At the risk of dashing your best Halloween nightmares, let’s make one thing clear: there are no ghosts in Nam Koo Terrace. At least, none apart from Ghost, the co-founder of HK Urbex, a group of urban explorers who sneak into some of Hong Kong’s spookiest abandoned buildings.
“We tried to welcome the ghosts but nothing happened,” says the British-born writer, who has lived in Hong Kong for most of his life. “There was nothing scary about it at all. It was actually fairly underwhelming, to be honest.”
And yet Nam Koo Terrace was a kind of holy grail – one of Hong Kong’s most famously haunted buildings, and one of its most prominent abandoned structures, a century-old mansion perched above the busy streets of Wan Chai, snarled in years of vegetation. For years, it has been under the control of property conglomerate Hopewell Holdings, which is currently building a huge new skyscraper across the street, and its owners were eager to keep trespassers off the historic property.
“It was the most protected heritage location in Hong Kong,” says Ghost. “There were sensors, motion detectors, cameras, guards 24/7.” After years of uncertainty, the mansion’s fate was sealed this year when the government announced it would be converted into a wedding registry. “They decided to protect it and when they made this announcement security dropped, which is a bit ironic,” says Ghost.
And so Ghost and his fellow urban explorers took the opportunity to sneak into the old house. It wasn’t necessarily to see if it was as haunted as its reputation would have it; it was part of a larger mission to document Hong Kong’s neglected heritage. Since 2013, HK Urbex’s group of writers, videographers and photographers — who all go by pseudonym, because trespassing is illegal — have sought to pull the curtain on some of Hong Kong’s most intriguing properties.
“Originally we started doing this as a way to scout locations for short film I wanted to do,” says Echo Delta, another one of the group’s founders. “I wanted to look for apocalyptic looking places.” That led them to the abandoned ATV studios in Sai Kung, where they found vast spaces decorated by graffiti, mysterious holes in the walls, and strange artefacts like pornography scattered across the floor. Since then, they have ventured into dozens of other places, including the abandoned Ma Wan fishing village, defunct mines, derelict country manors and even a new MTR tunnel under construction.
They certainly aren’t the only urban explorers in Hong Kong. Over the years, abandoned buildings have become fashionable places for Instagram photoshoots, but HK Urbex’s members say their approach is different. “For us it’s about the story of the places and what we can do to conserve them,” says Echo Delta. “It has a thrill and I admit that, but it’s become almost like a duty to search out and document these places.”
That’s particularly relevant in a city that has only recently come to see the value in heritage conservation. Despite an affordable housing crisis and some of the most expensive land in the world, Hong Kong has a surprising number of abandoned buildings, from so-called ghost villages to more than 100 empty schools, not to mention prominent historic structures that lie rotting in the city centre, like Nam Koo Terrace or the Central Market.
“Hong Kong is a very wasteful society,” says Ghost. “It’s like at Chinese New Year – let’s throw out the old and bring in the new. Maybe land owners and developers see these as throwaway places. They can’t see the value in them the way the rest of us, the general public, see the value.”
Of course, property owners do see value – it’s just that it is measured in dollars, not history or culture. “People like to sit on the land because they hope they will eventually get bought out by someone who will build a tower for rich people,” says Ghost. “It’s land and greed.”
That is one reason why Nam Koo Terrace has stood empty for so long. Built between 1915 and 1921 by Shanghainese silk trader To Chun-man, it was sold to Hopewell Holdings in 1993. Just over a decade earlier, Hopewell had completed the circular Hopewell Centre on Queen’s Road East, knocking Jardine House off the throne of Hong Kong’s tallest building. The company wanted to demolish Nam Koo Terrace for an even taller 93-storey skyscraper, but community opposition stymied the plans until recently, during which time Nam Koo Terrace remained fenced-off and abandoned.
Some say the mansion has been left to rot because of its sordid World War II history. In 1941, when Japan invaded Hong Kong, the To family fled their home, leaving it in the hands of the Japanese military, which converted it into a brothel staffed by so-called “comfort women” – sex slaves kept prisoner and subjected to horrifying abuse. Some of those women died, and it is their ghosts that supposedly haunt the mansion today.
Over the years, people have reported seeing “ghostly flames” inside the house and some allege to have heard screams and cries coming from the building. In 2003, local tabloid Oriental Daily ran a story about a group of eight middle school students who camped overnight in the house, hoping to witness the ghosts. The newspaper claimed three of the children suffered mental breakdowns before the night was over.
The ornate — some might say spooky — architecture helps feed the legend. Like many other mansions of the era, including King Yin Lei, Nam Koo Terrace is a mashup of European and Chinese architectural elements. There are octagonal windows and a Chinese pavilion on the roof; moulded concrete cornices sit atop a red brick façade. A curved colonnaded verandah brings to mind the homes of wealthy Chinese merchants everywhere from Guangzhou to Singapore.
Unfortunately, many of the mansion’s historical elements seem to have vanished over the years. “It has kind of a Wong Kar-wai vibe with red walls, but it’s been gutted,” says Ghost. There was no furniture, no debris – “even most of the stairwells have been pulled out.”
And there were certainly no ghosts. The closest the HK Urbex crew have come to a supernatural experience was in an abandoned cinema. “The lights started flashing,” says Ghost. “It was quite weird at the time but these spaces put you in a certain state of mind.” When they stepped outside they realised there was an electrical crew doing work on the building.
At this point, HK Urbex has scoped out most of Hong Kong’s abandoned spaces, but there are still a few spots on their bucket list, like the air raid tunnels underneath Kowloon Park. You can see their entrances near the edge of the park, portals into an unknown world. Even after documenting so many different spaces, Ghost says the thrill of exploration never goes away.
“When you’re going into these spaces you crawl in slowly, you’re expecting something, maybe a security guard, and then you start walking faster,” he says. “And you can see things that totally surprise you.”