How the Central Police Station compound can become a space for everyone, not just criminals or history buffs
Bernard Chan says heritage conservation in Hong Kong can be fraught with challenges, but the Tai Kwun project shows that it’s possible to get it right
I have been involved in heritage and conservation in Hong Kong for over 10 years. For much of that time, I was chairing the Antiquities Advisory Board or the Advisory Committee on Revitalisation of Historic Buildings, or both. Two years ago, I became involved in advisory bodies concerning the city’s most ambitious heritage conservation project at the old Central Police Station compound.
One thing I have learned is that the adaptive reuse of heritage sites is extremely controversial. Public opinion is sceptical about allowing private-sector commercial use of historic buildings, and even proposals for non-profit use have led to arguments.
Early proposals for the Central Police Station site ran into just these problems starting back around 2004. Perhaps not surprisingly, public opinion opposed the possible involvement of property developers. But there were also demands that officials look beyond economic and tourism benefits and consider public access and integration with the community.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club stepped in with a plan to pay for restoration and additional facilities for an arts complex, ultimately to be sustained by supporting commercial activities. In terms of conservation, the project would meet international heritage standards.
Inevitably, there have been problems. Architects had to withdraw a proposed feature of an additional structure in response to local feeling that it would be too obtrusive. The work revealed some serious structural problems and previously unknown architectural features, which led to delays and extra costs. In 2016, part of the married inspectors’ quarters, dating from the 1860s, collapsed. The Jockey Club’s costs are HK$3.8 billion so far, already above original estimates of HK$1.8 billion, and the final amount may still go up.
But now, at last, the main parts of Tai Kwun (“big station”) centre for heritage and arts are ready. It officially opened to the public last week.
Watch: Victoria prison transformed into public space
It is impossible to please everyone with a project like this, and I am sure there will still be criticism. But I really believe that, in this case, Hong Kong has largely got it right and can be proud of a major world-class heritage achievement. This is especially the case given the scale and complexity of the site.
The project is restoring and preserving the exteriors and interiors of a very significant range of historic buildings. These include the old Victoria Prison with its cells, the court facilities of the magistracy, and the imposing main police block on Hollywood Road.
It also accommodates international-class art gallery space – Tai Kwun Contemporary – with high ceilings and top-quality lighting. It will focus on exhibiting local and overseas contemporary artists whose work would probably not be seen in commercial venues. It will also provide a platform for up-and-coming artists and encourage our younger generation to appreciate art through educational programmes.
Tai Kwun will host all sorts of educational and outreach activities. One example will be role-playing exercises in the courtroom to teach school students about our judicial system. It will also offer unique indoor and outdoor venues for films, live music, theatre and dance performances.
Parts of the site will be occupied by commercial operations – the rental income is key to the financial sustainability of the project. That means some of the outlets are probably fairly high-end, but more affordable options will be available.
Indeed, you are free to bring a sandwich and sit and enjoy the spaces – the prison courtyard and the laundry steps will be great places to hang out at lunchtime or in the evening.
This is perhaps the most important thing about Tai Kwun: it is a place for everyone. It is not an upmarket mall or hotel for tourists. Nor is it aimed purely at history and culture fans. It has been planned with the local community in mind. There will be no admission charge to the compound, and no need to buy a ticket.
Having said that, during the soft opening over the next few months, visitors to Tai Kwun should make reservations online. The idea is to see how the site and the surrounding area can handle the extra number of people. This is essential if Tai Kwun is live up to its vision of integrating with the local community and its very crowded neighbourhood.
As I say, it is impossible to please everyone. But I am confident that – when they have experienced it – most Hong Kong people will agree that the restored Tai Kwun is a truly amazing place.
Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council