It is an unseasonably warm winter morning in Hong Kong, and as opposed to the thick coats the locals are usually spotted wearing around this time of the year (as though the city were located at a much higher latitude), T-shirts and shorts are still a common sight. On this particularly sunny day, we follow some people on a recently-completed extension of the city’s outdoor escalator system and enter what is arguably Hong Kong’s most talked-about architectural conservation project in decades.
The former Central Police Station compound looks fresh and inviting from the outside, and through its western entrance right above Old Bailey Street we walk past a female guard and find ourselves at the main courtyard of the complex, the former parade ground to be precise, decorated with a tall Christmas tree circled by big red and white gift boxes. Curiously, a larger-than-life monkey – probably a grey langur – is hanging from one of the tall buildings looming over the heritage compound, its gleaming golden skin making it look as though it were petrified by Midas himself.
Taking a 360° look around the compound, one quickly realizes that this place is special. Why is it still standing while everything around it is tall? How did it manage to avoid the wrecking balls that demolished many of Hong Kong’s structures of a similar vintage? After all, it is situated in a prime location, just a few minutes’ walk from the central financial district.
In a period when the Hong Kong economy grew by leaps and bounds, particularly in the 1970s all the way to the early 1990s, many such buildings were torn down in the land-scarce city to make way for modern glass and concrete skyscrapers. What many present-day visitors to Hong Kong are unaware of is that elegant and beautiful edifices once stood on the same plots of land now occupied by those high-rise structures that have now defined the city’s skyline. The former General Post Office on Pedder Street which was commissioned in 1911 – purportedly using the plans intended for the General Post Office in Nairobi – is an example of a grand British colonial building that succumbed to Hong Kong’s construction boom. Many locals remember it as the most beautiful building in the city before its destruction in 1976.
However, after traveling around parts of Asia for some time now, based on my observations I see that a heritage preservation movement has finally gained momentum in this part of the world, which has long been associated with rapid development at the cost of invaluable architectural gems. Businesses, especially the bigger ones, have acknowledged the importance and value of conserving the past, and people today have a better understanding of why doing so will benefit them as well – they know preserving structures of historical significance will make their cities less dull and more interesting, therefore boosting their pride as well as a sense of local identity.
One example of architectural heritage that survives to this day in Hong Kong is the Central Police Station compound, a 19th– to early 20th-century construction that consists of the former Central Police Station, former Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison. From the first structure in 1864 to 1925 when the final section was completed, the entire compound comprises 16 buildings with the prison being the oldest and longest-serving correctional facility in Hong Kong until its closure in 2006. Among the people that once found themselves interned within its walls was Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s communist revolutionary leader.
Revitalization of the compound was first suggested by Swire Properties, a subsidiary of Swire Group, one of Hong Kong’s largest conglomerates whose business empire encompasses property, aviation, food, shipping, agriculture and mining industries among many others. However, this plan was heavily criticized by the public for its blatant commercialization. Then in 2010, another organization stepped in: the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The club is one of the oldest and most influential institutions in Hong Kong with a history dating back to 1884. Operating as a non-profit organization, the club conducts hundreds of horse races every year at its two race tracks in the territory, and holds a legal monopoly over horse race and football betting.
As the city’s biggest taxpayer as well as community benefactor (the club has donated a large sum of money to areas such as the arts, culture, education, environmental protection, health, and youth development) the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust initiated a plan to transform this relic from the British colonial era into a center of heritage, arts and leisure. Commissioning the Basel-based firm Herzog & de Meuron, whose impressive portfolio includes the conversion of London’s Bankside Power Station to the Tate Modern, the futuristic-looking Allianz Arena in Munich, as well as Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium which was built for the 2008 Olympics, the club began renovation works at the former Central Police Station compound in 2011.
Dubbed the most expensive revitalization project in Hong Kong, it was only in May 2018 that the largely-completed compound opened its doors to the public. Named Tai Kwun which means “big station”, after the historical colloquial nickname for the complex, it now houses retail spaces, museums, galleries, and new, purpose-built structures dedicated to art exhibitions and programs. The two contemporary buildings, both clad in perforated aluminium bricks inspired by the surrounding red brickwork, are bold additions to the compound and successfully create a visually-pleasing juxtaposition with the rest of Tai Kwun.
More than half a dozen exhibitions are planned to be held at JC Contemporary – the larger of the two modern buildings inside the compound. But this morning we opt for the former Police Headquarter block where an exhibit on Kwang Kung, a venerated general from China’s Three Kingdoms period in the third century AD, is being held on the underground floor (which is actually the ground floor when seen from the north thanks to Hong Kong Island’s sloping terrain).
We’ve been exploring Tai Kwun for two hours now, and the sun is already high. We’re ready to leave the compound, but not without taking another look at the well-executed restoration work, and a big mango tree that has been growing for many years at one corner of the parade ground. The mood is undeniably calm and uplifting at this place, and now Hong Kongers can proudly say that right in the heart of the city they now have a new oasis to escape from its frenetic pace.