Three masked explorers appeared atop an apartment tower in Hong Kong’s North Point district and sent a black drone flying, over a clothesline, until it was buzzing more than 10 stories above the cars, trams and pedestrians on the street below.
If history was any guide, the explorers said, the building the drone was filming — a 1952 theater with unusual roof supports — would eventually be demolished because it is not on Hong Kong’s list of declared monuments.
The authorities are “renewing the city on behalf of the developers, not the people,” said one of the explorers, who goes by the alias Ghost in videos and whose pollution mask and fingerless gloves gave him the air of a bank robber or graffiti artist.
The explorers belong to HK Urbex, a so-called urban exploration collective whose expeditions often require trespassing or walks through dark, abandoned or dangerous sites. But unlike some urban explorers, they do not court danger purely for its own sake. Their primary goal is to peel back layers of history — sometimes literally, by digging through dust and trash — and forge a video archive of Hong Kong’s colonial-era environment.
“Until you peel them back, you don’t know what existed before,” said Ghost, 33. “Others are interested in the adrenaline rush, but we’re interested in the story. What can it tell us about the past?”
REMEMBERING OLD HONG KONG
Many buildings that went up here before Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China from British colonial rule have already been replaced by taller ones, as exceptionally high property values create economic incentives to cram more towers into an already crowded skyline.
But some buildings lie fallow for years between tenant evictions and demolition, and others, like the 1952 State Theater that the explorers filmed recently, are partly open to the public. The State Theater’s main space, for example, is now a snooker hall. HK Urbex sees these structures as prime targets for urban expeditions.
So far HK Urbex has released more than three dozen videos documenting their perambulations through derelict prisons, tenements, cinemas, hospitals, casinos, police stations, bomb shelters, subway tunnels, a shipwreck and other sites across Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia. Fans say the elegiac videos, cut with bleak soundscapes and often presented without narration, are poignant meditations on urban evolution and decay.
“It’s about forcing us to confront the aesthetic of loss,” Lee Kah Wee, an assistant professor of architecture at the National University of Singapore, said of the group’s film oeuvre. “It forces us to come face to face with this debris of modernization and these ruins that are constantly accumulating, even as we keep building.”
The group says its most popular videos have been viewed more than 20,000 times on YouTube. Its photographs and videos have also been cited or featured in an international art exhibition, a forthcoming photography book and an advocacy campaign to save Central Market, a 1930s landmark in central Hong Kong, from demolition.
The group’s eight members, all longtime Hong Kong residents, use aliases in their work to keep public attention focused on their mission instead of their personalities but also because anonymity helps shield them from potential legal trouble. They agreed to be interviewed on the condition that they be identified only by their aliases.