When Idy Wong first set her eyes on the old Tai Po Police Station, she saw potential for something new, despite a century’s worth of alterations, additions and degradation.
As the head of Sustainable Living and Agriculture at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, Wong was looking for a space that could be used to promote more ecologically friendly ways of living. The police station seemed to be perfect. “We were very much attracted by the building itself,” she says. “A hundred years ago, when there was no air conditioning and limited electricity, it was up to the architectural design to make the building comfortable for people to be in. It was a good place for low carbon living.”
That wasn’t the only attraction. The police station was surrounded by venerable old trees that had become a breeding ground for egrets. Its architecture testified to a particular moment in Hong Kong’s history when Britain was expanding its colonial influence far beyond Victoria Harbour. And the site itself—Flagstaff Hill or Wan Tau Kok, depending on which name you prefer—was ground zero for a short but intense war that raged for a week in the spring of 1899.
Today, the old police station is the Green Hub, a meticulously restored attraction that contains an interpretive centre, an urban farm, a shop selling Hong Kong products and a canteen that serves locally-sourced plant-based cuisine. But 121 years ago, it was the first place in the New Territories where the British raised the Union flag to announce their dominion over this vast swath of land, which the year previously had been leased from China for 99 years.
That flag-raising in April 1899 set off a conflict known as the Six Day War. In anticipation of the ceremony, the Hong Kong Police had established a bamboo matshed on the hill to serve as a temporary headquarters. Francis Henry May, the captain-superintendent of the police—and a future governor of Hong Kong—had gained approval for the flag-raising from the villagers of nearby Pun Chung. But villagers from other parts of Tai Po were outraged by the plans. Seven villages banded together to storm the police compound and burn the matsheds to the ground.
In response, two British warships sailed into Tolo Harbour as a show of force, and the police rebuilt their sheds. But they were burned down again a few days later, this time by a group of 2,600 villagers from Tai Po, Kam Tin and Pat Heung. They dug in to confront police reinforcements. Outnumbered, the police requested the aid of the military, and 125 Indian soldiers marched north from Tai Po. They were joined by a naval destroyer that shelled the insurgent villagers, killing 50 of them and forcing them to retreat.
Such use of force was technically illegal as the New Territories were still considered Chinese territory under international law, as the British flag had yet to be formally raised. To avoid a diplomatic incident, the flag-raising ceremony was brought forward by a day. But then the real rebellion began. Thousands of villagers attacked British troops stationed in Shek Kong, which set off a six-day conflict that is largely forgotten, although it is documented in exhaustive detail in The Six-Day War of 1899, a book by Hong Kong historian Patrick Hase.
The insurgency was put down with relative ease. Although the villagers had mounted an impressive resistance against colonial rule, their ammunition was no match for British firepower. Victorious, the colonial government made Tai Po the centre of administration for the New Territories, and a permanent police station was built atop Flagstaff Hill before the end of 1899.
The structure that exists today looks much as it did when it was first completed. It covers an area of just under 3,000 square metres, with three blocks—a main building, a canteen and staff quarters—arranged around a central courtyard. Like most buildings of its era, it was built in subservience to Hong Kong’s climate, with verandahs and louvred windows to provide relief during the hot months and fireplaces to fend off the brief wintertime chill. The pitched roofs covered in Chinese pan-and-roll tiles reflect vernacular building techniques.
When the station first opened, it housed five European police officers and 32 Indian or Chinese constables. The Europeans held supervisory roles and the Indians were tasked with patrol work; senior Chinese officers worked as detectives while most others were relegated to station duties. Aside from keeping order in Tai Po, the station was tasked with warding off pirates with the help of a patrol boat that made rounds in Mirs Bay, the unruly body of water just outside Tolo Harbour.
The station was ultimately decommissioned in 1987 when a new facility was built on the other side of Tai Po, across the Lam Tsuen River. It mouldered for more than two decades until 2011, when the government included it in the Heritage Revitalisation Through Partnership Scheme, which seeks out non-commercial enterprises to restore and operate publicly-owned historic structures.
That’s when Kadoorie Farm submitted an application. “When we first came to the site the architecture had experienced lots of change in the last few decades,” says Wong. With the advent of air conditioning, the verandahs had been enclosed, and the courtyard was occupied by storage structures. “But when we looked into the floor plan it had a sensible layout that helped ventilation flow through most of the areas. It has high ceilings, double tiled roofs and windows laid out in a way to facilitate ventilation. It all makes it possible not to run air conditioning. We wanted to restore it as well as possible and kick out all the changes that had been brought in later that blocked the ventilation.”
Today, the old police station is a revelation. A discreet path leads away from the always crowded environs of the Tai Po East Rail station to a serene garden on the other side of the railway. The Green Hub is just uphill, shaded by enormous camphor and banyan trees. There are often school groups visiting for tours and workshops on things like gardening or making vegan desserts, and many others come for a healthy lunch in the canteen.
“We have an average of 300 visitors a day, which is an encouraging figure,” says Wong. The sounds of gunfire long ago faded from Wan Tau Kok, replaced today by birdsong and the hum of the city just beyond the greenery.