A Tai Kwun tour

A weekend stroll around the old Central Police Station/Victoria Prison compound – now open to the public, after HK$3 billion of work, as the Tai Kwun arts-heritage-hub-zone.

The site’s primary role is to serve as a cultural venue, with the impressive exhibition space at the art gallery (already done) and various performance facilities. So essentially the place will be as successful as the content it hosts. (Content? We need content???)

Otherwise, what we have are…

Open spaces, notably the prison courtyard and the old police station parade ground. They could use more or better seating, and maybe little tables, some shade, and even ideally some greenery. Presumably, the bosses made a conscious decision not to make the areas too park-like, either for the sake of authenticity or to discourage too much lounging around, fun, etc. Still, residents of this neighbourhood are grateful for even a square foot of extra concrete, and a group of Indonesian amahs had managed to devise a halfway decent picnic setup, so we shouldn’t complain.

Historic buildings, which are obviously the main static attraction. The exteriors have been so painstakingly refurbished that they have a sterile, Disney-like appearance, but maybe the weather will sort that out.

The original interior structures are intact, but thoroughly refitted with modern arts-centre/airport-terminal-style trimmings, signage, baby-feeding rooms, etc. This is a renovation rather than preservation project (contrast with this).

As well as cultural areas, you have historical displays, including a handful of preserved prison cells and a token creepy artefact – the mortuary slab. The museum-type offerings cover things like prison diet and the role of the police, but with limited context or depth about the wider society at the time. Perhaps this would exceed the hub-zone’s mandate; it also avoids the political-correctness problems involved in explaining the colonial past.

The buildings around the parade ground host reasonably unobtrusive retail and F&B outlets. The shops tend towards tacky/overpriced junk (leatherwear, clothes, pointless knickknacks), and the restaurants look pretentious/fancy. They all seemed fairly empty, though the glam quasi-oriental café stretching along a verandah of the main block might attract the easily impressed in the evenings. Meanwhile, a couple of ground-floor food places that are clearly affordable and pitched at normal people are crammed to overflowing and need far more space.

This is one of the great mysteries of life. The highest rents are paid by the outlets that attract no customers, therefore you can’t have nice things.

One exception to all this – the Taschen book store, including the world’s biggest David Hockney tome, a volume bound in chimpanzee fur, and other weirdness.

Overall – not bad, in a Jockey Club-paid-for-it way. My hunch is that locals will quite enjoy an occasional hour prowling around the old blocks, hanging out in the yard and taking in the odd movie or exhibition, while tourists might find the whole place a bit disappointing and stay away. (Fingers crossed.)

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10 Responses to A Tai Kwun tour

  1. Joe Blow says:

    Wait till the tour buses with the Chinese compatriots show up at the front entrance, clogging Wyndham Street with yet more traffic.

    I have to check out the prison courtyard. I used to live right behind it. Watching the prisoners exercise and play basketball was always fun: mostly Chinese wimmin, but also an occasional blonde (Russian?) over stayer, plus a few Africans and Pakistanis.

  2. AHW says:

    How long before we get the first curmudgeonly letter to the SCMP complaining about the Indonesian maids and their picnicking? How dare they! Having fun on their day off? In a public place?

  3. Not A Political Decision says:

    > Wait till the tour buses with the Chinese compatriots show up at the front entrance, clogging Wyndham Street with yet more traffic.

    That ain’t gonna happen, no mainland-owned souvenir shops and it’s showing colonial remnants. But koreans yeah for sure.

  4. Content? What’s that? Remember the multiple public consultations on the West Kowloon Cultural District – all about what buildings should be on the site, with no thought of asking people what actual cultural activities they would like provision for.

  5. Din Gao says:

    Response from TASCHEN to offering HK police autobiographies:

    “Please kindly note that TASCHEN bookstores worldwide only carry TASCHEN published titles exclusively.”

    I don’t give them long…

  6. steve says:

    Given the demons residing within, an old carceral facility probably should be burned to the ground, stomped into the earth, and replanted with a public park. Gutting and repurposing it is uneasily feasible, but it should then be turned over to social activist NGOs.

    Yeah, right. That isn’t how the Jockey Club rolls. The lack of vegetation announces foundational principles with authority. Pleasure = buying food in odd little piles and assorted tat.

    Din Gao: Taschen books are mostly pictures. This is a successful publishing model in an image-dominated world.

  7. Northern Menace says:

    The mortuary slab is not a creepy token artifact. It’s meant as a warning.

  8. Knownot says:

    I thought someone else would point this out.

    It is faux chimpanzee fur.

    A disappointment. No chimpanzees were killed to produce those books.

  9. Cassowary says:

    The management of Tai Kwun are in fact, quite adamant that their grounds are NOT open space.

  10. Stanley Lieber says:

    I visited Tai Kwun today (1 August) after reading this post.

    Don’t forget to order a (cost-free) entrance ticket online before you go.

    Hemlock’s review is spot on, maybe even a little generous.

    It’s a sterile hodgepodge. No unifying theme. A chaotic layout.

    The size of the place was a surprise.

    Ten years from now, after several overhauls, it’ll probably be ok.

    It’s better than another office building.

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