A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
9 March 2013
Hong Kong has a population in excess of 7,000,000; a figure which is perpetually growing. With a total space of only 1,104 km² however, this makes it the mostly densely populated city on the planet – some districts housing as many as 54,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. Hemmed in by steep mountains and the South China Sea, Hong Kong only has one direction left for growth – upwards.
With that in mind, what better way to admire this dazzling metropolis than from high up on the city rooftops?
It has now been 14 months since I started Ex Utopia, and one of best things about the experience is the people that it has put me in touch with. So far I have received messages from likeminded individuals spread across four continents, many of these leading to shared adventures… and there is no better example of this than the beautiful coincidence that occurred as I was reaching Hong Kong.
I received a message from a local urban explorer, looking for recommendations on sites to visit in Moscow and Kiev. She finished by offering, in return, to help me out if ever I should make it to Hong Kong. I arrived within a matter of days, and I was lucky enough to get a guided tour around some of the city’s lesser-known wonders .
We tried gaining access to a few different rooftops during my short stay in Hong Kong, and several of these ended in defeat.
The vast majority of buildings in this city feature lifts and escalators; walking up stairs seems to be a highly unfashionable, time wasting pursuit. I was often baffled to see large crowds of people queuing five, occasionally even close to ten minutes for an elevator… and then getting out on the next floor. I have always preferred to take the stairs, but here in Hong Kong it is not always an option. Stairwells in this city are often viewed as an emergency back up, or for maintenance access only. It’s common to see the door to a stairwell fitted with an alarm system, to be used only in the case of a fire.
Sometimes alarms such as these can be overridden. A screwdriver, knife or even a hairpin in the right pair of hands can be used to carefully depress the sensor, while a strip of duct tape will serve to keep it from triggering. Not all alarm systems are so easy to tamper with however, and twice during our attempts (once in an office block, another time a shopping centre) we chose to desist, rather than risk triggering a building-wide alarm.
We did enjoy a taste of sweet success however, in the densely populated mainland district of Mong Kok. One of the more populous areas of Hong Kong, this suburb is famed for its colourful night markets, richly varied street cuisines, seedy red light districts and shop after shop of tax-free electronic goods.
Here we tried an address that my accomplice had heard about from a friend: a tower block whose lower floors were filled with shopping centres and leisure complexes, before continuing upwards into a glamorous international hotel.
An escalator carried us up the first seven or so floors, after which point we followed a raised walkway into the adjacent hotel building. The lobby here was mostly full of westerners engaged in smug conversations about capital investment or roulette tables.
When infiltrating a site such as this, the worst thing you can possibly do is look nervous, uncomfortable or out of place. It only takes a moment of hesitation, a second glance at a map, for a porter to descend on you with questions such as, “can I help you?” or worse still, “can I see your room number?”.
Doing our best to look natural we made for the elevators that led up to the hotel rooms, mingling in with the crowd. The highest floor we were able to access was the 37th, and so we alighted, and headed purposely through the maze of numbered corridors. It wasn’t long before we found a fire door tucked away in a corner of the labyrinth, and this one without an alarm.
From here we found ourselves on a service stairwell, unmarked other than floor numbers; and, thankfully, with no security cameras in sight. A few floors higher we passed the hotel kitchens. Luckily the staff were involved in a heated debate within, and so we were able to sneak past the open doorway – hidden behind a cage of cardboard waste – and carry on undetected.
It was somewhere around floor 43 or 44 that we finally made it out onto the roof. The door here had an alarm system fitted, but it seemed to have been disabled by the smokers amongst the hotel’s staff.
We found ourselves at first in a small patio area, filled with maintenance tools and potted plants, and overlooking a lavish rooftop swimming pool. Situated on the floor below us, the pool area appeared to be accessed from the VIP suites on the top floor of the hotel.
We were more interested in what stood behind us though; a plate metal staircase attached to the outside wall, and leading up to the summit.
On the very top portion of the hotel building, a glowing orb was decorated in neon stripes of pink, orange and purple; beside it rose an array of satellite dishes and air conditioning units.
There were two things which struck me, as we climbed up to the very top level. First was the view; we had climbed to the top of one of the tallest buildings in the district, earning us a breathtaking view of the city lights beneath us. From this high up it was hard to make out details, and streets blurred together as golden, criss-crossing lines.
The other thing I was painfully aware of however, was the strong side winds that ripped through our hair and clothing, threatening at any moment to bring us inevitably closer to the spectacular lights below.
On the rooftop of the hotel, a large series of industrial extractor fans, coolers and condensers were placed around a central access area littered with rusted tools. On three sides of this, tiled barriers rose up flush with the hotel’s walls, in order to hide the machinery and give the building’s profile a neat, square appearance. These metal partitions then folded inwards, creating a shelf with a width of around four metres, while leaving the central machinery open from above. The metal surface seemed sturdy enough, and so we decided to continue climbing.
A steel ladder in the corner led up to a raised inspection platform beside one of the coolers, and from here it was possible to pull oneself up onto the surrounding ledge. The ladder and the platform above didn’t quite meet… so this required a bit of a jump, pulling upwards and onto the platform quickly and without looking down.
By this point I found myself feeling somewhat nervous. I don’t suffer from a fear of heights as such, but I’m painfully – and sometimes anxiously – aware of them; and by this stage, we were very high indeed. The platform on which we now stood was never intended for human feet, its surface made up of metal tiles arranged on a grid-like lattice. Worse still, there were no barriers, nothing to hold on to, and the outer edges curved abruptly downwards and out of sight.
Nevertheless, from this peak we were able to enjoy a breathtaking, 360-degree view of the city at night; Lion Rock in the north, Victoria Harbour to the west, Kowloon Bay spreading out on our eastern side, and to the south, the peak of Mount Austin rising up out of Hong Kong Island.
Under the shadow of the mountains, nestled far beneath our feet, the million glittering lights of Hong Kong sparkled like a sea of electric diamonds.
 You can also check out her photographs from this site, over on her own blog: Timeless Dimension.