Apr 19, 2012|
One of seven historic buildings that make up the first phase of the government’s Revitalizing Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme, the Old Tai O Police Station was recently restored and converted into the boutique Tai O Heritage Hotel, which opened at the end of February. The proposal was put forward by the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation, beating out 22 other organizations that applied to use the space.
“It’s very hard to maintain historic buildings as museums, because you can only get money from the entry fee,” says Winnie Yeung, assistant manager at the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation [full disclosure: Yeung used to be the deputy editor of HK Magazine]. “We thought that what Tai O really lacked was accommodation. People travel two hours from the city to come here, but then they keep thinking about how they have to spend another two hours to go back out, so they can’t really enjoy the village.”
The Armoury and Interview Room (now the “Commissioner” suite) before and after
Built by the British in 1902, the building is categorized as a Grade II historic site. Its location was chosen due to its proximity to an old Chinese-British border along the South China Sea. “Technically, before 1997, if you fell into the water, those were Chinese waters,” says Yeung. Another building for dormitories and a canteen was built in 1962, but the police ultimately moved inland in 1996 and used the building as a patrol post instead, since the border would be dissolved a year later. The building was unused and empty from 2002 to 2008, which was when the revitalization scheme was announced. The building’s architecture is quintessentially colonial, with Western features (arches) combined with Chinese elements (the tiled roof).
With nine rooms, one restaurant, and a reception desk, this hotel is tiny indeed. But the hotel is really merely a vehicle for its actual purpose—to educate visitors about the building’s history, as well as the history of the neighboring village. Before opening for business, the hotel was opened up to the public throughout March, receiving approximately 16,000 visitors. Now, free tours are given daily (3pm and 4pm), and the entirety of the hotel (except for occupied rooms) remains open to the public. Each room in the hotel has a plaque that explains its historical use—from inspector’s office to canteen to armory. The reporting room and two holding cells were converted into a reception and a small souvenir shop, where visitors can purchase a book about the site, prints, and other trinkets. There’s also a documentary about Tai O that can be accessed through the rooms’ television system; a five-minute version can also be played at the reception desk. In order to take care of the building itself, the amount of traffic must be moderated, so visitors are encouraged to sign up online before stopping by for a tour.
The first floor rooftop (now The Lookout) before and after
Practically the entire site has been preserved, and adjustments that have been made in order to turn the empty structure into a functional hotel can easily be undone in order to convert the hotel back to its original state. “In all conservation projects, all our work should be reversible, so that one day, if we have to turn it back to the bare shell that we inherited, we can. A lot of effort has been put into making sure that the original walls and structures are not affected at all,” says Yeung. “The legs of the glass canopy [over the rooftop restaurant, Tai O Lookout] are actually on the ground, so it doesn’t have any weight resting on the building. If we want to reveal the rooftop again, all we have to do is tear off the canopy.” Remnants of the site’s military past have been preserved, as well—each window has a set of metal shutters, which were used to keep out bullets—in fact, one shutter has nine bullet holes on its inside, from when a shooting incident took place in one of the rooms. A restored and functional searchlight faces the sea, as well as three cannons.
As a non-profit, the hotel spends its income on maintaining the 110-year-old building, and the surplus goes towards local festivals—such as the Deities’ Parade, a parade of boats that visit four temples before the Dragon Boat Festival—and towards the upkeep of buildings throughout the village. “[The local fishermen] have festivals every month: the Hungry Ghost Festival, the New Year,” adds Yeung. “They have a lot of temples, and the temples all have different celebration times. It’s very rare that [all this] remains intact today, which is why we want to spend some money to help them.”
The hotel also aims to support local residents and their businesses, rather than competing with them. For instance, the hotel restaurant highlights local ingredients such as shrimp paste (in a pork bun dish) and mountain begonia (used on top of cheesecakes). While its prices are very reasonable by hotel standards (a plate of Tai O fried rice costs around $70), the management makes a point of pricing dishes higher than the local hole-in-the-wall cafes and restaurants, so as to not take away their customers. The hotel also created 103 jobs during renovation, and 20 full-time and part-time jobs upon opening, employing the members of the local community.
Tai O Heritage Hotel is at Shek Tsai Po St., Tai O, Lantau Island. 2985-8383, www.taioheritagehotel.com. Rooms and packages cost upwards of $1,380. To get to Tai O, take the MTR to Tung Chung, then take bus 11 from Tung Chung Town Centre for 40 minutes to the end of the route. Alternatively, take the ferry from Central Ferry Pier 6 to Mui Wo and take bus 1 to Tai O. Once reaching Tai O, take a leisurely 25-minute walk through the village while following the signs, or take a two minute jet boat ride for $10.
After exploring the heritage site, why not visit one of the many surrounding temples (Hung Shing Temple, Kwan Tai Temple, Hau Wong Temple), the Hong Kong Shaolin Wushu Culture Center, go searching for pink dolphins, take a boat ride, or look at some stilt houses?