Hong Kong haunted houses: online map of who died where is boon for the curious, the ghoulish and bargain hunters alike
A website with an interactive map showing 'haunted' properties where untimely deaths occurred, and the stories behind the deaths, is handy for those in search of a cheap home and who aren't superstitious
If you want to get into the true spirit of Halloween without theme parks, partying or fake blood, log on to property listings website Spacious.hk You may find yourself in spookier territory, especially if you discover you live in a tower block or a flat that's listed as a "haunted house".
Spacious is not the only property website in Hong Kong to list so-called haunted houses, which are buildings where a murder, suicide or other untimely death has occurred. However, it presents them on an interactive map that shows graphically how, because of Hong Kong's crowded, high-rise living conditions, you don't have to go far to come across a building with a dark history.
Click on the website's "haunted" button in the menu bar and hundreds of cartoon ghosts appear in overlapping circles. Hover the cursor over any of the ghoulish icons and a window pops up revealing the building's address and the unfortunate incident that took place inside, often resulting from relationship or money problems, exam failure or other personal loss.
"Former civil servant hanged himself," the pop-up for one Mid-Levels address states. A few blocks away, "an old woman jumped off building due to health problems". Over the water in West Kowloon, "Female victim murdered her ex-husband with multiple knives and jumped off the building", reads another.
Yet while the cartoon ghosts pinpoint tragic incidents, they also represent an opportunity for a bargain property for those who scoff at the idea of malignant spirits.
"Properties that have some kind of history of an 'incident' in them can go for up to 50 per cent less than a normal one," says Asif Ghafoor, Spacious founder and CEO. The haunted house feature is "just something we have to do because it's integral to the market. It's a real factor that affects house prices and rentals," he says.
Spacious gathers the depressing data independently by monitoring media reports, Ghafoor says. Other overlay features on the site - which he says is particularly popular among new arrivals in the city - show where schools are located, districts' political affiliations and male-to-female ratios. The haunted house feature is mainly used by expats looking for a discount when they buy or rent, the Londoner says. However, home seekers who would not otherwise consider such a property have become more pragmatic in recent years due to the shortage of flats and sharp rise in prices, agents say.
"For expats and others who don't believe in ghost stories, it's an unbelievable opportunity. I guess many Chinese people look at the haunted feature of the website as well, because they want to know what not to buy."
Citing Mid-Levels as an example, Ghafoor says prices have been steady or gradually declining in the past year. While a 600 sq ft flat with two bedrooms may rent for HK$25,000 a month, a prospective tenant who finds a flat in a property where an unfortunate incident has occurred may be able to negotiate the rent down to about HK$15,000 if they feel strongly enough about it.
Ghafoor says the specific flat in Wan Chai's upscale J Residence formerly rented by British banker Rurik Jutting, in which two Indonesian women were found dead last year, was listed on Spacious for a monthly rent of HK$14,000 after the incident. Agencies are still offering flats in the building for between about HK$24,000 and HK$43,000 a month, depending on the size. The listing for Jutting's flat was taken off Spacious after two weeks, because someone rented or bought it, Ghafoor says.
He stresses that the ghost icons on the site do not link directly to properties for rent or sale; they are intended as indicators. A bargain hunter has to do the detective work and join the dots for themselves. They can find the address of a haunted building in their chosen area and then search for a unit in the building separately and negotiate with the agent or landlord. The specific flat where an incident has occurred is also not pinpointed.
"There's a bit of a legal issue with this. For example, if you have a block of flats and somebody jumps off the roof, which individual unit is haunted? So we've got to be a bit careful about describing a haunted house as a specific unit because it leaves us open to being sued by a landlord. We only do that when it's very clear without a shadow of a doubt." On the other hand, despite legal obligations, landlords and agents are coy about revealing such details because of the devaluation it causes.
Yet there's always demand for these properties, Ghafoor says. "There are people who've made a pretty good business out of this. They find a property with an incident, buy it and rent it out on the cheap."
One such investor is Chan Ying-kai, 82, nicknamed "the king of haunted houses". Chan says he bought more than 10 such flats over the years but sold the last one a while back. In the 1970s, he set up a property agency, and only began speculating in haunted houses after the market tanked during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
"I bought all the haunted houses in auctions, and I had to pay cash because the banks won't arrange mortgages for such flats," Chan says, adding he now owns only two flats and neither have a horrible history.
"Most of the ones I bought were small, like a 410 sq ft flat in Tuen Mun, which I got for HK$2.2 million [about 70 per cent of the market price] some years ago. I rented it out for HK$9,000 a month for years before I sold it for HK$2.8 million."
Although Chan says he has never lived in a flat with such a grim past, he gave one in Quarry Bay to one of his two wives to live in with their daughter.
A woman who had previously lived in the flat suspected her husband of infidelity. She called the police after serving him a sedative-laced drink and lighting a charcoal stove, to make it look like he'd committed suicide. But before officers arrived, she accidentally flipped over the stove and set the flat on fire, killing her husband and leaving herself severely burned. Chan bought the property in 2004 for HK$1.18 million, a huge discount to the HK$2.35 million paid by the previous landlord. It was, however, a bad time for the overall property market, as the city had been hit the previous year by the Sars virus.
According to Chan, it's not just expatriates who buy and rent such places. Most of his tenants had been Chinese Catholics, who believe souls of the dead go to heaven rather than stick around and haunt the living.
"I didn't even stage any Taoist rituals to appease the spirits after I bought them. I just gave them a lick of paint," he says.
An estate agent in Tuen Mun, who asked to remain anonymous, says local Chinese home-seekers have become more pragmatic in their attitude towards spooky properties in recent years because of rising prices and shrinking supply in the second-hand market.
"In a bearish market, people are less likely to consider such properties because flat owners are willing to cut the asking price even for normal flats," he says.
"When I take potential customers to see flats, after seeing several they are usually a bit put off by the high price. Even a 400 sq ft second-hand flat in Tuen Mun sells for more than HK$3.25 million now. Then I'll tell them I have some special bargains, but they are so-called haunted flats. Some will view them and be very tempted by the much lower price, but they usually need more time to discuss it with their family. Chinese, no matter how non-religious they are, still care more about feng shui than Westerners," he says.
Feng shui practitioner Jin Peh says he would always advise against living in a flat where there has been an unnatural death unless it has been significantly renovated. This would involve changing the layout of walls and doors.
"From a more spiritual point of view, there is negative energy left behind by the tragic deaths that have occurred. This negative energy has to be cleansed by a professional, be it Taoist or Buddhist monk or a pastor," Peh says.
"Keep in mind that if these interventions are not done, then the chances of a tragic event recurring will be higher than normal. It could be sickness, marital breakdowns, suicide, drug use or even, in extreme cases, homicide. The occupant may also have recurring nightmares, or develop anxiety or depression," he says.
Whether haunted houses continue to represent an opportunity depends on changing cultural norms, Ghafoor believes. "One interesting phenomenon is that the younger generation of Chinese tends to care less about it," he says.
"All the guys who work for me are Chinese; they're foreign-educated or have been to University of Hong Kong or the University of Science and Technology. They certainly care far less about it than their parents' generation. So over time, as the older generation passes away, I think this is going to be less and less important."