This Hong Kong Tech Startup Is Hustling Haunted Apartments to Millennial Expats
Spacious.hk capitalizes on the Chinese cultural fear of living in haunted spaces. And business is booming.
Hong Kong apartment complex. Photo: Carl Nenzén Lovén/Flickr
A woman hanged herself in her beachside apartment with her own scarf in May. An elderly gentleman lost his balance while hanging laundry over the window, and plunged to his death in the city the month before. And out in the suburbs in February, a couple locked themselves in their apartment—with their dog—and burned bags of charcoal until they suffocated.
Turns out that here in Hong Kong, these at-home deaths—which happen all the time—can be another man's boon. At spacious.hk, young entrepreneurs are keeping track of the tragic events that happen inside the city's notoriously expensive apartments. Because when someone dies in one of the city's properties, Chinese people don't want to live in them anymore, out of a deep cultural fear of ghosts.
Luckily for spacious.hk, the city's expatriates—not to mention Hong Kong's new generation—aren't usually bothered by living in haunted houses.
At the tech startup in Sheung Wan, which sits just on the edge of the city's central financial district, spacious.hk founder Asif Ghafoor is making his business boom from the Chinese fear of living in these ghost apartments, called hung jaak in Cantonese.
The company reports that on average, the haunted house overlay is used some 5,000 times a month. Whether that leads to an actual transaction or not is hard to say, because from that point the transaction moves offline and between agents and renters. The haunted house service itself is free.
"You can search for an apartment with specific incidents," said Ghafoor, whose team keeps an updated database and map of where tragic deaths occur in Hong Kong properties—thereby lowering the rental prices. The user clicks a filter actually called "haunted."
Take the J Residence, one of Hong Kong's most luxurious residential buildings, as an example. After two sex workers were found gruesomely murdered in a one-bedroom apartment there in 2014, it came back on the market this year at half the price—dropping from a staggering $3,740 a month.
"It's all a part of feng shui—there are no hard and fast rules, it's about how you interpret the magic," said Ghafoor, who explains that Hong Kong's new—and dramatically expensive—developments take many aspects of feng shui into consideration to draw in wealthy Chinese renters. These aspects can include what direction the apartment faces, what the view is of, and the flow of the floor plan. Feng shui is everywhere in Hong Kong, and the government has spent millions on construction projects that are built in line with the ancient harmonizing philosophy.
When I first go to spacious.hk to find a haunted apartment, it doesn't strike me as anything too different from other house-hunting websites. But when I click the filter, the map of Hong Kong becomes absolutely saturated with friendly-looking ghost icons—I'm shocked they're everywhere.
For American James Fisher, spacious.hk's director of analysis and analytics, collecting data on bizarre murders and suicides is all part of the day job. He leads a team of people who monitor in-apartment deaths from local media and police reports, and then map it out for spacious.hk users.
"Most of the stories are referred more as 'data points,' instead of detailed accounts of the individuals involved in the tragedies," Fisher said. "I try not to dig down too much into those personal details."
He explains that spacious.hk has a simple back end form on the site for inputting building, date, and description of the event—and once that information is loaded, the event gets linked to the referenced building on the map overlay.
"The one thing that jumped out to me was cultural," Fisher said. "I had to ask local colleagues what charcoal burning suicide was, because this isn't something I ever heard of in the US." In Hong Kong, a common form of suicide—like the couple with their dog—is to burn a charcoal grill inside an apartment and seal off the windows and doors with duct tape.
Charcoal burning became popular among high schoolers renting beach side apartments after failing their college entrance exams—they enter so-called suicide pacts with one another. The government considered building a controversial suicide theme park about a decade ago to capitalize from Hong Kong's fear of ghosts, when death by charcoal burning hit its peak.
This fear of ghosts has even shaped one of Hong Kong's trendiest neighborhoods, Po Hing Fong, where middle-aged and older Chinese renters mostly tend to avoid. In fact, it's been affectionately dubbed "PoHo" by the large influx of expatriate residents there. Today, while the streets are dotted with craft beer bars and expensive vintage stores, PoHo was ground zero for the bubonic plague in Hong Kong and one of the city's first slums after British colonization. And that makes PoHo bad feng shui.
"Most of the stories are referred more as 'data points,' instead of detailed accounts of the individuals involved in the tragedies"
Feng shui is taken seriously in Chinese culture—and this can cause a problem that moves past the supernatural. Real estate agents, especially the wily ones, are able to manipulate property prices by fabricating their own ghost rumors. If they want to attack another agent's listing, there's nothing stopping them from saying that someone tragically died in the apartment. "It's quite easy to see this scenario that if someone wants to bring down a property price, they'll just spread a ghost rumor," said Ghafoor.
What governs the relationship between feng shui, tragic death, and apartments can be complicated, too. If someone jumps off the roof of a building, what does that mean for a property—do all the apartments then go for a lower price? There isn't an easy answer, and spacious.hk only correlates data points for haunted houses with specific rentals.
Joseph Clark, a local property consultant with OKAY.com, said that the J Residence, again, is a good example of this murky magic territory. After the alleged murders in one apartment, many superstitious Chinese began moving out of the luxury building—obviously affecting its demand as a whole.
Meanwhile, the appetite for renting haunted houses is still strong enough that spacious.hk has plans to scale its service by expanding to Shanghai and Taipei. The company will follow the same process for collecting data on tragic deaths.
Clark said that today, he has many young locals and expatriates, alike, coming to him to find good haunted properties. "But if the parents are superstitious," he said, "well guess what, the kids aren't moving to that property they want, even if they love it."
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