In a month that sees Hong Kong celebrating all things French, it seems like the perfect time to visit one of the city’s most intriguing examples of French colonial architecture. Enveloped in greenery on the hills of Pok Fu Lam, Béthanie House is a striking neo- Gothic-style building that looks like it belongs in the South of France rather than the west of Hong Kong. Attractive as it is, the Béthanie nearly succumbed to advancing bulldozers in the late ’70s, after it was sold to property developer Hongkong Land in 1974. But, despite a demolition sign hanging over its doors for five years, the building was granted a reprieve and later became the recipient of an $80 million renovation project – something today’s visitors are no doubt thankful for.
Built in 1875 by the French Mission, the Béthanie’s original purpose as a sanatorium prevailed for nearly a century. Today, it serves as the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts’ School of Film and Television. Since its reopening in 2006, the Béthanie has also hosted weddings, concerts, and even a party for luxury fashion label Chloé. It throws open its doors to the public, too, with daily guided tours in three languages (English, Cantonese and Putonghua). Surprisingly, say staff, few English speakers take the tour, with most non-Cantonese-speaking visitors being mainland tourists or French expats. Others clearly don’t know what they’re missing.
The chapel in the main building has been beautifully preserved, while the remaining space has been transformed into classrooms and studios. Two old octagonal cowsheds now hold a theatre and exhibition space. While the grounds and the basement museum are both open to the general public, the best that Béthanie has to offer – the Bethanie Chapel, Sir Y K Pao Studio, and the Wellcome Theatre – are only accessible with the official tour.
Much of the credit for the Béthanie’s current state of grace must go to architect Philip Liao. During the restoration Liao and his team went on a full-scale scavenger hunt across the city to recover the original furnishings. The original altar from the chapel, for example, was found in the basement of a Tseun Wan church. Locating the 19 stained-glass windows proved particularly challenging: two were discovered during the renovations of nearby Chi Fu Fa Yuen housing development, and a few were found at Zetland Hall on Kennedy Road.
Visitors with a keen eye will notice that the gallery of apostles in the chapel is incomplete. Once a complete set, the apostles were given as elaborate gifts when the Mission moved to The Peak in 1974. Of the 12 apostles, four have so far been discovered. St. Matthew, St Paul, and St Thomas were found in the art classroom of a nearby primary school, while St Peter had settled down in the home of a US architect who was a friend of the Mission. Not wanting to deprive the current owners of their apostles, the Béthanie had replicas made, and it is these that now stand in the chapel.
The most stunning part of the tour is the walk around the top-floor. Now a dance studio, the top level has floor-toceiling windows, and the balcony offers gorgeous views of the Lamma Channel to the south, and Pok Fu Lum village and The Peak to the north.
Inevitably, there are modernisations that impinge upon the feeling of being lost in a French church: a Jackie Chan figurine commemorating his donation towards the renovations is revealed as part of the tour while there are flat-screen TVs in the chapel for those in the eaves. But these are minor distractions, and the Béthanie remains an authentic slice of Gallic craft that has stood the test of time.
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