Masked activists document Hong Kong's fading history

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Atop Hong Kong's tallest peak blanketed in clouds, three masked urban explorers step back in time as they slip through a wire mesh fence and march towards an abandoned army barracks from the British colonial era.

Twenty years after Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule, these young, alternative conservationists are eager to document the city's remaining historical buildings.

Some structures have been demolished over the decades to make room for development in one of the world's most expensive real estate markets.

Protests in 2007 against the tearing down of Victoria Harbour's Queen's Pier, which for almost half a century marked the ceremonial arrivals of British governors and royals including Queen Elizabeth, is often cited as a starting point for street activism bent on preserving Hong Kong's culture.

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Masked activists document Hong Kong's fading history
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Masked activists document Hong Kong's fading history

HK URBEX members, inspect the interior of an abandoned British army barracks in Hong Kong, China, June 1, 2017.

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

An external view of the now closed Wing Woo Grocery Shop on Wellington Street, which was built during the colonial era in the 1870's, in Hong Kong, China, June 10, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

People walk past the abandoned historic Central Market, which was built in the 1930's during the colonial era, in Hong Kong, China, June 10, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A tag is seen inside an abandoned British army barracks in Hong Kong, China, June 1, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

HK URBEX members inspect an abandoned residential building in Hong Kong, China, June 7, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

An interior view of an abandoned mansion called Yu Yuen, built during the colonial era in the 1920's, is seen in Hong Kong, China, June 7, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Colonial era buildings (front to back), St John's Cathedral, former Central Government Offices and Government House are seen in Hong Kong, China, June 3, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A man stands outside the abandoned historic Central Market, which was built in the 1930's during the colonial era in Hong Kong, China, June 10, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

An external view of an abandoned mansion called Yu Yuen, built the 1920's colonial era, is seen in Hong Kong, China, June 7, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

An interior view of an abandoned mansion called Yu Yuen, built during the colonial era of the 1920's, in Hong Kong, China, June 7, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A soft toy is seen inside an abandoned residential building in Hong Kong, China, June 7, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A HK URBEX member climbs a ladder at an abandoned British army barracks in Hong Kong, China, June 1, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

HK URBEX members walk towards an abandoned British army barracks in Hong Kong, China, June 1, 2017.

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A HK URBEX member walks through an abandoned British army barracks in Hong Kong, China, June 1, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

HK URBEX members look around an abandoned residential building in Hong Kong, China, June 7, 2017.

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A HK URBEX member, looks at a newspaper from 1982, inside an abandoned residential building in Hong Kong, China, June 7, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A HK URBEX member looks around an abandoned residential building in Hong Kong, China, June 7, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A HK URBEX member inspects the interior of an abandoned British army barracks in Hong Kong, China, June 1, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A HK URBEX member looks through a window at an abandoned British army barracks in Hong Kong, China, June 1, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A HK URBEX member, stands at an abandoned British army barracks in Hong Kong, China, June 1, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

An abandoned British army barracks is seen through thick fog in Hong Kong, China, June 1, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

HK URBEX members are seen through a hole in the fence at an abandoned British army barracks in Hong Kong, China, June 1, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

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For the young explorers in the group HK URBEX what started out as a hobby in 2013 has blossomed into a mission to assemble an archive of the city's colonial-era architecture.

The eight members spend weeks and even months researching derelict sites before visiting and documenting them through photos and film that are posted on their social media page.

They have recorded more than 50 sites in Hong Kong alone.

Short videos show the members shining their flashlights on the prison gates of a colonial political prison, a pile of dusty movie reels and posters in an empty movie studio, or the walls of a former World War Two air raid tunnel.

"I just fear that in maybe 20 years time, there won't be a lot of unique Hong Kong heritage or architecture that really shows that we are Hong Kong, because there's no other place like us," said one of the group's co-founders, who declined to be identified because his activities could involve illegal trespassing.

"And the government, of course, should be more active in preserving these places because in a way, it's also preserving our Hong Kong identity."

Currently 114 buildings and cultural landmarks are protected from development and more than 1,000 buildings are assigned a historic grade by the government's Antiquities and Monuments Office.

(Writing by Pak Yiu and Venus Wu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Michael Perry)

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