Ghostly journey through Hong Kong’s old Wan Chai district

Juliana Liu went on a ghost hunt in Wan Chai with Mak Tak-ching

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.

Makeshift mortuary

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.

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Update

The day after posting this I found an interesting post on more places in Hong Kong that are supposedly haunted, check out My Hong Kong Husband‘s post Haunted Hong Kong

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