First published in ELEQT on 15 February 2012.
The Asian Society recently transformed the Old Victoria Barracks, a set of Grade 1 listed structure, into their new Hong Kong headquarters, with the official launch held last Friday, 10 February 2012. My family joined in with their site tour around what was the explosives magazine compound last Saturday, 11 February 2012, to take a closer look at their thoughtful conservation and amazing adaption of the former British military architecture, as well as to admire the rare art they had on exhibition. The Asian Society itself was founded by John Rockefeller 3rd as a NGO educational platform, and its Hong Kong Centre is now conveniently located across the Conrad Hong Kong and right next to the British Consulate in Admiralty, so it was a pretty chill walk over from Pacific Place.
Their site tours for the past weekend were all led by notable personalities including lawmaker Margaret Ng, and our tour was led by Asian Society's co-chair Ronnie Chan, who is also happens to be a major land developer. We met our guide at the centre's reception, known as the Pavilion, which is a new structure perfectly blending in among the restored historical buildings, with its monumental marbles collated from Shanxi Province. All the horticultural arrangements and artworks displayed definitely enhance the edginess of the establishment, which can be used as a function room for dinners and other community events.
We were then led through the Noble Water Feature towards the Joseph Lau Roof Garden, which holds a spectacular view of our beloved Victoria Harbour, in addition to making a tranquil setting that is ideal for an outdoor cocktail or even a starlit movie night. We were then led over the Yasumoto Bridge, which is specially built in L-shape to cater for the natural habitat of the fruit bats that reside in the neighbourhood. Talk about real conservation!
Walking past the Yasumoto Bridge, we finally arrived at the old preserved bits of the complex. The end of the bridge was where the British army once tossed their ammunition through from Arsenal Street, which was then the harbour front, to this explosives magazine using nothing but a rope to string it over. Throughout the site, there are Munition Tracks going every direction, the method they used to transport the gunpowder about the site. This is the few of the remaining British military sites, and a crucial link to Hong Kong's colonial past.
Right next to the beginning of the track marks sits a set of heavy bulks, which were previously used to mark the boundary between Hong Kong and China. Now being displayed as a historical/artistic piece, the Navy Boundary Stones were once a welcoming sight to Mainland refugees. Back in the days, if you can find your own way to the city centre, you are then entitled to seek asylum in Hong Kong. Otherwise, you would have been deported back to China immediately, with no idea of what fate has in store for those who attempted to flee.
Our remarkable guide took us in for a sneaky tour of the Starr-Greenberg Building, which was constructed between 1863 and 1868 as a laboratory for mixing explosives, making it one of the oldest remaining colonial buildings in Hong Kong. The reason it isn't usually open to public is because it is now used as the Asian Society's offices. Watching the site come from ruins since its last use as a depot in 1970s to the posh establishment it is now, he was only too happy to be flaunting his pet project, as he gave us a quick lecture on the balance between conservation, aesthetics, and practicality in refurbishing their new centre.
The former explosives storage facility, again built between 1863 and 1868 with huge thick stone berm to protect the processing and storing of gunpowder, is now housing the Asian Society's gallery, with its initial kick being some prized pieces from John Rockefeller 3rd's private collection. This exhibition, with its own special team of curators, will be on till Thursday, 10 May 2012, and you could check it out along with the heritage site while you are here.
Now the Miller Theatre, the former storage of ammunitions was built between 1905 and 1907. Our guide, who has been seeing the site since childhood, gave us a short history lesson on why this building in particular was built differently from the rest of the complex. This site once belonged to the British military, and taken on by the navy in early 20th century, yet the rest of Hong Kong was under the control of the Hong Kong colonial government. Since the government wanted to build a straight road behind this site, while the navy, understandably, didn't want their estate to be any smaller, so they rushed through to erect a random building on the spot. It wasn't built with any windows due to the time constraint, so they had to put in an extra layer of barrel-vaulted lighting passage along the side and back to house the lighting system, which accidentally made a terrific construction for a theatre.
The theatre is there to host community education programmes, with the kick start last weekend being nostalgic Cantonese Operas and traditional Filipino songs performed for a hefty price tag, yet free entries were available for live streaming at their Pavilion for those from the elderly homes as well as for the domestic helpers. Now aren't they nice? The Cantonese Opera was by stage veteran Law Kar-ying, alongside with starlet from De Ling and Empress Dowager Cixi performance Li Pui-yan, as well as Lady Ivy Wu of Hopewell Holdings. I watched De Ling and Empress Dowager Cixi with my Dad a couple of years back, and we certainly enjoyed it lots, so I am sure the grannies were in for a treat!
They have lots more exhibitions and performances down the pipeline, with musical performance by Asia's rising stars including Aenon Loo, Silas Fong, Joanna Lee, and Yuki Ip on the coming weekend, 17 to 19 February 2012. There will also be a summer film series between May 2012 and June 2012, featuring popular films from the past decade. The site, though a historical one, is entirely wheelchair accessible and now opened from Tuesdays to Sundays, equipped with its own AMMO Cafe with an Asia-influenced menu, as well as an Asian Society Store for grabbing some ethnic souvenirs from, so plan your trip over to this scenic site for a tour around! Although there won't be any famous guides here anymore, they do have a smart phone app which would take you around the site in rather extensive details.
Asian Society Hong Kong Centre - The Hong Kong Jockey Club Former Explosives Magazine
Address: 9 Justice Drive, Admiralty, Hong Kong
Telephone: 2103 9511