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Living heritage of Hong Kong

Hong Kong Central Police Station restoration: how city’s most ambitious heritage project overcame the odds

The new Tai Kwun complex partially reopened in May, with 16 buildings restored, adapted and merged with contemporary materials that saw local restorers learn new techniques – but also regular clashes with government officials

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 7:32am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 1:01pm

More than half a million clay tiles made in China’s Guangdong province. Forty thousand red bricks imported from northern England. About 200 prison cells preserved. And the most striking figure of all: HK$3.8 billion (US$485 million) spent so far transforming Hong Kong’s historic Central Police Station complex into a 300,000 square foot (27,870 square metre) public heritage and cultural centre.

Tai Kwun – colloquial Cantonese for “Big Station”, and now its official name – partially reopened at the end of May, offering a rare chance in Hong Kong to explore a host of magnificent heritage buildings.

The Central Police Station can become a space for everyone

Most of the city’s Victorian and Edwardian-era architecture was demolished long before the British handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 as economic development put a premium on land value. As a result visitors have flocked to see how the Tai Kwun complex’s 16 buildings – built between 1864 and 1925 – have been restored, adapted and merged with contemporary elements such as two Herzog & de Meuron “black cubes” clad in aluminium bricks.

The Jockey Club has spent 11 years working on the project, and for some of those involved in the restoration work, Tai Kwun has changed their lives.

Fore than 30 years builder Tam Chi-yung worked on regular renovation of concrete and glass high-rises. Four years ago, aged 63, he decided to take a short evening course on heritage conservation.

“It wasn’t out of a love of history, to be honest. I was looking through the courses offered by the Construction Industry Council and I thought this was more suitable for my age and skills, as it focused on bricks, plastering and tiling. With heritage projects, the stress is on good workmanship rather than speed,” he says.

Indicative of how few skilled restorers there are in Hong Kong, Tam promptly landed a job at Tai Kwun after finishing his 18-hour course. He was hired by Matthew Reuter, who runs the Hong Kong operation of Stonewest, a British business with a well-established heritage restoration department.

“My grandfather worked for Stonewest. My dad worked there for over 20 years … Many of my uncles and cousins from both sides of the family work with us. The restoration industry has traditionally been like this. It’s how knowledge gets passed on,” he says.

Some of Stonewest’s practices surprised Tam. “They use moulds, so everything comes out nice and tidy. They use lime plaster, which makes it more challenging because it dries quickly. And they reinforce it with horsehair. The Chinese use hay, or hemp, which is not as good for preventing cracks,” he says.

Although the Tai Kwun restoration has received widespread praise, there have been criticisms. Old graffiti in the cells has been removed, for example. Wong Hung-keung, a local conservator involved in some initial work at Tai Kwun, points to flaws such as cracks in between wooden floorboards. Although generally impressed by the standards, he insists local restorers would have managed just fine.

We wrote to Immigration, the Jockey Club wrote to Immigration; it made no difference. So we changed the job titles from, say, stonemason to project manager, and they got their visas
Brian Anderson, managing partner, Purcell Miller Tritton

Hong Kong’s Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, in place since 1976, protects thousands of monuments and buildings, so a fair amount of conservation expertise has been built up locally. But the Jockey Club wanted the best and was willing to pay.

“The truth is, when I first arrived in 2013 we couldn’t even get local guys to mix the mortar to the correct consistency. And a lot of the finishing of work done before we came on board was not good enough,” Reuter says.

It took a while to convince the Immigration Department that foreign help was needed, however.

“We wrote to Immigration, the Jockey Club wrote to Immigration; it made no difference,” says Brian Anderson, managing partner, Hong Kong, of British company Purcell, which was named conservation architect of Tai Kwun in 2010. “So we changed the job titles from, say, stonemason to project manager, and they got their visas. The legacy is that now we have about 200 locals who have had hands-on experience of cleaning and repairing brickwork, repointing and plastering.”

As work progressed, it became clear that the buildings were in a worse state than anticipated. “The amount of work we had to do went up 10 times compared with the original estimate,” Reuter says.

Anderson, who moved here with his wife from London, thought the job would last four years. They have already been in Hong Kong longer than the seven years required to apply for permanent residency. Major structural work was required even before the partial collapse of the former Married Inspectors’ Quarters in May 2016, which still hasn’t been rebuilt.

We are 100 per cent certain we didn’t do anything wrong
Reuter on the partial collapse of the Married Inspectors’ Quarters

D Hall, one of the oldest buildings on the site and the only surviving part of a radial-plan prison block, had a big crack along one wall and the building was held together with a metal girdle. The crack developed during the 1999 to 2001 construction of The Centrium commercial high-rise on the other side of Arbuthnot Road. To resolve the problem, the Tai Kwun team hired the specialists who stabilised Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The 16 original buildings have mostly traditional Chinese “pan-and-roll” tiled roofs that had been patched up over the years with bitumen. Leaks had been so bad, one police officer recalls, that they worked under an umbrella when it rained. The roofs were completely replaced.

On some of the brick and stucco facades, 32 layers of paint were removed with a non-invasive softener and high-pressure steam, instead of blasting the delicate brick walls with sand or corn cob pellets, as is the usual practice in Hong Kong.

Most walls were of red brick, and those beyond repair were replaced with custom-made ones from the original supplier in Britain. These cost up to £3 (US$4) each, several times more than locally sourced bricks, but was worth paying because of the much higher quality control standards in Europe, Anderson says.

One undesirable colonial legacy to contend was the rigid building code. Meanwhile, health and safety requirements could have damaged the project’s architectural integrity. It took numerous meetings with the Buildings Department, but bureaucrats eventually allowed Tai Kwun to get away with certain creative solutions.

‘Detective’ works to save Hong Kong’s iconic old buildings

Impressive staircases made with only granite slabs cantilevering from the wall were kept only after passing a three-tonne loading test. Modern regulations say a staircase mustn’t have more than 16 steps before a landing. But in this case the extra steps in the restored buildings were kept and the team covered them in non-slip material to make them safer.

Eventually, most of the work was done by locals like Tam. “A year into the project, the British team all went on holiday together because one of us was getting married,” Reuter says. “When we came back, the Chinese guys had finished all the work on the front of the Police Headquarters. That was the moment when we knew that they’d got it.”

For Purcell and Stonewest, Tai Kwun was the start of a now-thriving Asia operation. Anderson has just been appointed to a new government committee on building safety and health requirements for historic buildings in Hong Kong.

Tam went on to restoring plaster cornices in the Edwardian Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences in Mid-Levels, and is now working on turning the grade-three listed former detention centre on Victoria Road into a new campus for the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

But there is one loose end that spoiled the May opening for Reuter and others.

The Jockey Club and the Buildings Department are still considering the recovery options for the Married Inspectors’ Quarters, and the government is taking Stonewest and Gammon Construction to court for violating the Buildings Ordinance. An independent panel found that holes drilled to reinforce a wall had prompted the building’s collapse.

“We are 100 per cent certain we didn’t do anything wrong,” says Reuter, who has just returned from Myanmar, where Stonewest is involved in turning the former Yangon headquarters of the Myanmar Railway Company into a Peninsula hotel.

One overseas expert impressed by what he has seen at Tai Kwun is Simon Thurley, former chief executive of English Heritage, who oversaw the management of hundreds of historic sites in Britain and advised the government on its heritage policy. He didn’t “immediately get” how the Herzog & de Meuron contemporary blocks were meant to reflect the 19th-century granite walls (some local visitors say the two dark, elevated cubes look like coffins) but he admires the “intellectual” approach to adding new to the old.

Why heritage buildings has never been a priority in Hong Kong

He says the big test for Hong Kong going forward, however, is how it begins to preserve things that people remember being built: the high-rises forming the city’s signature skyline.

“In the UK, we have listed buildings that were built in the 1960s. Heritage has to be thought of in a broad view. Nobody is going to argue that Tai Kwun is not heritage. But what makes Hong Kong unique is the thing that defines the city’s commercial rapacity. It was invented to make money [and] it is incredibly good at it,” he says.

“Very small bits of land [in Hong Kong] hold the most valuable real estate on the planet. You can’t say the newer buildings destroyed what had been before. They created something new that defines what Hong Kong is.”