HK Urbex, the ghostly explorers haunting the cityscape

"That's not his real name."

Trying to sort out an interview with the elusive HK Urbex was a trip. For a week, I was emailing mysterious people who signed off as E or Ghost at the end of every message - exactly what you'd want from people who spend their free time breaking into abandoned buildings. They aren't your regular rabble rousers or selfie queens though. (In fact, the word Instagram is taboo around E.) You'll catch glimpses of their team at the edge of snaps, decked out in apocalyptic looking gear and face masks, but the story's never really about them. They slip through cracks and fences in an attempt to rediscover Hong Kong's lost heritage, capturing photos and scribbling thoughtful commentaries over on their Facebook page.

I wasn't sure what I was expecting when I met E and Ghost, but I was kind of disoriented by how chill they were. Maybe I was expecting gas masks and military vests - I don't know - but I could have easily passed them in the street and never dreamed they lived another life. As Ghost sat down and gave me a different name to call him, E instantly laughed and shook his head. 

"That's not his real name," E told me.

We all laughed, but I'm still not sure. Read on for more on Hong Kong's forgotten places, recces and selfies.

Urban exploration isn't something you fall into, like a regular desk job. How'd you get started?

Ghost: It was around 2013 and we all met since we're all in media. He (pointing at E) does video, I do photography and radio. Naturally, we're always location scouting for shoots and Hong Kong has a lot of amazing abandoned places. We first did this abandoned TV studio - it was this big, apocalyptic looking building that's a hot spot for graffiti artists and kids with BB guns. So we started off there and then realised urbexing had taken off in London five years prior, in Australia, America, etc. We thought why not make a Hong Kong version of it. 

How many people are in the HK Urbex crew?

Ghost: About seven girls and boys. And everyone's got different skills; some people climb better, some people do photography and stuff like that. E's like the gadget guy-

E: Yeah, I'm more into tech and video-

Ghost: -like an Inspector Gadget kind of thing. And I do photography.

E: He's also the token white guy.

How do you prep for a site visit? Do you guys decide on a building to go to first or is it more random than that?

Ghost: Well, before we go in, we do what's called a recce (reconnaissance) two or three times. It's all about understanding weak points in the security to get in. We don't want to go around cutting locks, but if we see a hole in a fence then we'll think, "Okay, that works." Touch wood, we've never been seriously caught before and we've had a couple of really nice run-ins with security guards. However, we're always careful to make it appear as though we were never there. 

E: There's also equipment prep and psychological prep - it's almost like going to war. If you get caught, then it's game over. Between the seven of us, we have a multitude of gear, so like safety gear, ropes, harnesses, camera gear and lenses... We also plan for the shooting style of the place, so some places are better with wide angles, others are better and close ups of objects. Like the TV studio we went to was full of props. Every place has its own character and we'd bring things based on that. 

You always refer to yourselves as storytellers, rather than photographers/urban explorers. Why make that distinction?

E: It's an easier phrase to use and photographer can sound a little bland. We really try to bring a narrative to these places we visit because nowadays, the visual medium is so oversaturated. Instagram is the epitome of that. There's no backstory to anything and you're just overloaded with all these images. How long do you really look at an Instagram image? There's no substance. We wanted to tell Hong Kong's stories. So like, when Ghost does all the research and the writing, you can really see all the time and effort that's gone into bringing these places to life. 

Do you feel like the reaction to Urbex is divided?

E: I don't tell everybody, like I can tell from people's personalities how they're going to react. When I told my mum, she was kind of half/half about it. I think the greater local community sees it as a crime, so some of the comments on our Facebook page can be a little aggressive. 

Ghost: Yeah, some people can be very protective of the spaces. They think that we're encouraging other people to go where we do, smash up the place and disrespect it. We're actually very respectful of the spaces we go to. 

Yeah, I've noticed you put disclaimers on your images on your page asking people not to be assholes and you don't disclose locations. So your mantra's basically 'don't fuck shit up' then?

E: There are some hooligans who might have that inclination, but we're not those guys. Yes, the places are abandoned and nobody really gives a shit, but it's a common courtesy. It's always a dilemma because you want to promote these places, but you don't want loads of people going because there's no knowing what they'll do.

Ghost: We've seen skateboarders who've gone into schools and graffiti artists who rip up the space. I mean, sometimes you can't avoid it though.

E: What do you mean? We don't do that at all!

Ghost: Well, you know. You might step on something on accident. 

Piggybacking on the previous question, you guys are pretty careful about keeping your identities a secret. Is there any reason for that? 

Ghost: The masks take the focus away from us and put the focus on the location. So we're trying to show the beauty of these places, as well as the stories behind them. Occasionally having us in a photo helps show the scale of the space, but it's more about the interaction of people with places. 

E: I would say it's kind of half and half with the secret identities. Half of the reason is because I think it's cool. (Okay, maybe it's three reasons.) It's also technically illegal to do what we're doing. And then we're pretty against selfies because they're an exercise in narcissism, so the masks are a vanguard against that. 

Yeah, I saw you guys recently spoke out against rooftopping and selfie culture.

E: We don't even mention Urbex in our personal lives or social media. I just want to keep it separate because, um... I don't know, I just don't like what rooftopping for example has become. Every photo's a selfie...

Ghost: Every photo screams out look at me, I'm on a rooftop!

E: This self-validation thing is such an issue nowadays. Everyone does something because they want to feel superior or want everyone to see how great they are. We used to go rooftopping, but it's changed now. Like, you can't just ask a rooftopper to go up there and not take a photograph. It's not about the experience, it's about them. There's no story or heritage there. 

You must have stumbled across some crazy ass shit while out exploring. What's the most fucked up thing and the most memorable thing you've found.

Ghost: I guess I always see a lot of dead animals. I've seen three dogs, cats and an owl, which was really weird to see. The dog one was pretty gross, when we went back the next week, its stomach had exploded. 

E: (Sips his coffee nonchalantly.) 

Ghost: We've found some beautiful things too. Believe it or not, we went into this cave and found this underground river that had flooded. Would you call it a river?

E: I think it was like run off from the mountain. It felt like the cave could fall apart at any time, so the experience was quite harrowing. We had fuck all safety measures, we didn't tell anyone where we were going and our phone reception died. Even though we saw all the collapsed tunnels, we decided to go down further.

Ghost: Like just think about it, we're all in pitch darkness. We turn on our lights and start going in. E had a flash light on his head, so he was like a walking lantern. Then suddenly we came upon this clear, azure pond - it was so beautiful. That's why we do these things, because you don't get to have these experiences in every day life. 

You've done a bit of film making as well, from your homage to Occupy Central Miles to Go (above) to your VR 360 exploration. Do you have any plans to do more short films in the future?

E: I'd love to, but it takes a lot of time.

Ghost: Yeah, and we're also not making any money off this. This is what we do when we're not going about our normal lives. 

E: Since we're anonymous, it feels like we have alter egos. For people who work in the media, photographers, writers, whatever, you always want to do your own creative work. But when you're working on a day by day basis, creating corporate shit you don't care about, the last thing you want to do is go home and do more stuff. I used to feel like my creative output plummeted, but if there's one thing I've taken away from HK Urbex, it's the fact that it's given me this creative outlet in life.

Ghost: That's the first time I've seen you get so deep. 

E: (Bashfully) Yeah, okay.

Ghost: I'll get deep as well - to steal a quote, we're trying to find authenticity in an increasingly authentic world. Society in Hong Kong is so repressive. A lot of the spaces are so carefully controlled. For instance if you go to a beach in Hong Kong, you can't throw a fucking ball, or bring a dog, or do any of this other stupid stuff. So when we enter these spaces, that all disappears and you're in control. And in a city with millions of people, you're finally alone in the most calm, silent environment ever. It's really a surreal moment. 

E: Like a different reality.

Ghost: My friend said the other day that it's like time stops because you find all these little documents from years ago, or colonial buttons on shirts and stuff. So we're rediscovering our city while rediscovering ourselves too.

See more from HK Urbex

Guest posts for Hong Kong Free Press
All images courtesy of HK Urbex

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