SC36 Interview: HK URBEX

by Kung Fu Bob O'Brien on June 4, 2015 · 5 comments in Buddhist Blog

HK URBEX Creates Last Movie Shot On Shaw Brothers Lot?
By Kung Fu Bob O’Brien

Photos by HK URBEX (unless otherwise noted)

What exactly is a ‘HK URBEX’ you may be wondering? I know that’s what I was thinking when I first saw a four minute YouTube video they’d posted. A video that made the Hong Kong movie fan in me get a lump in my throat, and butterflies in my stomach. After doing a quick search, I found their own explanation of who they were, and what their name means:

“HK URBEX is Hong Kong Urban Exploration 廢墟攝影團隊. ‘Urbex’ is the exploration of man-made structures that have been left abandoned. In a city famed for its dense population and sky-high real estate prices, it’s hard to believe there exists hundreds of these neglected buildings . From haunted schools, derelict villages, to defunct government property, each place has its story. We are a band of visual creators and storytellers on a mission to find and document Hong Kong’s forsaken structures.”

Though I hadn’t heard of them before, their latest video upload “HK URBEX: ‘THE 36th CHAMBER OF MOVIETOWN’ 影城三十六房” was pointed out to me by SMK, and what I saw was simply stunning. They had infiltrated the hallowed grounds (to kung fu fans at least) of the long defunct Shaw Brothers Studios lot, and filmed what they found inside! As I watched the footage I felt as if I were right there with them, and it was an exhilarating, and also heart-breaking experience for this cinephile. As most kung fu and wu xia movie fans are aware, Shaw Brothers Studios were responsible for creating some of the greatest action films ever made (as well as dramas, comedies, horror, and musicals), including undisputable classics like EIGHT DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, COME DRINK WITH ME, FIVE VENOMS, THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, and THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN. The studio made stars of Gordon Liu, David Chiang, Cheng Pei-Pei, Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, and countless others, and produced films by legendary directors like Chang Cheh, Lau Kar-Leung, Sun Chung, and Chor Yuen. For many fans the words ‘Shaw Brothers” are synonymous with greatness, and just seeing their famous SB shield logo on a movie package is a good enough reason to purchase a film. So the idea of visiting the studio, even though productions had long ceased filming there, was still extremely appealing to many fans. I personally know plenty of kung fu film aficionados that visited the front gate of the studio while on vacation, with hopes of somehow getting inside. All attempts to bribe guards, or to find easy access around the borders of the lot failed, and most begrudgingly settled for a photo op standing at the front gate with the studio’s iconic sign in the background. But not HK URBEX…

Before you read any further, if you haven’t already seen it, now would probably be a good time to watch the video:

Here’s the extremely informative text that the group posted along with their video (re-published here with their permission).

“Although unbeknownst to most, up on a windy hill on the eastern shore of Hong Kong is a site which played a pivotal role in the development of Hong Kong’s film industry. Built in 1961 by the Shaw Brothers, this massive moldering movie studio complex was operated by the Shaw Brothers under the guidance of the late Sir Run Run Shaw. In its heyday, it was considered to be the world’s largest privately owned movie production studio with around 23 buildings laid out across the 46 acre site. With residential buildings for actors and crew as well as private homes, it was somewhat of a movie sweatshop, and it came to be known as Movietown.

The development of Movietown was synonymous with Sir Run Run Shaw’s rise to power in Hong Kong. After World War Two ended, Sir Shaw spotted a potential market in Hong Kong which was at the time dominated by foreign films and mediocre local productions. He decided to move preexisting operations from Singapore and Malaysia to the city, and the local studio was soon at the apex of the tide of what many called the ‘Golden Era’ of Hong Kong cinema. Some say the studio almost single-handedly set up the Hong Kong film industry themselves.

Movietown was a living entity. The huge facility was fully equipped to produce all manner of films. Some of the most famous releases to come out of here included The Magnificent Concubine (楊貴妃 1962) and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (少林三十六房 1978). But most of the thousand or so films produced here were largely forgettable as Movietown was considered at times to be somewhat of a film factory – churning out movies on a mass scale with actors limited to those hand-picked, trained and linked to Shaw. This autocratic style of film business was akin to the operation of Hollywood studios in the early 20th Century which involved movies being made by big studio executives purely for commercial gain with little regard for artistic merit.

Like Italian-made Spaghetti/Macaroni Westerns, at Movietown films were often shot without sound and then later dubbed into whatever language was required as they had a good global distribution network. Stories were often lifted straight from Western films with minimal adaptation, a practice the Cantonese called ‘reheating yesterday’s cold rice.’ However, the pressure on actors was strong, which, according to media reports, caused many to break down or even commit suicide such as Linda Lin Dai (林黛) and Lam Fung (林鳳).

In the 1980s this ‘Golden Era fell into decline and the number of productions to come out of Movietown dropped considerably. The last solely-produced film from the site came out in 2003. The complex now sits vacant, guarded and fenced off to the outside world, as it has been since 2007, with operations having shifted to a new US$180 million plot nearby. But the new site is mainly a post-production studio featuring sound stages and dubbing rooms.

Back at the original premises, back-and-forth negotiations have been taking place between the landowners and the Town Planning Board who have been struggling to decide on what to do with the vacant lot. In late 2014, there was a decision to completely level the premises to build housing and commercial properties, but this was thankfully reversed by the Antiquities Advisory Board who at the last minute in March managed to rate Movietown as a Grade 1 Historical Site – the highest grading of its kind. This forced the unscrupulous property developers to ditch their original plans. They are now planning to retain certain buildings in their original state, but only time will reveal exactly to what extent Movietown will be preserved – and whether this conservation will honour Hong Kong’s turbulent film culture.”

If you’re anything like me, after watching the video you immediately wanted to know more about this group, their short movie, and about their experience exploring the famed studio. How did this short movie get made, and what more did HK URBEX find inside than we were able to see? Well we asked them for you, and here’s what they had to say…

Kung Fu Bob: First of all, can you tell us a little bit about the background of ‘urban exploring? When did this first become popular?

HK Urbex: Urban exploration or ‘urbex’ as it’s known to practitioners originated from the West, in particular in caves in Australia, before becoming more popular in US and Europe. There’s no one person or group that can lay claim to the birth of ‘urbexing’ – but for us our early inspiration came from ‘Abandoned America’. (Editor’s Note: Matthew Christopher’s Abandoned America, the premier collection of photography of abandoned sites across America.) We followed closely their style and ethos and applied it to our local Hong Kong environment. Essentially ‘urbexing’ is the exploration and documentation of non-spaces in a city – environments and structures that lie in limbo, whether dead, abandoned and left to rot or awaiting construction or in the midst of development.

KFB: How did the idea to form your group come about, and how many members are there in HK Urbex? From what I’ve seen there are four of you? I’ve seen ‘Jenkins’, ‘Echo Delta’, and ‘Ghost’ named in your videos. Who did I miss?

HKU: HK Urbex is a platform to showcase the many distinctive sites and unique spaces in Hong Kong – magic places which are fast being pulled down and destroyed. For those not familiar with Hong Kong: We are a cluster of islands, and we were a British colony until 1997 when we were returned to China. We are what’s called a ‘Special Administrative Region’ with our own autonomous government, police, judicial system…but considered Chinese territory. Due to the confined urban density here and the zealous propensity to knock down old buildings on a whim (regardless of architectural merit), in our mere two years of operation we have discovered many irreplaceable structures which have been destroyed or are in the process of being obliterated – and many of these have historical heritage value. You see, the government has a rather, not-so friendly policy towards heritage preservation. They’d rather build commercial lots, or let buildings and the land they are on rot and decay until the right bidder comes along with the right price. So we play a part in this important greater initiative of heritage preservation – our role is to document and highlight these spaces which are important to the city. We are a growing group, currently with six active members: There’s also Pripyat, Toad, Dragon Xing. We sometimes tag along with international urbexers or others with a particular skill set that might suit the mission we are on – such as using aerial drones or scuba diving.

KFB: This seems a bit like an urban spinoff of archaeologists looking at ancient ruins. Is that a fair assessment of what you do?

HKU: Yes that’s an apt comparison. Except archaeologists take things from sites whereas we do not. Our discipline kind of merges a bit of archaeology, historiography, and ethnography together.

KFB: Do the group members each have specialties? Are there any special skills you guys have, like spelunking, rock climbing, extreme sports, martial arts backgrounds?

HKU: Yes we all have a combination of those skills. Each member is required to be healthy, active, and confident, with reasonable familiarity in handling a camera or video camera.

KFB: Can you tell us what the first location you explored was?

HKU: Together as a group it would have been an abandoned TV station on the east side of Hong Kong.

KFB: Have any of you ever been caught by security or police on one of your explorations, or can you tell us about some close calls?

HKU: We’ve played cat and mouse with guards before but never anything serious. We did get caught at a mental hospital but we managed to smooth talk our way out of serious trouble (as in calling the police) by claiming we were just photography students. We of course were told to leave and conveniently escorted out an easier way than we got in. We have not yet had to deal with police.

KFB: I’ve seen some negative reactions to what urban explorers are doing, with criticisms of trespassing and moral disregard for other people’s property. What would your response be to those that oppose your activities?

HKU: We challenge that notion because trespassing is a necessity of what we do to bring these hidden places to light – but we also follow our own set of rules which are about respect. We do not break or take anything. We find a way in that is not destructive – vandalism and defacement are not in our vocabulary. We follow the old phrase: “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints and kill nothing but time.” Essentially, the proprietors would never know we were there. It’s only after we publish our material online that some get wind of it and express their dissatisfaction. In the case of Shaw Studio, we got insider info that the company is unhappy with our little excursion, and security has been boosted at the site.

KFB: This seems like a potentially dangerous hobby/sport/passion/project (which would you call it?). Have any of you ever suffered any injuries or had any memorable close calls?

HKU: Hobby/sport/passion/project – it’s a bit of all of those really. But it is equally a fetish, a discipline, as well as an active pursuit and professional interest. Some people like taking photos of their food in their spare time, others might like to dress up as comic book characters, but we like to scale fences and explore dilapidated and unique environments – but to each their own. We have had some minor cuts and bruises in the past, but it comes with the territory. Nothing major.

KFB: What has been the most interesting place you guys have gone into, and what gave it that distinction?

HKU: I’m speaking for myself (Echo Delta), but my favourite has been the mental hospital simply because it wasn’t abandoned too long ago, so still had some equipment there. Also because it was spooky as hell. As for me, (Ghost) it would be a massive derelict theme park in Japan, which was loosely modeled on Disneyland, and had crows flying around the overgrown rollercoasters. Surreal. Underground mines are always cool too – a few in Hong Kong stand out in my mind.

KFB: Have there been places that you wanted to film, but just weren’t able to get in?

HKU: There are some old air raid tunnels underneath a well-known park in the city which we are still working on…

KFB: Now let’s talk about your latest video – at Shaw Studio. Are you guys big Kung Fu movies fans, or did this just seem like an interesting location?

HKU: I (Echo Delta) admit that out of Shaw Brother’s flicks I’ve only seen 36TH CHAMBER, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. We knew about their contribution to the local film industry in Hong Kong, and the fact that it might be torn down soon, which is why we put this high on our list. A few on our team are actually in the film business, so it was interesting for them from that angle. However I think no member of the team is as crazy about SB movies as you guys are. Respect!

KFB: How much pre-planning went into this particular adventure?

HKU: A smaller team had been in there previously, before we decided to do a video with a bigger team. For large sites we usually do a scout mission prior to make sure it is safe, and we are not wasting everyone’s time.

KFB: How much footage did you actually film in there, and are there any plans to release a longer version of your video?

HKU: We have maybe two hours’ worth, but because of YouTube ADD culture we had to squish it down to a few minutes’ worth. We’ll archive the footage and see if it can be part of a bigger edit in the future.

KFB: How long were you there filming – was it all done in a single day?

HKU: Yep, all in one lovely day.

KFB: The video was posted on Facebook, and in the comment’s section someone talked about the ‘booty’ they would’ve collected if they were you. You reacted strongly and said “We’re no fucking thieves.” Can you please explain your thoughts or group guidelines on taking or ‘collecting’ souvenirs from the places you go to?

HKU: It simply is against general urbexing rules and our principles. Having said that there are actually no real ‘official’ rules as it’s an illicit practice by nature. But we are explorers, not thieves and vandals. Basically if we took anything it would be thievery. Some might think some items do not belong to anyone anymore, but still, to take something from these sites feels like it would be like desecrating a place, which would give us and our practice a bad name. We’ve revisited sites before where things have been broken, walls (marked with) graffiti, and I’m sure stuff taken too. Those who might have done this would not have been urban explorers.

KFB: One of the most shocking things to see in the video was that there were actual film strips still hanging in the editing bay. Were you able to make out any of the actors on any of those strips?

HKU: Nope. Perhaps if we had all the time in the world we could’ve made closer inspections, but because there were workers and personnel present at the site we had to tread carefully and quietly.

KFB: In one shot you can clearly see a bunch of army helmets from the Costume Department. Did you see any Ming Dynasty robes or other extravagant costumes?

HKU: Yes that was in the costume department so we saw an array of costumes. There were some garbs which looked like they could have been for movies set in the Ming Dynasty, but part of that building was burned down for some reason so most were destroyed.

KFB: Did you guys explore the Props Department, and if so, what kind of stuff did you see?

HKU: As you saw in the video we found a ‘demonic’ head and scary replica of a hand in the costume department. Shaw Studio was shared with local broadcaster TVB so we also found some ordinary looking props – including a giant snowman and football. But none of it seemed exquisite or valuable to us. Also, it was quite interesting to discover a small shrine dedicated to Alexander Fu Sheng 傅聲.

 

KFB: We’ve heard stories about the dorm-like living quarters that the SB stars stayed in while employed by the studio. Did you visit these, and what were your impressions of them?

HKU: There is a section that was for housing, which was almost empty. It seemed rather ordinary with nothing exceptional in particular.

KFB: Were there a lot of places that were too dangerous to explore, or inaccessible due to collapsed floors, ceilings and walls?

HKU: No, structurally it all seemed sound. Minus that portion of the costume department that was burned down.

KFB: What were some of the posters you saw hanging up on the walls?

HKU: No SB movie posters come to mind – and the ones we did see were worn out.

KFB: It’s such a huge place. How many of the buildings did you actually visit?

HKU: We explored maybe five to six big buildings that day, but the previous team went to around 10. Of course we would’ve loved to explore every nook and cranny, but as I said, there were personnel and workers on site so we had to plan our routes carefully.

KFB: At one point we see workers from a window the camera is looking out. What were they doing?

HKU: Doing some maintenance work on the roads.

KFB: Any final words to describe your experience in this historic place?

HKU: Pretty awe-inspiring to have stepped into such a remarkable site. It’s always exciting when we visit such sites as they definitely give off a certain vibe – especially with all the history, talent, sweat and tears that made it what it was/is. It is of course disheartening too to know it’ll all be knocked down one day to pave way for greedy commercial landowners.

KFB: Do you guys already have your next location picked out, and can you give us any kind of hint as to the type of place it will be?

HKU: No comment on location. But we have some more albums coming up of abandoned schools, old age pensioner homes, and hostels.

Thanks to HK URBEX for taking the time to answer our questions.

Please check out their Facebook page (which includes many more photos from inside Shaw Brothers Studios) at:  fb.com/hkurbex

And subscribe to their YouTube channel: youtube.com/hkurbex

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

stteve December 7, 2015

That mask I assure you is not there now! If it is I’m booking a ticked and getting it myself!

Great interview and an inspiring hobby I have started myself!

Reply

Kung Fu Bob June 7, 2015

Hey kung fu brothers and sisters, thanks for the kind words. Yeah, this was a unique opportunity to talk to an interesting group.

Reply

Secret Executioner June 6, 2015

Great read, sounds like a very interesting hobby these people have. And nice pictures too.

Kudos brother Bob. 🙂

Reply

Marla Mize June 5, 2015

This was such a great read. Thank you Kung Fu Bob for conducting a fabulous interview. And thanks to URBEX for treating the Shaw Studios with respect.

Reply

ShaOW!linDude June 5, 2015

Wow, that would be a fun day. Good interview, bro.

Reply

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