You know, sometimes I'm not so sure about visiting spooky places.
There are those "urban legend-y" locations that fall somewhere in that gray area between atmospheric historic location and bad-shit-happened-here-do-not-pass-go-don't-engage-in-"dark tourism"-type places.
Nam Koo Terrace, a mansion in Wan Chai, is one of those places.
Infamous among locals, it's hard to tell where the truth ends and the legends begin. Though most people are fully aware of the mansion's violent past, most are in full support of preserving Nam Koo Terrace (it is a Grade I historic building). The mansion still holds a lot of interest with locals.
While I've always held something of an "arm's length" fascination with the mansion — admittedly more for the stately, decaying architecture than the ghosts — I've been avoiding a visit since I moved here. Kind of like how I avoided visiting Aokigahara. I wasn't sure if, by visiting Nam Koo Terrace, I was engaging with some sort of exploitation of its brutal history. After all, its fame is built largely on death.
Nam Koo Terrace is a very real part of the Hong Kong historical landscape, a fusion of Chinese and European architecture that very much embodies the colonial background of Hong Kong. While so much of Hong Kong is sleek and new, Nam Koo Terrace is a holdover from the past. It's a piece of history that people clamped eyes on over 100 years ago — quite a feat in a city seemingly intent on razing the physical remnants of its past.
But in the case of Nam Koo Terrace, it is a very dark past.
Built around 1918, the mansion stood witness to the Japanese occupation of World War II, and all the atrocities (especially to women in Wan Chai) that accompanied it.
On a personal note (for those of you who have been paying attention), during the Japanese occupation, my grandparents and great grandparents were living their lives in Wan Chai. My great grandmother told my mother of the "shady dealings" (mom's words, not mine) happening in and around the mansion. Women were assaulted and "treated worse than waste." Nam Koo Terrace stood as a foreboding, yet prominent figure in that time.
According to numerous sources (and local lore), Nam Koo Terrace was "where 'comfort women' were kept by the Japanese army and forced to become sex slaves for troops," and where many were "tortured and killed." From that pedigree, a shadow seems to have been cast over the mansion.
As the stories go, numerous suicides have taken place inside the mansion and near its grounds. People claim that mysterious screams and unearthly voices emanate from behind its gated and locked doors. Some say murders have taken place on the premises in recent years, and that unaccounted-for bodies have turned up dumped inside the house. Still more claim that headless figures (pointing to the rumored decapitations of women in the mansion during WWII), even mysterious fires can be seen through the mansion's broken windows, moving around the abandoned floors.
I don't know how many of these stories are "tall tales" told among locals who are drawing from Nam Koo Terrace's past (Hong Kongers LOVE ghost stories), but the kind of stories that come out of the mansion are the kind that give me pause. Do I really want to chase ghost stories based on suffering? (No.)
Of course the mansion has its fair share of people who are curious about what ghosts lurk behind its walls. No shade on them, it only makes sense that people are curious.
One such tale of curious ghost hunters has become part of the mansion's legend. Again, as the original coverage of the story was in a Chinese language newspaper (and I don't read Chinese), I'm not positive about the hard facts of the incident. I'll give you the basics here, but to be honest, I'm not wild about going into all the disturbing details. Totally true or built up by hearsay, I'd rather err on the side of at least some respect for the people involved.
Supposedly, in 2003 a group of teenagers entered the mansion with the intent to spend the night ghost hunting. There may have been a spirit board of sorts involved, or they may have just been exploring, either way things did not go so well for some in the group. Aside from reportedly seeing a "dark figure" waving at them inside the mansion, three of the girls were reported to become "possessed" and had to be hospitalized.
There are variations on the story, but those are the basics. Again I don't know how much is true, and how much is urban legend.
From all of the above, you can see, Creepy Corneristas, why I was rather hesitant about paying a visit to Nam Koo Terrace.
But finding myself in the neighborhood of the mansion, in broad daylight, with only the intention of taking a look at the historic site, I felt like I could do this respectfully.
Nam Koo Terrace, dark past and all, is still a part of the fabric of the city. It's how we treat that history that's important. Respect for the dead can be a part of that history.
In retrospect, I walked up the steps to Nam Koo Terrace the way I would approach a cemetery. It wasn't on purpose, but I tried not to be too casual about the whole thing.
Climbing up the uneven, cement steps, even with construction all around me, it was impossible to ignore a certain amount of gloom. It may have been due to the lack of people around (it was around 11am and most people were at work), the gray day, or the overhang of trees, but I was aware of a slight change in atmosphere from the bustling main streets of Wan Chai below me.
At the top of the steps, Nam Koo Terrace was surrounded by barriers and construction. The whole upper level of apartments had warning signs and fences stopping anyone without a permit from advancing any higher up. As a construction worker gave me the side eye, I stood and craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the mansion's facade.
I admit, it was a rather unreal feeling to stand right in front of the mansion I'd heard so much about for so long, on the old, old steps that used to look out over the harbour before the land was reclaimed in 1921. Now I can barely see the harbour, just steel and glass and concrete and cars.
What had happened where I stood? What had really gone on behind those walls that, while far above my head, were close enough to see the details of the cracks and moulding?
Was my unease coming from being in a place I had mixed feelings about visiting? Or was it because I was in the presence of so much past suffering? Probably a little of both.
I didn't linger long at Nam Koo Terrace. This was due in part to the construction workers looking none too pleased with the "tourist" looking solemn and weird as she guiltily snapped a few pictures, but also because the whole place just made me uncomfortable.
Perhaps I'm being oversensitive, but if that's the case, I'm okay with it. Maybe the ghosts of Nam Koo Terrace deserve a little sensitivity.
I left the mansion unsettled. While I do think that I approached the site with respect and dignity, I can't help but wonder what lies in its future. Will it be preserved as a historical house? Turned into a hotel? Luxury flats? I've heard that all of the above are possibilities, but I've heard confirmation of none.
I don't know what is the most befitting fate of Nam Koo Terrace. What is the most appropriate fate for a house with such a history?
I just don't know.
I can only hope that whatever becomes of Nam Koo Terrace, the spirits who may or may not be trapped within its walls are given the honor and yes, rest, that they deserve.
What do you think of places like Nam Koo Terrace? Have you ever visited such a place? Would you? How do you think their preservation should be handled?
And before I forget, a bit of Creepy Corner housekeeping!
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