Meet HK Urbex, the Anonymous Collective Discovering Hidden and Historical Hong Kong
September 16, 2022
HK Urbex (standing for Hong Kong Urban Exploration) is an anonymous grassroots collective birthed during the city’s fanatic attention towards uncovering the secrets beneath derelict and hidden sites dotting the former British colony.
Beyond the city’s glistening skyscrapers and the glitzy malls multiplied in the territory, the seven-man-strong undercover team, along with anonymous freelancers and explorers, seek to “reveal another side of Hong Kong and the Asian cities they visit, immortalising and bringing undisclosed non-spaces to light.”
The motley crew — founded by Echo Delta, Ghost, Jenkins, Dragon Xing, Pripyat, T.O.A.D, and Nox whose names hark back to the “Call of Duty” shooter series — collaborate with other Hong Kong-based filmographers, journalists, and adrenaline junkies to unveil the hidden history of a breathing city.
The Beat Asia contacted one of the members under anonymity for an interview to explore what principles motivate the collective to explore an underground Hong Kong, what is the mission of HK Urbex, what education can be gained through their work, and the future of the group.
Who and what is HK Urbex? What is your mission or objective?
We are a grassroots collective that seek to unearth and document hidden sites in and around Hong Kong. HK Urbex has grown into a platform for us to showcase the unknown stories the city has to tell. There are so many distinctive sites and unique spaces that make Hong Kong what it is - magic places that are fast being pulled down and destroyed.
Due to the confined urban density here and the zealous propensity to knock down old buildings on a whim, regardless of architectural merit, we have discovered many irreplaceable structures which have been destroyed or are in the process of being obliterated – and many of these have historical heritage value.
We play a part in this important greater initiative of heritage preservation. Our role is to document and highlight the spaces, which are important to the city. We’ve helped heritage activist groups get a view into sites, [helping] them fight for better preservation and in some cases, save them.
How did the group form? How did/do members of the crew join?
We have an initiation ritual that involves sacrifice and witchcraft…just kidding. No one “joins” us per se; our team organically melded together when the universe aligned. As a group, we all share a strong desire for exploration. All of us in the team are creatives – and while the initial idea came about after location scouting for a film, and noticing a number of abandoned locations in Hong Kong, the connection goes deeper than that, especially since we are all Hong Kongers.
Urbex is history. That’s the idea - it’s about discovery, it’s about exploration, it’s urban anthropology. And in Hong Kong, we found a way to rediscover our city through urban exploration. We are all first and foremost Hong Kongers and it runs through our blood.
What is the fascination with Hong Kong’s derelict sites?
People are fascinated with dereliction in Hong Kong because it is such a contrast to the city’s official narrative, the city’s image, and what the city represents. Most people know Hong Kong as a glistening monument to business and finance, propped up by the stock market and real estate moguls, with shimmering skyscrapers and glitzy malls spread across the city like rupturing spores. So, people are usually bewildered when they find out Hong Kong is home to many abandoned structures and empty buildings.
How do you discover new sites to explore and photograph?
We keep our noses to the ground. Reading the news, reading history books about HK, looking at old maps, reading forums, scrolling through social media or just keeping an eye out while on the bus or train at what could possibly be a new location. You start to get a sixth sense for this kind of stuff.
When deciding [where to explore], those locations that have a story to tell come higher up on the list. Often, we research the main stories later – it's fun to piece together the history while you’re in a location and let it speak to you, raw.
Through capturing the city’s abandoned buildings, what do you hope for your fans to feel or others in the city to react?
We hope to raise awareness about history and get people thinking about heritage and preservation. Question everything, ponder how things came to be and ask why things are the way they are.
We all know Hong Kong is changing – it is part of the nature of this city, but we hope the city can learn to look backwards while it is striving to go forwards. We know gentrification is important for the development of a city, but we are seeing this happen at monumental rates that it is resulting in the loss of a way of life and the destruction of living heritage with old houses, historical restaurants and other such structures representative of old Hong Kong also demolished.
What is your/the group’s most loved/interesting, abandoned site/sites in the city?
Too many to list! We love abandoned factories - there are not many in Hong Kong so the few we have explored were epic, with links to the city’s industrial past. Some had a real Blade Runner vibe too. We explored some old Vietnamese “Boat People” prisons on the islands, those were incredible and full of history. The city’s abandoned mines are cool too, but dangerous.
Another highlight was a former monastery situated on a quiet hill on an island off Hong Kong. It was one of the more memorable sites as it had a distinctively spiritual and tranquil vibe about it. Amongst the broken-down cars and dilapidated equipment there was a silo. When we opened the door, we found that someone had set up a shrine and made it into a space of worship, with rocks and tree trunks spread around a makeshift cross.
What are the rules that you, urban explorers, live by?
Urban explorers often live by the old adage: “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.” It used to be simple. However, recently more people have been getting into exploration, so there is a lot more to it these days. It seems the instant gratification that comes from that social media dopamine rush is decaying people’s brains and causing some individuals to get an overinflated sense of self. This activity is not for tourists and day-trippers.
So, what we say doesn’t really matter, but we think the locations, the history and the sites themselves should be the core focus of any exploration. Thus, a site should be documented to the best of the explorer’s ability. If you’re taking selfies on a phone, maybe you should re-evaluate your motivations and general existence. Locations should not be shared like baseball cards, and they should be strongly respected. Also, do your homework and find out the history of the site.
For our group, we have our own set of rules which are about respect. Vandalism and defacement are not in our vocabulary. Safety is paramount.
What is the future for HK Urbex?
Well, there is no future - the present is all there is. We plan to keep on being, to keep on existing and to keep on exploring and sharing what we find. After the success of our last book “Spatial Cemetery,” we’ve been gathering content for our next book, and that is on the horizon. Some of our team [members] have left the city in recent years and we all have full-time jobs, so we’re also toiling with the idea of starting a Patreon or Kickstarter so we can put out more videos, albums and documentaries.
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