OASES IN THE CULTURAL DESERT, Hong Kong Arts Centre (香港藝術中心) & Academy of Performing Arts (香港演藝學院), Wan Chai (灣仔), Hong Kong
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.
Six years before the handover of Hong Kong to China, Taiwanese songwriter and singer Lo Tayou (羅大佑) published a song called “Queen’s Road East” (皇后大道東) in 1991. Emerged as a satirical reflection of Hongkongers’ collective feelings in the eve’s of the handover, the song became an instant hit. Even today, the song still offers an interesting cultural reference to understand the city’s unsettling moment before 1997. In the face of Hong Kong’s social uncertainties and imminent changes in near future, lyricist Albert Leung (林夕) made use of a wide range of symbols in the song, from “portrait on the coin” and “noble friend” to signify Queen Elizabeth II, to “waves of pedestrians” to suggest the mass exodus of Hongkongers. But the biggest symbolism is in fact the name “Queen’s Road East” itself. Physically divided into three sections, namely Queen’s Road East, Queen’s Road Central, and Queen’s Road West, Queen’s Road was used in the song to symbolize the three main players in the city’s story: “East” for Hong Kong, “West” for Britain, and “Central” for China (in reference to “Middle Kingdom”, the Chinese name of China). While “Queen” is unmistakably a reference to the city’s colonial past, the historical and economic significance of Queen’s Road has suggested a meaning way beyond colonialism. It is in fact a symbol of the city’s success story. As Hong Kong’s first main road, Queen’s Road was home to the first city hall, first post office, first luxury hotel, first bank headquarters, first residences of government officials, first business district, etc. After almost 180 years of urban transformations, its importance in the commercial heart remains vital to this date. The rich history and symbolism of Queen’s Road has made it a sensible choice for Lo Tayou and Albert Leung in their iconic song, and a reference point to tell the story of Hong Kong.
For its architecture and luxury shops, Queen’s Road Central is indeed a popular destination for both foreign visitors and local Hongkongers. Constructed between 1841 and 1843, Queen’s Road was originally named Main Street (大馬路). It ran through the first business district in the city between Sai Ying Pun (西營盤) and Central (中環). The road was soon renamed as Queen’s Road in tribute to Queen Victoria. As the road further extended in the west and east direction, Queen’s Road was eventually divided into three main sections: West, Central and East. Connecting Sheung Wan (上環) and Central along the island’s original shoreline, Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中) has long been considered as a synonym of Downtown Hong Kong. Subsequent land reclamations in the next 180 years pushed Queen’s Road Central further and further inland. The business district has long extended way beyond its original extent around Queen’s Road Central. Yet, buildings along the road continue to be sold, torn down and replaced by taller replacements, from the 19th century Neo-classical structures to the 20th century Modernist buildings, and then to the contemporary glassy skyscrapers. Due to its historical significance, Queen’s Road Central is probably one of the most documented street in Hong Kong. Having the historical photographs in hand while taking a brief tour of Queen’s Road Central offers a fruitful way to understand the tale of constant changes, and endless cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction in one of the fastest growing metropolises in modern history.
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.
After the Treasury, we turned right and walked towards the centre of the former Nabataean capital city. On the hillside of El Nejr, a splendid theatre was carved out from the red sandstone in the 1st century. The 45 rows of seats could accommodate an audience of 8,500 people. Standing at the theatre offered us one of the best view of Petra: numerous rock cut mausoleums, commonly know as the Royal Tombs, carved into the great massif of Jebel Al Khubtha. From the theatre, we made our way uphill towards another icon of Petra: the Monastery (El Deir). It took us roughly an hour to reach the Monastery from the theatre. The Monastery was an important ceremonial temple for the Nabataeans. Similar to the Treasury, the Monastery is a rock-cut building carved out from the cliff. There is a large forecourt in front of the Monastery, probably a venue for religious ceremonies. Many believed the building was used as a church during the Byzantine era, which explained where the name Monastery came from. We sat down at an open tea shop across from the Monastery, where we rested for an hour with the iconic front elevation of the Monastery.
We visited two more lookouts uphill to see the arid valley scenery surrounding Petra. On our way out we stopped by more royal tombs and small cave dwellings. We were exhausted from the hike and heat, and our attention had shifted to the unique rock patterns that could be found allover Petra. From the centre of the lost city, it was another 2km before we returned to the visitor centre. Everyone seemed to be leaving at the same time, by horses, by donkey carts, on foot, etc. In the evening, we had a Bedouin cuisine dinner at Red Cave Restaurant and stayed a bit at the Internet cafe in Wadi Musa.
Probably constructed at around 70 AD, the Urn Tomb is one of the first Royal Tombs that we encountered in Petra.
Many believe the Urn Tomb was the final resting place of Nabataean King Malchus II who died in 70 AD.
The main chamber of the tomb was converted into a church during the Byzantine era.
Beside the Urn Tomb stands the Silk Tomb, a mausoleum well known for its rich sandstone patterns.
Nearby, the Corinthian Tomb resembles the feature of the iconic Treasury.
The facade of the Palace Tomb is three storey high. Some believe the Palace Tomb was inspired by Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) in Rome.
Most of the tombs, caves and tunnels in the “Rose City” was built between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD.
15m in height and 8m in width, Tomb BD 70 is one of the few freestanding structure in Petra.
Both Tomb BD 70 and BD 69 are typical Hegra type tomb structures.
All the rock-cut structures have gone through two thousand years of erosion.
The main theatre of Petra faces east, and was renovated by the Romans during the 1st and 2nd century.
The seating area was entirely carved out of the rock cliff.
From the theatre, we could take in a fantastic view of the Royal Tomb cluster.
Qasr El-Bint (Temple of Dushares) is the largest freestanding structure in Petra.
Lion Triclinium was built in the 1st century intended for ritual banquets. The name obviously came from the two weathered lions at the entrance.
The trail up to the Monastery involves an uphill climb of 850 steps.
The walk to the Monastery took about 45 minutes to an hour.
Scenery of the arid valleys of Wadi Araba was one of the biggest rewards for the hike up to the Monastery.
Apart from the Treasury, the Monastery is probably the most famous structure in Petra. Dedicated to the Nabatean King Obodas I , the ancient temple was built in the 1st century AD.
For thousands of years since Neolithic times, the “L” shaped hill known as the Citadel of Amman has been inhabited. Ruined temples, churches and palaces dated from the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad period stand on the citadel hill today. Most of the site remains unexcavated, despite archaeologists have been working here since 1920. The most impressive remain on the hill is the ruins of Temple of Hercules, a Islamic palace and a modest archaeological museum, in which parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display. After dropping off our dirty clothes at a laundry shop, getting ourselves some stamps at the post office, and having a peek at the 2nd century Roman Theatre through the metal gate, we turned to the Citadel hill. On the hill, we chatted with a group of cheerful girls who were playing on the street. They spotted us from afar and seemed pretty curious about the three of us. One of them spoke to us in simple English, and we ended up taking pictures with them in the midst of innocent laughter.
In the evening, we had dinner at a restaurant with a large balcony overlooking a busy street. After dinner, I had a short break at the hostel before returning to the restaurant that we had supper to watch the 2006 UEFA Champions League final on their live TV. There were 15 local men in the tiny restaurant watching the game. I sat down at an empty chair behind a man and ordered a bottle of coke. The large balcony window was opened and I could hear the noise and cheer from restaurants and tea shops down below. It felt like everyone in the city was watching the game. Almost all the other men in the restaurant were smoking cigarette or shisha (water pipe), and the place got pretty smoky. When Campbell scored the first goal for Arsenal, the restaurant owner came out and teased all of us. He yelled at me saying “Barca finishes, Arsenal good!” Throughout the game, the men around me kept on sneaking out to the balcony and yelled down to people on the street. I wasn’t sure whether they knew each other or they were just too excited about the game. Assisted by Henrik Larsson, at around 76th minutes Samuel Eto finally scored the first goal for Barca, and then the second came 5 minutes later through Juliano Belletti. It was the perfect night for the Barca supporters in Amman. As I walked back to the hotel, I passed by groups after groups of joyful locals coming out from tea shops and restaurants after watching the game. Some were walking home in laughter, while the others hopping on cars that packed both sides of the street.
The first impression of Jordan was clean and pleasant.
Amman is a popular Arab city for international visitors. It also receives the most medical tourists in the region.
Locals that we met in Jordan were all very welcoming and friendly.
At the Citadel, the uncompleted 2nd century Temple of Hercules was the most prominent Roman structure. Probably destroyed by earthquakes, it once housed a 12m stone statue of Hercules.
Lying mostly in ruins at the Citadel, the Umayyad Palace was built in the 8th century.
A new dome was restored at the entrance hall of Umayyad Palace in 1998, though not all experts have agreed on whether there was truly a dome in the old times.
Looking down from the Citadel we could get a good view of the Roman Theatre.
Situated at the foot of Jabal Al-Joufah opposite to the Citadel, The 2nd century Roman theatre could seat 6000 people.
The Raghadan Flagpole was once the tallest in the world. It is visible from allover the capital city.
As of 2015, the 126.8m Raghadan Flagpole is the 7th tallest in the world. It flies a 60 x 30m flag.
Mainly cladded with limestone or sandstone, residential buildings in Amman are limited to 4 storeys above ground.
At the Citadel hill, we stumbled upon a group of cheerful children.
The young girls were quite curious about us.
Amman is considered to be one of the most liberal cities in the Arab world. Many children have been exposed to the global commercialism since very young age.
One of the girls tried speaking to us in simple English.
I passed by Al-Husseini Mosque on our way to supper. Erected in around 640 AD, Al-Husseini Mosque was one of the oldest mosques in Amman. The structure was rebuilt in 1932 by King Abdullah I.
After a rather heavy-hearted account of a brief stay in Syria, we move on to the next part of the Middle East journey: Jordan. Although small and almost landlocked, Jordan is a country of a relatively high development with an “upper middle income” economy in the region. It is also a major tourist destination, thanks to the ruined city of Petra, Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, the desert of Lawrence of Arabia. After a little more than a week in Syria, my first impression of the Jordanian capital Amman was the reemergence of global businesses and commercialism. We started our Jordanian route from the very north of the country at Jerash, one of the best preserved classical ruined cities in the world.
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In the morning we took a minibus from Amman’s Abdali Bus Station (now closed) to Jerash, about 50km north of the capital. Known as the City of Gerasa or Antioch on the Golden River in the Greco-Roman period, Jerash is now a major tourist attraction in Jordan. Many have compared Jerash to Pompeii in terms of the extent and level of preservation. To me, they are actually two very different archaeological sites. Founded by Alexander the Great or by Seleucid King Antioch IV in 331 BC, Gerasa flourished in the Roman period as a trading hub. The three of us entered the Arch of Hadrian, wandered around the site and visited the ruins of Temple of Artemis, saw many Corinthian columns, early churches, the Oval Piazza, and two theaters. At the second theatre, a band of musicians, dressed in military uniforms, were playing ceremonial music on the stage and prompting us to stop for a while. We exited the ruins through the north gate, and hired a taxi to the bus station. At the station, we met an old man who claimed to be an experience tour guide. He told us a bit about his journey to Hong Kong back in early 1970’s, and recommended a cheaper Amman bound bus to us.
The 22m high triple archway was erected in 130AD to commemorate the visit of Roman Emperor Hadrian.
The Oval Forum and Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded road are the most recognizable features of Jerash.
The Oval Forum is bounded by 56 Ionic columns. The large square was probably used as a marketplace and a social gathering spot.
With the beautiful scaenae frons (stage backdrop) and proscenium (front face of the stage), the South Theatre is another popular attraction in Jerash.
Built between AD 81 and 96, the 5000-seat South Theatre is famous for its acoustics.
Just like many other tourists, we came across a band playing Jordanian Scottish bagpipe at the South Theatre of Jerash.
The Jordanian Scottish bagpipe is a legacy from Emirate of Transjordan, the years of British protectorate before 1946.
Artemis was the patron saint of Gerasa. Built in the 2nd century AD, the Temple of Artemis was one of the most important building in the city, at least before the end of the 4th century when pagan cults were forbidden.
Temple of Artemis has several beautiful Corinthian columns.
Each column weighs over 20 tons and are 39 feet tall.
Built in AD 165, the North Theatre was used for government meetings in the Roman times. Many seats are inscribed with names of city council members.
Near Damascus, Bosra is probably one of the most popular destinations for tourist excursion. As a unique UNESCO World Heritage site, Bosra preserves one of the best example of a Medieval adaptive reuse project, which converted an ancient Roman theatre into a defensive citadel. In the 2nd century BC, Borsa emerged as a Nabatean city. After the Nabatean Kingdom was annexed by the Romans under Emperor Trajan in 106 AD, Borsa became the prosperous capital of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea. By the 5th century, Bosra was turned into a Metropolitan archbishop’s seat for the Christian Byzantine. The Islam Rashidun Caliphate captured Bosra from the Byzantine Christians in 634. From then on, the city served as an outpost of Damascus, and a vital stop of hajj pilgrimage between Damascus and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. After the Seljuks came in 1076, the thousand-year old city underwent a series of dramatic transformations, particularly the Roman theatre was converted into a fortress. Then mosques and Muslim shrines were built to add some religious touches to the complex. In the 13th century, the Ayyubid constructed eight towers at the Roman theatre to consolidate the city’s defense. The various transformations of Bosra have given a unique character to the city, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Just like many other archaeological sites in the country, Bosra’s Roman Theatre was partially damaged in the civil war.
From Baramke Station in Damascus, we hopped on a minibus for Bosra. After arriving in Bosra’s Agora, we were approached by a local who claimed to be an assistant of a French archaeologist. As a temporary guide, he took us for a quick tour of Bosra, and led us to visit his “aunt” at a domestic home. We took a picture with his “aunt” and parted with our temporary guide at the entrance of the Roman Threater. A bridge led us across the moat into a entry hall of the citadel. Walking through the Islamic citadel to enter the theatre was like walking through a labyrinth of defensive tunnels. It was quite possible to get lost in the underground section of the complex. Steep stairs and dark corridors led to the entryways of the theatre. Under the bright sun, dark volcanic basalt, one of the main construction materials of Bosra, was quite obvious. We stayed at the theatre for about half an hour, found our way onto the stage, and hurried out of the labyrinth-like tunnel to exit the complex. We made it on time to the bus station for the 14:00 bus back to Damascus.
Less than 20,000 residents were still living in Bosra back in 2006.
Dark basalt rocks were used to construct the city of Bosra.
The construction of Bosra was simple and practical.
We walked around the ruins of Bosra before entering the theatre.
There were many examples of incorporating ancient Nabatean and Roman structures into medieval houses.
Ancient Roman materials were either reused or incorporated into new structures.
The fusion came under the Muslim rule when the citadel with eight guard towers was built to defend against the Crusade.
Our temporary guide led us to his aunt’s home, one of the Medieval stone houses.
We said hello to the guide’s aunt before heading to the theatre.
Once a city housing 80,000 in the ancient times, in 2006 Bosra was a small town with less than 20,000 residents living among the ruins.
Crossing the stone bridge on the moat, we finally entered the Citadel Theatre.
The Citadel Theatre is the best preserved remains in Bosra, and a one-of-a-kind adaptive reuse construction. Efforts were made from 1946 onward to clear the 3 storey defensive structures in the theatre area, thus the Roman theatre reappeared once again.
The theatre construction began in Trajan’s time when a 9000-15000 seat theatre was built.
In the Medieval times, the theatre was transformed into a citadel. A maze of covered passageways were constructed to connect the inner theatre with the outer section of the citadel.
The three storey stage backdrop was once filled with marble details and statues. These doors were used for actors to enter the stage.