Heritage on the hill
The much-loved Old Tai O Police Station is re-opening as a boutique heritage hotel. Shirley Zhao charts its rejuvenation
Perched on a lush green hill, the Old Tai O Police Station has overlooked the small fishing village of Tai O for more than a century. The village itself remains as peaceful (and unchanged) as it was in the 1900s, with its mangroves and stilt houses across the waters. Nevertheless, the old police station, which was built in 1902 and is now a Grade II historic building, has embarked on a new life as a boutique heritage hotel, thanks to a government heritage revitalisation project.
The re-imagined building provides nine suites renovated from the former station offices, with the original ‘reporting room’ now a reception area and heritage exhibition centre. A pitched glass roof has been installed atop the original accommodation block extended from the main building, creating an enclosure for a rooftop café and restaurant, and the exterior features of the original building – such as the guard towers and searchlight – have been fully restored and preserved. The sealed bunker is now a wine cellar.
According to the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation, the hotel’s operator is itself a non-profit organisation founded in 2008 by developers Sino Group – but the government originally subsidised HK$69 million for the foundation to undertake the project, which estimates that the heritage hotel will attract 61,000 visitors annually over the first three years of its operation.
The project, which cost HK$66.7m, is expected to break even by the end of its first year of operation. “The profits generated from the hotel will be reinvested into preserving and promoting Tai O’s cultural heritage and natural environment,” stated Daryl Ng Win-kong, director of the foundation and executive director of Sino Group, back at the 2010 ground-breaking ceremony. The foundation has so far been cautious not to disclose room rates, but according to the assistant secretary for the Commissioner for Heritage’s Office, Queenie Lee Lai-kwan, as well as Tai O villagers and on-site construction workers, the rates are expected to range from $1,500 up to $2,000.
The Old Tai O Police Station is one of the government-owned buildings included in 2008’s HK$1 trillion Revitalisation Scheme created by the Development Bureau to put the city’s heritage sites into ‘good and innovative use’. According to the scheme, only non-profit organisations can apply for use of these buildings to provide services or run businesses. Five organisations applied for revitalising the police station. The foundation eventually beat out Hong Kong Young Women’s Christian Association, which proposed a similar plan of turning the building into a hotel. The foundation was judged to be ‘the most feasible operator’ in the final round of selection. Both the government and the foundation believe the project will boost overseas tourism to Tai O – and villagers seem happy about the renovation. “Tai O is a fishing village with many villagers who are as old as I am,” says 76-year-old Cheng Sap-chai. “The hotel will attract more people to Tai O and will make this village lively again.” Mrs Wu, who co-owns the small grocery store Wu Kei Cheong near the hotel, is cautiously optimistic. “Well, it’s better than nothing that a few more people can now come and buy sodas,” she says.
However, some villagers remain doubtful and have questioned the foundation’s true intentions. “The government is handing the heritage buildings – renovated with taxpayers’ money – to the tycoons on a silver plate,” says Wong Wai-king, founder of Tai O Cultural Workshop and veteran independent worker promoting the village’s culture. “Tourists come to Tai O because of its special culture and architecture, as well as its beautiful and rare natural scenery, not because of a hotel with only nine suites for a maximum of 18 guests!”
Wong also fears the hotel, which should be public property, will become a private club for the city’s rich. “Common people can’t afford room rates that high,” says Wong. “You need to pay to get into the roof-top café. Previously, we could walk through every part of the building and feel its history, but in the future we may only have the reception, the so-called ‘heritage exhibition centre’ available to the public.”
The foundation has promised regular ‘public tours’ of the hotel as well as other culture-promoting activities, including photo exhibits and an exhibition hall containing artefacts and documents from the station’s former reporting room. Visitors can also view the suites when not occupied by guests.
Dr Lee Ho-yin, member of the government-directed Antiquities Advisory Board and director of the Architectural Conservation Programme of the University of Hong Kong, says people should not make snap judgements. “Giving the project to a non-profit organisation with a background in big development will certainly stir questions,” says Lee, “but it is not fair to the organisation if we rush to judge its intention when the project has just started operating.”
Lee believes the hotel can ‘bring prosperity to Tai O and transform the fishing village’. “Not every historic building has the value to be preserved as a museum,” he says. “The Old Tai O Police Station has less importance in terms of historic and artistic values. The best way to conserve it is to discover its economic potential and make it benefit the whole society.”
Among all heritage buildings under the Revitalisation Scheme, the former North Kowloon Magistracy is the first and as yet only project which has started operations. The magistracy has been revitalised as the campus of the Hong Kong branch of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), managed by non-profit SCAD Foundation (HK) Ltd, founded in 2008. The SCAD Foundation spent HK$250m on the project without any government subsidy and the school opened in late 2010.
SCAD refurbished various rooms into offices and lecture halls, but preserved most of the original features, such as the prison cell bars, the courtroom tables and the prisoners’ docks. The public can visit the grand entrance hall and public galleries at any time. There is a free tour of the building every day at 10am apart from Sundays.
The tuition fee of the college is around $240,000 per year. According to John Paul Rowan, vice-president of SCAD Hong Kong, the college uses the revenue to hire lecturers, purchase textbooks and award students with scholarships: “We believe we can serve the interests of the community and help develop Hong Kong’s art industry.”
However, the decision in 2009 to award the project to SCAD was not without controversy. SCAD’s competitor, the Chinese Artist Association, claimed that if the public were allowed to decide its fate they would have chosen the association’s plan of using the magistracy as a cultural centre for promoting Cantonese Opera. Local media seemed to agree.
“Revitalisation is a good thing,” says Roy Ng Hei-man, senior campaign officer of the Conservancy Association, “but the decision-making process is not transparent enough.” Ng thinks heritage revitalisation should be put under public consultation – or at least the government should open up meetings to the public when the Advisory Committee on Revitalisation of Historic Buildings is accessing the plans or making decisions. “Historic buildings are society’s collective memories,” says Ng. “People should have the right to decide a building’s future.”
Queenie Lee Lai-kwan says the government has not had a plan to open the decision-making process to the public.
“The advisory committee is composed of specialists in the conservation field and other fields,” she says. “We believe they can represent most people’s opinions. We welcome – and we will be pleased to answer – any enquiry from the public.”
Others disagree. “It seems to me that the government emphasises more on economy, not conservation, when it comes to revitalisation,” Ng tells Time Out. “Economy should not monopolise the Revitalisation Scheme.”
Tai O Heritage Hotel Follow-up
Tai O Heritage Hotel opened on February 27. Its room rates are set at the standards of a four-star hotel, ranging from $1,330 to $2,300 and higher.
According to Corey Mak, director of the hotel's liaison office, there will be free guided tours every day, but it will be less likely that the rooms open to the tours. Tourists can also visit the roof-top café and restaurant for free. "But we will consider customers as priority to take the seats [in the roof-top café and restaurant]," Mak tells Time Out.
The hotel is now open for booking.