There’s a lot of pressure on Hong Kong Park. It shoulders the responsibility of representing the whole of Hong Kong, but it has become such a familiar landmark, it almost disappears into the landscape. It also has the challenge of distinguishing itself from its neighbour, the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, with which it is often confused. And yet…
You need only climb the 105-metre summit of the white tower that rises above the park to be captivated by the view that sweeps from the Mid-Levels to Victoria Harbour. Hong Kong Park unfolds beneath, its eight hectares varied and full of contrasts. A place where tradition and modernity coexist – that’s the hackneyed slogan adopted by the park’s founders, the former Urban Council and the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, when the green space opened in 1991 on the site of the former Victoria Barracks, which had occupied the site since 1842.
Inside the park, the joyful colours of renovated colonial buildings rebut the showy towers of Central and Admiralty. There’s Flagstaff House, originally the residence of the commander of the British forces in Hong Kong, now home to a charmingly fusty tea museum. Its annex, the KS Lo Gallery, exhibits rare ancient ceramics alongside 600 modern and antique chops. The ground-floor Lok Cha Tea House serves delicious yum cha: tea with vegetarian dim sum.
Further uphill, the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre offers a counterpoint to these traditional arts, with its contemporary art programme inside the Cassels Block. Two more historic buildings, Rawlinson House and Wavell House, have been painted a lovely shade of rose to accommodate the Cotton Tree Drive Marriage Registry and the Education Centre, respectively.
Visitors to the park are greeted in equal measure by the past and the future. Kids dart around a playground decorated in bright, alluring colours, while groups of students march through the park looking for passersby to interview or samples of nature to analyse. They pass by elderly people, aided by their indispensable helpers, who cast a mischievous eye over the lovers that meet up in the park, a bit intimidated by the candy-coloured marriage office that stares at them from a distance.
Here, slowness and speed seem to get along well. As turtles arrange themselves on the rocks of the park’s artificial lake, surrounded by golden carps, joggers pass by in a measured stride, and office workers march onwards to lunch. The frenzy of sport is enshrined in the Hong Kong Sports Centre, which sits next to the Hong Kong Squash Centre, and it’s not unusual to see early morning tai chi practitioners in front of Flagstaff House.
In Hong Kong Park, there is water in all its forms: rising, descending, like in the Fountain Plaza, where passersby of all ages like to take a photo while trying to avoid being soaked by the waterfall. It is echoed by another cascade of water not far away, while the artificial lake draws amateur photographers, professionals and painters inspired by the bucolic landscape, populated by trees, the oldest of which are labelled and marked for special care.
Inside a tropical forest is the impressive Edward Youde Aviary, which you can traverse by walking across a suspension bridge, where it’s possible to ignore the net that keeps 600 birds, which represent 80 different species among them, from flying away. On the other side of the path, caged hornbills regard their more free-flying neighbours with jealousy. In the Forsgate Conservatory, cactuses find themselves astonished to be in a desert garden surrounded by Mexican-esque scarecrows. An artificial pond was installed at the exit of the greenhouse to give a home to the 100 species of dragonflies poetically preserved there.
In the Tai Chi Garden, the atmosphere is peaceful, inviting you to pause for a moment, or to meditate. Geometrically-shaped openings separate the garden’s various courtyards, which are surrounded by bamboo. In the middle, a memorial pays homage to recent heroes – those health workers who managed to contain the SARS epidemic of 2003.
The garden’s serenity is barely broken by the park’s never-ending construction works, currently taking place around the Olympic Square, while sweepers and gardeners work tirelessly to maintain each corner of the park.
From 6am to 11pm, you can enter and leave the park from one of 11 access points. You can wander through it mindlessly or rest for a moment on a bench, reading a book and watching passersby; a moment of restoration. Hong Kong Park is a mirror image of Hong Kong itself, a balance between the fragile and firm, inviting yet oppressive when the crowds become too thick, sad on rainy days, resplendent when the sky is blue. It earned its name.