“It happened to a friend of a friend of mine…” – a phrase commonly uttered before one dives into a (mostly) fictional story, surrounded by captivated friends sitting around a dying campfire.
Sometimes the story takes place in the backwoods of civilization and features a hair-covered bipedal ape. Other times, the account involves a night of heavy drinking, a cute blonde and a missing kidney. Sometimes aliens. Sometimes a hitchhiker, Lovers’ Lane or… the list goes on.
Such tales are generally referred to as urban legends: contemporary folklore that usually involve a fictional – though often believable – story sprinkled with macabre elements, and, in the case of many Western urban legends, pop culture.
Many of our expat readers will be familiar with tales of headless horsemen, missing organs and giant Mexican rats that, for some reason, are mistaken by suburban American families as Chihuahuas. What we presume fewer foreigners in China are aware of is China’s collection of spooky or coincidental tales and mysterious, undiscovered creatures.
With October being the scariest month of the year, it seems as good a time as any to dive into the Middle Kingdom’s eeriest folklore. We’ve dug up spine-chilling tales of phantom transit commuters, giant sandworms, mass disappearances and haunted plazas, among others, that will hopefully be as entertaining as they are terrifying. Happy haunting!
In May 1999, a 13-year-old girl in Hong Kong went to police to complain that a woman her boyfriend helped murder was haunting her. She described to police a 23-year-old woman being tortured mercilessly while she was bound with electrical wire, unable to escape.
After some convincing, police searched a third-floor flat on Granville Road 31, which turned up some chilling evidence – namely, a large Hello Kitty doll stuffed with a woman’s head.
The victim of this heinous crime was a 23-year-old nightclub hostess named Fan Man-yee, who was abducted after she allegedly failed to repay a HKD20,000 debt. Fan had been missing for roughly a year.
When the story hit the press, it horrified Hong Kong residents and earned the strange (but appropriate) title ‘The Hello Kitty Murder.’
In the months following the murder, images of a shadowy female form, lurking near the Granville Road 31 apartment, were captured on various CCTV cameras from nearby buildings.
Vengeful, decades-old ghosts roam the hallways of Zhongyin Building, located near the heart of Shenzhen – or so the rumors say.
They’re blamed for the failures of Zhongyin’s businesses, said to have a preternaturally short lifespan. And at least online, an otherworldly influence is cited as the cause for the complex’s rock-bottom rent.
The ghosts haunting Zhongyin are said to date back to the bloody days of China’s Cultural Revolution, in the 60s and 70s, when the site of the building was allegedly used as an execution ground.
After Shenzhen’s founding and rapid development, some say developers decided to capitalize on the cursed plot of land, hiring a specialist for advice on putting its ghosts to rest. That’s how the office building ended up with two pointy towers that resemble candles, plastered over with auspicious, rose-tinted windows.
Zhongyin is, undoubtedly, an offensively pink monstrosity. But does it deserve its ghastly reputation?
Rumored to exist in the rocky and unforgiving Gobi Desert, the Mongolian death worm is unquestionably one of China’s stranger cryptids.
This nightmarish creature is allegedly red in color, somewhere between two and five feet long and as thick as a man’s arm. It should be noted that two to five feet is the most commonly stated length, though some sources suggest the animal can grow to much greater sizes.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘intestine worm’ because of its ridged, intestine-like appearance, this cryptid is greatly feared by locals due to its highly toxic (or possibly acid-like) venom. According to local beliefs, the death worm has the ability to spray its venom from a reasonable distance and the substance is powerful enough to kill a camel or horse.
Some tales assert the worm can also use electricity on hapless passersby.
There have been numerous expeditions mounted to find the worm, including several that were filmed for television – including the popular mystery show Destination Truth in 2006-2007 – but all returned empty-handed.
Ever since Shanghai's Yan’an Elevated Road (or Yan’an Gaojia) was open to the public in the mid-1990s, a certain ‘legend’ focusing on just one specific part of the expressway – the ‘dragon pillar’ – has been circulating among locals.
Located at the cross-section with Nanbei Gaojia near People’s Square, the ‘dragon pillar’ – unlike all the other regular concrete pillars along the expressway – isn’t just larger and thicker; it’s also decorated with a metallic finishing, as well as nine large bronze dragons and several smaller ones on its surface.
The most widely known version of the story behind the ‘dragon pillar’ states that back when construction workers were building this section of the expressway in 1995 and had to install the pilings needed for the foundation, they had trouble drilling to the required depth, and construction came to a grinding halt.
As the story goes, to avoid further delays, government officials and the construction company invited several fengshui masters to take a look at the site, but they all refused to prescribe a solution. In the end, a monk from Jade Buddha Temple (some say Longhua Temple) agreed to perform a religious ceremony.
Before he left, the monk also asked for the pillar to be covered with nine dragons because this very spot happens to be the resting place of the city’s guardian dragon.
Many Cantonese see it as no coincidence that the cursive-like character ‘guang’ (广) outside of Liwan Plaza in Guangzhou bears an uncanny resemblance to the word for corpse (尸). Since 2004, about a dozen suicides have occurred on the premises (the most recent occuring this past April), with some witnesses claiming that a supernatural force seemingly pushed victims over the railings.
The mall’s deadly curse, according to local residents, began many years ago, when it was first constructed. If you’ve ever watched Poltergeist, you’ll know never to build on ancient burial grounds, but you wouldn’t expect a bunch of real estate developers to know that, would you?
Home to a Qing Dynasty sacrificial chamber, inspectors failed to notice eight empty coffins when erecting Liwan Plaza, now a large jewelry market near Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street. Unearthed during construction, some say the coffins were the cradle of strange noises and mysterious deaths that kept storefronts ruinously empty.
To counteract the malevolence, architects made the building resemble an octagon, like the bagua.
Eventually, a Taoist priest informed landlords that the empty coffins had originally been buried to thwart evil influences. The catch was that they were not to be disturbed for a thousand years. Whoops.
Unexplained disappearances have always had a chilling effect on people. The eeriest type, though, are those that occur en masse – when a group of people seem to evaporate into thin air. So goes the urban legend of the Nanjing soldiers.
In 1939, during the horrors of Japanese aggression against the Republic of China in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), almost 3,000 soldiers stationed in the rolling hills around Nanjing are said to have disappeared without leaving a single clue about their fate.
The incident, according to folklore, began in December of 1939 (or 1937, depending on who you talk to), when Colonel Li Fu Sien stationed 2,988 troops amongst Nanjing’s hills, a 3.2-kilometer area, with a view to defend a bridge on the Yangtze River against an impending Japanese attack. When Colonel Li awoke the following morning, he was told by his assistant that the soldiers at the defensive line were not responding to calls or signals.
An investigation team was formed, but found the site completely abandoned upon arrival. There was no sign of struggle: heavy weapons were still in place and ready to be fired, but nobody was there. Troops stationed at the bridge claimed no one had slipped by in the night. They were unsure of the missing soldiers' fate...
On November 14, 1995, a dark and possibly stormy night, a young man boarded the last bus heading to Beijing’s Fragrant Hills, located in Haidian District.
Shortly after the man boarded the route 302 bus, two men tried to wave the bus down. According to a 2013 Global Times article, the bus driver was initially reluctant to pick up the men because they weren’t waiting at a bus stop. However, the driver eventually decided to stop after the conductor reminded him that it was the last bus.
Once the mysterious roadside men were on board, passengers were surprised to see they were wearing some pretty badass Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) robes and that there were actually three men – the third sporting long messy hair, supported by the two roadside creepers.
As the story goes, the men’s faces were white as snow and they didn’t interact with any other passengers on the bus. Gradually, the bus began to empty, according to the tale, until only an old lady and the young man remained inside with the mystery trio.
All was quiet until the old woman abruptly accused the young man of stealing her wallet – a claim that resulted in an intense argument. The quarrel was resolved when the old lady insisted the two get off the bus and go to the nearest police station.
Once off the bus, the young man grew enraged with the old woman, realizing he had just exited the last bus and there was no police station in sight. Fortunately for the young man, the elderly woman picked up on something he had missed: she said the three robed men did not have legs and, by default, must have been ghosts.
Stories by Matthew Bossons, Dominic Ngai, Bailey Hu, Jocelyn Richards and Lena Gidwani. Images via Shadday Studios (WeChat: shadymonkey).
This article was originally published on Thatsmags.com on October 20, 2017. It has been republished on October 26, 2018.
Enjoy these spooky stories? Then check out our regular ‘Tales from the Chinese Crypt’ series for more bizarre and creepy stories from across China.