SCMP Saturday, September 1, 2001

The key to tourism


Walls of cream-plastered brick stretch up from the courtyard, punctuated by balustraded balconies and blue-shuttered windows. A huge banyan tree stands in the corner of the courtyard, a haven of shade, and a witness to past hordes of up-to-no-good brigands, murderers, pirates and other sundry rotters, who since the 1860s have been caught, cuffed and carted to the cells of the Central Police Station or, in the early days, taken to the gibbet to swing outside the former Victoria Magistracy.
The courtyard these days has a line of police cars and vans, but take those vehicles away and it is possible to envisage outdoor cafes, maybe a few market stalls, buskers here and there. Or the whole square could be turned into a lawn where people could throw their cares - and their shoes - away to enjoy the novelty of grass underfoot.
Up on the balconies, police officers enjoy yum cha at plastic tables. These spaces would make original shop fronts or dining areas, or they could house an art gallery, or the police museum at a more convenient location than its current site on Wan Chai Gap, or even McDonald's.
The beautiful architecture of the Central Police Station is part of a 1.5-hectare complex of Grade One-listed buildings which also houses the former magistracy and Victoria Prison. The complex was the focus of a feasibility project commissioned in 1998 by Swire Properties and carried out by Project Chambers, a group of experts including landscape architects and urban planners who assessed whether the site's 17 buildings and surroundings could be adapted to other uses.
''The reason we decided to do a feasibility project here is that it's an entirely different kind of area with unique historical characteristics,'' says one of the instigators of the study, Associate Professor Peter Cookson-Smith, of the Department of Architecture of the University of Hong Kong and a founder of Urbis, a landscape architecture and urban planning company.
''Visitors and tourists, when they come to cities, generally show a great interest in walking around older building fabric and they appreciate a part of the city that has historical and mellow qualities.''
Three years on from the initial project and the idea is to be revitalised after last Friday's decision by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to boost Hong Kong's tourism to the tune of $18 billion.
One of the five main projects listed in the Government's plan is the adaptation of the area around Lan Kwai Fong and Hollywood Road in Central into a cultural and historical district. Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, says the project is now at an advanced planning stage.
''I think that what Mr Tung said is that they will be linking up the whole district, Lan Kwai Fong, with the Central Police Station and Hollywood Road and they will be pressing ahead with this very soon.
''Each of these tourism projects will be linked together to attract critical mass. In terms of a time scale, I think there will need to be some tendering process,'' she says.
The chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Holdings and one of the six members of the Culture and Heritage Commission, Allan Zeman, says the Central Police Station project will definitely be fast-tracked following the tourism-boost decision.
''Hollywood Road has always been a big attraction and then with SoHo building up, we could redo it into a really cool area,'' he says. ''Within the Central Police Station complex there could be restaurants, alfresco dining, bars and clubs. There is potential for museums and galleries and real potential for cultural heritage. You could turn some of the upper floors into lofts for young people, so make it partly residential.''
Despite the current economic downturn, Zeman is confident that restaurants and other entertainment outlets will be able to survive across the area. ''There's definitely enough people to feed the area. If you re-do the Central Police Station, the whole area would attract more people,'' he says.
One advantage for the complex could be its original fortress-like structure which means it is being regarded as a single entity rather than split up. ''If you have a confined area without traffic, you can do so many things,'' says Zeman.
Cookson-Smith says the area could be opened up with entry points to incorporate the surrounding network of roads.
''We can use the two major courtyards - the one in the prison and the one in the police complex - as civic places to accommodate performances and to act as gathering places as there is a real shortage of those in this area,'' he says.
Both within the feasibility project and suggestions by Zeman, images of London's Covent Garden and Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco crop up, involving market stalls and cafes, a juggler here and there, and people relaxing outdoors.
John Batten, director of the John Batten Gallery in nearby Peel Street, feels that such concepts are trying to put a Western model on a Chinese city.
''I don't know if it would work,'' he says. ''Covent Garden was originally a market. Can you recreate that? What Hong Kong is, is a vibrant Chinese city. Also you can't just paint signs with big, wide brushes saying 'tourist area'. A sign doesn't make a tourist area.'' Batten is in favour of commercial enterprises being a part of the refurbishment plan. ''There has to be some commercial ventures in there. Maybe there needs to be a Giordano, or McDonald's, I'm not averse to that as long as it's kept within the character of the building,'' and this would attract locals, he says.
However, Batten is also keen to see that any developments are kept in tune with the surrounding streetscape.
''The complex has beautiful architectural detail in terms of stone carving, a pristine wall,'' he says. ''There's a gentle blue painted and paved exterior on the prison. One of the quirky things about life is the quaint embellishments of time. And it's how to maintain that feel with the buildings' new use.''
Although art galleries are an attractive concept for these old buildings, Batten says there are also practical problems. ''If you, say, wanted to put in a museum of modern art in one of these old buildings, there would be huge problems,'' he says. ''There are real problems with the weather in Hong Kong and the buildings would need modern additions in terms of air-conditioning and sealing the windows. A big task, it's exciting though.''
From a heritage perspective, Dr Dan Waters, a local historian and immediate past president of the Royal Asiatic Society, is pleased the old buildings should be continually put to use. ''There seems to be a change of emphasis,'' he says referring to Hong Kong people's attitudes towards their old buildings.
Culture and heritage do appear to be the new buzzwords. There also appears to be a more long-term focus on preserving what we already have rather than pulling it down in favour of glass and chrome and short-term profit.
Chow says the Government has finally got the heritage message. ''I think it's very much due to the efforts of Professor David Lung of the Antiquities Advisory Board and others who have fought tirelessly for the preservation of our heritage,'' she says. ''And now the Government is linking that to tourism. So we are showcasing our historical buildings.''
The subject of what to do with Hong Kong's old buildings is a tricky one. The rebuilt Western Market has come in for some criticism. A proud start for the Land Development Corporation, it is without a doubt a beautiful building. But stuck out in Western there are few punters for the gift and trinket shops that predominate inside. ''They got the hardware right, but not the software,'' says Zeman.
The Government is also looking at revamping the former Marine Police headquarters on Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, which has been empty for the past five years. ''I think it is going to tender quite soon,'' Chow says.
Having watched the sad demise of old colonial structures such as the Kowloon-Canton Railway Station at Tsim Sha Tsui, the old Hong Kong Club and the former General Post Office in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Waters is happy to observe that times and attitudes are changing.
However, aside from the buildings' aesthetic value, they are also substantially more expensive to revamp than redevelop. ''It definitely would be a long-term labour of love,'' says Zeman, referring to the Central Police Station complex. Outlay would include the widening of staircases to suit modern fire-safety standards, new wiring, air-conditioning, as well as structural improvements to the buildings. Then there would be added expenses for painting and decorating, never mind the conversion costs of transforming sections into restaurants and shops which meet environmental hygiene standards.
To finance such a venture there would need to be a partnership between the Government and the private sector, says Cookson-Smith. One disadvantage currently, he says, is the seven-year lease, which would apply when the old buildings that are now administered by the police and other departments would revert to the Government Property Agency.
Zeman says a lease of 20 to 25 years would be required to allow businesses to renovate their shops or restaurants and gain some sort of a return on their investment. Opinions differ on how to tackle the issue of whether to plan the uses of the Central complex before the police and prisoners move out - for which no exact schedule has been given - or to wait until they have gone.
''The problem is before getting people's ideas, it's a step by step process. You've got to get a place for the police and prisoners first,'' says Zeman.
But Swire development and valuation department general manager Gordon Ongley argues that proposals should be invited before the buildings are emptied.
''It could take five years to plan. You should get expressions of interest - like with the West Kowloon project - and then shortlist those who do the best business plan. It's so different to anything Hong Kong has done before, it needs a new approach.''
But he does agree with Zeman that a longer lease would be prudent. ''You could grant development and management rights rather than leasehold rights. If you only give a limited time, then people only have a limited time to recoup their costs,'' Ongley says.
There is also the risk of unforeseen problems with old buildings, he says, and there was no legal reason why the lease couldn't run to 50 years. Planning ahead does not just involve the buildings. As Zeman points out: ''Outside the complex, there's the issue of traffic control. You're not dealing with wide streets, so you would maybe need to widen one of the streets and have a holding tank for the tour buses.'' Cookson-Smith suggests another way to move the complex's visitors would be to extend the escalator from up through SoHo and to the Central Police Station. But taking on a project of this size with a variety of bodies and interests involved could be complicated. Batten suggests a committee could be set up specifically to oversee and administer the Central Police Station project.
''They will do a public consultation of course but it will all depend on who the Government listens to,'' he says.
Although supportive of the idea of private- developer involvement he is also concerned that there would be some sort of pay-off in terms of the company being allowed to build a tower-block somewhere within the complex.
''You need to run it like an historical park with good, open-minded, practical people on a committee. Perhaps a high court judge, a couple of lecturers and a businessman,'' Batten says.
Ongley emphasises that the complex is a one-off. And it is, in terms of having so many historical and architecturally aesthetic buildings on one site, all of which are listed. But there is also the issue over whether all should be saved since some are far younger than the main police buildings, magistracy and prison.
Zeman suggests tearing down some of the less interesting and more derelict buildings. But heritage red tape could stymie commercial interests.
Waters says that when Victoria Prison upgraded its outmoded and less-than-hygienic squat toilets, permission had to be sought.