Header image courtesy of HK Urbex (via Facebook)
It’s weird to consider that in a city like Hong Kong, where every square inch of usable space is worth more than its weight in gold, there are many landmarks and buildings that lie locked up, abandoned, and languishing away, forgotten by our fast-talking, fast-moving citizens with no time to stop, let alone look back in time fondly.
Sometimes, these locations are even hidden in plain sight to this day, with barely a hint of their former glory. A lot of people do still recall landmarks like the Tiger Balm Gardens or Lai Yuen amusement park, but there are still scores of other places that have truly faded into obscurity. We’re taking you on a trip down memory lane with these six forgotten locations that once had some impact on Hong Kong and its people.
One of the studios that contributed greatly to Hong Kong’s fame as a leader in global cinema—we were once the third largest motion picture industry in the world—was definitely the Shaw Brothers Studio. The studio was established by Runme and Run Run Shaw in 1958, and two years later the brothers unveiled what was then the largest privately owned studio in the world, with over 20 buildings spread over a 46-acre site in Clearwater Bay, known as Movietown. Shaw Brothers produced some 1,000 films during the Golden Era of Hong Kong cinema, including the most popular Chinese films of the period and titles that would popularise the kung fu genre. In 1986, the company turned its attention to television through its subsidiary TVB instead, and two years later was reorganised under the umbrella of the Shaw Organisation.
Movietown churned out its last production in 2003, Shaw opened new studios in Tseung Kwan O in 2006, and the old location in Clearwater Bay was gradually abandoned. There have been extensive discussions between the landowners and the Town Planning Board regarding the fate of Movietown, and in 2014 they decided to demolish it in favour of housing and commercial buildings. Luckily, the Antiquities Advisory Board stepped in with a Grade 1 Historical Site designation, though there are no concrete plans yet about how the site will be preserved.
These days the massive compound on Clearwater Bay Road and Ngan Ying Road is closed to the public along with the former TVB headquarters and the apartment blocks which used to house Shaw actors. There are security guards posted on duty, but according to urban explorers who have managed to venture in, the buildings lie deserted in varying degrees of damage, and there are still large amounts of old film canisters, projectors, props, documents, movie memorabilia, and machinery lying around in its many rooms. Movietown now sits in a vacuum, existing only within the films it has produced—a fitting metaphor to the waning of peak Hong Kong cinema.
Did you know that there is a defunct hospital right in Central? Way back in 1966, doctors fleeing the communist regime in mainland China were allowed to continue practising in a hospital set up by the Anglican Church. For just under 50 years, this medical private medical facility was the place to go for Hongkongers who needed private healthcare at a low cost. This multi-floor hospital also performed surgeries and outpatient procedures, but it was more contentiously known as the largest provider of pregnancy termination services in Hong Kong, reportedly performing up to 6,000 abortions per year.
After a rent dispute that started in 2009, the Hong Kong Central Hospital was closed in 2012 and was supposed to be replaced by a snazzy museum and art gallery, though that has yet to happen. For now, its abandoned building has been left to slowly crumble into decay, though some in the city may still remember it for private healthcare that rarely comes affordable. The site of the defunct Hong Kong Central Hospital is located at 1B Lower Albert Road.
Perched on Mount Davis and originally built in the 1950s as a recreational club for the Royal Engineers Regiment, our very own White House soon after became the headquarters for the colonial police force’s secret intelligence unit known as the Special Branch. Officially called the Victoria Road Detention Centre, this was where spies and political prisoners who were pro-Kuomintang or related to the communist party were detained and interrogated—and, as the legends would tell you, along with a fair bit of torture.
The White House stopped being used as a detention centre in the mid-70s and the secret intelligence unit was dissolved with the retreat of the British colonial forces, and this site was largely left alone, serving only as a filming location, until the University of Chicago Francis and Rose Yuen Campus was built on it in 2016, with some portions of the original architecture still intact. It’s hard to say if there are many dissidents or leftists now who still remember this old detention compound, but the ghosts of its political past still linger faintly.
This Bauhaus-style block in the middle of Central has been largely overlooked by the public in recent years, but it used to be much more significant than simply forming part of the link from the IFC Mall to the Mid-Levels Escalators. The building was first opened in 1842 as Hong Kong’s first wet market, which was also the biggest meat market in Southeast Asia. Interestingly, it also housed our first female public toilets and the first toilets located above ground in Hong Kong. Playing a key role in the everyday lives of citizens, it was only in 1994 that part of the second floor was converted to become part of the Central elevated walkway.
Central Market was eventually closed in early 2003, with only a strip called the Central Escalator Link Alley Shopping Arcade open to the public. This attempt at retail was never very successful and the market was mainly used by foreign domestic workers as a gathering place on Sundays. In 2009, plans were announced to revitalise the building after public outcry at its possible demolishing. The building is set to become a revitalised leisure landmark that will retain some of its distinctive architectural qualities, but it’s worth remembering Central Market’s original place in Hong Kong’s lives and landscape.
Lying in the shadow of the Tsing Ma Bridge, the village of Ma Wan is easy to overlook. Up until the 80s, this little island between Tsing Yi and Lantau Island was home to a bustling town of fisherfolk until just after the mid-1990s, when a real estate developer bought most of the land and relocated the residents. The plan was for luxury residences to be built in Ma Wan along with converting the village into a cultural heritage site packaged for tourism—the former exists in the Park Island estate, but the latter project has been stalled for about two decades. The old village still stands in a dilapidated condition, but it’s a great place to see for yourself what rural fishing life used to be like in Hong Kong. What Ma Wan’s eventual full transformation will be like remains to be seen.
Before the days of big-screen cinemas in shopping malls, the neighbourhoods of Hong Kong had independent theatres that targeted different classes of audience with different titles; for example, the old Universal Theatre screened local productions, while Majestic Theatre was known for being affordable, with a timetable of B-list western movies. As Hong Kong’s film industry began its slow decline in the 90s and chain companies picked up, these local cinemas quietly dropped off the radar. Now there is only one such theatre left, the State Theatre on King’s Road in North Point.
Built in 1952, it was originally named the Empire Theatre and was a distinctive structure with its iconic exoskeleton-like roof trusses. It may look run down now, but the building’s design is unique and it’s not difficult to imagine how stunning it must have looked when lit up back in the day. The theatre enjoyed considerable popularity during its run, even playing host to a performance by Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng in 1970. Eventually, it succumbed to the times and switched off its projectors permanently in 1997, then became a snooker hall and faded into obscurity.
It wasn’t until news broke that the State Theatre may be demolished that the older generation who were around for its glory days seemed to remember its existence. Some members of the public put together proposals to the Antiquities Advisory Board and the Antiquities and Monuments Office in 2016, eventually winning the building a Grade 1 rating. In October this year, the theatre’s owners, New World Development, confirmed that the site will be preserved and refurbished for public use. Though State Theatre may have faded from the minds of many, here’s to hoping that collective memories will be revived in the near future.