A Future for the Past: Tai O Heritage Hotel

One of the best examples of architectural conservation in Hong Kong can be found at a sleepy fishing town on a remote island.

The Tai O Heritage Hotel has been lauded by conservationists for both its building works as well as its contribution to the socio-cultural fabric of the historic Tai O village. The hotel won the prestigious Award of Merit at the UNESCO 2013 Asia-Pacific Cultural Heritage Awards and is a rare ideal amongst the relentless urbanization of Hong Kong.

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Before: Exterior of old Tai O police station – Courtesy The Tai O Heritage Hotel

Before its life as a tourism icon, the building was originally a lonely marine police station strategically placed on Tai O, an island on the southwest coast of Lantau Island and about an hour away from Central. Constructed in 1902, the station was one of Hong Kong’s most isolated. It served to fend off pirates and defend the old Chinese-British border on the South China Sea. The station operated for 100 years before closing in 2002.

Then, three years ago, the Development Bureau selected the non-profit organization Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation Ltd. (HCF) to re-adapt the old Tai O Police Station into a heritage-themed hotel.

By 2012, it re-opened as a meticulously restored, nine-room boutique accommodation. The hotel doubles as an attraction for visitors interested in the history of Tai O and the bygone era of marine defense.

According to conservation consultancy Urban Discovery, the Tai O Heritage Hotel received 530,000 visitors by December 2014, exceeding the annual expected number of 66,000. The tourist attraction has helped to rejuvenate the village in a sustainable manner.

Urban Discovery is a Hong Kong-based social enterprise that advises on conservation and provides professional training, exhibition curatorial services, and creates exciting heritage related products such as the I-discovery city walk

Founder of Urban Discovery, Ester van Steekelenburg, explains that the HCF’s first challenge was to create new and modern design elements for the hotel that can make sense within the heritage setting. The renovation should not interfere with existing historical architectural elements.

The front façade was not disturbed while complying with modern building ordinances. New additional structures were moved to the back, achieving balance between maintaining a degree of privacy to hotel guests while allowing public access to the historic building.

Rooms were fitted with modern facilities while original historic details, such as bunkers, cannons and guard towers were preserved.

According to the developers behind the project, the conservation work is reversible so if the building needed to return to its original bare condition, it would be possible.

But a true conservation project builds not only with brick and mortar but also constructs social links between the old and new, creating a continuum from the historical community to the rest of contemporary society.

“The Tai O Heritage Hotel is a vehicle for its actual purpose — to educate visitors about the building’s history and that of the neighbouring village,” says Urban Discovery. “HCF supports Tai O’s rich intangible heritage. They carefully documented the oral history of the place and provides support to local Chinese traditional festivals and tribute rituals.”

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The former report room has been turned into the reception area – Photo courtesy The Tai O Heritage Hotel

The HCF increases public awareness of the building’s heritage by allowing visitors to roam the grounds of the hotel. Anyone can visit the old reporting rooms and prison cells, wander around the open spaces and dine at the Tai O Lookout restaurant which sources its ingredients from Tai O producers. The hotel room televisions also play a documentary that captures the anecdotes of the police station and the Tai O fishing village. Each room displays a plaque that explains its historical use and they have been named after marine police rankings and names of police boats. Outside of the building itself, the hotel provides free guided tours.

The Tai O Heritage Hotel also directly improves the wellbeing of Tai O residents by creating local jobs. During the renovation period of the hotel, 103 jobs were created while half of the current staff are local residents. The hotel operates as a non-profit social enterprise, with  revenues mainly generated from accommodation, souvenir sales and food and beverage services. All surplus goes back to maintenance work and activities that support the conservation of cultural heritage in Tai O.

Social cohesion in the local community is further promoted as the hotel works with local operators and residents to develop new cultural events, workshops and eco-tourism. Profits from the projects go towards local festivities such as the Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade at the Tuen Ng Festival.

By working closely with the local community and listening to their needs, the conservationists behind the Tai O Heritage Hotel have managed to create a sustainable program for cultural tourism, influencing the future of the greater community beyond the mere hotel.

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