If there’s one thing a few Hongkongers like to complain about, it’s the lack of respect for history. A handful of independent developers are trying to preserve some of the city’s unique architecture on their own, but more often than not, if the government decides it’s coming down there’s no way stopping them. It’s called progress.
But the hue and cry over some demolitions (the old Star Ferry Pier in Central, Wedding Card Street in Wanchai) has made the decision-makers hit the pause button and seriously consider regeneration. London does it masterfully. New York, Toronto, Melbourne and Berlin have all carried out flawless repurposing of old buildings and seen property values in surrounding neighbourhoods skyrocket. But it’s really happening. Despite rampant modern development, Hong Kong still has a clutch of heritage buildings that are in various stages of makeover. Will they be an Asian King’s Cross — or just another shopping mall à la 1881?
The 19th century Police Married Quarters on Hollywood Road (or Central School depending on your history preferences) is the farthest along of any of the high profile regeneration and repurposing projects on the books; the PMQ is scheduled for a soft opening in early May. Regardless, work on the building started in 2012, with the Musketeers Education and Culture Charitable Foundation the official operator of the soon-to-be creative industries hub. It’s in an ideal location, right on the cusp of trendy Sheung Wan, already a bit of creative haven, and as PMQ chair Stanley Chu said in a statement in 2012, “PMQ is a place built for designers. PMQ will serve as a platform for designers to showcase their products to the public and to create new business opportunities. It will be a historic building and all-round venue for new experiences of shopping, dining and inspiration, as it will stand out as a landmark of Hong Kong’s creative ecology.”
A fine idea, and with room for 130 tenants in individual studios, the PMQ’s open door policy is designed to create an interactive and collaborative vibe. And also to sell stuff. Make no mistake there is a retailing element to the PMQ complex. The premium spaces on the ground floor have already been leased by major labels like Vivienne Tam, bread n butter, G.O.D. and the HKTDC. Still, with relatively low base rents and various incentives and discounts available to eligible tenants, there may finally be a place where designers without deep pockets can set up shop and where Hongkongers that don’t want a pair of Converse and a Billy bookcase can go. There’s also a 6,500-square foot multi-function hall called The Cube and an additional 10,000-square foot covered space are for related events. No one will say it out loud, but a lot is riding on the PMQ. If the idea doesn’t take off, it could easily be the last time the government sacrifices a prime piece of Central real estate to the greater good.
Perhaps as a way to combat Hong Kong’s image as a cultural wasteland and a creative dead zone, just down the block from the PMQ are the 1919 Central Police Station headquarters, the 1864 barracks and the 1912 magistracy building among 13 other structures at the corner of Hollywood and Old Bailey Street. The Hong Kong Jockey Club ponied up the nearly $2 billion to revitalise the complex — which was supposed to be open in 2012 — and create a new iconic structure “erected on the upper platform area to create a cultural complex that will include a 500-seat auditorium, a 500-seat theatre, two art cinemas, a gallery, a multipurpose exhibition space and supporting facilities,” as the Central Police Station Revitalisation Project website states. Working on the 3.4-acre (which will include 40,000 square feet of open space) redevelopment are architects Herzog & de Meuron (Beijing’s Birds Nest National Stadium, Tate Modern), heritage specialists Purcell (Ireland’s Ballyfin Hotel, Runnymede Hotel) and Hong Kong’s ROCCO (Berlin’s Bamboo Pavilion, Government headquarters at Tamar).
Obviously, it’s not open. A spokesperson for the HKJC confirms work was supposed to begin in 2009, but extensive public consultations slowed things down. The revitalisation started in 2012. “To date, restoration and refurbishment of the heritage buildings and open spaces are underway, and foundation works for the two Herzog buildings have completed. Works on plant rooms to provide centralised buildings services have also commenced.” The target end date is now 2015, “After which the site will be fitted out and government permits will be obtained.”
The last stop on the trek from Sheung Wan to Central is the former bastion of gore, Central Market. The functionalist, vaguely Bauhaus, vaguely Streamline Moderne (a cousin of Art Deco) structure has already been demolished and rebuilt four times since 1842, so it’s no stranger to repurposing. Shuttered for good as a wet market in 2003, in a 2005 study the Hong Kong Institute of Architects noted Central Market, “Was built in the prevailing movement between WW1 and WW2. It was a very unique ‘period’ of political, socio-economic changes and architectural movement went along with it. This is also the departure point that Hong Kong’s built environment transit from the ‘colonial’ towards ‘international’ influences.” In other words, it’s worth saving.
To that end, in 2009 the Urban Renewal Authority was handed the reins in restoring the market’s glory. The URA began with the Central Oasis Community Advisory Committee (COCAC) to figure out what to do with the building. In July last year, the Town Planning Board approved a planning application and architectural plans were submitted to the Buildings Department for approval. But don’t get excited just yet. “It is the objective of the URA to implement the project as soon as possible. However, a member of the public has made a judicial review application against TPB’s decision for the project,” said a URA spokesperson. “Therefore the URA is not able at this stage to commence works as planned until a decision is taken by the court.” The URA declined to reveal what the challenge was.
For now, there is the Central Oasis. “In view of the need for better air ventilation in busy Central, the URA proposed ‘Central Oasis’ as the theme of this project. After revitalisation, the Central Oasis will provide some much needed space and greenery in Central,” says the URA’s site. Central Market is an ongoing project, the first phase of which is scheduled for completion in 2017. If the project moves beyond the court of course.