Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
An app tracks the locations of grisly deaths to help users land a discount on their next apartment—or avoid the building altogether.
As if the skyrocketing rents and ever-shrinking size of Hong Kong’s apartments aren’t frightening enough, apartment hunters can now use an augmented-reality app to seek out the “haunted” flats of the city.
According to the South Morning China Post, the startup Spacious has taken a cue from the popular Pokemon Go app to let users explore their surroundings through their smartphone cameras. This particular app, however, lets users point their phones at a building in order to see information about available units, including dimensions, price—and any grisly murders or untimely deaths that took place there.
The incidents are unnerving: a couple killed themselves and their pet dog inside their Sha Tin apartment by burning charcoal. Near the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay, a man strangled his wife to death in their home after failing to save the relationship.
Not to mention the multiple accounts of students and workers jumping out of windows or hanging themselves due to stress and mental illness. This is, after all, a city in which mental illness and suicide are sensitive topics that are rarely spoken about in public. It was only in March, after a string of suicides among students ages 11 to 22, that the government announced that they would send psychologists to more than a thousand schools to help administrators identify at-risk behavior.
Each death is documented, along with the name of the neighborhood and building where it occurred, and marked by a ghost emoji on Spacious’s map. These properties, according to the handful of sites like Spacious that maintain these databases, can be found all over Hong Kong. They’re known as hongza, which translates to “brutal house” in Cantonese, and records go as far back as the 1970s.
For apartment hunters who don’t want a ghostly encounter, it helps to know which buildings to avoid altogether. For others, keeping track of these unfortunate incidents is a bargaining chip to get real estate companies to lower prices. In one of the more extreme cases, according to Spacious CEO Asif Ghafoor who spoke with Channel News Asia, a unit in a luxurious tower in Wan Chai was listed with at least 30 percent discount after police found the bodies of two murdered women in 2014. In typical cases, untimely deaths have led to a 10 to 15 percent decrease in rents.
The app and the various databases that are sold to renters and real estate agents play on the fear of ghosts and the idea that it’s ominous to live in a setting of a murder or suicide. As CNN reported in 2013, since the databases usually only list the building rather than the particular unit, they can lower the price of all the neighboring apartments by thousands. And though property owners have lodged complaints against the databases, the government has taken little action.
But the stigma these homes carry may not be entirely a curse. The founders behind Spacious particularly cater to expatriates and Millennials, who aren’t as superstitious as Hong Kong’s older generations. According to Vice, the ghost map gets used 5,000 times a month. In fact, the spooky appetite has been so strong that Spacious is planning to take its service to neighboring cities of Shanghai and Taipei—old beliefs be damned.