I hold my hands up. I’m a total geek when it comes to urban exploration and worse when it comes to the paranormal. If you can combine the two together then it’s definitely happy days! A concentrated cocktail of primitive emotions all compressed into a few hours is what you get. Am I going to find it? Am I going to get in? Am I going to get kicked out? What’s awaiting on the inside? Excitement, expectation, fear and a following steady flow of adrenaline gets your senses tuned up well past their normal operating parameters. Oh, and you get to feel young again in an instant.
It doesn’t get any better or more exciting than going on a paranormal investigation. When we’re sitting there in the dark listening and wondering what’s going to happen, in that moment ultimately we are all alone. We aren’t thinking about the job or the boss or how to pay the next bill. All that stuff immediately vanishes into the ether. There’s nothing quite like the threat of contact with the other side or demonic possession to remove you from the daily drudgery after all right? From the moment you start researching a new location, to going out and finding it and exploring, you are on a pathway that most people don’t choose to take. Each step is one that is into the unknown; the absolute direct opposite of what we all do in our day to day existences.
In the UK I used to spend evenings in the local derelict mental hospital (as you do) until it was demolished (sad days). Once it was gone I realised how rare it is to have somewhere like that in your neighbourhood, to explore on a regular basis, to become intimate with its creaking nooks and crannies, peeling paintwork, dangerous stairwells, padded cells and of course it’s spirits.
Chaonei No 81 is a legend in Beijing, its story already well documented and is generally thought to be the city’s most haunted building. To have it on my doorstep is therefore luck beyond belief.
This old French Baroque style house lies crumbling amidst a forest of apartment blocks housing over twenty million people. Its history is sketchy to say the least as there are no records for when and why it was built. The nearest anyone can get is that it must have built in the early twentieth century with mixed views on what it what it was used for. Some say it was used as a language school teaching Chinese to missionaries. Others say it was the home of a prominent railway manager or that it was used as a Catholic church. It’s quite unusual to think that it’s only during the 1950’s things become clearer. At some point it was used for government offices and also briefly by the youth movement known as the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution but then remarkably this beautiful house has been standing empty ever since.
So let’s get this straight. No one knows when it was built. No one knows who built it. No one knows what it was built for. The only facts can be placed within the narrow window of two recent decades. Amazing hey? It’s like Chaonei No 81 just slowly appeared out of thin air and into our consciousness. Considering it exists in one of the world’s most controlled cities it’s no wonder that the place is so mysterious.
Off the bat, most reports state clearly that Chaonei No 81 is definitely not haunted and that such claims are unfounded. The classic tale is that an army officer left his wife or concubine behind in the house after fleeing to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. Out of loneliness she hung herself and her spirit has been lingering ever since. There is however, no evidence of such an officer ever living in the house and as such no origin to the story. Even so, the tale led to the making of the film ‘The House that Never Dies’ in 2014 and since then people from all over come past for a look and a snap on their mobile phones.
Another well-known tale is the disappearance of three builders who were renovating the house. In 2001, apparently after opening up a hole in the basement a ‘ghost’ was seen with an accompanying flash of light. It is said that the builders did not return to work and were never seen again. However, according to the Dongcheng Public Security Bureau there aren’t any records of any such event nor the supposed deaths of some urban explorers in the building in 2007.
The gates are wide open and Chaonei 81’s pale red brickwork stands partially covered in thick green ivy and ferns with an undeniable aesthetic appeal. There is also a second higher building in a worse state of ruin with a tower on top of the nearest corner. The surrounding space has been turned into a car park though it seems pretty quiet all considering. Aside from the continual background whooshing of the traffic from the main road there is an instant stillness to the place.
Unfortunately the front door is clearly locked. Damn! A big rusty old chain and padlock mean that there’s no way anyone is getting in this way. I must say that if ever you were going to use a house in a horror movie, this most definitely would be the place to do it. The stone pillared porch half covered in ivy and heavy steps up to the weathered double doors suggest that no one should really be venturing inside.
Making my way around the back I make an awesome discovery. There’s a window that isn’t boarded up and it’s game on. Without time to think my first reaction is to get though as quickly as possible and suddenly I’m inside Chaonei No 81. Yes mate!
Broken floorboards and cracked plaster falling away to reveal corrupted masonry. The ground floor feels sealed up tight as the windows are boarded up. All traces of the outside world are suddenly gone including light and sound. Space pushes in on you. Walls disappear into darkness. Rooms and alcoves pits of nothingness. It’s as if you could be absorbed by this place if you linger for too long.
Upstairs, the feeling is far less foreboding, opening up into spacious partitioned areas with the heavy rafters overhead. There is a serenity here. A slight breeze moving through old net curtains is the only movement in the entire building. Through each window the rich autumn sunlight penetrates the foliage that blankets the building. Like stained glass; an illumination of green-yellow, yellow-brown and orange leaves against the window frame silhouette.
I have to say that I’ve been to some terrifying locations in my time but No 81 is definitely not one of them. I’ve brought along various paranormal equipment with me but get absolutely nothing on any of it. It is in fact a strange place only in that it feels so empty. Can it be that something with such a strong connection with the past can be completely void? Downstairs, even the basement feels still. The only thing to bring on any form of anxiety is my own imagination.
The other building across the way is far more dangerous and I have to be really mindful with each step. The floorboards in most rooms are too weak to take any weight. There are fallen blocks of masonry, slabs of concrete and broken wood everywhere and there is no doubt that this is a really stupid thing to be doing. Another blackened basement. There is a tunnel surrounded by piles of rotting rubbish though as I peer in and hit my head torch, a growling from inside stops me in my tracks. This doesn’t sound good. At that a dog jumps out, snarling and barking and I’m lucky to retreat without being bitten.
I left No 81 without anything to suggest that the place was haunted. Its stories and tales of the paranormal after all come from a country that has superstitions and traditions regarding the afterlife that go back thousands of years. China has Tomb Sweeping Day where people remember their dead relatives. They clean the graves, leave food, flowers and burn ‘ghost money’ to send to ‘the other side’. During the Chinese Spring Festival firecrackers are set off in their millions to scare away the legendary ‘Nian’ which comes in from sea once a year to eat people and destroy property. Red is the national colour and meant to be lucky. The number eight is also be good for prosperity as is the number six for success. The number four when pronounced in Mandarin sounds the same as the word ‘death’ or ‘si’ so is often avoided. Whereas telephone numbers with sixes and eights are more expensive, some companies actually offer to pay a small amount to customers that use a phone number with a four right at the end of it. Most apartment blocks have the fourth and fourteenth floor omitted. Never give anyone a clock as a gift as it is symbolic for an early death and has the same pronunciation as the word ‘funeral’. Whatever you do, definitely do not stick your chopsticks in your rice vertically forming a ‘v’ as it is reminiscent of burning incense usually done at someone’s grave. Phew, it goes on!
However, while there may have been zero activity going on after the initial reccy of No 81, this could be seen as a good thing. If you get a tonne of activity straight off you’ll always be wondering if it’s down to some kind of contamination from outside influences. With not much happening, when something does occur then it’s far more noticeable and meaningful. The next step for me as ever, was to go back a few more times and do a more thorough prolonged investigation. That is until I met a guy called ‘Jimmy’ Zhang Sunyin. He went to school for years just around the corner from Chaonei No 81 and has a completely different take on everything that I’ve just written.
“When I was at school we used to walk past there every day. We all knew of the stories and tales about that place and that they probably weren’t true. However, most of the neighbourhood, all the local people living around here and surrounding know that a girl had died in there at some time. They all know! We all think that the house is a very bad place. We don’t know why, we can just feel it.”
This then explains why during my six hours in the house, even though a steady stream of people came past to have a look and take snaps with their mobile phones, not a single person ventured inside. It may also have a bearing on the fact that this is some serious piece of real-estate yet still Chaonei No 81 is still standing. I mean its slap bang in between Tiananmen Square and the central business district and right next to a subway station. Yes it has a preservation order on it and yes it’s been in the ownership of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Beijing for some time now, but really after being in this city for so long its eye opening that no one has snapped up this piece of minted land.
Jimmy continued “Also about twenty years ago in the nineteen nineties there were some workers that disappeared in the house. Everyone spoke about it. Teachers, parents and students all talked about it and it was in all the newspapers. It’s a true story!”
At this point he started to speak with more urgency “You know you think that Chinese people are superstitious but there are some very real things you should know of. Like never take anything with you or leave anything behind. Only take the photo. You must be careful with everything. I know in the West that people like to go to these places and try and speak to the spirits but in China we are very serious about these things.”
Jimmy then started talking about the arrangement we’d made to meet up and go and investigate No 81 together. Before he seemed very enthusiastic about the idea as after all this time, he would get the chance to delve deeper into what was going on there. Now however, he’d changed his mind.
“People believe that they have two types of energy in their body. One is called ‘yin’ and the other is called ‘yang’. There are many people with a lot of energy like young people who like to go out and do sport. This is the yang. It is like the sun. They are outgoing. And there are those who may stay at home. Like a cloudy day. These are quieter people and is the ying. Most people have both but if you have a lot of ying energy in you then you can get a feeling about things we cannot see. We call this ‘yangqi.
You know in Beijing if there was an old hospital or graveyard or a bad place because of the war where a lot of people died, they will try and build a place with a lot of good energy that’s very happy with a lot of yang like a school or university. This means they will make a balance with the ying and yang.
For example there is a road I often have to cross. Yesterday it was ok and so I went that way. Today I want the same way but I felt different about it, like it was not safe to be there so I went another way. In the same way I felt this about going to the house. Also when I was looking on the internet about 81 I felt very uncomfortable and started shaking. Later I got a really bad headache. I think at the moment it is really dangerous to go there.
If you want to go then God bless and good luck but I can only go another time.”