New Hong Kong Is Celebrating Old Hong Kong
Nearly 15 years after a hasty demolition prompted public backlash, preservation and revitalization efforts are bearing fruit on a massive scale.
Once a sleepy fishing village turned British colony, Hong Kong has risen to dizzying heights as an international center for finance. But in the rush to grow, heritage sites often have fallen to the wrecking ball. So the story went in 2006, when the government demolished the iconic Star Ferry Terminal, a 1950s-era Modernist pier along the Central waterfront. That seemingly inevitable march of progress struck a nerve, sparking unusually vocal protests and prompting a succession of heritage initiatives aimed at preserving Hong Kong’s dwindling links to the past.
But preservation takes time. The Police Married Quarters building in Central, for example, sat empty for ten years before receiving heritage status in 2010, and for another four years after that before reopening in 2014 as PMQ, a mixed-use development with shops, art galleries and restaurants. Other projects have taken substantially longer. Only now, over a decade later, are the city’s major revitalization efforts taking shape, slowly changing the face of a city that now looks to the past as well as the future.
One ambitious conservation project occupies prime real estate amidst the high-rises of Central: Tai Kwun, a gracious 19th-century former police station and prison complex recently transformed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron into a center for arts and culture, retail, and entertainment. The development, which opened in May 2018, connects sixteen original buildings with contemporary additions, melding old and new on a grand scale. “We adopted this strategy of working with instead of against the existing material world of objects because we found it natural and inspiring,” architect Jacques Herzog told Metropolis magazine, “often resulting in unexpected and innovative results.” Original tiles, murals, railings were painstakingly restored in the historic brick and masonry buildings—many of which had been abandoned for years—in contrast with two new aluminum-clad structures that seem to hover over the old prison walls.
Tai Kwun hosts cultural programming, from contemporary art shows to lunchtime concerts, and acts as a tranquil public space in the heart of the notoriously dense city. The complex contains several buzzed-about restaurants and bars, such as Madame Fu for modern Cantonese food. The wrap-around verandah, with velvet sofas and lanterns made from vintage Hermès scarves, is an inviting place to linger over drinks and admire the central courtyard below.
Across Victoria Harbour, in the under-the-tourist radar neighborhood of Tsuen Wan, is The Mills, an office and retail center that opened in December 2018. The developer, Nang Fang Group, is known for soaring residential and commercial towers but got its start as a textiles firm; it refashioned two of its former factory buildings, restoring signage and historic sand buckets (to be dumped on laborers in case of fire), and preserving the buildings’ spartan concrete columns and gated entries. Where workers once produced 32 million pounds of yarn a year—during Hong Kong’s 1960s heyday as a manufacturing powerhouse— today’s visitors can browse indie boutiques and cafes along with rooftop public parks, workspaces for tech startups, and an incubator for fashion and textile businesses.
The renewed interest in heritage and revitalization has transferred even to developments of more recent vintage. Take the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Virtually untouched since its opening in 1991, it’s now completing a USD$115 million expansion. The upgrade will make room for new donations, valued at $480 million, of Chinese paintings and calligraphy dating back to the 17th century.
It’s all part of the larger redevelopment of the Kowloon waterfront, which includes the Avenue of the Stars, which first opened in 2004. The waterfront promenade, whose plaques and statues honor local film luminaries like Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, has just received a major facelift—led by James Corner, the landscape architect behind New York’s High Line. Avenue of the Stars was the brainchild of the New World Group, which has been putting the finishing touches on Victoria Dockside with help from Corner and the acclaimed firm KPF. Established in 1910 as Holt’s Wharf, it was once a freight logistics center. In its place comes a USD$2.6-billion art and design district, including a small-scale museum, K11 Musea, expected in late 2019, and K11 Atelier, a cutting-edge highrise that incorporates wellness offerings, sustainability and art. Topping off K11 Atelier is Rosewood Hong Kong, whose 413 rooms and suites will begin welcoming guests next week. A “vertical estate,” according to its designer, Tony Chi, it’s a rarified perch for soaking up panoramas of the skyscrapers and jagged peaks of Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbour.
Of course, while heritage projects and neighborhood renewals point to increased appreciation for the past, Hong Kong is still one of the world’s truly forward-looking metropolises. Just look further west along the waterfront, where massive West Kowloon Cultural District is taking shape, created from reclaimed land over the harbor. It recently debuted the Xiqu Centre for Cantonese opera and Art Park, for performances and workshops. Next year, M+, another Herzog & de Meuron venture, will open there as well, bringing 190,000 square feet of exhibition space for modern and contemporary art from the likes of Ai Weiwei. Yet even here, in this district that’s a testament Hong Kong, a substantial nod to the past is in the works. Coming in 2022: the Hong Kong Palace Museum, a thoroughly contemporary structure set to house gilded riches from imperial China.
Tai Kwun: 10 Hollywood Road, Central; +852 3559-2600
Madame Fu: Shop 03-101, Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road, Central; +852 2114-2118
The Mills: 45 Pak Tin Par Street, Kowloon; +852 3979-2300
Hong Kong Museum of Art: 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; +852 2721-0116
Avenue of Stars: Waterfront Podium Garden, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
Top photo by Iwan Baan courtesy of Herzog & De Meuron.