House-Hunting in Hong Kong With the App That Sees Dead People
HONG KONG — Ship Street is quintessentially Hong Kong, even serving as the backdrop to several local movies.
There is a well-preserved three-story building from the 1920s, now a cigar lounge. Next door is a towering glass-and-steel apartment complex. There is a New York-style pizzeria, a pastry shop and a mom-and-pop hardware store.
But when viewed through a smartphone camera, Ship Street can look downright creepy.
Building on the success of Pokémon Go, a local company has created a smartphone app that superimposes property listings on street views. Point your phone at a building and the units for rent or sale pop up, complete with prices.
But on occasion, cartoon ghosts appear next to an apartment tower, representing an unnatural or unexplained death that took place there.
In Hong Kong, this is a big deal. Many people believe that living in a place where someone committed suicide or, worse, was murdered, brings all sorts of bad fortune. Those units, even years after such a death occurred, are discounted around 20 percent, sometimes 50 percent if the death was particularly gruesome.
Real estate is a topic that dominates dinner conversations, newspaper headlines and career choices here. Asif Ghafoor, a transplant from London whose company, Spacious, created the search tool, said Hong Kongers looking for a place to live asked the same questions as people anywhere: Is it near the subway? How is the view? Is there a gym? The app has filters for all of those things.
But there is one other question that Mr. Ghafoor found to be just as important, if not more so: Is it haunted?
On and around Ship Street, in the Wan Chai neighborhood of Hong Kong, terse captions under the ghosts tell a sad tale.
In one complex, “a man in his 60s jumped off the building.” At another: “Single male burnt charcoal,” referring to carbon monoxide poisoning, a common method of suicide here.
Mr. Ghafoor said the captions mirrored, as closely as possible, deaths that had been reported in local newspapers or by the police. Most of the ghosts seem to refer to suicides; Hong Kong has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world.
But Ship Street is also where the city’s highest-profile murders occurred in recent years: the killings of two Indonesian women by a British banker in the fall of 2014, on the 31st floor of the glass-and-steel J Residence.
Mr. Ghafoor said that, on average, 1 to 2 percent of apartments for sale have had an “incident,” and that as a result, they sell at a discount of up to 20 percent.
For Jin Peh, a feng shui teacher and the author of “Feng Shui: A Hong Kong Perspective,” a property below market price is a bad sign rather than a bargain. He recommends avoiding living where an unnatural death has occurred. In general, the principles of feng shui relate to the flow of energies in nature. An unnatural death can cause excess negative energy, Mr. Peh said in a telephone interview.
在《风水：一种香港视角》(Feng Shui: A Hong Kong Perspective)一书的作者、风水师白谨（Jin Peh，音）看来，低于市场价的房产是个不好的迹象，而非意味着一桩好买卖。他建议避免住在曾经发生过非自然死亡事故的房屋内。一般而言，风水的原则与自然界的能量流动有关。白谨在接受电话采访时表示，非自然死亡事故会带来过多的负能量。
The consequences of this depend on your personal beliefs, he said, but for traditional Chinese, the worst-case scenario is becoming “possessed” by the spirit or ghost. He recalled friends of friends who started hearing voices shortly after moving into an apartment. The voices told them to jump from the building — which is how the previous occupant ended his life.
“Maybe they are just being delusional,” Mr. Peh said, “but they hear voices trying to persuade them to repeat the same mistake.”
In less extreme cases, the tenants’ well-being will suffer: They will become more prone to emotional issues, mood swings and depression, he said.
Sometimes, the circumstances surrounding a death are so grim that it affects the value of entire floors or buildings.
For 13 years, the site of Hong Kong’s gruesome “Hello Kitty” murder remained abandoned. In 1999, Fan Man-yee, a nightclub hostess, was kidnapped by three men and held hostage in an apartment in a multistory building. The men tortured her for more than a month until she died. Her body was dismembered, and her skull was found inside a giant Hello Kitty doll.
尽管事情已经过去13年，但恐怖的“Hello Kitty”藏尸案的发生地依然废弃着。1999年，夜总会女招待樊敏仪被三名男子绑架，关在一座高层建筑内的一套公寓里。三名男子折磨了她一个多月，直到她死亡。她的尸体遭到肢解，颅骨被藏在一个巨大的Hello Kitty玩偶中。
The perpetrators were sentenced to life in prison. The apartment was vacant for years. No one would rent it. No one would buy it. They said it was haunted. In 2012, the entire building was finally demolished.
Mr. Ghafoor said that while there was no hard and fast rule that real estate agents must tell prospective buyers or renters about unnatural deaths, the local regulator has a code of conduct that says agents must serve their clients with “honesty, fidelity and integrity.”
Real estate companies keep close tabs on supposedly haunted properties. One site, Squarefoot.com, maintains a macabre list. Banks are reluctant to provide mortgages for such properties, meaning sellers have to find buyers willing to pay cash. That makes the discount almost self-fulfilling: All-cash transactions command a discount here because of the small number of people who don’t need a mortgage.
For those who are not superstitious — real estate agents point to expatriates and young people — moving into a “haunted” home can take some of the sting out of buying or renting in Hong Kong, the city with the least affordable housing in the world.
“I’ve started looking and found it’s insanely expensive in this city,” says Harry Edwards, 27, a lawyer who recently moved to Hong Kong from Australia. On a recent day, he was wandering around the trendy neighborhood of Sheung Wan, trying out the Spacious app. He said he didn’t subscribe to superstitions “whatsoever.”
“I actually think it would be great to say, ‘I live in a haunted house,’ ” he said.
There are many to choose from. A quick wave of the app in Hong Kong’s North Point neighborhood reveals a world of tragedy. The little white ghosts pop up next to many of the area’s towering apartment complexes.
In one, a part-time tennis trainer “killed and stabbed his wife after an argument, jumped off the building.” In another: “Female drowned herself in bathtub.” Next door: “Old male jumped off the building.”
Even some people who might benefit from higher home prices acknowledge the power of superstition here.
After more than 30 years in the real estate business, Lily Wong, a local agent, knows that most Chinese clients are not interested in even looking at haunted apartments. “They wouldn’t rent, they wouldn’t buy,” she said.
She counts herself among that group. “I can’t stay in a flat that they said is haunted,” she said. “It’s so creepy.”