Features

Hong Kong: Heritage reborn

1 Dec 2019 by Jackie Chen
The Mills

The last decade has seen Hong Kong focus on the renovation and revitalisation of a number of its most historic sites

“High above one’s head was a small half-moon window covered with a grid of iron bars. By day, the light in the cell was dim. The door to the cell was solid and, at eye level, had a peephole shaped like a megaphone.”

This is what Ho Chi Minh, the former leader of Vietnam, wrote about his experiences when he was imprisoned in Hong Kong’s Victoria Gaol, also known as Victoria Prison, in the 1930s.

Victoria Prison, the first and longest-running prison in Hong Kong, together with the former Central Police Station and Central Magistracy, forms the Central Police Station compound, which comprises 16 historical buildings and outdoor spaces on a 13,600 sqm site at the heart of Central. The former police headquarters and the surrounding compound have been collectively referred to as “Tai Kwun”, the local colloquial name used by police officers and the public alike, meaning “big station” in Chinese.

After the Central Police Station compound was fully decommissioned in 2006, the Hong Kong SAR government decided to conserve and revitalise the compound, and later entered into a partnership with Hong Kong Jockey Club, which set up The Jockey Club CPS Limited through its Charities Trust to manage and operate the site. Today, the compound has been redeveloped into a brand new cultural and art destination while keeping the name “Tai Kwun” as a reminder of its historical significance.

Tai Kwun

Tai Kwun is also one of the eight projects in the government’s “Conserving Central” initiative launched in 2009 with an objective to preserve important cultural, historical and architectural features in Central while adding new life and vibrancy to the area. Some of the other projects include the revitalisation of the former Central Market, the former French Mission Building, as well as the Murray Building, which has already been transformed from a government building to the 336-room The Murray Hotel.

In Tai Kwun, there are eight heritage storytelling spaces in the historic sites, giving visitors a glimpse of how the compound worked and became “a one-stop shop for law and order” in the past. In the Central Police Station building, one can discover the major responsibilities of the police, while in the Central Magistracy, there’s a simulated courtroom that allows visitors to experience what a case hearing was like in the past. In Victoria Prison, you can simulate the admission process of prisoners and have a mugshot taken in front of a height chart, before stepping inside one of the small prison cells to experience the life of prisoners at that time.

In addition to conserving the heritage buildings, the vision of the revitalisation project also includes revitalising them as a unique and distinctive platform for the development, appreciation and promotion of arts and heritage of Hong Kong.

Contemporary art and performing arts are the other two pillars of Tai Kwun. Inside the complex, two more buildings have been added, namely JC Contemporary, home to an art space dedicated to presenting contemporary art exhibitions and programmes, and JC Cube, an auditorium building for performance art, movie screenings and education activities. Tai Kwun also collaborates with major arts groups and festivals such as Le French May and the Hong Kong Arts Festival, and provides a platform for artists and performers.

“Tai Kwun plays a vital role in supporting the arts, providing a platform for Hong Kong artists to showcase their talent and develop their creativity,” said Timothy Calnin, director of Tai Kwun.

In its first year of operation, more than 750 public programmes and events as well as over 800 heritage docent tours were organised at Tai Kwun, attracting some 3.4 million visits during the period, which made it the most visited heritage site in Hong Kong.

PMQ

Hong Kong’s creative hub

Walk westward along Hollywood Road from Tai Kwun, and you’ll soon arrive at PMQ, a cultural landmark in Hong Kong that celebrates its fifth anniversary this year.

The history of PMQ dates back to the 19th century. At the very beginning, this heritage site housed the Central School, but after the campus was razed to the ground during World War II, it was rebuilt as the first Police Married Quarters for married junior police officers in 1951. It was the first housing project for rank-and-file police officers until 2000, when all the residents moved out.

In 2010, the Former Hollywood Road Police Married Quarters was rated by the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) as a Grade 3 historic building, and later the Development Bureau announced that it would be transformed into a landmark for the creative industry named “PMQ”, which eventually began operation in 2014.

Today, PMQ has become a mixed-use venue for arts and design. While for many visitors it’s just a cool place to stop off in Hong Kong, where they can find crafted goods in stores that contain both retail space and artists’ own studios, attend art or cooking workshops or participate in different kinds of events, PMQ does much more to promote the local creative and design industry. William To, executive director of PMQ, describes the role of the site as a “nurturing community” with a mission to help design entrepreneurs grow.

“In PMQ, there are mostly young designers who are ready to hit the market, but don’t have the capital backup to go into a real retail site. With the help of Musketeers Foundation and the land from the government, we have been able to create a site for them to move in to. We subsidise their rent, nurture them and help them grow,” says To.

Young designers who want a place in PMQ must first submit a business proposal, which is then reviewed and evaluated by a vetting panel consisting of 60 members from both the retail industry and the design community. Once their applications are approved, PMQ not only subsidises their rent, but also organises different kinds of workshops to teach them how to run a business, line up their products and put together their stories for press purposes.

In addition, PMQ uses its connections overseas to provide them with opportunities to be exposed in different markets; for example, PMQ brings them overseas to attend major trade shows and fashion weeks and subsidises those trips so that the designers and their products can get exposure overseas. There’s also a “Designers-in-Residence” programme that encourages international design talent to visit, stay and work together with local designers and the public, with six rooms reserved for them to stay on site and work on their projects.

In this sense, To thinks that PMQ also plays the role of “connector” as well, linking both the local and the overseas design industry. “I think we set a very good example that the government can utilise an old site and bring new value to that site, rather than just fixing it and then reopening it to the public. We are bringing new use to the site and using it to nurture a new generation of talent,” he says.

Manav Gupta, CEO & Founder, Brinc

Besides offering support for local designers, PMQ also provides co-working space for start-ups to set up their offices. Brinc, an IoT and connected devices accelerator and fund, moved its office to PMQ in 2015. “I think the best part about the space is we don’t feel like we’re working,” says Manav Gupta, Brinc’s CEO and founder. “You’ve got a blend of indoor and outdoor space, so it’s very fluid and open and free. You’ve got a lot of nice sunlight outdoors.

“When you’re in something new and you’re in a new industry, you want an experiential space to help you sell that industry. If we had gone into a traditional space, it’s harder for people to experience what we do and get excited by it,” he adds.

Brinc rents out half the seventh floor and can use the rest of the space on a pay-per-use basis. “It’s pretty much fully available and we use different parts of the floor as we need to for activities, events, training, etc,” says Gupta.

From street market to News-Expo

Next to Staunton Street at the back of PMQ stands another historic building – the Bridges Street Market. This was one of the first wet markets built after World War II. Today, this former street market has been transformed into a news-themed museum that opened in December last year.

The Hong Kong News-Expo (HKNE) is the first “exhibition-cum-education” facility in Asia with news as the main theme. CK Lau, one of the directors of HKNE, says the idea of establishing a public museum using news as the theme first came from a study tour to the US organised by the Journalism Education Foundation in 2008. After visiting the Newseum in Washington DC, some of the members felt that they needed to do something similar in Hong Kong.

While it may seem odd to relate a street market to journalism, the market is actually situated in the area that was the birthplace of Hong Kong’s news industry. Some of Hong Kong’s earliest newspapers had their offices based in this part of Central, with many printers nearby, including Universal Circulating Herald, which was the first Chinese-language newspaper founded by a Chinese, and Wah Kiu Yat Po that was also known as the Overseas Chinese Daily News.

The two-storey museum showcases the development of different news media over the years, from newspaper, radio and television to today’s new media, as well as the stories behind different types of news. The exhibition on the upper floor features ten important news events such as the fire that raged through the Shek Kip Mei squatter area in 1953, the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 80s, and the Umbrella Movement in 2014.

In HKNE, news reports at the time they were published are presented again to visitors, who are then able to see different publications reporting the same news event from different angles that showed their own stance and agenda. Through these exhibitions, visitors will see the importance of the free flow of information in Hong Kong, says Lau.

The Mills

Cathedral to textiles

From Central, it takes around half an hour by MTR to reach Tsuen Wan in the New Territories, which used to be home to a number of textile factories. Among these, Nan Fung Textiles, established in 1954, was one of the most productive spinning factories in Hong Kong. In 2014, Nan Fung Group announced a revitalisation project to transform Nan Fung Textiles’ former Mill 4, Mill 5 and Mill 6 into a single coherent complex, which is now collectively known as The Mills and opened in December last year.

The Mills, as described by Ray Zee, chief designer of Nan Fung Development, is a “cathedral to textiles”. In his opinion, it’s very important for revitalisation projects to have a connection to the past that will trigger memories.

In The Mills, some iconic elements of the former mills have been conserved, such as the sand buckets that were placed in nearly every corner of the buildings in case of fire; the original staircase of Mill 4 that was used by thousands of workers in the past; and the traditional style of fonts used on the stencil signage. “People like the connection to the past. They like to see something that is more than 20 or 30 years old,” says Zee. “For The Mills, we’ve done everything we can to try to keep the envelope as much or as true to the original building as possible, so that it still triggers a memory.”

In addition, The Mills also embraces some things both new and advanced. On entering, visitors are greeted by The Mills Shopfloor, which is described as an “experiential retail landmark”. The stores in The Mills not only showcase their products, but also allow visitors to experience or even participate in part of the production process; for example, in the “alt:” store, you can discover how old clothes can be remade into new garments using the Garment-to-Garment (G2G) Recycle System placed in the store.

You can also visit the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT), a non-profit art centre in The Mills, to engage with exhibitions and co-learning programmes that include different workshops and discussions.

The Mills Fabrica focuses more on the business side. The core of the Fabrica is the concept of “techstyle” that is defined as the intersection of technology and style. The Fabrica provides a 12-month incubation programme for techstyle start-ups and offers them support through exposure, connections and advisories, as well as providing direct investment from seed to series B, with funding from Nan Fung Group.

At the same time, it also provides co-working space, a lab for experimentation and prototyping, as well as an experiential concept store called Techstyle X, which not only offers opportunities for companies to showcase their technologies and new products, but also allows the public to learn about new technologies and new start-ups.

“In three to five years, we hope to incubate two to three start-ups that have a large impact in the industry. We also want to become a platform where brands or suppliers can come and look for new technologies or learn new things that are happening in the industry,” says Alexander Chan, co-director of The Mills Fabrica.

The Mills

Long way to go

While these are all good examples of revitalisation projects in Hong Kong, renovating and breathing new life into an old building is far from easy, especially in a city where suitable land is in short supply. “As we all know, Hong Kong is a very densely populated city, so first of all, the government needs to pay attention to the basic needs of our society. I think revitalisation projects have to come after the basic needs are solved,” says PMQ’s To.

“Some projects are worth keeping, and some are not because the government can make better use of the land for housing. There’s no clean-cut solution to either, or there’s no right or wrong answer, depending on what we are facing, what the government has to deal with, and what obstacles they have,” he adds.

Ray Zee from The Mills agrees that it’s the lack of land in Hong Kong that causes the debate about whether historic buildings should be conserved or just torn down to build new high-rises. He thinks that in other places where there is much more land, people usually go through long discussions before they decide whether to revitalise an old building or not. With so much space to use, swift decisions are not a priority.

“But in Hong Kong, it’s very much a priority. This piece of land, for example, if we don’t build a hotel here today, the regulation might be changed the next day. Hence, we have to make quick decisions. Hong Kong is a very quick transacting city. It’s because of the economics that we have to tear down old for new. I wholeheartedly believe it’s worth doing the revitalisation projects, but Hong Kong is not an easy city to do this kind of stuff,” he says.

Meanwhile, as an architect and designer, Zee thinks that age is probably the biggest obstacle in terms of redesign and reconstruction, because heritage buildings do not benefit from modern technology. When he and his team were working on the project at The Mills, they had to do a lot of repair work before they could finally begin the actual revitalisation work.

“It’s like an 80-year-old man. A lot of things may not work anymore. You have to go back and see what can be repaired first. You have to get them healthy before you improve them.”

Despite all these difficulties and challenges, Leong Cheung, executive director of charities and community at The Hong Kong Jockey Club, thinks there are potentials for Hong Kong to continue to develop such revitalisation projects, as Tai Kwun already shows a good example of how new and sustainable uses can be integrated creatively into a historic site while conserving its overall historic and architectural significance.

“We believe that Hong Kong, as an international city blessed with a unique history and rich ‘East meets West’ cultural influences, has the opportunity to make its own mark in global heritage conservation through preservation, restoration, revitalisation and integration,” said Cheung.

Additional reporting by Michael Allen

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