Hong Kong

Of Urban Fires And Ghosts

Flipped open the papers today and saw coverage of a Singaporean heroine in a coma after a fire in HK. My heart goes out to her and I pray she gets well soon. I also hope the city starts some serious fire planning soon because majority of the buildings are really not built to facilitate evacuations, not by any stretch of imagination.

If you’ve ever had a chance to visit Pearl City Mansion in Causeway Bay (the skyscraper block of apartments above the mega Wellcome supermarket beside Ikea), all you’ll see on each floor is a long, dank, never-ending corridor, flanked by shoebox apartments on both sides. Just viewing apartments there gave me a massive case of the chills: imagine a time where everyone is trying to get out at the same time. 

Pearl City Mansion is not alone in its coffin-esque structure. For some reason, corridors in HK are typically built inside the building, along its spine, compared to say – our HDBs where the corridors can be as breezy as sailing out in the open sea.

So I chose never to stay in apartment buildings with more than 4 units on each floor, and I personally viewed all the stairwells of all the apartments I viewed. Blocked stairwells were an absolute no-go. As you can imagine, I was a very difficult prospective tenant. I remember viewing my last (and favourite) apartment on Star Street, and thinking that Kira and myself can easily run down 8 flights of stairs – done deal! Now all I had to worry about were ghosts!

My fears aren’t unfounded. In my two years there, I saw two fires, compared to none in Singapore. The first was at a construction site in Causeway Bay, and it was HUGE. The firefighters must have spent an entire day dousing the site because traffic was a snail for an entire day.

The second, I was in it. The fuse box at an animal hospital in Mongkok blew, and sparked off a little fire, albeit contained in the basement. We were trapped in the visiting room with an electronically-controlled door that stopped working as soon as the fuse box blew. As the smell of smoke intensified, so did the combined panic levels of everyone trapped together with me, and it was awful until someone smashed the door to get us out. Lesson: avoid confined spaces with electronically-controlled anything.

If you’re in a gory kind of mood, you might also want to read a list of great fires around the world here. I did a Ctrl-F and found 30 Hong Kong references alone. Jesus.

I guess I gained awareness of some fire-planning after living there, an unexpected lesson. I also became perennially afraid of coming home by myself during the seventh month because the apartment I lived in was 40+ years and home to lots of old people who had red prayer boxes outside their homes (and everywhere other spot they can find along the corridor). And the floor number was painted in calligraphy characters in red paint on each floor. And the elevators were creaky and had little windows which meant I could see every passing creepy corridor until I reached mine, which was renovated and clean but still had 八搂 written in red paint.

It was always a relief to get into my bright apartment, with Kira sniffing around her latest pile of poop, and Andrea Bocelli soothing me from the stereo.

I’ve heard as well, from local friends, that there is this website that collects all suicides and unnatural deaths in various buildings and apartment units so that you can run a ghost background check before renting/purchasing a place. I never did find this website though!


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