on the northwestern fringes of the London, until her disappearance in early June. On the 27th of that month, Chong’s headless body was discovered 200 miles from the capital, in a stretch of woodland near Salcombe, Devon.

Advertisement

Chong’s death was initially labelled “unexplained” by local police, before a murder inquiry was launched by the Met. On the 7th of July, a 36-year-old woman was arrested at an address in Kilburn, northwest London and later charged with murder.

The initial fact of Chong’s vanishing didn’t provoke any viral social media posts, just as the two weeks between her disappearance and the discovery of her body didn’t see any urgently broadcast television appeals for information, or sustained media coverage. Aside from a few individual attempts to drum up publicity, and a brief notice on a local London news website, there was nothing – at least, until the missing persons case transformed into a murder inquiry. 

For some, the relative silence has prompted questions of why some missing people seem to gather more attention than others. 

*

The available details of Mee Kuen Chong’s life sketch a portrait of what was a quiet, though not reclusive, suburban existence. Neighbours describe a woman of low-key routines who kept herself to herself – who was perhaps slightly eccentric, but always pleasant. Several mention her devoutness – occasionally they’d hear singing from her house – and it was hard to miss the fact her mobility wasn’t great, as she had trouble walking around even the local area.

Advertisement

Over 170,000 people are reported missing in the UK every year, at a rate of one every 90 seconds. The vast majority of cases in England are resolved within two days, according to the most recent figures from the National Crime Agency’s 2021 data report. This means either a body is found, or – more commonly – the person returns from their missing episode.   

Though there are a small number of cases which end up dominating news cycles and social media feeds, the vast majority remain cloaked in obscurity. For many, this seems to point to a hierarchy in the world of the missing.

Hau-Yu Tam is the chair of End the Virus of Racism (EVR), a campaign group tackling structural racism towards East and South East Asian communities, and was one of the loudest voices in trying to publicise Mee Kuen Chong’s vanishing online. 

She explains that she was made aware of Chong’s disappearance on the 23rd of June via WhatsApp, by several different Malaysian-Chinese community workers in London. Tam has spent much of her recent career working in local government, where was first confronted by the relentless churn of missing person appeals. The initial lack of wider interest or urgency in Chong's case has continued to frustrate her in the weeks since. 

“That she was [apparently] discovered without her head, and [still] it hasn’t made more of a ripple,” she tells me over Zoom. “When you talk about people ‘slipping through the gaps’, our understanding [at EVR] is that the system is designed not to protect certain people.”

Advertisement

Tam points to the recent spate of racist attacks on ESEA people in the US and UK. “When you see those cases, you wonder what it would take [for] people to care.”

During our conversation, Tam uses the term “hostile indifference” to describe attitudes in the UK towards its ESEA population. Though it isn’t clear if Mee Kuen Chong’s death was racially motivated, the possibility hasn’t yet been ruled out. 

Dr Karen Shalev Greene is Director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at The University of Portsmouth. When we speak, she outlines some of the reasons why certain missing people never seem to dominate media headlines, and how – while Missing White Woman Syndrome is a well documented phenomenon – it wasn’t just Mee Kuen Chong’s ethnicity that made her so vulnerable to invisibility.

“[When you] think about her age, the response might be, ‘Oh, another [older] woman with dementia, or suffering from poor mental health,” says Greene. “That’s not ‘newsworthy’, because that happens a lot. Even if she had possibly been a white middle class woman, I still doubt it would have gained much traction.”

Chong’s apparently brutal death changes this: murder generates clicks in a way a missing middle aged woman does not. “The media likes [when a] missing person story [develops] into a crime story,” says Greene. “If you think about it, it’s less work for journalists. If that can lead to an arrest and conviction, then you’ve got a whole narrative for two or three years.”

Advertisement

It’s a grim facet of human nature that draws us to the macabre as “consumers”, but a very real one. The missing episode, however, adds Greene, might be horrifying for families and loved ones, “but not [always] for the general public”.

Then there are the cases that pass in relative silence, apparently regardless of circumstance. In late March, a 25-year-old Fillipino woman named Bennylyn Burke was found murdered in Dundee, along with her two-year-old daughter, Jellica. They had been reported missing from their Bristol home a few weeks earlier. When the first brief news reports broke, the nation was gripped with the search for Sarah Everard. While the latter case provoked a society-wide conversation around male violence, Bennylyn Burke’s passed comparatively unnoticed. 

Bennylyn Burke.jpeg

Bennylyn Burke. Photo: Police handout

When I speak to Francesca Humi – Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at Kanlungan, a charity focusing on the welfare of Filipinos in the UK – she stresses that the focus should not be on pitting tragedies against one another. Instead, she explains, we should strive to achieve some kind of comparative publicity for a community that often flies under the radar.

Humi gave a speech at a Justice for Bennylyn event in London on the 15th of May, where she wondered aloud why the deaths warranted such little attention. It’s a theme she comes back to with me. “Violence towards East and South East Asian women is so normalised,” she says. “[People may] take advantage of the fact that a migrant in the UK probably doesn’t have the same social safety net as a British person.”

Advertisement

Going and staying missing is far easier when that net has frayed down to a trapeze wire. Humi says the Hostile Environment is a recent and ongoing example of how migrants like Bennylyn Burke and Mee Kuen Chong are pushed to the margins of society, creating a climate where their disappearance can become shockingly easy and unremarked upon. 

As the story of Mee Kuen Chong’s murder continues to develop, there has been an uptick in coverage. There is now that morbid allure that Dr Shalev Greene mentioned during our discussion, and as the case becomes something else – a murder mystery spanning the bottom third of the UK – the sluggish and unglamorous missing person story has already been half-forgotten.

After all, it isn’t often that stories like Mee Kuen Chong’s involve Salcombe, the bustling, well heeled seaside town in Devon where her body was discovered. When I contact the local mayor's office for comment, they express shock and sadness at the case, as well as an appeal for calm and a plea for things to carry on as usual.

“[The town] is full of visitors at the moment and we would encourage everyone to carry on with their holiday, for the businesses to also carry on, and not to speculate and feed the rumour mill.”

Francisco Garcia is a VICE contributor and the author of If You Were There: Missing People and the Marks They Leave Behind.