My time in prison

Where would I rather spend a Friday afternoon: at an exhibition of mostly dismal contemporary art and design by young Hongkongers, or in prison? Tough call. But it was possible last week to do both at the same time, courtesy of the annual DeTour event featuring our city’s emerging creative talent. This included such delights as pervy schoolgirl uniforms hanging from the ceiling and other reminders of the importance of our financial services sector. Maybe half the visitors had come see and photograph the displays…

The other half had come to see the location: Victoria Prison, built in 1841 though mostly dating from the 1860s to the 1930s. I remember years ago seeing pairs of inmates in pale brown cotton tunics and shorts and bare feet briefly let out onto Old Bailey Street carrying garbage to the collection point; guards stood and watched in case they were tempted to make a dash for Hollywood Road and freedom. More recently, it became a co-ed Immigration Department detention centre for deportees – the ‘signage’ dates from this era – before closing at end-2005. It is now a historic monument due to become some sort of cultural facility.

Visitors to DeTour could poke around at least half the establishment, as well as the old police HQ next door, and on a weekday afternoon there were few other people around. In the old days it would have been noisy and crowded and at least lively, but in silent abandonment, in areas not hosting quasi-avant-garde objets, it has a Lubyanka-style creepiness…

The first thing you see is the courtyard, with four trees – more than the rest of the lower Mid-Levels put together. When the compound is turned into an arts/entertainment/whatever hub this will be a great al-fresco hangout. In the buildings, however, it is dark, cramped and echoey and everything seems to have been deliberately designed to be depressing. The cells are claustrophobically tiny and the communal areas drab. In one or two places I fancied I could still smell the odour left by the former residents; there is no air-conditioning, and in summer the atmosphere must have been fetid. I suppose you get into the routine, but the initial impact of being put in a place like this – especially if you are used to your privacy and creature comforts – must be crushing.

Being in the middle of the high-rise urban area, Victoria Prison offered tantalizing glimpses of the outside world in every direction whenever inmates got the chance to peer through the barbed wire at the world beyond…

Gleaming skyscrapers loom in the distance over dark outdoor passageways. A stone’s throw away, the apartment blocks of Chancery Lane and Caine Road dwarf the wall of the courtyard. (I knew someone who lived in one. From her living room every morning, at the same time every day, she could see a male Correctional Services Department officer through an administration building window, masturbating. It was how she knew it was time to go to work.) On a brighter note, the window in a dining hall allowed convicts to look down the hill at the loopy New Age Shop* and the Flying Pan restaurant and its revolting greasy British breakfasts served 24 hours a day – vivid reminders that life behind bars isn’t all bad.

*Incidentally: the New Age Shop this week is hosting a presentation called Can’t Sleep? Maybe You Didn’t Do the Right Thing with Dr. Steve Hinkey. I would suffer severe insomnia at the very thought of doing anything with Dr Steve Hinkey.

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5 Responses to My time in prison

  1. Phyllis Stein says:

    Interesting and colourful piece!

    I think you should write for the SCMP magazine. Failing that, TRAVEL ASIA. Most of your output though really belongs in the OLDIE.


  2. Mike Hunt says:

    I used to live in that apartment in Chancery Lane. I had a great view of the courtyard. Everyday I saw the inmates lining up: mostly Chinese females and a minority of South Asian males, playing basketball. Once I saw an extremely blonde girl, who looked Russian. No male Chinese, though. On one occasion, an African inmate set fire to his own cell -not smart, with the door locked and all- and didn’t live to tell about it.

  3. DesVoeux says:

    I quite like the Flying Pan, personally. Not to disparage cha chaan tengs; but if you want an Anglo-American breakfast, the Flying Pan certainly beats going to a hotel restaurant.

    In fact, the worst thing about the Flying Pan are the hippies from next door wandering in and stinking up the place with that wretched smell of b.o. and patchouli.

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