Every Art Lover Should Check Out Hong Kong’s Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts

Fresh from a lengthy, multimillion-dollar restoration, a former Hong Kong prison and police station is now the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts.

Overlooking the former parade ground at Tai Kwun.

The stylishly dressed young man races after his partner, but he’s too late. She flees the cell and swings the forbidding-looking iron door behind her until it shuts with an ominous clang, trapping him inside. His hands grip the bars and a flicker of panic crosses his face as she pulls out her phone to record his captivity for posterity.

Not your average date night, perhaps. Yet the prison block at Hong Kong’s old Central Police Station has become one of the city’s top destinations for camera-toting couples since the colonial-era compound was reborn as the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage & Arts in late May—so much so that wags in the local media are already referring to a “cell-fie” craze. On my visit, though it’s been open barely a week and the weather is just about perfect, the expansive complex rarely feels crowded. But the queues for a brief chance to lock up your loved ones extend the equivalent of a few city blocks.

This is a shame, not because it speaks to some deeply oppressive urges lurking in the hearts of some locals, but because the new incarnation of what was once the beating heart of Hong Kong’s criminal justice system has so much more to offer the willing explorer. And because it’s little short of a miracle it exists in its current form at all.

A visitor admiring Part Four: Suspension, a kinetic art installation by Wing Po So at the Herzog & de Meuron–designed JC Contemporary Art Center.

Tai Kwun, or “Big Station”—after the informal name once used by its administrators and not-so-willing occupants—is the culmination of more than a decade of restoration work and even more wrangling over the fate of a near 30,000-square-meter compound in the heart of a space-starved city. That the center’s 16 historic buildings—erected from the late 19th to early 20th century, with the last decommissioned in 2006—have survived largely intact is the result of the tireless efforts of community groups, the more conservation-minded corners of the government, and the main backer of the US$485 million project, the Hong Kong Jockey Club. And that’s to say nothing of the army of designers, artisans, and builders that were called on to breathe new life into structures that in many cases were in a dangerous state of disrepair (a fact that was underlined when a partial building collapse in 2016 set the effort back by months).

Local craftspeople, a Swiss architectural firm (Herzog & de Meuron), bricks from England, and tiles from Portugal all came together to realize a restoration filled with a million small battles and painstaking details sadly destined to go largely unnoticed by legions of day-trippers. Like how the eggshell-blue balustrades on the staircases of the imposing Police Headquarters Block—the complex’s grandest old structure—were subtly reinforced to nudge them closer in line with modern building codes; or how the Chinese-style tile roofs that adorn the otherwise solidly Victorian buildings were reconstructed in their entirety.

While a single entity, Tai Kwun is best conceived of and approached as two distinct experiences: historical and contemporary. For the first, the former Barrack Block, which now houses the main visitor center and gallery, probably offers the best introduction to the complex’s no-holds-barred brand of nostalgia. Its exhibits (including video footage) zero in on the major crises the station was tasked with addressing over the years, from leftist riots to New Year’s Eve stampedes in the nearby Lan Kwai Fong nightlife district.

A spiral staircase in the same building.

The hard-hitting themes continue in the majestic former magistracy and the various prison blocks, where the emphasis is very much on imparting some of the experience of those who progressed through the stages of the justice system. With the exception of what one must assume was some very off-color graffiti, little has been airbrushed out. Visitors can pose for mug shots; stand on the same red circles used to limit the numbers of prisoners queuing for medicine or food; proceed to cellblocks through narrow, caged walkways, past walls crowned with broken glass and barbed wire; and seek some measure of solace in the weathered crosses that adorn the walls of the onetime prison chapel. The stories and artifacts the project has managed to assemble and display are remarkable, and convey a not altogether comfortable taste of what it’s like to be utterly under the thumb of a well-oiled state machine.

Tai Kwun’s more contemporary side is represented primarily by two new Herzog & de Meuron–designed structures plunked down in the midst of the old: JC Contemporary, a multistory visual art center; and JC Cube, a performance space. Both have mesh-like exteriors made up of dark aluminum “bricks” designed to echo the surrounding buildings, though they still end up looking like they’ve landed from another planet altogether.

That said, these new arrivals also bring a welcome dose of vitality and current relevance to what would basically be, without them, another museum, albeit an exceptional one. For the complex’s inaugural exhibition, JC Contemporary was given over to “Dismantling the Scaffold,” a multinational, mixed-media, and frequently tongue-in-cheek exploration of the nature of identity and power; as well as a series of surrealistic installations based on up-and-coming local artist Wing Po So’s experiences with traditional Chinese medicine. These opening statements testify to both a determination to promote local work and a desire to be provocative. The intention is to ramp up with a constant rotation of exhibitions, light shows, lectures, concerts, and other performances to ensure there’s always something new to take in, and that the complex bustles from morning until well after sunset.

Old meets new in a view of the cast-aluminum facade of JC Contemporary as seen between the formidable walls of Tai Kwun’s Prison yard compound.

Tai Kwun will be helped further in that regard by a (so far) mercifully limited sprinkling of retail—primarily small boutiques with an emphasis on art and handicrafts—and an expanding roster of high-end restaurants, cafés, and bars. These include Dragonfly, a cocktail lounge designed by leading curator-of-the-fantastic Ashley Sutton, and the highly anticipated Old Bailey, a project by locally based Singaporean restaurateur Yenn Wong that will blend colonial and modern design and showcase the cuisine of eastern China’s Jiangnan region. Some venues, such as the unrepentantly Parisian Café Claudel, are already taking full advantage of the possibilities afforded by their unique surroundings, with breezy terraces that spill into Tai Kwun’s buzzing central courtyard.

Many elements of the complex (including a rather clumsy ticketing/quota system) are works in progress, and perhaps the greatest risk is that the rather delicate balance that seems to exist now—between historic and postmodern; nostalgic and edgy; artistic and commercial spaces—will prove difficult to maintain. Nonetheless, Tai Kwun as it stands is a very promising patchwork, arguably one of the greatest gifts to be bestowed on the Hong Kong public in decades, and a solid indication that the government’s constant promises to do more to support culture and the arts may not be entirely empty. Once more, it seems, the “big station” has ensured that justice is served.

Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage & Arts
10 Hollywood Rd., Central, Hong Kong; 852/3559-2600.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Station Identification”).

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