It’s 2pm on a summer’s day in Hong Kong’s fast-paced Central district, and the sun is beating down. Gleaming skyscrapers stand shoulder to shoulder, droves of busy professionals scurry to their next appointments and construction sites buzz with workers adding to the city’s skyline. But at Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, a newly reopened historic site in the heart of Central, it’s a completely different story.
Children run around the 14,000m2 compound’s spacious courtyards and former parade grounds. The cool interiors of the 18 buildings and the shaded alleyways between them provide respite from the oppressive heat, while the terraces and balconies of the cafés, bars and restaurants dotted throughout give the development a decidedly European feel.
Tai Kwun, which means “big station” in the Cantonese dialect, takes its name from one of its main buildings – the former Central Police Station, a declared monument that has witnessed more than 150 years of Hong Kong’s history. Following a 10-year revitalisation project, the joint venture between the government and the Hong Kong Jockey Club finally opened to the public in late May this year. And in a city with a penchant for tearing down old buildings, it has been something of a game-changer.
Tai Kwun’s head of heritage, Winnie Yeung, says that projects like this one add to the urban DNA by playing witness to both the past and the future. “These buildings witnessed the development of Hong Kong and so represent a certain chapter of our past,” she declares. “Only when you understand more about your city does a sense of belonging come up.”
In addition to providing public access to over a dozen colonial-era structures, Tai Kwun celebrates heritage and the arts through galleries like Tai Kwun Contemporary; exhibitions like “100 Faces of Tai Kwun”, which is centred on 100 people who have connections with the site; various installations; an auditorium; and workshops on myriad subjects like making your own terrariums.
Breathtaking in both scale and execution, Tai Kwun has been a labour of love – and at times a highly challenging project. “This is the largest heritage project ever in Hong Kong and it’s in the middle of a very old neighbourhood,” Yeung elaborates. During the conception and development of the ambitious project, Yeung and her team had extensive engagement and interviews with local residents and business-owners to ensure the compound’s new incarnation would be a continuation of the area’s past.
“Only when you understand more about your city does a sense of belonging come up.”