Hong Kong’s Colonial Heritage, Part I: The Ghost of Murray House

Murray House had withstood plague, warfare and more than a century of Hong Kong humidity. It had just one problem: ghosts. And so, in 1974, a troupe of 70 Buddhist monks spent two hours wandering the hallways of the venerable stone structure, chanting and burning offerings. 

The exorcism had been organised by then-Commissioner of Transport Brian Wilson, whose staff were housed in Murray House, a former military barracks built in 1844. He tried to keep the ceremony quiet, but the media soon caught on, and a crowd of reporters and curious passersby thronged the colonnaded building as the monks performed their duties. 

“I was required to give three TV interviews and five radio interviews, all with the same question: as you are not a Buddhist, why did you take part in a Buddhist ceremony?” Wilson later recalled. “The answer was simple. If the Transport Department offices should be infested with rats, I would call in the rat-catchers and, if necessary, lend a hand. In the same manner, if the problem was ghosts, as in this case, I would call in the ghost-catchers, and if this meant my taking part in a Buddhist ceremony, I was happy to do so.”

It wasn’t the first time an exorcism had been performed on the building. The first had occurred a decade earlier, in 1963, but apparently it wasn’t successful, because workers still complained of being harassed by ghosts. Some said they had left drawings and blueprints out to dry, only to find them smeared and modified with additional marks. One worker claimed to have been in the bathroom when he felt something tugging at his sleeve. When he turned around, nothing was there, but the air suddenly became uncomfortably warm.

In a city that believes in ghosts as much as Hong Kong, a building as old as Murray House was sure to have accumulated quite a few spooky inhabitants in its 139-year history. And it’s only fitting to begin the story of Murray House with such lore, because the building has become a kind of ghost itself, lurking in unfamiliar surroundings, a shadow of what it once was.

Murray House—not to be confused with the Murray Building—was built as the officers’ quarters of the Murray Barracks, part of the military complex that sprawled over the hills to the east of present-day Central. Standing three storeys tall at the corner of the Queensway and Garden Road, it was made from locally quarried granite, and it was one of the first permanent structures erected by the British after Hong Kong Island was formally ceded to the United Kingdom in 1842. 

“Architecturally, it is more distinguished than a regular barracks building, as it was the officer’s mess, and therefore it has a more imposing presence,” says Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Architectural Conservation Programme. You could see that in the stately verandahs where officers retreated to keep cool during the feverish summer heat, which were far more spacious than those in the barracks built for more junior soldiers. Like other buildings that rose in Hong Kong in the late 19th century, Murray House had a gently sloping Chinese-style roof built with two layers of tiles, which prevented leakage at a time when waterproof membranes did not exist. 

The building seems to have had a fairly uneventful life until 1941, when Japanese forces successfully invaded Hong Kong and launched a brutal 44-month occupation. Murray House became the headquarters of the Japanese military police, with jail cells, torture chambers and execution grounds where many Hong Kong people—up to 4,000, according to some reports—were killed. 

With such a bloody history, it’s no wonder that many people thought Murray House was haunted. After the war, the military gave the building to the Hong Kong government, which used it for several government departments. The exorcisms conducted in 1963 and 1974 were an attempt to allay the fears of civil servants assigned to the building, some of whom threatened to quit if nothing was done about the ghosts. “Chinese staff take these matters seriously and are far from sceptical about reports of ghosts, which tend to be regarded as harmful, or at least frightening to live people,” recalled Brian Wilson.

The 1974 exorcism seems to have been successful; there were no more reports of ghosts after that. But Murray House wasn’t around for much longer, in any case. In the 1970s, the old military lands east of Central were being redeveloped into offices, hotels and modern government facilities. When the Bank of China was looking for a spot to build a new Hong Kong headquarters, the government cut it a sweetheart deal and sold it the land beneath Murray House for a bargain HK$120 million – a tiny fraction of the billion-plus dollars that nearby parcels of land had fetched.

The arrangement was seen as an attempt by Britain to cosy up to China in advance of the impending negotiations over Hong Kong’s fate after 1997. It was controversial enough that it caused a drop in the stock market and in the value of the Hong Kong dollar. And it wasn’t the only thing that made people upset. Heritage conservation was still a novel concept in Hong Kong at the time, and a previous campaign to preserve Kowloon Station had failed. But local architects expressed enough consternation about the decision to redevelop Murray House that the government committed to disassemble it stone by stone in order to rebuild it somewhere else. 

Minutes from the Urban Council reveal that, in 1980, a proposal was made to relocate the building to the nearby Victoria Barracks in order to serve as a branch of the Hong Kong Museum of History. But these plans never came to fruition and Murray House was dismantled and put into storage in 1982. It took nearly a decade for the government to decide to rebuild it in Stanley, under the management of the Hong Kong Housing Authority, which was planning a new public housing estate nearby. 

Murray House finally reopened in 2002. Although it may look like the same structure that had long stood on the Queensway, it isn’t. That’s because the Murray House that exists in Stanley today is actually a new concrete building with stones from the original building glued on like false eyelashes. It is currently home to retail shops and restaurants, and it overlooks Blake Pier, another historic structure that was demolished and rebuilt in Stanley.

Lee Ho-yin says that Murray House ought to have been left where it was. “The relocation of a building in whole or in part essentially destroys the original context that gives the building a large part of its intrinsic meaning as built heritage,” he says. It would have been entirely possible to incorporate the historic structure into a new building, something that would have been like “creating life by natural birth.” By contrast, what happened to Murray House “is like making a Frankenstein’s monster using an assemblage of body parts from different dead people.” It’s not heritage, just a monstrous facsimile of it. “The monster may look like a grown human, but it doesn’t have past memory and a soul,” adds Lee. 

Even if the Buddhist monks hadn’t fully exorcised Murray House, any phantoms would have surely been chased away when the building ceased to exist. But Hong Kong is still haunted by the ghosts of buildings lost – and conservation botched.

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