What images do you think of when you picture Hong Kong? Endless skyscrapers? Dazzling neon lights and shopping malls built inside walls of glass? Only there’s a hidden side to this futuristic metropolis, a side that has been left behind.
Rita Hung has been exploring this forgotten side of her home for a few years and she shares her photography through social media page, City Not Found, which she runs with some friends. To her, these places are more than just ruins, they help connect her to the Hong Kong that once was.
“I like to go to abandoned mansions or apartments from around 40 or 50 years ago,” she says.
“In Hong Kong, there’s not many old buildings because developers want to take over and build luxury houses. I can find many old things [in them]. I imagine that it’s my grandmother’s or grandfather’s. It’s like knowing what the old Hong Kong was like.”
The development in Hong Kong has been dramatic since its early days as a trading port for the British Empire. It’s now the world’s fourth most densely populated sovereign state or territory, and space is famously scarce here. Older buildings have been razed to the ground in order to build ultra-modern new world towers. The urban architecture has moved from a colonial style to a global one. Sound familiar?
Unearthing Little Treasures
To Rita, trips to abandoned spaces can throw up surprises and little mementoes of lives lived.
“One thing [I found] was an engagement certificate. It was not official. It was cited by the parents of the girl and boy and it was 40 or 50 years old. I know from their documents they had a child. They will be elderly now,” she says.
“Another thing I found was a love letter. The woman wrote a letter to the man and she talked about what she regretted in the relationship. It’s heart-breaking.”
Even in the face of such explicit and rampant modernity, Hong Kong still provides a veritable treasure trove of abandoned spaces for urban explorers like Rita to visit. One of her favourite places is the abandoned TV studio.
“The TV studio is interesting. You can find the place where, when we were kids, we watched every night. You can go into this kind of world. You can imagine the TV people performing. You can find movie posters, cassettes — it’s amazing. The entertainment industry is not easy to reach now so you can go into this building to track what it was about.”
During my own visit to Hong Kong in early July, I go to the abandoned Hong Kong central hospital. It closed its doors in 2012 after 46 years, and calendars from that year still hang on the walls as if time has stood still. A severed head from a first aid dummy lies on the fourth floor, and the empty beds and wheelchairs in the operating theatre are even more unnerving. It was a low-cost private hospital owned by the Anglican Church, and it provided healthcare to many lower income Hong Kongers, including around 6,000 abortions every year. A US$800 million museum and gallery was slated to replace it, but five years later, it’s still empty.
I also take the ferry to the Cheung Chau, an island famous for its seafood and more grimly, its history of suicides. Spirits of those who escaped the densely populated main island to take their own life here during the 1990s are said to haunt the island. I visit an abandoned villa that is hidden high up on top the island. It’s overgrown, and all that’s left inside is a moth-bitten settee and a large, unbroken mirror. A rope that has been cut hangs from a tree outside.
Back on the main island, Rita is pessimistic about the chances of these places being around for much longer.
“They [the authorities] don’t care,” she says. “They want to earn money more than to conserve or preserve the heritage. They think there is no value in conserving it. We try to find this old stuff to take photos. We have the responsibility to talk to the Hong Kong people to protect the old stuff for future generations.
She adds: “Empty abandoned places should have a better usage. They may have to change. They could be a museum or a place for homeless people to sleep; they should have a better purpose.”
If you visit Hong Kong this year, there are posters everywhere reminding people that it has now been 20 years since the British handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese, beginning a new era of ‘one country, two systems’. This has accelerated much of the architectural change, and Rita believes the government can’t just use their wrecking balls like an eraser.
“It’s become more modern,” she says. “There’s no more British style. But I don’t feel that the architecture has become more of a Chinese style — just more modern. Some furniture or interior design of the British Hong Kong is going to disappear. The Hong Kong government want to remove the British style. They want people to forget the time under British rule.”
She adds: “We can’t give up our identity to China. It is the history of Hong Kong. For me, for other explorers and for people who were born before 1997, we are unhappy with the [authorities]. For the young people born after 1997, they might not have this strong feeling about it. So that’s what we are trying to do.”
Photos by Rita Hung and Eddy Chan