Repurposing the past in Hong Kong

Repurposing the past in Hong Kong

The Tai O Heritage Hotel, once a colonial marine police station, has reopened as a nine room boutique hotel.

Hong Kong is a city where, more often than not, buildings that haven’t yet reached their 30th birthday are torn down to make way for gleaming new office towers or public housing high rises.

But in recent months a different trend has emerged: that of repurposing old structures built during the 150 years of British colonial rule into cool places to stay, eat and (oddly enough) soak up some culture.

In February 2012, after extensive renovations, the US-based non-profit Asia Society, whose mission is to promote cultural exchange between America and the Asia-Pacific region, opened up a new premises in Hong Kong — its first physical base outside New York. Housed in a former explosives warehouse constructed by the British army in the mid-19th Century, the Asia Society Hong Kong hosts musical performances, supports an on-site gallery with regularly changing exhibitions and organises panels with luminary speakers on timely topics in the region.

Located in the Admiralty district — which is close enough to downtown’s Central neighbourhood to be convenient, but far enough away to be set amid a hillside of trees — the complex of interconnected buildings once processed, packed, stored and doled out gunpowder supplies for the colonial forces. These days, the public is free to meander through the grounds (though there’s a small fee to enter the gallery); a highlight is the serene, minimalistic rooftop garden that doubles as a pleasant lookout point.

Volunteers give free 45-minute guided tours of the site every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with a focus on the buildings’ history, and there are additional docent-led tours through the gallery, currently showing a collection of Indian jewellery from the 1st through 20th Centuries (running until 6 January). The chic, popular cafe/bar/restaurant, Ammo — decorated with metallic touches reminiscent of the site’s past — caps off a visit to the compound.

Right on the Asia Society’s heels came the Tai O Heritage Hotel. Its location is far more remote — Tai O, a traditional fishing village on Lantau Island, which is a two-hour journey from Hong Kong’s downtown areas is defined by stilt houses and shrimp producers — but the circumstances behind its conception are very much the same.

A 110-year-old colonial marine police station that had lain empty for years began undergoing restoration works at the hand of a government program aimed at revitalising old buildings. In March it opened as a nine-room boutique hotel with a picturesque restaurant called the Tai O Lookout. The refurbishment was painstaking; and though the hotel is visually stunning, with a white facade laced with verandas, many quirky historical touches remain, such as bullet holes from when there was a shooting inside one of the rooms.

A unique element of this hotel — especially in profit-hungry Hong Kong — is that any proceeds beyond what it costs to maintain the property are put towards village traditions, traditional Chinese rituals and local festivals. There are free tours of the hotel at 3 pm and 4 pm daily.