Hong Kong is often defined by its neon skyline but beneath the surface is a grittier side: deserted schools and tong laus – tenements constructed in the late 19th century – as well as decayed mansions and abandoned village homes, some with furniture and household goods including family portraits still inside. Many are earmarked for demolition. But before parts of the city’s history are lost forever, camera-wielding urban explorers are documenting them. “From grand Hakka mansions to century-old European villas, gorgeous heritage buildings in Hong Kong are being bulldozed and redeveloped into shopping malls and high-rise luxury apartments as we speak,” says Hong Kong photographer Pit-hing Yang (P.H. Yang). Yang is an administrator of Hong Kong Abandoned Villages, a Facebook community that shares photographs and videos of abandoned houses and other buildings. To bring their images to a wider audience, Yang has organised “Vanishing Hong Kong”, a photo exhibition at the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, in Admiralty, from August 17 to 29 (free admission). Included in the show are images of the State Theatre, a Grade I historic building in North Point, which opened in 1952 as the Empire Theatre and boasted 1,400 seats. It closed in 1957 and after extensive renovations, reopened in 1959 as the State Theatre, before closing in 1997. ‘As rare as uranium’: when Hong Kong geologist thought he’d struck it rich “In October 2019, New World Development, which owns 95 per cent of the complex, applied to buy the building with plans to redevelop portions of it. They will consider how to preserve the essence of the former State Theatre but a relevant detailed plan has not been announced,” says Yang. “Vanishing Hong Kong” also includes photos of a grand Hakka mansion in Yuen Long. As with all of the images on show, the location cannot be revealed. “This elegant mansion, with a history of over 80 years, is typical of the Hakka ‘two-halls two-horizontal’ residential building in Mei county, Guangdong,” he says, adding that it is the only single residential building in Hong Kong listed as a Grade I historical building. “The half-moon-shaped feng shui pond in front of the house is overrun by reeds and weeds, and the eaves are in disrepair,” he says. With 16 rooms, six halls and two inner courtyards, the building still has paintings in the main hall depicting European scenes, which is unusual for a Chinese mansion of that era, says Yang. Another image shows a deserted English-style mansion once owned by a family surnamed Choi. “After the death of the owner in 1944, family members moved away and the house [built in 1927] fell into disrepair,” says Yang, adding that in 2007 it was listed as a Grade I historical building and downgraded to Grade II in 2010. “It is believed that seven people drowned there and that it is haunted. Rumour has it that at night, people can hear women screaming and crying.” Adding to the mystery, says Yang, are 10 red embroidered shoes and eight mirrors left in formation, as if they were part of a ceremony. Urban explorers Sacha Yasumoto and Dickie Fowler have also contributed to the exhibition.