It was a distinctly unspooky location. A cash point in a bright, blaring underground train station. But there I stood among 20 strangers, all of us on the trail of phantoms.
Look at the skyline and all you see of Hong Kong is an ultra-modern city with glistening buildings scraping the clouds or hugging the harbourfront in weird and wonderful shapes.
But lurking in between them are pockets of old Hong Kong soaked in a history at risk of being forgotten, as new buildings and developments shoot up, says Mak Tak-ching, the man organising a tour of the “haunted” spots in Hong Kong’s old Wan Chai district.
The first tour of the year took place during Hong Kong’s ghost festival month of August. In that month people burn offerings on the streets to placate their long-deceased ancestors. Many believe that the city is brimming with ghosts during that time.
The air was musky with smoke even though we started from a less-than-scary place: a construction site where a new shopping mall and residential development is being built.
Lee Tung Street – also known as Wedding Card Street – is famous for being where the printers of traditional Chinese wedding invitations used to be. Brides, grooms and interfering in-laws spent decades traipsing up and down, probably arguing over what to say on the card.
The next stop was the old Wan Chai market on Queen’s Road East. Built in 1937, this is one of the few remaining examples of German Bauhaus-style architecture in town.
“The basement storeroom used to be a makeshift mortuary during the Japanese occupation,” said Mr Mak.
He passed around newspaper cuttings, explaining the history behind each location and lamenting the disappearance of the old communities.
Although Mr Mak conducts a tour with stories of phantoms and horrors, streets like this one are also included as it is precisely this kind of history that Hong Kong risks forgetting, he says.
But as a Wan Chai resident Mr Mak is not just about nostalgia and ghost stories. He also has a personal interest in seeing the character of the area preserved and is a campaigner at the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, a pro-democrat body.
Mr Mak has been running tours like this since 2004. The intention, he says, is to promote conservation of Wan Chai through his stories, as well as what he calls Hong Kong’s “property hegemony”.
“It is a labour right as well,” Mr Mak argued. “Although we are talking about people’s right to live in their community, instead of labour relations at workplace.”
One community historian criticised the tour as a political stunt exploiting people’s superstitious beliefs. Mr Mak denies this and for most of my companions that night, it was not his political alignment but the ghost stories and learning a bit of history which drew their attention.
Traces no more?
Wan Chai is well-known to the world. The 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, starring Hollywood’s William Holden and Hong Kong’s very own Chinese-British actress Nancy Kwan, was based entirely in this district on the north coast of Hong Kong Island.
And for decades, it has been the landing point for visiting US Navy sailors. Pubs and night clubs along Lockhart Road depend on their custom.
But the district’s history stretches back even further. Chinese settlement was recorded in Wan Chai as early as 1819. It became the easternmost part of the City of Victoria – technically the “capital city” of Hong Kong under British colonial rule.
Its proximity to the then HMS Tamar also saw the district fitted with military facilities such as the Naval Dockyard and Royal Naval Hospital. With many ethnic Chinese residents from all walks of life, it came under heavy bombardment during World War II by the Japanese army.
And that is where the ghosts come in.
Mr Mak led us to the entrance of Star Street air raid shelter.
In 1985 residents in the area experienced “supernatural events”, which they thought were ghosts escaping from the now defunct air raid shelter. It is said that during the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941, a Japanese bomb fell into the shelter before it detonated, killing hundreds.
“Wan Chai has the most haunted locations in Hong Kong,” Mr Mak said. “These supernatural events are all recorded by media, with traces, and only a community with such a long history can achieve this.
Two women on his tour said they were not feeling well and left early.
But another, Ms Tong, had brought her husband and three children along. “It works as a family outing,” she said.
“I love ghost stories but I don’t think I would enjoy one that only scares the hell out of you. This one is better. It feels more surreal with all the history stuff mixed into it.”
Deanne Catmull, a research assistant at the University of Melbourne, was visiting her friends in Hong Kong. She said: “I’ve been to a similar tour in Edinburgh and that was more chilling and haunted.
“I like this one because it has more light-hearted stories. It is interesting to find out the past of this whole area.”
Mr Mak knows that time for that could be in short supply.
“You can see those historic spots that I bring people to are disappearing, or rapidly changing. One haunted house could eventually become a restaurant.”
The “haunted house” he brought us to was Nam Koo Terrace. Built between 1915 and 1921, it is now an empty, locked-down Grade I historic building. It sits on the top of the granite-laid steps from Ship Street which before the 1921 reclamation overlooked Victoria Harbour.
The two-storey red brick house got a reputation for being haunted after its owner To Chak-man died of unknown causes inside it during WWII.
It then, according to local tales, became a brothel where “comfort women” were kept by the Japanese army and forced to become sex slaves for troops.
According to local tales, it was looked after by maids after the war but later left abandoned. Adventurers break into the site from time to time and more spooky tales fly. For instance, residents claim they heard women screaming and youngsters who got inside say they saw “dark shadows” waving their hands.
The building’s fate, however, remains unknown. A spokesperson for Hopewell Holdings, the developer that owns Nam Koo Terrace now, told the BBC it was still studying what to do with it.
The spokesperson denied that it would be renovated as part of the Hopewell Centre II, a 55-story hotel under construction just opposite the preserved old house. Mr Mak fears turning it into part of the hotel could make it less accessible to the community and the wider public.
Engaging the community
For Mr Mak, conservation is not just about keeping the building, but allowing the public to have access to the site.
Wan Chai Market is an example, he said. After the market’s relocation in 2008, the back of the listed building was knocked down, making way for what is now an elegant condominium block.
It was a government-sanctioned urban renewal project. The upper floor of the old market is now an apartment block and the lift lobby is only accessible by residents with a pin number to open the door.
“I think it’s disastrous,” says Dr Kiyoko Yamaguchi, architectural historian and artist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Since moving to Hong Kong seven years ago, she has fallen in love with Wan Chai, which inspired her to draw impressions of the district and host her own exhibition.
“Wan Chai has fewer British colonial official buildings or churches than some other areas in Hong Kong island,” she said, adding that the neighbourhood’s “smaller scale Tong Laus [pre-1960s Chinese residential blocks] and small shops” are part of its charm.
Dr Yamaguchi says she loves Wan Chai for being a community that people walk through to get to their destination
Developments like the old market “will destroy the whole cosy atmosphere of Wan Chai and old Hong Kong all together”, she said.
In a written reply to the BBC, Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Authority says it adopted a “people-first, district-based, public participatory” approach, aiming to “balance the interests and needs of all sectors of the community”.
“The URA has also all along made its best efforts to preserve and retain the local character, social network and economic vibrancy of each project.”
The spokesman mentioned in its reply a recently completed “pure preservation-cum-revitalisation project”, where a cluster of 10 pre-war historic buildings known as the Green House were converted into the Comix Home Base, an art centre dedicated to local comics.
The URA stressed it had planned the whole project together with the local community. While parts of the interior were knocked down, it became a small community garden.
This is what Mak Tak-ching believes should be done – more urban renewal projects, where people can interact with history.
Historian Dr Yamaguchi agrees: “I think the ideal situation is still that Hong Kongers have to feel that we should stop this trend to demolish old buildings.”
Nam Koo Terrace
- Location: 55 Ship Street
- Status: Grade I listed building
- Also known as the Red House or the Wan Chai Haunted House
- Built between 1915 and 1921 by the To Family from Shanghai
- Designed in Colonial Eclectic style combined with Chinese decorations and motifs
- Housed comfort women and geisha during Japanese occupation in World War II
- Currently owned by Hopewell Holdings, a major property developer which is building a hotel complex next to the house