[REVIEW] “A Keepsake: A Journey Beneath the Surface of Hidden Hong Kong” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, this review is part of Issue 46 (March/April 2020) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

HK Urbex, Spatial Cemetery: A Journey Beneath the Surface of Hidden Hong Kong, Blacksmith Books, 2019. 212 pgs.

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Several years ago, I walked over to Argyle Street in Kowloon Tong, searching for signs of the former Argyle Street Detention Centre, a former British army barracks, and later Japanese POW camp, before it became a holding spot for Vietnamese refugees. In my mind, I can still visualise the overgrown greenery upon entering the camp and a deserted guard post. I remember a large expanse of deserted ground and barbed wire before I reached the barracks where I taught English. But when I returned in 2016, I found nothing, not even a plaque to remember the refugees who had risked everything for a new life outside Vietnam.

Much of old Hong Kong is disappearing and being erased, and a new book by HKURBEX records some abandoned spaces that the property developers have not yet obliterated. Published by Blacksmith Books, Spatial Cemetery: A Journey Beneath the Surface of Hidden Hong Kong is a book that brings readers to areas closed off to the public or difficult to access. In the foreword, Lee Ho Yin, Lynne DiStefano and David Lung define urban explorers:

This most appropriate name accords intellectual respect to the group’s ventures into Hong Kong’s urban ruins, in their mission to record tangible triggers for recovering lost memories of a city’s vivid bytes and pixels.

Without people to record Hong Kong’s past, the city is in even more danger of losing its identity.

Spatial Cemetery doesn’t include the Argyle camp, because it’s vanished, but does showcase the refugee camp at Green Island and the photographs are chilling. There’s the overgrown vegetation, walls of barbed wire, and barracks that look like prison cells inside. The urban explorers who documented the camp also show remnants from a bygone era: Polaroid film boxes, a typewriter and a simple rice cooker.

Hong Kong has always been a haven for refugees and stories of the Vietnamese refugees have faded as time has passed. There are currently 11,000 refugees from other parts of the world awaiting asylum hearings in Hong Kong.

The team also investigated an abandoned luxury residential complex, a Shaw Brothers theatre, a residential mansion that was taken over by the Japanese during the war a lead mine, a former Gurkha military barracks and an ancient wet market.

All of these stories are fascinating and the spectacular photographs make the book a keepsake. But the story and images of the Bauhaus-style Central Market is especially fascinating. On a site that’s now worth HK$13 billion, the market was built in 1939 after several other markets in Central were demolished. This new one was the first place to house public toilets for women and the first above-ground toilets in Hong Kong. A four-story building, it had space for 200 booths arranged around the inside periphery of the rectangular structure. The market closed in 2003 and is now in a state of limbo.

In an ironic twist, Carrie Lam lobbied to save the building in 2009 when it was left for dead. Donald Tsang, Chief Executive at the time, listened and the building still stands, managed now by Urban Renewal Authority. What’s to be done with it is still unclear, but many Hong Kong people worry it will go the way of the Disneyfied Lee Tung Street.

Having been left to rot for a decade, the building is now only populated by street pigeons, rats and skeletons of their counterparts. Inside, the cacophonous echo of the bustling surrounding district outside is reduced to nothing but a murmur, seemingly worlds away from the ethereal dilapidation which lies within.

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Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone WrongHer writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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