Hong Kong’s Colonial Heritage, Part II: An Explosive History at the Asia Society

In the 1860s, the British military decided to build an explosives magazine in Hong Kong, and they thought they had found the perfect location. Just up the hill from Victoria Harbour was a gully. It was hidden from any potential maritime attack, and if any of the explosives ignited by accident, the surrounding slopes would prevent the blast from damaging the quickly growing city beyond. 

There was just one problem: access. The only way to get up to the magazine was along treacherous unpaved footpaths. Every night, an orderly officer made the rounds of the military lands that stretched from Central in the west to Wan Chai in the east. He was carried on a sedan chair by four workers guided only by firelight. One dark night, they were making their way alongside a nullah when one of them lost his footing, sending all four of them tumbling into the soggy ditch, along with the sedan chair and the officer perched atop it. 

The military eventually responded to the situation by building an aerial ropeway that stretched from the waterfront up to the magazine. It seems like it would be incredibly dangerous to send barrels full of explosives soaring through the sky above an active military base, but the risk was apparently worth it to avoid having any more officers tumble off their chairs. Miraculously, there is no record of any accident related to the ropeway. 

The explosives are long gone, as is the ropeway. But the magazine is still there, nestled into the lush woods just opposite the British consulate, around the corner of Pacific Place. Today, it is the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, one of Hong Kong’s most interesting examples of adaptive reuse and heritage conservation. 

To understand the history of the site you have to go back to 1841, when the British first occupied Hong Kong Island. From the very beginning, the military saw the island’s tactical advantage in a region where European powers were competing for colonial dominance. When a crown colony was established in 1842, the military claimed a large chunk of land—present-day Admiralty—for its own use. 

“Basically as soon as it was reserved by the military, for the military, the colonial government objected – and for the subsequent 150 years was trying to get this prime piece of land back,” says heritage conservationist Katie Cummer, author of Heritage Revealed, which documents the history and restoration of the explosives magazine.

The government would have to wait. As the waterfront was developed into a naval base and the Murray Barracks were built to the west, the upper part of the military lands were carved up into the Victoria Barracks, which included Flagstaff House—home of the commander of the local British forces—and housing for Indian troops. 

The explosives magazine was built on the far side of the barracks. The need for a secluded location had been underlined by an incident in 1865, when a schooner was tasked with retrieving gunpowder from a ship moored two miles into the harbour. The powder somehow ignited, causing a fierce blast that killed 39 people and shattered glass throughout the city. One soldier wrote in his diary that, in his barracks, all but two windows were shattered. 

Work on the first magazine—eventually known as Magazine A—was completed in 1869. It was a sturdy box made of locally-quarried granite, its walls 2.5 metres thick to protect explosives from the muggy Hong Kong air. The magazine stood next to a laboratory that had been completed a year earlier. Another structure, Magazine B, was completed in 1910, with a pitched tile roof, grey brick walls covered in whitewashed plaster and a wooden verandah to provide shelter from the sun and rain. Railway tracks connected the three buildings to the infamous ropeway so soldiers could push barrels of ordinance through the site. 

It wasn’t the most efficient system, a fact that was not lost on British military command. The magazine had been located uphill to guard against attack by sea, but by the 1930s, a new threat had emerged: aerial warfare. An official report in 1937 declared the magazine obsolete, noting that it had no protections against bombs dropped from above. “It is therefore of little value and should be disposed of in due course,” it read. With the threat of war with Japan on the horizon, the military emptied the magazine of explosives and converted it to other uses. One new concrete building, GG Block, was erected on the edge of the site in 1940. It’s not entirely clear why it was built, although rumours at the time suggested it was the headquarters for the Special Investigative Branch of the Royal Military Police. 

Most of time, GG Block was likely an anonymous administrative outpost. But it did have one high-profile moment when it was used by the Immigration Department in 1979 as a spot where undocumented migrants from China could register for a Hong Kong Identity Card. After years of relatively unrestricted migration, the Hong Kong government announced in 1980 that migrants had just three days to visit GG Block and secure residency in order to avoid being deported. “Hundreds of illegal immigrants are expected to rush Victoria Barracks in a bid to beat the time limit,” reported the South China Morning Post in 1980. Riot police were positioned in front of GG Block to deal with the crowds, but the three-day registration period passed without major incident.

For the most part, the old explosives magazine was left to moulder in the heat. Magazine B was used to store tombstones while Magazine A became an auto body shop. One soldier stationed at the Victoria Barracks recalls throwing a Halloween party inside Magazine A; some soldiers apparently mused about turning it into a bar or a disco. Soon enough, though, the magazine compound wasn’t even fit for a party. “It felt like Indiana Jones, like a jungle,” recalls Danny Thapa, a Gurkha radio technician who visited the site when it was still abandoned. “It was in a real dilapidated condition.” He remembers how far away the city seemed. At dusk, bats swooped across the half-lit sky. 

Hong Kong’s government had always resented how much space the military occupied in the heart of the city, and in the 1970s, it finally got its wish to put the Victoria Barracks to better use. They were carved up for redevelopment into hotels, shopping centres and government offices, including Pacific Place and the High Court. But the old explosives magazine was left behind, seemingly forgotten for years. 

“The magazine actually was a bit of a nuisance, really,” a former soldier named Bob Horsnell once said about the site. In the early 20th century, when the government was building Kennedy Road, it wanted to plough it straight through the magazine. The military objected and so the road curved around the entire area in a long arc. With the magazine falling into ruin, plans were drawn up in the 1990s to build a flyover across the site in order to straighten out Kennedy Road. That would have required demolishing most of its historic buildings.

Behind the scenes, a group of influential Hongkongers was lobbying Hong Kong’s first post-handover government to save the magazine and do something meaningful with it. The leader of the pack was Ronnie Chan, a billionaire property developer and co-chairman of the Asia Society, a New York-based non-profit set up by another billionaire, John D. Rockerfeller III, in 1956. The Asia Society had been hosting talks and cultural events in Hong Kong for years, but it didn’t have a space of its own, and the old explosives magazine presented an intriguing opportunity.

It seems the government anticipated some controversy from handing the site over to an institution that was perceived—fairly or not—as a kind of salon for the elite. “Make it spectacular,” then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa reportedly said, knowing that if the old explosives magazine was going to be turned into a privately-run cultural centre, the quality of its architecture and heritage conservation would have to be unimpeachable. 

The Asia Society took over the site in 2002. New York-based architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien were chosen to lead its transformation. Williams says it was “astonishing” when they first stepped onto the site. “It was like something out of a film.”

“Harrison Ford. Raiders of the Lost Ark,” adds Tsien. (The space often seems to evoke the 1981 blockbuster.) “It was a complete jungle, this crazy place in the middle of the city where giant banyan trees were growing out of abandoned buildings, yet it was across the street from Pacific Place and the British consulate.”

The Asia Society wanted a new multifunctional facility that would include a reception hall and restaurant, which would be built next to GG Block, on the most accessible part of the site. Tsien and Williams decided to create a long slab that is cantilevered over part of the hillside; they call it a “horizontal platform in a vertical city,” a deliberate riposte to the skyscrapers around it.

The new building is separated from the historic explosives magazine by a nullah – the same one the British military official and his sedan carriers had tumbled into more than a century earlier. The architects designed a double-decker bridge that would traverse the gap. It zigs like an elbow to accommodate a grove of palm trees that are home to a colony of fruit bats. 

Magazine A was converted into a gallery, Magazine B into a theatre. The old laboratory is now home to meeting rooms and offices. Thanks to the bridge, they are seamlessly connected to the new building, with the upper deck leading to a roof garden and the lower deck to the reception hall. 

The new architecture is glassy but understated, clad in dark stone that seems to recede into the background. At dusk on a humid summer evening, you can stand on the bridge, the sound of rushing water rising from the nullah, and watch as bats flit across the darkening sky. There are skyscrapers in the distance, but it isn’t hard to imagine the space as it existed in the 19th century, hidden from the rest of Hong Kong.

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