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Tai Kwun: A Monument to the Past

Chatteris’ own Tamzin Moon explores the background and revitalisation of Hong Kong’s historic police HQ turned heritage and arts centre.

Buildings do not only hold aesthetic importance, although this is perhaps what first attracts the tourist or expat to a certain area. They are also holders of great emotional significance, with each building being made up of different layers, including fragments of the people who once used it, as well as the history of the building’s original purpose. These aesthetic and emotional qualities of a place can be used to tell its story to the visitor.

Hong Kong’s lack of space in the city centre means every building must be used and used well to ensure space is not wasted. This means that old buildings must be repurposed to facilitate the growing needs of the city. A building that is repurposed, but still maintains important parts of its history, is best represented by Tai Kwun. Situated in the bustling heart of Central, Tai Kwun stands. An impressive yet formidable building that was once the Central Police Headquarters of Hong Kong. Only as recently as 2004-2006 did the sixteen buildings cease their original functions. With public outcry over the lack of care for historic buildings in Hong Kong, it was converted into a heritage and arts centre. It is made up of three main buildings; the Central Police Station, the Central Magistracy, and the Victoria Prison.

Interestingly, Tai Kwun’s balcony/verandahs that are located on the first floor all the way around the main building are a typical feature of British colonial architecture in Hong Kong. Due to the subtropical climate, they were an important place to socialise and even watch police parades. | Image by Tamzin Moon

The Revitalisation Project of Tai Kwun is one of the most expensive in Hong Kong, taking eight years and costing $3.8 billion HKD to finish. Tai Kwun literally translates to “Big Station” in Cantonese, making it a fitting name for a building so embedded in local history.

Its origins date back to Hong Kong’s colonial era, built in 1841, with buildings being added up until 1925 by the British, who established the Colonial Police Force there. Tai Kwun, like a chameleon, has adapted, shedding and changing its skin in order to survive the many fluctuating circumstances thrust upon it. From being held by the Japanese from 1941 until the end of the war after their invasion of Hong Kong, to being used as an immigration centre in 1980, and finally focusing on rehabilitation in 1982.

Now, in the present day many of the shops and restaurants operating there are featured in the main two buildings of the Police Headquarters Block and the Barrack Block. In keeping with the trendy vibe set by bordering SoHo, it offers an array of independent shops, from sweets, ceramics, tea and tailors. It also houses restaurants and bars including Dragonfly, The Dispensary and Behind Bars, a bar set specifically inside the prison, repurposing the cells as a trendy hangout spot.

Wandering around the parade ground in Tai Kwun as a Christmas tree is diligently put up, it is easy to forget that this place used to be somewhere you were forcibly detained. As opposed to choosing to spend your time here, relaxing with a cool glass of iced tea as the loud laughter of the ‘just-finished’ work crowd reminds me. Although, many historical places are at risk or have fallen to the dark depths of commercialism, with their buildings repurposed to suit the masses of tourists they attract. However, although some of this is evident in Tai Kwun, for the most part its integrity is preserved well. Most of the buildings are preserved and polished to tell the story and history of the building. But most importantly, it is a place where you can escape into living history for a while. Away from the hustle and bustle of Central, for an hour you can just sit and watch the sun move around the courtyard.

So, whatever your interest is, be it shopping, food, drinking or even for just an escape, Tai Kwun is an important place to visit and an ode to Hong Kong’s living, breathing history.

Interested in exploring Hong Kong’s historical locations like Tamzin? Apply now to become a Chatteris Tutor.

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