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.”
From Central, hop on the Tsuen Wan MTR line and ride it some 17km to the northwestern terminus that gives the line its name. There you’ll find the city’s past and future flowing into each other yet again, this time on the edge of the New Territories. What once was an industrial hinterland of sorts is now an increasingly vibrant area, with an influx of new businesses keen to be part of an exciting and rapidly changing neighbourhood.
Nowhere is this more evident than in The Mills, another impressive rethinking of a heritage building – the former Nan Fung factory which once produced 30 million pounds of yarn annually. In a remarkable transformation, this repurposed cotton mill will become a fashion and textile arts hub when it officially opens in December. Vanessa Cheung, the factory owner’s granddaughter and the driving force behind the project, says, “We want to revitalise this old business into something value-adding for the future, in a unique model that incorporates a business incubator, fund and co-working space.”
The Mills will also house The Mills Fabrica, a hub for technology-focused fashion brands, as well as the Centre for Heritage, Arts & Textile – scheduled to throw open its doors in the spring of 2019. Its in-house venture capital initiative, Fabrica Fund, will provide US$100,000 to US$2 million in funding to innovative fashion startups. It has already given financial support to several local ventures including Unspun, a denim company that uses 3D scanning machines to create customised jeans.
“We want to revitalise this old business into something value-adding for the future, in a unique model that incorporates a business incubator, fund and co-working space.”
“At The Mills, we are creating a movement from textile to techstyle,” Cheung explains. “Techstyle is more than just fashion tech – it’s a combination of technology and style that covers everything from wearables and fashion e-commerce platforms to logistics and supply chain.”
For now, The Mills is opening its doors to the public Wednesday through Sunday for exhibitions and interactive workshops. Its light-filled halls seamlessly meld old and new, with vestiges of the past noticeable throughout – original fire buckets mounted on salvaged wood; a large factory door adorned with golden cups and the Nan Fung logo; and old window frames upcycled into information posts. In the near future, screenings and events will be held on the rooftop, while some restaurants will use herbs, vegetables and more from on-site gardens.
While heritage and history are huge components in Hong Kong’s current cultural moment, so is its geography – namely its harbour and reclaimed waterfront. The poster child for this is the West Kowloon Cultural District, which, when completed, will be one of the biggest arts districts in the world. The long-term project is in the process of transforming an amazing 40 hectares of prime harbourfront space into various museums, galleries, performing arts centres, green spaces and a theatre.
Under the clear blue skies of summer, the views from the vast site overlooking the world-famous skyline of Hong Kong Island are stunning. Visitors rent bikes, kick back on the grassy lawns and discover the Art Park, one of the project’s first elements to partially open. The Art Park is the green heart of the cultural district, featuring a rich variety of trees and open lawn spaces and also playing host to Freespace – due to open in 2019 – which will house a black box theatre and outdoor performance area for all to enjoy.
The jewel in the crown will undoubtedly be M+, currently the world’s largest art museum under construction. Slated to open at the end of 2020, its offerings will span the disciplines of design, architecture, moving image and visual art. Until then, though, executive director Suhanya Raffel, a renowned museum specialist and former director of collections at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is busy with the striking M+ Pavilion, open since 2016 and a space that serves as “a laboratory, allowing M+ to bring ideas to the public”.
Raffel is unequivocal about the potential positive impacts of M+ on the arts scene. “Hong Kong needs a global museum with international collections framed by our location and M+ brings this much-needed perspective,” she says.
Also in Kowloon, just 3km east of the M+ site, is Victoria Dockside in Tsim Sha Tsui. The upcoming arts and culture destination, built on the site of early-20th-century shipping hub Holt’s Wharf and New World Centre in the 1980s, spans a total of 28 hectares and will cost a grand total of US$2.6 billion to build. The mixed-use concept will include green spaces, design-minded workspace K11 Atelier and various exciting arts and lifestyle outlets.
“Hong Kong needs a global museum with international collections framed by our location and M+ brings this much-needed perspective”
As of now, Victoria Dockside’s most prominent project is the 413-room Rosewood Hong Kong hotel, the hospitality brand’s first foray into the Hong Kong market that opens this winter. Rosewood Hotel Group CEO Sonia Cheng is confident that Victoria Dockside will become a new epicentre of culture for the city, reflecting contemporary Hong Kong’s dynamism, creativity and unique history.
“We are excited that the development is a bellwether for the regeneration of the Kowloon waterfront and an exciting chapter for Hong Kong’s urban development story within a progressive cultural context,” says Cheng.
That progressive cultural context is overwhelmingly evident everywhere you turn in Hong Kong these days. And with many aspects of these projects opening in stages, the momentum will be felt in the city for years to come.
– PHOTOGRAPHY BY CALVIN SIT
– ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ANNA CUMMINS
Singapore Airlines flies to Hong Kong seven times daily. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine