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 The yell of market vendors and pungent incense smoke have been replaced by causal giggles and laughter, and the smell of beer.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.
In the business district of Hong Kong, it is always an uphill battle to preserve a heritage building against the power of urban development. The former Police Married Quarters (PMQ) is a rare exception, and so as the former Central Police Station Compound just a few blocks down Hollywood Road. In the past two years, the most exciting new attraction in Hong Kong has to be Tai Kwun (大館). Consisted of 16 heritage buildings, 2 courtyards and 2 new structures, Tai Kwun is the the largest heritage and art compound in the city. Literally means “big station” in Chinese, “Tai Kwun” refers to how people used to call this former police compound over a century ago. Today, Tai Kwun is home to art and history exhibitions, outdoor performances, a 200-seat auditorium, design shops, restaurants and bars. Perhaps everyone acknowledges that there isn’t much old Hong Kong left to see nowadays, that’s why Tai Kwun has become an instant hit on Instagram and made it onto Time magazine’s list of World Greatest Places when the compound first opened to the public in 2018.
The story of Tai Kwun dates as far back as 1841, the year when the British first set foot in Hong Kong. On the slope of Tai Ping Shan in Central, Captain William Caine who also served as Chief Magistrate and Head of Police and Gaol chose the current site bounded by Hollywood Road (荷李活道), Old Bailey Street (奧卑利街), Chancery Lane (贊善里) and Arbuthnot Road (亞畢諾道) to build the city’s first prison, police station and magistracy office all in one compound. Expansions and alterations of the splendid compound gradually establish the authority of the colonial police force upon the public. Most buildings were erected before 1925, despite expansions and alterations continued to transform Tai Kwun well into 1950’s. For 160 years the compound served as Central’s law enforcement hub until 2006 when the compound was finally decommissioned. In 2007, conceptualization of the Tai Kwun revitalization project began to take shape. Construction and conservation work began in 2011 and took 8 years to complete. After spending HKD 3.7 billion from the Hong Kong Jockey Club charity trust, Tai Kwun finally opened its doors in May 2018.
As a child having lived for a decade at the intersection of Old Bailey Street and Chancery Lane just 10m away from the Blue Gate of Victoria Prison, entering the walled compound that has been off limits to the public for the last 160 years has been quite special to me. I used to walk past the prison along Chancery Lane and imagine what might lie on the other side of the high stone wall topped with pieces of broken glass. As the revitalized Tai Kwun unveiled its mysterious face, my childhood curiosity has finally been fed. It is delightful for me to see that Tai Kwun has been carefully preserved, restored and everyone, including me, can finally see, touch and enjoy whatever that are taking place at both sides of the prison walls.
Whenever I flew with Cathay Pacific, I often selected Wong Kar Wai’s (王家衛) Chungking Express (重慶森林) from their entertainment system when I was about to take a nap. Indulging myself in the repeating music of Dennis Brown’s Things in Life and The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’, and Christopher Doyle’s dynamic shots of Tsim Sha Tsui and Central always relaxed my mind. Chungking Express is undoubtedly one of my most favorite Hong Kong films. Chungking Express is lighthearted, complex, ambiguous, and beautiful. There are two stories in the film. The first story follows policeman 233 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a female drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) at Chungking Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui. The second story follows policeman 633 (Tony Leung) and a female staff (Faye Wong) at Midnight Express, a snack bar in the entertainment district of Central. Released in 1994, three years before Hong Kong was returned to China, the film did capture a mixed bag of sentiments and mood of that era: sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, loneliness, loss, affection, impermanence, desire to change, hope for a brighter future, etc. Without pretentious shots of the city’s famous skyline, Chungking Express is a visually dazzling film that captures the daily life of Hong Kongers happened in wet market, snack bar, old tenement apartment, convenience store, and the Chungking Mansion, a huge mixed use complex in Kowloon where new immigrants and tourists gather and stay the night. Director Wong Kar Wai describes the film as his love letter to Hong Kong. 27 years have passed. Chungking Express remains as an icon of Hong Kong cinema, and an exquisite documentation of the ever-changing city in that particular moment in history.
Perhaps it is because both protagonists Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and Faye Wong (王菲) are two of my favorite Hong Kong stars back in the 1990’s, or The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’ is too overpowering, or the filming locations in Central are just a few blocks from where I spent my childhood, I always like the story of Midnight Express more. Every time watching the film would remind me the old Central before the disastrous urban renewal projects that have torn apart Graham Street Market and gentrification that have wiped out uncounted tenement apartments and small shop owners who can no longer afford the skyrocketed rent. 1994 also marked the first anniversary of the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯), a 800m escalator system from Downtown Central up to the Mid-Levels. Wong Kar Wai chose the escalator and an adjacent apartment unit (home of Christopher Doyle, the legendary cinematographer of many Wong’s films) as the major film set for Chungking Express. Wong’s selection prominently imprints the escalator in the cultural atlas of the city, and introduces such unique urban feature to the whole world. In fact, the success of Chungking Express has consolidated Wong Kar Kai’s name onto the stage of international cinema, paving the way for his triumphs in the later half of the 1990’s, including Happy Together and In the Mood for Love.
Today, the 800m escalators system remains the longest in the world, and a popular tourist attraction. In 2015, CNN website picked the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator as one of the coolest commutes in the world. The idea of building an urban escalator system began in early 1980’s, when the Hong Kong government considered various options to improve traffic and pedestrian circulation between Central, the business district of Hong Kong, and Mid Levels, the residential neighbourhood on the slope of Victoria Peak. Cable car and monorail were also considered, but an escalator system was eventually selected. After 2.5 years of construction, the system was opened to the public in 1993. Wong Kar Wai seized the opportunity and became the first director to shoot a movie there. The escalator soon became popular among residents and office workers in Central, and led to dramatic gentrification of the surroundings. Buildings along the escalator system were torn down for new apartments. Small shops were replaced by bars and upscale restaurants, forming a vibrant entertainment district that we now call Soho. For both good and bad, the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator has been a major catalyst that wipes out the old Central I have known as a child. Yet on the other hand, the convenience it brings us who live in the area has undeniably become an inseparable part of our daily routine.