Hong Kong’s urban explorers

Hong Kong’s urban explorers

To some, a deserted public housing block or a derelict hospital is nothing but a waste of space. But to the explorers behind anonymous collective HK Urbex (Hong Kong Urban Exploration), these forgotten buildings reveal another side of Hong Kong, beyond the shimmering skyscrapers and glitzy malls.

“Sometimes we’re the last people to step foot in a building before it’s demolished,” said Pripyat, an HK Urbex crew member. “And then the next week, it’s gone.

Inside these crumbling buildings,the explorers often find themselves alone with personal artefacts – portraits, postcards, clothes and photo albums. Every room tells a different story of another era, another experience.

“You inevitably end up doing kind of like detective forensics work,” Pripyat said. “The last place we went, we found an x-ray of a guy that revealed a worrying shadow in his chest. You try to piece together these lives.”


Hong Kong’s urban explorers
View image of HK Urbex is comprised of eight anonymous adventurers who explore derelict buildings (Credit: Credit: Kate Springer)

Founded by Ghost and Echo Delta in 2013, HK Urbex comprises a crew of eight anonymous urban explorers. Most are journalists, videographers and photographers who choose to withhold their identities in hopes of keeping the focus onto the sites, rather than themselves.

Their masks and balaclavas also protect them from asbestos and potentially harmful elements – not to mention law enforcement.

“Not everyone would deem climbing a fence to take a few photos of an antiquated site as legal, so the concealment helps,” Ghost said. “What we’re doing is not about us, it’s about so much more than that.”

Over the past three years, the intrepid team has explored everything from old Chinese Medicine factories to rundown psychiatric wards, historic colonial-era mansions, former British military barracks, prisons, decommissioned hospitals, derelict apartment buildings, metro stations, paint factories and cinemas.


Hong Kong’s urban explorers
View image of The explorers have visited old military barracks, hospitals, prisons and paint factories (Credit: Credit: Kate Springer)

The list covers more than 200 addresses, many of which have since been demolished. Along the way, the crew documents each site’s story with photos, videos, drone footage and even virtual reality.

“It’s about immortalising these sites that are fast disappearing in our city. It’s a form of preservation, really,” Ghost explained. “We also explore train stations, bridges and flood gates. I call them negative spaces – the spaces that exist in limbo between the city that people don’t usually go into.”

Most residents will never see these places. Hong Kong takes a famously passive approach to preservation, instead prioritising the tallest, fastest, biggest developments. The routine demolition of heritage sites – such as historic Queen’s Pier in 2007, Wan Chai’s landmark Tung Tak Pawn Shop in 2015 or the slated demolition of the 160-year-old Graham Street Market – has led to public protests and resentment.

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Following impassioned demonstrations at Queen’s Pier, the government set up The Commissioner for Heritage’s Office in 2008, which is meant to vet development projects and implement new policies. The following year, the Antiquities Advisory Board announced its on-going assessment of 1,444 of Hong Kong’s buildings, bestowing a Grade 1, 2 or 3 status to those with historic merit.

As of 2013, there were 942 designated historic buildings across the territory accorded a grade, most of which are privately owned. In 2016, another 85 buildings were added to the list, bringing the total to 1,027.

Despite on-going efforts to identify and protect these buildings, many residents remain sceptical of the agencies’ efficacy. Critics point to continued demolitions by private owners, alongside misguided revitalisation schemes.

“Hong Kong seems to have little incentive to preserve its history. It’s bulldozed over to make way for new buildings,” Pripyat said. “[HK Urbex] is a way to pay our last respects and bear witness to these places, and hopefully preserve some bit of the memory or the value of the places – even if they weren’t valued by the people who owned them.”


Hong Kong’s urban explorers
View image of They often discover postcards or photo albums left behind, which tell the building’s history (Credit: Credit: Kate Springer)

The team keeps close tabs on which buildings are facing the threat of demolition. They comb through the historic building records and swap notes with graffiti artists. Often, though, they simply stumble upon deserted buildings on their own.

“We have developed a sixth sense for finding abandoned buildings,” Pripyat said. “You can kind of see the tell-tale signs, like dilapidated walls, no AC units in the windows, graffiti and little things like that.”

But the explorers don’t embark on an excursion without doing their due diligence. The crew approaches each outing with appropriate precautions such as helmets, first-aid kits and headlamps.

“We might go to a site two or three times before deciding to go inside if we’re not sure about the safety,” Ghost said. “But, to be honest, I feel most alive when I’m in a dangerous space, because I’m using all of my senses.”


Hong Kong’s urban explorers
View image of No two excursions are the same, as each building projects a distinct personality (Credit: Credit: Kate Springer)

While exploring an abandoned mine or an empty metro stop might be thrilling, it’s often the more low-key adventures that leave the most profound impression.

“My favourite place is a building in Tsai Kok Tsui,” Pripyat said. “It’s a whole building that’s completely abandoned but there are many belongings that were left behind. For me, it’s the people who lived there and what they were like – it’s an entire apartment block of stories.”

Both Ghost and Pripyat agree that no two excursions are the same; each space has its own character and personality. Sometimes a building feels haunted, or devastatingly personal.

“You have a special relationship with these building when you’re alone,” Ghost said. “And you get some really haunting experiences that you can’t explain.”


Hong Kong’s urban explorers
View image of The explorers comb through historic building records to find structures facing demolition (Credit: Credit: Kate Springer)

Ghost recalls a 2015 adventure when the crew explored a cinema in East Kowloon, which had been rotting for more than a decade. According to urban legends, the dilapidated theatre was haunted by spirits who died in a series of tragedies, including a fatal landslide and a fire.

“The emergency lights started flickering, literally like what you’d see in a cheap horror flick,” Pripyat recalled. “For a few seconds, I believed in ghosts. But then we saw an electricity crew outside. That’s the mental place these buildings can put you in.”

Residents and travellers alike are often surprised to learn about this overlooked side of Hong Kong. And even without headlamps and helmets, there are dozens of colourful, aging destinations within the territory – as long as you know where to look.

For easy access, Ghost suggests the 20th-century Blue House. Built in the 1920s, the house is a Grade 1 architectural gem: its vibrant façade serves as an emblem of the Wan Chai district and an example of a tong lau (traditional tenement-style residence). Famous in the 1950s and ‘60s for its now defunct martial arts school, Blue House now houses a community project called Hong Kong House of Stories, which leads hands-on craft workshops, as well as culture tours around Wan Chai. Currently under renovation, Blue House is expected to emerge in 2017 with new educational programmes, heritage tours, a vegetarian restaurant – and a fresh lick of blue paint.

Farther afield is an abandoned village on Park Island, juxtaposed with glitzy apartment high rises. The government evicted residents in 2011 to make room for a new development, but the village still awaits demolition. While many of the decrepit stilt houses and abandoned playgrounds warn against trespassing, travellers can explore the eerie streets and imagine what the fishing village was like before it was left to rot. 

While a far cry from the skyscrapers and shiny malls of the Central district, these bygone buildings arguably offer a more authentic way to experience Hong Kong.

“We kind of create value where there is no value,” Pripyat said. “We’re shining a spotlight and saying ‘Look how gorgeous that is, even in decay.’”

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