Skyscraper death fall in China brings ‘rooftopping’ into focus

Daredevils scale skyscrapers worldwide and take selfies with cityscape backdrop

For months Wu Yongning had climbed towers and buildings high above the streets of cities in China, turning a camera on himself as he teetered on ledges or clutched an antenna with one hand.

Through his dizzying lens he became a celebrity for his high-altitude stunts, amassing thousands of followers on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site. But on November 8th his online posts suddenly stopped.

That was when, the police in China have confirmed, Wu fell to his death from the top of the Huayuan Hua Centre, a building more than 60 storeys high in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, Chinese media reports said. Last week a video of his fall was posted online and widely shared.

The young man’s death exemplified the internet obsession of inviting millions of strangers to witness a life, in all its perils, pranks and failures.


It also shed light on the thrill-seeking subculture associated with "rooftopping" in which ambitious daredevils scale skyscrapers around the world and take selfies against magnificent views above the tops of cities from New York to Dubai to Russia.

In China, Wu's death prompted the official media to warn about livestreaming stunts. "By climbing on high buildings without taking any safety measures Wu put himself in danger and pushed himself to his limits, but that does not mean what he did is a sport," a report in the China Daily said.

Film extra

Wu's family told the Xiaoxiang Morning Post, a newspaper based in Changsha, that the young man, who had worked as a film extra, had dangled himself from the building for a video he hoped would earn as much as $15,000 (€12,700) if it went viral – money he would use to get married and pay his mother's medical bills.

An excerpt from the video of Wu’s last moments shows him on top of the building, clad in black with his hair pulled back from his face, meticulously and repeatedly wiping the ledge. He swung his legs over the edge and partially hung there, clutching it with the full length of his arms, before pulling himself up and sitting down to wipe the edge again.

Then he swung his legs over one by one for a final time. He did two pullups into the void, gripping the ledge. Attempting a third, he appeared to struggle, trying to find a hold with one foot after the other. A small sound resembling a human voice, perhaps a whimper, can be heard on the recording. Then he dropped.


His death resounded in the community of people who seek urban altitudes for thrills, for curiosity or for profit.

Daniel Cheong (55), a professional cityscape photographer who lives in Dubai, home of some of the world's tallest skyscrapers, said that when he moved to the emirate in 2008 there was a small informal group of rooftoppers who found each other on social media through their photographs.

"There are different flavours – those who are doing it for the pure purpose of cityscape photography and those who are doing it for the thrill to post on Instagram and YouTube, " he said in a telephone interview.

Cheong, who has a photography business in Dubai through which he gains access to rooftops legally, said he has been on roofs as high as 100 floors up fixing his camera equipment to a safety leash. On some rooftops there is nothing to stop a person from going over the edge, he said.

“The goal is to capture the cityscape. The attraction really has nothing to do with the fact that you go to the 100th floor. It is purely for composition.”

However, he said informal bands of rooftoppers, many of them Russian, were seeking to build online networks of followers on YouTube and Instagram, and hopefully, a lucrative deal out of advertisements. Such thrill-seekers, he said, “mostly have a reputation for sneaking illegally on rooftops to get selfies. It is more the thrill of getting very high.”

Neil Ta, a photographer in Toronto, took up rooftopping in 2009 to fulfil an aesthetic curiosity, climbing to the tops of tall buildings in Canada and during his travels in southeast Asia for the view. "The reality of it is not everyone is going up there and prancing on the ledges and being irresponsible," he said in a recent interview. "There are a lot of people going up there and looking at the city from a safe distance from the ledge."


But Ta said he became disillusioned with the changing nature of the skyscraper adventures over the years. Instagram grew more popular for recording mischief-making and feats of daring. Security was enhanced in high places, and gaining access to roofs of skyscrapers became more difficult.

Where once he persisted through the challenges of scouting locations with unlocked rooftops, Ta began to notice “a newer breed of rooftopper” who did not hesitate to use a crowbar or bolt cutter. He quit rooftopping in 2014. “There was no art left in the process,” he wrote in a farewell blog post that year. “No subtlety.”

Ta said last week that he sympathised with Wu, however. “He was doing it to win a prize. I could see why he would want to do that to provide for his family. So I can’t really fault him.” – New York Times service