Living heritage of Hong Kong

The art library hiding in plain sight in a Hong Kong restaurant – and you don’t have to order anything to sit and read there

Public can sit and browse books in Old Bailey Restaurant at Central Police Station Compound at their leisure

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 August, 2018, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 August, 2018, 5:01pm

From the look of it, it’s a nice restaurant lounge in Hong Kong’s newly opened heritage site Central Police Station Compound. Featuring shelves of artists’ books, comfy sofas and chairs, wood tables and bamboo blinds, the style brings to mind a Southeast Asian colonial house.

A handful of people relax in the laid-back atmosphere, chatting or browsing the books over a drink or two. Most do not know, however, that they can sit and read without having to order anything to eat or drink.

In fact, the books inside the Old Bailey Restaurant, on the second floor of the JC Contemporary art gallery in the compound, is part of the gallery’s display that the restaurant has agreed to temporarily house in its lounge area with free access for the public.

But there is no sign outside or inside the restaurant saying so, nor is there any publicly available information about it on the websites of the restaurant and the historic site, colloquially known as Tai Kwun, or the Big Station.

On a Post visit to the restaurant, members of staff did not tell visitors they were free to sit and read in the lounge area unless visitors asked.

Art critic John Batten, who is a member of Tai Kwun’s working group that advises management on related policies and programmes, said when he first visited the restaurant for the books, he was asked to buy a drink.

“My initial reaction was, ‘what is going on that you can’t sit there and look at books [without being asked to buy a drink]’,” he said, adding that signs advertising the arrangement are necessary.

“One of the talking points of the galleries is the art books,” Batten said. “I think it’s quite a central thing to have.”

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Karen Wang, a 69-year-old working in the import and export industry, was surprised to learn about the free access to the books. She and her two friends had each ordered a drink while reading the books.

“It’s good to know you can sit and read for free,” Wang said. “But I think the restaurant should tell the public about this, like putting up a sign or something.”

Amanda James, director of public relations and marketing of the JIA Group Holdings which owns the restaurant, said guests were welcome to sit at the lounge area and read a book without having to spend money.

“Knowing now that people are confused whether they can come and look at the titles, while they live in our lounge, we will look to make a sign to sit at the front of the restaurant,” she said.

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Tai Kwan director Timothy Calnin said his team had been working on designing a permanent library on the same floor, where the books in the restaurant would eventually be displayed.

“The Artists’ Book Library has attracted great interest from the public and will become a permanent installation in the galleries building as part of our Phase 2 opening later this year,” Calnin said.

But he did not respond to questions such as whether the management had required the restaurant to put up any signs telling the public about the arrangement.

The HK$3.8 billion conservation project is funded by the Jockey Club.

The compound, built between 1864 and 1925, comprises 16 historic buildings grouped under the police station, the former Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison.

According to Calnin, 37 per cent of Tai Kwun’s 300,000 sq ft floor areas is used for heritage and arts, and the upcoming permanent library will be set up in this space. Another 27 per cent is for commercial operations, including the restaurant. The remaining 36 per cent is for buildings facilities and public circulation.

Batten believes the lack of clear information regarding the books reflects a bigger problem at Tai Kwun, even in its public spaces.

Central Police Station is now the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts

“I think it needs to be very clear to people that they can sit anywhere, that there is seating available for them, that there is shade available for them, and that is not obvious at the moment,” he said. “Also there is not enough seating [under shades].”

He called for more properly shaded seats in the public spaces for visitors to “enjoy and reflect on the site’s magnificent presence of history and creative displays” – without needing to buy a coffee.