Tai Kwun: The Big House is Finally Open

For 177 years, the former Victoria Prison and Central Police Station compound stood aloof in the heart of Hong Kong, visible yet inaccessible – unless you enforced the law or fell on the wrong side of it. Now everyone has a chance to step inside its walls. After a long and arduous conversion into a centre for art and heritage, Hong Kong’s most significant heritage conservation project is finally complete.

Officially re-christened with its nickname, Tai Kwun (daai6 gun2 大館), the Cantonese equivalent of “the big house,” the compound now includes art galleries, exhibitions on local history, shops, restaurants and bars. “The philosophy has been very clear from day one,” says Winnie Yeung, Tai Kwun’s head of heritage. “We’re trying to turn a closed-off site that Hong Kong people were familiar with but never had a chance to go inside, into a site that is to open the public with easy access.”

That was a challenge like nothing Hong Kong had seen before. The first iteration of Victoria Prison — originally known as Victoria Gaol — was built in 1841. It was the first permanent structure built by the British in their new colonial possession. The site grew haphazardly over the next several decades, until the neoclassical police headquarters was built along Hollywood Road in 1919. With 18 different buildings, three of which are declared monuments — a designation that imposes legal restrictions on how a building can be modified — the restoration work was destined to be particularly complicated.

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Government printing shop is turned into a storytelling and pop-up space. The JC Contemporary sits on the right.

The Jockey Club spared no expense, hiring renowned Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to design a new arts pavilion for the site, along with a master plan for how to convert the historic site into its new role as a public facility. Their first proposal called for a spindly tower inspired by bamboo scaffolding – and it was furiously rejected by nearby residents, who said it would ruin their views and overshadow the venerable old buildings. Eventually, the architects came up with a plan for two boxy structures that floated above parts of the old prison courtyard. One houses a 200-seat auditorium, the other Tai Kwun Contemporary, an art gallery. Both are clad in black aluminium blocks that give them the appearance of shagreen jewellery boxes.

When Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron visited Hong Kong last December to inspect Tai Kwun, they still seemed disappointed their original vision for the site had been rejected. “We were honestly a bit shocked and surprised to find that Hong Kong has neighbourhoods worse than Switzerland, that they would complain about such a radical transformation,” said Herzog. But the feedback made them realise that what people valued about Tai Kwun was its low-rise character in a high-rise city. “It’s a horizontal oasis,” he said. “It has always been an attractive space just waiting to be discovered by the public.”

Herzog describes the final design as “less radical,” but with the same goal of opening up a space that had long been sealed off to the general population. They chose to use recycled aluminium because it is inexpensive in Hong Kong, but also to stand out from the brick and stone that dominates the rest of the compound.

Even the toned-down additions have been controversial. “Many people feel they are totally out of place. I personally think they’re too heavy. They dominate the entire site,” says neighbourhood activist Katty Law, who is the convenor of the Central and Western District Concern Group.

Others defend the new additions. “When we talk about heritage conservation now, we talk about adaptive reuse – giving a building new life. There’s only so much you can do with the existing buildings,” said architectural conservationist Fredo Cheung last year. “The point is not to mimic the old but to distinguish the old from the new,” he said. “It’s about authenticity.”

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The Police Headquarters Block and the Married Inspectors Quarters amidst the modernity of Central.

Maintaining Tai Kwun’s authenticity was part of the reason its restoration dragged on for 11 years. Winnie Yeung joined the project in 2015, about halfway through its construction. As a former journalist, she had reported on heritage issues before dedicating herself to heritage conservation full-time. “What was most shocking to me was the extra length the project team and heritage consultants were willing to take in terms of the original building fabric, the brick, the floor tiles and so forth,” she says.

In cases where historic building materials were too decayed to preserve, the Jockey Club commissioned replicas that were as close to the original as possible. They even hired the same northern English factory that made the prison’s original bricks, hand-moulding each one because their current machines make only metric bricks, rather than the slightly larger imperial bricks used in the 19th century. The British company in charge of the restorations, Stonewest, used historic construction techniques like reinforcing lime plaster with horsehair, which is better at preventing cracks than the hay traditionally used in China.

There have been some missteps. In 2016, a wall in one of the site’s oldest buildings collapsed during an attempt to reinforce it. And the Jockey Club has been criticised for failing to preserve some of the non-architectural elements of the site’s heritage, like graffiti that was scrawled by prisoners on the walls of their cells. “The renovation is sometimes excessive, overly new, leading to a loss of the original platina of the heritage buildings,” says Law.

That criticism is echoed by art critic John Batten, who sat on one of Tai Kwun’s advisory committees. “But, over time, the buildings will evolve into a new appearance and function,” he wrote in a magazine column last May. And that new function is one markedly different from its past role. “What we’ve noticed is that neighbours will just drop by in the evening to meet up with their friends, because Central doesn’t have many open spaces,” says Yeung.

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One of Tai Kwun’s open courtyards lined by D Hall, the JC Cube, and E Hall.

Tai Kwun’s new life as a public gathering space was one of the reasons its inaugural heritage exhibition, 100 Faces, focuses on its presence in the surrounding neighbourhood, with oral histories and a new book of stories by local illustrator Flyingpig. “Hong Kong people are aware that the site is highly significant, and they’re aware it has some of the more significant colonial architecture,” says Yeung. “But not many people understand why these things are significant, so the way we tell them is through people’s stories.”

The history of Tai Kwun itself is conveyed through eight storytelling spaces scattered throughout the site. Some of that history deals with well-known figures like Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who was jailed in Victoria Prison as he used Hong Kong as a base from which to plot his revolutionary war against France. But other stories are more humble in scope. One of Yeung’s favourites is from the owner of a Sheung Wan printing press.

“When he was still a very young boy, he cried a lot when he was sleeping at night,” she says. “His father had to get up early the next morning, so what his mother did was to bring him and his brothers and sisters all the way to Chancery Lane and get them to sleep there – because Victoria Prison after lights off was the quietest place in Central. It gives you a sense of how the site has always had this very strong connection to the community even though it was surrounded by walls.”

The walls are still there, but now the gates are open – and a new chapter of history has begun. More than just a museum, or an art gallery, or an historic site, Tai Kwun is a place that brings many different threads of Hong Kong life together. “Never have we done such a large scale conservation and revitalisation project all in one go,” says Yeung. “In Hong Kong, in the past, we always just conserved one building and then another. This is conserving an entire site – a place.”

100 Faces of Tai Kwun runs until September 2, 2018. Click here for more information.

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