Well before weather apps and digital clocks, Hong Kong’s sailors kept time thanks to a giant ball. Every day at one o’clock, triggered by an electromagnetic signal from the Hong Kong Observatory, the ball was automatically hoisted and dropped from a tower next to the marine police headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui. These types of time balls were common throughout the British Empire, modelled off one that was used at the Greenwich Observatory in London.
But the Hong Kong tower was also used for weather warnings. At first, a gunshot fired from the tower signalled the approach of a typhoon, but this posed a problem, because a gun was also fired to herald the arrival of the mail boat from London. There were times when a gunshot rang out and people were sent into a frenzy, thinking a storm was coming when it was actually just the post.
Eventually, the gun was supplemented by a system of lights, drum signals and cones that were hoisted next to the time ball. A cone pointing upwards meant gale-force winds would be blowing from the north or east; a cone pointing downwards meant the storm was blowing from the south or west. These signals are still used today by the Hong Kong Observatory, albeit in digital form. And rather amazingly for a city that has torn down most of its old buildings, the time ball tower still exists – albeit as part of a shopping mall.
That mall is 1881 Heritage, and it’s one of the most controversial heritage conservation projects in recent Hong Kong history. In 2003, when a subsidiary of Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong Holdings was granted a 50-year lease on the property in exchange for HK$325.8 million, heritage advocates worried there weren’t enough protections in place to ensure it would be handled with care. “The problem is that their priority is to make a profit,” said Conservancy Association chief executive Lister Cheung in 2003. “They have said many times in the past that their shareholders come first.”
And that’s exactly what happened. “1881 Heritage is a failure,” said heritage consultant Peter Wong, who advised Beijing on conserving its hutongs, when the project was completed. In Hong Kong’s community of conservationists and heritage activists, its name is a byword for exactly the kind of thing that should be avoided.
It’s a miracle the property survived in the first place. It’s one of the last witnesses to an era when Tsim Sha Tsui was a sleepy outpost dominated by military barracks and a commercial wharf, not the shopping and entertainment wonderland it is today. Perched on a bluff overlooking Victoria Harbour, construction on the signal tower, a two-storey main block and a stable was completed in 1884.
Originally known as the Water Police, the marine branch of the Hong Kong Police was first launched as an anti-piracy squad in 1846. By the end of the 1870s, it had expanded to include more than 150 officers, and the hunt was on for space to build a new barracks and command centre. With a commanding view over the busiest part of the harbour, the bluff next to the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui was perfect.
Architecturally, the headquarters’ main block resembles many other buildings from the era, with red brick walls finished in white stucco and deep verandahs lined by granite columns; a third floor was added in the 1920s. The stable is a simple structure with a Chinese-style tile roof. The signal tower stands nearby atop a stubby round structure with a classical portico, above which is a circular window and a frilly cornice. These three buildings were joined in 1920 by a red brick fire station built at the base of the hill on Salisbury Road.
As banyan trees took root and grew steadily through the years, the marine police headquarters watched as the sandy beach in front was filled in for the terminus of the Kowloon-Canton Railway in 1916. It watched as, six decades later, the station was demolished to make way for the Cultural Centre in 1978. It saw Hong Kong’s first shopping mall rise across the street; it stood impassively as high-rise complexes like Chungking Mansions sprouted nearby.
In 1967, the government proposed demolishing the compound to build a bus terminus to serve the fast-changing neighbourhood around it. That plan was shelved, but not before a large part of the property’s gardens were razed to make way for Kowloon Park Drive. In 1979, still reeling from the demolition of the railway terminus, heritage activists presented a plan to conserve the marine police headquarters and turn it into a public park. The Town Planning Board rejected the proposal, arguing that the site had too much commercial potential to be reserved for public use.
The government was eager to tap into that potential after the marine police moved to a new headquarters in Sai Wan Ho in 1996. Two years earlier, the compound’s main block had been declared a historic monument, protecting it from demolition, but the rest of the site did not enjoy such strong protections, leaving it vulnerable to the whims of whoever bought it.
Cheung Kong wasn’t the only developer interested in the property. Swire Properties mounted a rival bid, commissioning the architects at Oval Partnership to design a plan to convert the main block into a boutique hotel while creating an underground retail complex that burrowed into the hill on which the compound was built.
But Cheung Kong prevailed, and it had a very different idea of how to treat the historic site. In 2009, the slope was carved into a terraced shopping plaza designed by local firm A+T Design. The main block was turned into a luxury boutique hotel, and the stable, fire station and time ball tower were all preserved. So were several huge banyan trees – one inside a pillar of soil encased in concrete, like the world’s biggest potted plant.
The retail spaces inside the new mall were leased to luxury retailers that catered primarily to mainland Chinese tourists. “Converting a heritage property into a shopping mall would have been okay if the social agenda had been the priority, such as a shopping mall that promotes local small businesses that serve local everyday consumers,” says Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Architectural Conservation Programme. “Unfortunately, it’s not the case with 1881 Heritage.”
Lee has many bones to pick with the redevelopment. Unlike more recent heritage sites like Tai Kwun and PMQ, which are managed as not-for-profit social enterprises, 1881 Heritage is a profit-driven enterprise like any other shopping mall. In particular, its focus is on luxury goods, which Lee considers especially inappropriate. “Such businesses belong to high-end commercial properties where they’ll make an appropriate fit, and should not exploit a government-owned heritage property as a marketing and brand-packaging device,” he says.
He doesn’t think it makes much business sense, either. Lee notes that the land lease requires the main block to be operated as a hotel, but with only 13 rooms its financial sustainability is questionable. The original operator decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and withdrew after its lease expired last year. The hotel is now run by a subsidiary of Cheung Kong, the same group that manages the whole site. “[They] keep doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome,” says Lee.
The name is a sticking point as well. If the marine police headquarters was built in 1884, why is the new mall called 1881 Heritage? A spokesperson for Cheung Kong told Ming Pao that the name refers to the year when construction on the compound began. But others have speculated that 1881 was actually adopted because 1884 was considered inauspicious, ending as it does in the unlucky number four.
Then there’s the loss of the wooded area that was excavated to create the shopping mall. Beyond its ecological benefit in a densely-built neighbourhood—even as early as the 1970s, studies demonstrated its lush greenery helped cool the surrounding area in summer months—the thickly forested slope was crucial to the site’s heritage value. “The HQ had to be built on a high ground strategically located with a vantage view of the harbour,” says Lee. “The conservation project focused only on the building but ignored its significant context. It’s like saving a tree and [forgetting] the forest.”
Even the trees that were saved haven’t had an easy time. One of them—the banyan housed in a giant planter—was knocked down by Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018. The tree’s root system remained intact, but despite an order from the Lands Department to make every effort possible to save the tree, it was chopped up and removed.
The silver lining? 1881 Heritage may well be the last project of its kind. In 2007, Hong Kong adopted a new policy on built heritage that puts more emphasis on the social value and community benefits of conservation projects. This is the policy that led to sensitive projects like the Blue House and the restoration of the former North Kowloon Magistracy. “I don’t think the public will accept an 1881 Heritage project today,” says Lee.
In the meantime, the time ball still stands, faithfully reconstructed for the public to see. But it has been a long time since anyone could see it from the harbour.