When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to the children art workshops at Hong Kong Arts Centre (香港藝術中心) in Wanchai. I don’t remember much about my earliest ”artworks”, but I do remember bits and pieces about the Arts Centre building in the 1980’s: ceiling consisted of small triangles, exposed yellow air ducts, staircase with yellow handrails spiraling up the atrium which took me forever to climb. Today, after series of renovations, the iconic yellow ductwork and stair handrails are gone, but the Arts Centre remains as a prominent non-government institution for art exhibitions, theatre shows, film screenings, and children workshops. As a competitive commercial city where people spent most of their time working to earn a living, Hong Kong is reputed for being a cultural desert. In the 1970’s, some Hongkongers tried to do something to advocate the development of art and culture, including the late architect Tao Ho (何弢). Graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Ho studied and worked under Walter Gropius, the master of Modernist architecture and founder of the Bauhaus School in prewar Germany. Tao Ho returned to Hong Kong and established TaoHo Design Architects in 1968. In 1971, Tao Ho, Bill Bailey and King-man Lo came together to form the organization Hong Kong Arts Centre. After negotiations with the government and series of fundraising campaigns, construction of the building began in 1975 and completed in 1977. As chief architect, Tao Ho’s challenge was enormous. In a 10,000sf triangular site, Ho needed to incorporate galleries, theatre, rehearsal rooms, auditoriums, classrooms, restaurants, offices, and a four-storey atrium plus disabled facilities (first in Hong Kong) within a 16-storey building, all under a limited budget from donors. A triangular system was adopted from spatial planning, structural modules to facade treatment. From the use of functional forms, simple colour scheme, industrial materials, holistic design language, to incorporating geometric shapes into architecture, the spirit of Bauhaus is clearly shown. Since opening, Hong Kong Arts Centre has become a cultural icon in the city, exhibiting works by masters like Paul Klee and Zao Wou Ki as well as supporting the local art scenes. Before his death in 2019, Tao Ho was also responsible for a number of design projects in Hong Kong and China, including Hong Kong Pavilion for the 1986 World Expo in Vancouver, Tsuen Wan MTR Station, renovation of Hong Kong Governor House, Panda Pavilion in Ocean Park, Wing Kwong Pentecostal church, the Bauhinia emblem and the Hong Kong flag, etc.
In 2019, we finally got a chance to visit Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA-香港演藝學院) to watch 887, a solo play by renowned playwright, actor and stage director Robert Lepage from Quebec. Before the show, we wandered a little bit in the atrium hall, where a model of the building complex was on display, showing the two triangular blocks: the academy and theatre blocks separated by a driveway. Serving as both the main campus for performing arts education and a venue for theatre performances, the HKAPA has been a prominent establishment in Hong Kong since 1985. It was founded as the city’s only place that offers professional education on music, dance, drama, technical arts, film and television. Equipped with state of the art acoustics and stage equipment, its Lyric Theatre and other performance halls have served the audience well throughout the last three decades. Like the Arts Centre across the street, HKAPA was conceptualized during the reformative decade of Governor Murray MacLehose (麥理浩), who dramatically improved the social welfare of Hongkongers by introducing new ordinances and policies, and boldly transformed the city into a diverse metropolis with a wide range of public projects, from the metro system to satellite towns, country parks to the Ocean Park (amusement park), Jubilee Sport Centre to the HKAPA. In 1981, architect Simon Kwan (關善明) won the design competition for HKAPA. Restricted by underground utilities, Kwan uses a driveway to break the complex into two triangular volumes, academy and administrative block on one side and theatre block on the other.
Between April 2021 and March 2022, land sales have generated an HK$91.6 billion (US$11.7 billion) income for the Hong Kong government, out of which HK$50.8 billion (US$6.5 billion) came from a 47,967 sq.m lot at Central Harbourfront, the prestige waterfront in the city’s financial district. Like many business areas in the city, this land is created from a massive land reclamation project. Every time a massive reclamation project along Victoria Harbour is completed, the government would increase its land supplies and potential sources of income. The city’s iconic skyline would undergo another phase of transformation, and the harbour would once again get narrower. This new piece of land comes from Phase 3 (2003 – 2018) of the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project, the last major plan (first initiated in 1985) that altered the waterfront between Central and Wan Chai. Land sale has always been a major revenue source for Hong Kong ever since early colonial times. Due to the limited land supply and continuous growth of the population and economy, reclaiming land from the sea was a cost effective way for urban expansion given the city’s rocky and mountainous terrains. Since 1840’s, about 7000 hectares (70 sq.km) of land has been reclaimed. Compared to 59.1 sq.km of Manhattan Island, 70 sq.km is a decent piece of land housing 27% of Hong Kong’s population and 70% of its businesses. While the search of flat land has always been a challenge, voices against land reclamation among the public has gained momentum in recent decades. Given the negative impact to the environment and Victoria Harbour, many now consider land reclamation as an unsustainable solution that would likely do more harm than good.
Victoria Harbour is a vital component for the economic success of Hong Kong since the founding of city. It is a safe, all-weather and deep harbour, a perfect place to establish an international port as history has proven. Yet, 180 years of land reclamation has narrowed the water to such a great extent (distance between Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui has been halved) that the natural potentials of Victoria Harbour has been diminished. On the other hand, many began to recognize the significance of waterfront planning and its impact on shaping the city’s identity. Up until 1980’s, the harbour was developed mostly for the purposes of infrastructure, with wharfs, piers, godowns, warehouses, and dockyards occupied most of the harbourfront, leaving only pockets in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui for public and commercial uses. Under such context, the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance was passed in 1997 to recognize that Victoria Harbour is more than just a safe port. The law acknowledges that “the harbour is to be protected and preserved as a special public asset and a natural heritage of Hong Kong people, and for that purpose there shall be a presumption against reclamation in the harbour.” First covering only the waters around Central, then expanding to the entire harbour in 1999, the law basically put a stop to land reclamation in Victoria Harbour. If the law is here to stay, then the HK$50.8 billion land at Central Harbourfront would be one of the last available plots of waterfront land in Central. Meanwhile, plans for creating a more accessible harbourfront for all to enjoy have begun to realize, with the completion of various waterfront promenades on the Island’s north coast in recent years. Also from the Phase 3 of Central and Wan Chai Reclamation, the lot east of the HK$50.8 billion lot remains unoccupied in the past decade. Designated as Central Harbourfront Event Space, this land has been a vital public space at the heart of the city, hosting events from music festivals and sporting events, to large scale art installations. After this lot is developed, would the 180 year transformation of Central Harbourfront can finally call it a day, or would the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance be reverted one day due to economic and political pressure? The future is anyone’s guess.
In late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the former Victoria Barracks at Admiralty have been torn down to make way for commercial developments, government buildings, and transportation infrastructure. Only a handful of the 19-century structures have been preserved and renovated with modern usage in today’s Hong Kong Park. East of the park, the abandoned Explosives Magazine Compound awaited its fate as rain forest gradually takes over the site. Two decades have passed. In 2002, the site was granted to Asia Society to establish their new home in Hong Kong. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III in New York, Asia Society is an organization that promotes cultural exchange between Asia and the United States. In 1990, Asia Society arrived in Hong Kong to establish its Hong Kong Centre. After granted the site of the former Explosives Magazine Compound, Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien were chosen to oversee the design and transformation of the site, erecting new structures and converting four former weapon production and storage buildings into one of the most fascinating cultural venues in the city.
As the New York based architects described, the 1.3 hectares site was overgrown with banyan trees and lush green vegetation despite its central location adjacent to the British consulate and Pacific Place Shopping Centre. In 2012, after a decade of construction work, Asia Society’s 65,000 s.f. new home was opened to the public. Seen as one of Hong Kong’s most successful adaptive reuse and heritage conservation project in recent years, Asia Society regularly host talks and exhibitions. The complex is separated by a nullah into two parts. Where the former explosive magazine buildings are located, the upper site houses a gallery, offices, and theatre. The lower site is occupied by a visitor centre, multi-function hall, gift shop, restaurant, and offices. Connecting the upper and lower sites, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien designed a double decker bridge that zigzags over the sloped rain forest. The upper deck is a pleasant open walkway offering great views of the adjacent commercial district. Combined with the roof of the visitor centre, the open walkway also serves as a sculpture garden.
For 50 years, lampposts, electrical boxes, concrete pillars, pavements, benches, planters, and retaining walls on the streets of Hong Kong could be seen as one large canvas for the “King of Kowloon” (九龍皇帝) to leave his unique calligraphy works. Sometimes, he wrote to proclaim his ancestral land ownership of the Kowloon Peninsula before the British rule, while at other times he would write about his family. Seen by many as acts of a crazy man, the “King of Kowloon” or Tsang Tsou Choi (曾灶財) was probably the most well known graffiti artist the city had seen in the 20th century. Fined by the government numerous times, insulted by neighbours, and even disowned by his own family, Tsang Tsou Choi was mocked by Hong Kong for decades. Whenever his calligraphy was washed or painted over by the authorities, he would restore the works right after. His works were largely seen as public nuisance until the 1990’s, when local artists, fashion designers, art directors, interior designers, furniture makers, graphic designers, musicians began to use Tsang’s unique calligraphy on design products. In his final years, Tsang’s works finally began to gain public recognition with successful shows both in Hong Kong and abroad, including the Venice Biennale in 2003, and even went for auctions at the Sotheby’s.
A decade after Tsang’s death (2007), street art in Hong Kong has already entered a new chapter. Far from the vibrancy and sophistication of London’s or New York’s, street art is nonetheless much widely accepted and welcomed by the public in Hong Kong nowadays. In recent years, the city has been frequented by international street artists, such as Invader from France, who has secretly put up his iconic pixelated 8-bit video game images all over the city. In December 2019, the popular show “Banksy: Genius or Vandal?” arrived in Hong Kong and created quite a stir on the social media. The free spirit, unique artistic expression, cool character, coupled with satirical imagery, political controversy, and social criticism of street art have been welcomed by the young generations, especially in the era of social media when everybody has something to say and share.
In Hong Kong, one of the most popular areas to see interesting street art is Central-Sheung Wan (中上環). Thanks to HKwalls, the non-profit organization who has been organizing annual street art festival since 2014, several neighbourhoods in Hong Kong have already become hotspots showcasing the talents of local and international artists. In their debut year of 2014, HKwalls paired artists with properties owners in Sheung Wan and successfully added 17 street murals in the neighborhood, then another 50+ works in Sheung Wan and Stanley Market in the following year. The event moved to Sham Shui Po in 2016, Wong Chuk Hang in 2017, then returned to Central and Western District in 2018 before moving on to Wanchai (2019) and Sai Kung (2021). HKwalls has successfully brought in great artistic talents from all over the world to Hong Kong, transformed the urban scenery of old neighborhoods, and raised public appreciation of street art to a whole new level.
For a city well known of its quick, dramatic and relentless urban changes, the impermanent and transient beauty of street art suit perfectly to echo the ephemeral spirit of Hong Kong. Here if you see an interesting street art, you better document it right away. Next time around, the mural may be gone forever.
Linking a number of tourist attractions like Tai Kwun, PMQ and Man Mo Temple, Hollywood Road is always popular for tourists in Hong Kong. While tourists come for the historical attractions, many locals, on the other hand, come to Hollywood Road for food and drinks. South of Hollywood Road, the narrow Staunton Street (士丹頓街) was once home to wet market vendors, trading offices, family-run stores and small Buddhist convents (庵堂). In fact, Staunton Street was once nicknamed the Street of Buddhist Nuns (師姑街). After the Central – Mid Levels Escalators opened to the public in 1993 and brought an influx of pedestrians from the business district downhill, Staunton Street and the adjacent Elgin Street(伊利近街) have quietly undergone a dramatic transformation. Expatriates started to move into the area. Old shops and Buddhist convents were gradually replaced by bars, pubs, restaurants, comedy clubs, cafes, and wine shops. In 1996, Thomas Goetz, a restaurant owner from Elgin Street, came up with the acronym “SoHo” (蘇豪) for this new entertainment and dining area of Central, referring to the location “South of Hollywood Road”. From then on, the Staunton Street that I used to go as a child to get fresh grocery and pay ritualistic respect to my grandfather at a small Buddhist convent has silently disappeared. Today, SoHo would remain sleepy most of the day, and then bursts into life after sunset. The yell of market vendors and pungent incense smoke have been replaced by causal giggles and laughter, and the smell of beer.
Further away from the Central – Mid Levels Escalators and less than 150m northwest of the buzzing SoHo, Gough Street (歌賦街), Kau U Fong (九如坊) and Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街) offer a much more laid-back and tranquil ambience. Once home to family run shops and small printing presses, these sleepy back streets have become a hipper cousin of the nearby SoHo. Known as NoHo for “North of Hollywood Road”, this area is particular attractive to locals who come for the foodie scene: Chinese cuisine, dai pai dong dishes, beef brisket noodles, Japanese ramen, sushi, Western fine dining, unadon, Vietnamese pho, hand-drip cafes, bubble tea, chocolate, etc. Despite its abundance of dining options, the shops here remain small and peaceful. Compared to its noisier neighbour, NoHo is much more low key, as if deliberately staying away from the public limelight. Here visitors would enjoy a sense of discovery and intimacy that is hard to find anywhere else in Central.
The former Victoria Prison or Gaol is the third main component of the Tai Kwun Centre of Heritage and Arts. Built in August 1841, some say the prison was the first permanent Western architecture constructed in Hong Kong. It served as the city’s first prison until 2006, when the complex was decommissioned for good. Today, the prison halls are largely preserved as listed historical buildings. Some are opened to the public to showcase the history, while some are being converted into restaurants and bars. But it’s the Prison Yard, the tranquil courtyard in the midst of the prison compound that is the real gem. Under the shade of Frangipani and Candlenut trees, movable beach chairs are provided for relaxation. In the evening, the courtyard is dimly lit to maintain a peaceful ambience.
At either end of the Prison Yard, renowned architect Herzog de Meuron has left their mark by erecting two cubic structures that appear to be floating in mid air above the prison walls. Serving as a theatre, one of the cubic structure is known as JC Cube. The other cube, named JC Contemporary, is a sleek looking museum of contemporary art. Beneath the JC Cube lies the stepped plaza Laundry Steps, where movie screening and live performances would regularly be held. Echoing the brick and stone masonry of the heritage structures, the cast aluminium facade of the cubic structures offer a dramatic contrast between the old and new.
If the Parade Ground courtyard at the lower platform is reserved for the vibrancy of retail and dining activities, the Prison Yard at the upper platform is all about the venues for cultural exhibitions and performances. While the Central Police Headquarters on Hollywood Road and Central Magistracy on Arbuthnot Road were all about establishing an authoritative image to the public, the unpretentious buildings of the Victoria Prison, which have been walled off from the city ever since 1841, offers the perfect setting for contemporary culture and architecture to establish a new identity for the compound. Converting the cold prison blocks into a welcoming urban oasis has so far proven to be successful.
Between Sheung Wan and Central lies a tranquil stepped alleyway known as Shing Wong Street (城皇街). In Chinese tradition, “Shing Wong” is the guardian deity of city wall, or in a broader sense, the patron saint of the neighbourhood. Shing Wong Street reminds us that there was once a Shing Wong Temple (城皇廟) stood at the site bounded by Shing Wong Street (城皇街), Staunton Street (士丹頓街), Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街), and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), a relatively large plot of land in the old Victoria City. Probably built in 1843 or earlier, some consider the former Shing Wong Temple the oldest temple in colonial Hong Kong. Its importance was soon overtaken by Man Mo Temple (文武廟) further down Hollywood Road. In 1870’s, Shing Wong Temple was temporarily converted into a mental health asylum. And then in the 1880’s the government bought the temple and redeveloped it into the new campus of Central School (中央書院), the city’s first upper primary and secondary school to provide modern education. The school was later renamed as Victoria College (維多利亞書院) in 1889 and later the Queen’s College (皇仁書院). Merchant tycoon Sir Robert Ho Tung, and Sun Yatsen, the Father of Modern China were some of the well known graduates from the college’s early years. The Neo-Classical college building was one of the most expensive construction projects in 19th century Hong Kong.
For half a century the splendid Queen’s College building stood proudly in Upper Sheung Wan, until 1941 when the school was forced to close down due to WWII. The building suffered devastating destruction during the war and became nothing more than ruins and rubble when the city was liberated from Japanese occupation. In 1948, the ruins were cleared to make way for a new era. In 1951, a functionalist building was erected for a completely different purpose: residential compound for the police force. Sitting on four levels of platforms, the Police Married Quarters offered about 170 dwelling units. The functionalist compound served its intended purpose for another half a century, until the last residents moved out in 2000. Subsequently the government rezoned the site for private residential development. The heritage site was at risk to be lost forever.
“Save the Trees” was the first slogan local resident Katty Law put up in 2005 to protest against the felling of the Hollywood Road “stone wall trees” of the Police Married Quarters. Among a few other residents from the local neighborhood, Law found a NGO known as Central and Western Concern Group (中西區關注組). The neighborhood group successfully persuaded the government to consider removing the site from residential redevelopment and engaging in archaeological examination of the site. The government agreed to study the site. This eventually led to discovering the historical foundation of the former Queen’s College. In 2009, the government finally announced preserving the former Police Married Quarters and revitalizing it into a hub for art and design that is known as PMQ today. In 2014, the PMQ reincarnated one more time. A glass canopy was constructed over the central court, where public events would now be held. The former residential units were retrofitted into studio spaces for selective tenants including designers, artists, galleries, fashion designers, jewellery designers, lifestyle shops, vintage stores, cultural institutions, cafes, bakeries, and restaurants. A new hub for tourists and art lovers has been reborn upon the legacies of a temple, school and police residence.