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Exploring alternative urbanities

A collective of urban explorers from Hong Kong, who have visited abandoned sites in Macau, claims that history and gambling do not have to be incompatible, suggesting that steamrolling heritage is a crime against society

Hong Kong Urban Explorers (HK Urbex) is a collective of young professionals, journalists, and artists from Hong Kong whose mission ‘is to uncover and document hidden and abandoned heritage sites around Hong Kong and Asia’.
Speaking exclusively to Business Daily, the co-founder of HK Urbex – who prefers to be identified by the nickname of ‘Ghost’ – explains that they aim to bring places “that have significant heritage value, but are neglected or forgotten, into the public sphere”.
Their main tools are photography and filming, which the group generously floods social platforms with, mainly Facebook, slapping viewers in the face with amazingly compelling images.
Spanning the Pearl River Delta, the group has reached out to Macau a few times. “As Macau is both near and bit of a mystery to us, we sometimes take the chance to do expeditions with the crew there,” explains Ghost, who say they have visited old hotels here, including Hotel Estoril near Tap Seac Square and the Grand Hotel at the west end of Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, shipyards, an old cinema downtown, and some old villas and houses near the Lisboa Casino.
“Macau is fascinating because of the rate of development and the sheer contrast between rich and poor, and the lower classes – such a big and obvious gap,” the co-founder said.

Good old gambling town
HK Urbex is cautious about commenting upon the MSAR, which they claim they don’t know as well as Hong Kong. However, they cannot refrain from slamming the local government for its lack of social commitment following fast urban development linked to the liberalisation of gaming.
“In theory, [liberalisation] should bring money back to society but I think it is the opposite and old buildings are getting neglected even more as business booms,” the co-founder perceives.
Although Ghost claims “it is criminal to steamroll heritage and culture,” he concurs that gambling does not have to be negative “if done the right way”.
For one, he thinks that “diversification” yielding novel offers for both tourists and residents seems to be “finally starting to pay off”.
“Macau has so much more to offer, whether it is culture, heritage, food, art, and entertainment. Just more money from the profits need to be put back and shared with the community. [Hotel] Estoril, for instance, reflects a simpler time in Macau’s history, so that it might be nice to preserve it”.

Why the risk?
HK Urbex’s concept stems from what the group considers to be the declining tangible heritage of Hong Kong, saying “More and more historical buildings and sites are being knocked down at an alarming rate and replaced with bland, lifeless and kitschy monotonous buildings and malls”.
Speaking about buildings that have been erased from the Hong Kong cityscape – Queen’s Pier, Wedding Card Street, Shaw Studios – Ghost claims that “once tangible heritage is lost, it can never be replaced”.
Urbex’s visits to Macau also build along those lines; that is, neglected sites that remain either under popular watch or away from public attention such as Hotel Estoril and Grand Hotel, both still standing but contemplating an unclear future.
Regarding the Grand Hotel – which Business Daily discovered in De­cember has changed hands for MOP266 million and is likely targeted for renovation – Ghost commented that the inside of the property is in a great state of decay.
“When humans are gone, it is captivating to see how quickly a site and structure can deteriorate,” he said.
Asked if he believed Hotel Estoril should be preserved, HK Urbex’s spokesperson said it was a matter of “collective memory . . . To [a person] who grew up with this building in the backyard, it may be a completely different story. This is why there is so much controversy surrounding it”.
Although he claims the interior of the hotel property is “completely wrecked” and might not be worth “salvaging” he believes that the “gorgeous exterior mural” is appealing from both an aesthetic and historical perspective.
“Maybe [Hotel Estoril] is not as culturally significant as other sites [in Macau]. But its history is interesting because it is one of Macau’s first mega casinos which paved the way for others to follow,” he concludes.

Hong Kong Urban Explorers
Apart from cultural heritage sites, Hong Kong Urban Explorers also explore sites that are kept from prying public eyes yet are paid for with public money, such as water treatment facilities, public infrastructure, and sewers. Members of the collective remain anonymous, using nicknames and covering their faces with masks when they are out ‘exploring’. In addition to seeking self-protection – what they do, in fact, stands on the edge of legality – their objective is to focus on the identity of buildings, not on themselves.